Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The White House Reality Show

The Reagan Show (2016) - Velez, Pettengill
If John F. Kennedy was the first TV president, Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor turned the 40th American President, was the one who mastered the medium.

Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and Sierra Pettengill have made a documentary entirely out of the TV coverage of Reagan in his eight-year tenure. Thirty years have passed since Reagan left the Oval Office. Time has been kind to Reagan, as a majority of Americans regard his presidency as one of the best, even though others, like me, still see him as the emblem of 1980s corporate greed, ill-fated trickle-down economics, countless contras in Latin America, and cultural decadence.

The Reagan Show starts with a 1988 exit interview that Reagan did with David Brinkley of ABC News. Brinkley asks if being an actor helped with him being president; he answers: "There had been times, in this office, when I've wondered, you couldn't do the job if you hadn't been an actor." The film only shows the side of Reagan's highly prepped public, TV persona, with a hint of the 'man behind the mask' through a series of extended takes after they called 'cut.'

The doc shows the symbiotic love/hate relationship forged between the press and Reagan, in contrast with the deeply partisan, ugly political climate we find ourselves in now. I thought I'd never say this, but I miss the 80s.

Reagan, a b-movie actor who always maintained a good guy persona -- smiling face, iconic pompadour -- eased into the presidency like it was his second nature. Although the press rarely doubted his leadership ability and communication skills, they were asking exactly where he was leading the country to, if there was any substance behind the shining persona. Many also argued that he was a shell of a president and that the actual power of the White House laid with his associates and Nancy, his wife.

You wouldn't have known that his presidency had been anything but smooth sailing from all the press briefings in the film. The press was asking tough questions, not because it was partisan, but because it was doing its job. Many faces from the three major network are still familiar to us, such as Tom Brokow, Dan Rather and Chris Wallace (then an NBC reporter), just to name a few. This is the time before the Fox News Network and other cable news networks. It's interesting to note that the film is co-produced by CNN Films.

The film kicks into a gear with at the height of the Cold War under Reagan. He had called the Soviet Union 'the evil empire' and poured gasoline on the fire on the nuclear arms race when he announced the controversial SDI program (Strategic Defence Initiative), aka Star Wars. The symbolic Doomsday Clock inched forward to 12 o'clock. Ailing in his second term due to the Iran Contra controversy, he needed to boost his public image and secure his legacy.

But the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, then a new General Secretary of the Soviet Union -- relatively young, open minded and just as media savvy as his counterpart -- challenged Reagan's stature on the world stage. It was Gorbachev who first announced a complete disarmament of the nuclear arsenal by year 2000. He even hired an American image consulting firm to heighten his status. In order to outdo his newfound rival, Reagan announced a summit of the two countries to discuss and reach an agreement on the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) and upstaged him with the famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech in Berlin.

The Reagan Show highlights how the president used the relatively new technology to his advantage. But this documentary isn't merely a walk down memory lane. It serves as a stark contrast to the current administration, which thrives upon being anti-media, the same media Reagan once embraced. There were gives and takes. But the media was there to balance the powers that be. Reagan knew it well, and so did the media. Their uneasy but cordial dance continued all throughout his presidency.

We live in an increasingly hostile media environment. Everything is extremely black and white. Infotainment overshadows journalism and the public perception of the media is at all-time low. It is very difficult to be seen as neutral by association or affiliation. But it is very important to remember that even Reagan, a highly divisive figure, was regularly grilled by the people who are now regarded as partisan hacks. It didn't use to be that way. There was mutual respect. The film is a good reminder of that.

A presidency is an every four-year event. It's a blip in history. We do not need to resort to a sketch artist in the White House press briefing. Hopefully we will restore some of that mutual trust and respect soon.

The Reagan Show opens on Friday, June 30 at Metrograph in New York and Laemmie Monica Film Center in Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow and VOD on July 4.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

French Cinema Through the Eyes of Bertrand Tavernier

My Personal Journey Through French Cinema (2016) - Tavernier
In A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), the famed director announces in the beginning of the film that he can't be objective about what films he would mention in the historical documentary. Justifying his personal take on the endeavor, he said. "It's an imaginary museum and I can't open all the doors. We don't have time for all of it."

In My Journey Through French Cinema, veteran French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier takes the same route; the doc is not a French cinema history, from Lumiere to Luc Besson, but rather a deeply personal take on the impact French cinema has had on his upbringing and later as a filmmaker. So it starts with Jacques Becker (Dernier atout, Casque d'or) and ends with Claude Sautet (Les choses la vie, Un coeur en hiver).

Clocking in at 3 hours and 20 minutes, My Journey is definitely not a clean cut doc that has a definite ending. In order to make sense of the chronology and to give context to Tavernier's narration, it is necessary to go through the director's own background a little: Tavernier (The Clockmaker, Coup de torchon, Life is Nothing But), born in 1941 to working class parents in Lyon, is a member of the liberation generation. He associates the liberation after the end of WWII, celebrated in the sky above Lyon, with the magic of the theater-going experience.

Having suffered malnutrition during WWII, he was a sickly kid who spent most of his childhood watching films. His isolation made him a cinephile well versed in American films as well as French. His first movie job was working for Jean-Pierre Melville as an assistant. Then he landed a job as a publicist for a studio (which produced Breathless), then as a film critic. He worked for Claude Sautet before making his debut as a filmmaker with The Clockmaker in 1974.

A bit younger than Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the French New Wave directors who rejected old ways of filmmaking (for the sake of the explanation, I'm grossly generalizing here), Tavernier is an ideal candidate to chronicle French cinema somewhat objectively. He is a filmmaker with an old-school sensibility but also had intimate working relationships with the French New Wave directors.

All throughout, he points out the differences among French films and that of Hollywood films. He grew up seeing the films (made in 1940s-50s) of Jacques Becker, Jean Renoir (La bête humane, Grand Illusions), Marcel Carné (Children of Paradise, Remorques), Julien Duvivier (Pépe le Moko, Panic) and Jean Vigo (L'atalanté, Zero conduit) among others.

These directors, although influenced by Hollywood directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch, had an innate distrust in plots and put more emphasis on empathy and emotions. Thanks largely to gifted writers like Jacques Prévert, unlike plot driven American movies, we unhurriedly follow characters and invest in them, as they discover their destination as we the audience do at the same time, like in Carné's beautiful, lyrical Port of Shadows.

Since it's a personal film, Tavernier keeps talking head interviews to a minimum, unless it's old interview footage or a recording from years ago. He puts emphasis in the differences of French cinema from its American counterpart. He also concentrates on three categories: directors he admired growing up, music composers, and directors he worked for in one capacity or another.

Using the legendary actor Jean Gabin, who starred in many classic French films, as a springboard and transition device, Tavernier jumps through many directors who worked with him and shares many anecdotes. According to Prévert, Marcel Carné was not an actor's director. He notes that Carné was the only director who wasn't capable of writing a scene. But he was master of shot/reverse shot and preferred using a wide lens instead of different combination of lenses.

Film scoring is a big interest for Tavernier. Unlike prevailing scores from beginning to end in a Hollywood production in the studio days where directors had no say on music, French directors carefully chose their scores and music composers. They were discreet about when to use music. You can’t help noticing the memorable melodies after watching Vigo's L'atalanté by Maurice Jaubert, who also scored music for Carné for Port of Shadows and Le jour se leve, and Duvivier's Un carnet de bal, among others.

Tavernier is an unabashedly old-fashioned filmmaker. He firmly believes that filmmakers have to possess both arrogance and humbleness -- you make films thinking that you can change the world, but you must be humble enough to realize that if you can touch two people with your films, your job is done.

Tavernier talks fondly of Truffaut. His direct comparison of Truffaut with Jean-Pierre Melville is very revealing. Truffaut was gentle and calm and his nature was reflected in his films. Melville, however, was a brute to work for. But he had a sense of humor. The only reason Tavernier got hired as an assistant was Melville read a scathing review of Bob le flambeur by Tavernier. He thought Melville's craft amateurish. To young Tavernier, his films are either utter crap or masterpiece. He saw the director of Le samurai and Léon Morin, prêtre up close and personal and decided that he wasn't a good original writer but a fabulous adaptor. His usual cinematic elements -- bars, dancers and mirrors -- were from his real life.

Shooting everything in his studio, using the same stairs and entryway multiple times throughout different films, Melville was a crafty, economical director. With no music, out of frame action and long sequences, even though he was influenced by Hollywood gangster films, Tavernier concludes that he was closer to Bresson than Wyler.

It was in response to Melville's suggestion that Tavernier became a film publicist. "You are a terrible assistant, but you'd be good at defending films. Why don't you become a press agent?" He got a job at Rome-Paris Films, a small company that was basking in the surprising success of Godard's Breathless. There he met and interacted with Godard, Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy and Claude Rosier.

Although he was not a part of it, he understood what the New Wavers like Godard and Truffaut were trying to do. He remembers Henri Langlois and his influence on a generation of filmmakers. For a young cinephile, Langlois's eccentric programming was an eye opener. Tavernier was there, along with his classmate Volker Schlendorff in 1968, outside Cinémathèque Française when the police clubbed the young crowds demonstrating the closing of Cinemathèque.

He introduces Godard's Alphaville by way of Eddie Constantine, an actor who starred in many b-movie spy thrillers (by Hollywood blacklist director John Berry), playing the role of Lemmy Caution, which Godard borrowed. He goes on to speak about Godard's propensity for cinemascope, colors in films like Contempt and Pierre le fou, with much admiration.

He remembers fondly about Claude Sautet, who became Tavernier's mentor. He says Sautet was on the fringe of the French cinema industry and the mean boys at the Cahiers du Cinema didn't give him the time of day, probably because he often depicted bourgeois lifestyle. Not only Sautet directed films but he was a script doctor for many of France's most popular films.

I've seen some of Tavernier's films from his long and illustrious filmography. I was struck by his subtle, humanistic approach when I saw Captain Conan, his WWI film in theaters in 1996. Encountering films like The Clockmaker and Coup de torchon recently for the first time was a pure joy for me. I definitely see the lineage all the way up to Jacques Becker, who presented his working class characters as real as possible -- we see a carpenter really working those carpentry machines, a print setter actually dirtying up his hands, etc. In his films, we see the silly slapstick elements and unrehearsed playfulness of the New Wave. In his films, we see great subtlety in the writing and performances of the late Sautet.

Obviously, My Journey Through French Cinema is a lot to take in one sitting. It's also a goldmine for any cinephiles as an invaluable resource guide. Tavernier is doing us a great service here through his experience as a cinephile and a filmmaker. I am eager to check out more films that are featured in this documentary for years to come.

My Journey Through French Cinema is scheduled to open in New York on Friday, June 23 at the Quad Cinema, followed by a national roll out.

Monday, June 19, 2017


Les choses de la vie/Things of Life (1970) - Sautet
les choses la vie
Pierre (Michel Piccoli) seems to have everything- he's a successful architect with a great apartment, a house in an island full of memories, a well-behaved, loving son, a beautiful ex-wife (Lea Massari) who doesn't hate him, a luminous mistress (Romy Schneider) who adores him. He's been vacillating lately about leaving Helene (Schneider) and go back to Catherine (Massari) because he has so many beautiful memories with his family even though he loves Helene very much. He fears that they will grow apart and fall out of love, just like any other relationship. Les Choses de la vie examines his life as he experiences fatal car crash which repeats many times in slow motion throughout the film.

It's a fluffy adult melodrama about however little choices we make in real life largely figure into the outcome, whatever it maybe, that life is always full of regrets. Acting from Piccoli, Schneider and Massari are superb. The best part, aside from Schneider typing naked with only with horn-rimmed glasses on, is the love triangle depicted carefully with great subtlety: as Pierre laying on the ground dying after the crash, thinking about the break-up letter he wrote to Helene and desperately wishing it wouldn't reach her. Catherine is handed the letter after Pierre is pronounced dead at the hospital, she reads it and sees Helene rushing into the hospital through the window and tears the letter to shreds. Delicious stuff.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


L'horloger de Saint-Paul/The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974) - Tavernier
A burning car seen from a moving train is a starting point of L'horloger de Saint-Paul, the feature debut by critic-turned filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier. The film tells a story of father and son reconnecting after the son is accused of murder. It serves as a reflection of the director's view of French society after the violent upheaval of 68' and it deep rift between generations. A widowed watchmaker Descombes (Philippe Noiret) leads a comfortable petit bourgeois life in the southern city of Lyon. He goes out with friends in their favorite restaurants, drinks some wine and discuss politics. His life is suddenly shaken by the news of his son, Bernard, committing murder and on the run with his girlfriend that Descombes never met. A friendly police chief Guilbord (Jean Rochefort) strikes up a friendship with Descombes as they run into each other often, in the market or restaurants and talk about life's incongruities.

Understanding Bernard is a challenge for Descombes. Even though they lived under the same roof, he never paid much attention to what his son was up to or thinking. As distraught father looks up at some communist slogans in his son's room, it's like a trying to put back the pieces together in figuring out what kind of a young man Bernard grew up to be. The young man gets caught along with his girlfriend in an island where Descombes took him as a child once. They are put on trial. Everyone - the lawyer, Guilbord want to help the kid to get a lighter sentence, trying to depict the murder as crime of passion. Bernard wouldn't budge from his convictions - the dead man was a paratrooper in Algerian War and a major asshole to women in the factory where they worked. For Bernard, he was a swine: a personification of everything thought wrong about the current state of France. So he killed him. Simple as that.

There are some genuinely funny moments like Desombes and his communist friends beating up ultra right-wing thugs (friends of the deceased) who came in by bus to wreck havoc on Descombes' s shop. But the film goes far beyond highlighting differences in politics.

Tavernier's interests lie on human interactions. He doesn't see characters as archetypes, as Guilbord puts it, "like people in movies". It's a somber and sad film- "Shootouts? That happens only in the movies." He also beautifully lenses his home city of Lyon- every street corner, every mom and pop shops and restaurants are rendered with care. Noiret gives a tremendously soulful performance- a father who understands his son's actions and doesn't want to sugarcoat his motives to reduce his sentence nor compromise the young man's principles. Only after Bernard is sentenced for twenty years in prison, the father and son can talk to each other. The barrier's finally gone. The Clock Maker is a great great film.

A subtle Revenge Thriller on the Shores of Lake Geneva

Moka (2016) - Mermoud
A new French/Swiss revenge thriller, Moka, directed by Frédéric Mermoud starts with a 5-minute breezy, silent sequence of Diane (Emmanuelle Devos) sneaking out of what seems to be a hospital/wellness sanitarium near Lake Geneva. It's dark and moody and sets the tone of this slow burn, Chabrol-esque revenge thriller.

It turns out, Diane is a grieving mother whose son was killed in a hit-and-run in Lausanne, the Swiss side of the lake. Through a hired investigator, Diane narrows down the facts that the driver and the passenger, a blonde woman and her male companion, were driving a coffee colored (hence the title) vintage Mercedes. She settles on a beautician named Marlene (Natalie Baye) and her younger, womanizing boyfriend Michel (David Clavel) with the matching car living on the French side of the lake, in Evian. Diane's obsession makes her plunge head first into the lives Marlene and her family.

Diane approaches Marlene unassumingly, guising herself as a writer in seeking seclusion by the lake side. Marlene takes her as a nosy writer-type in search of inspiration and keeps her barrage of personal inquiries at arm's length at first. But she finally lets her guard down at Diane’s genuine demeanor.

She also approaches Michel as potential customer as he tries to sell the car. Diane’s aggressiveness in her interests in the car turns on Michel in all the wrong ways. After chance meeting with a good looking young drug dealer on the ferry ride, she charms him to get a hold of a handgun. And the two get romantically involved.

Diane then befriends Marlene’s rebellious young daughter Elodie (Diane Rouxel) who might have been carrying on a sexual relationship with her stepfather.

Based on a book of the same name by best selling author Tatiana de Rosnay, and relocating its setting to Lake Geneva, Moka, like its neutral colored vehicle and with its picturesque and quiet Swiss setting, is all a very subtle affair. Somberly lensed by Irina Lubtchansky (who shot two recent Anaud Desplechin films- My Golden Days, Ismael's Ghosts) against stunning Lake Geneva backdrop, the film is a handsome, brooding noir.

It is a deftly directed, low-pitched noir that heavily relies on the charm of Devos. As always, she walks the fine line between confidence and vulnerability and makes Diane's unrelenting pursuit of revenge totally believable. With quiet determination and stubbornness in her eyes, she is one of the few actresses who can turn their dowdiness into sexy.

Baye, a veteran actress, gives a fine performance as an ordinary woman dealing with her career, motherhood and relationship. Her Marlene's guarded friendliness hides her dormant venom which we get to see in a glimpse of.

It's great to see two women in their mid-career finding juicy roles that show their subtle artistry. The film hints on the fraternity of womenhood by the end. Moka is a well acted, low-key but impactful revenge thriller for the fans of neo-noir.
Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Digging for Cinema Gold

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) - Morrison
Bill Morrison, known for his beautiful, textural found footage films (Decasia, Miner's Hymns) accompanied by talented contemporary musicians (Philip Glass, Jóhann Jóhannsson, John Adams, Richard Einhorn, just to name a few), out-does himself with a mesmerizing, hugely entertaining new film Dawson City: Frozen Time.

It tells a truly fascinating bit of cinema history involving the Gold Rush at the turn of the 20th century in Dawson City, deep in the Yukon Territory. The two-hour film, filled to the brim with rich historical details, is almost too much to digest in one sitting. But with clever, carefully constructed paralleling history of prospecting and cinema melding with archival and found footage achieves something far greater than a historical documentary or an experimental art-house cinema ever can by themselves alone.

Dawson City starts with a prologue Morrison's appearance in some sport jock TV spot being asked about 1919 World Series footage. This is the year of the infamous "Black Sox" scandal where 8 of Chicago White Sox players took money from the East Coast gambling establishments to throw the game.

We move back to 1979, while digging for foundation behind Diamond Tooth Gerthie's Gambling Hole in Dawson City, townsfolk discovered hundreds of film reels buried under the permafrost. Local conservators and museum curators got a hold of these treasures which turn out to be rare silent films, 372 of them, thought to be lost forever.

Then it moves on to Film was born an explosive segment, explaining the early silent films were shot on cotton based nitrate film stock which was highly combustible until the industry switched over in 1949 to a safer, acetate based stock.

And the credit starts to roll.

So how does these figure into the film? Beautifully. They all fit into the narrative of digging for gold leading to uncovering cinema gold.

California gold rush fever pushed prospectors further up the uncharted northern territories. After some found gold up in Yukon in 1895, many prospectors made a perilous journey to the land where the Klondike River meets the Yukon River. A lot of them perished or turned back along the way. The place was called Tr’ocheck and belongs to native Hän speaking people. Things changed quickly and the natives were forced down the river into a settlement. The newly arrived (re)named it Dawson City.

It grew and grew and by 1916, the peak of gold mining, the population of the city reached 30,000. The city built a large recreation center, called D.A.A.A., equipped with a swimming pool and doubled as a hockey link in winter, a library and a movie theater, hosting traveling moving picture show tropes.

As it was common in those early days where everything was built on woods, Dawson City burned down to the ground every year for first 9 years and had to be rebuilt. And nitrate films no doubt contributed to numerous fires.

As the gold mining lost its luster and the city grew smaller, so did the need for the reel entertainment. And because Dawson City was the last stop on the Hollywood film distribution route, for economical reasons, movie studios didn't want the film back by carrier. The duty of keeping them fell on a bank clerk who in turn kept them in the basement of a library first. But after they ignited and caused the fire, one of the bank managers decided to bury them in the now discarded D.A.A.A. swimming pool few blocks away.

Many more film reels were discarded indiscriminately, into the Yukon River and burned in a bonfire, according to the bank clerk's journal. But 372 survived, frozen under the permafrost all those years, preserving the nitrate negatives while all other known copies disintegrated over time.

Combining beautiful still pictures of prospectors from glass negatives by Eric Hegg, also recovered in the 70s and those found silent films heavily damaged by elements over the years and archival footage and hypnotic music by Alex Somers, a musician known for producing Sigur Rós albums, Morrison concocts an engaging, entertaining art film that doubles as an intriguing slice of history of Americana.

For instance, we get to know that American old money came from the Gold Rush related businesses: Frederick Trump (Donald Trump's grandfather) made his family fortune by setting up brothels along the prospecting trails and the Guggenheim family bought the mining lands and created Yukon Consolidated Gold Company.

Many of the 'Dawson City Find' films and newsreels are featured throughout, often matching the historical events of the time - 1919 World Series, the rise of American Socialist Movement, Industrial Workers of the World, WW1, and so on.

Morrison also has fun with thematically and physically matching scenes from these damaged but remarkably preserved beautiful looking films. Some of the notable titles are: The Stolen Paradise, The Half Breed, The Social Buccaneers, The Salamander, The Unpardonable Sin and The Recoil.

Looking through all these buried treasures for the first time, Morrison must've been a happy camper. He does a fine job assembling these, weaving them into a hugely entertaining, concise historical narrative. Dawson City: Frozen Time is one of the best films of the year.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Fuji-san Mon Amour

Ascent (2016) - Tan
*Nope. That's not me and my brother.
Mount Fuji is perhaps the most photographed volcanic mountain in the world. Its iconic, perfectly shaped appearance (perfectly symmetrical 45 degree slopes on both side reaching to its slender necked caldera, often snow capped in winter) is instantly recognizable and fittingly figures into exquisitely coiffed Japanese culture landscape. You can see the prevalence of its presence in Japanese art- from Hokusai block prints, literature, manga to films. Visual artist Fiona Tan makes a poignant film completely comprised only of still pictures involving Mt. Fuji.

Ascent is a correspondence of two lovers in voice-overs. This fictional narrative starts with a woman (the director herself) informing us that she received a large package from her Japanese lover, Hiroshi, who has passed on. It's full of pictures of Mt. Fuji, both old and new, and she has a task of deciphering in what her dead lover was trying to convey in these pictures.

Hiroshi (Hasegawa Hiroki of Shin Godzilla and Why Don’t You Play in Hell? lends his voice here) narrates his part, as he climbs Mt. Fuji with hundreds other pilgrims (as many Japanese has been doing every season for centuries), relaying to her each step of the hike, accompanied by ordinary photos taken by hikers, often posing in front of the ever omnipresent mountain. With its elevation reaching 12,388 feet, even with hiking trails and rest stations, climbing Mt. Fuji is not an easy feat. He narrates a short poem:

Behold the sacred, magic mountain
The spiritual connection between heaven and earth
Symmetrical, solitary, snow-capped
And thus beyond reach of time

Through their narration, we find out the cultural and political significance of the mountain. As the Japanese folklore goes, Mt. Fuji is a home to Kono-Hana, the goddess of volcanoes. The presence of the mountain in popular culture was banned after the war, because westerners feared it would stir up the Japanese nationalism once again. Its perfect symmetry was broken when the volcano erupted in 1707, causing south slope of the mountain to collapse. But it's a reminder that Mt. Fuji is an active volcano. Tohoku earthquake in 2011 moved the Japanese main island of Honshu (where Tokyo and Mt. Fuji are situated) 2.4 meters eastward. Many seismologist predict the near future eruption is all but certain.

Tan explores several interesting ideas in Ascent. Using only still photographs in making the film, borrowing her dead lover's notion, she likens the photograph to ice, frozen in time, and film to fire, always moving and crackling. She co-relates grief and photographs as a means of stopping time. The active volcanic mountain, always present in Japanese psyche, is both permanent fixture and a symbol of impermanence and fragility of human life.

It's this duality that fascinates her. Mt. Fuji picture is often accompanied by cherry blossoms in the foreground. Kono-Hana is the goddess of both volcanoes and cherry blossoms. And the falling is the essence of flower. Hiroki demystifies the sacred mountain from beyond the grave that although it might look perfect from the distance, up-close, Mt. Fuji is nothing but shapeless volcanic rocks.

Contemplation of memories figure into Ascent greatly. And you can easily see the traces of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais in Tan's approach, both technically and thematically, considering both filmmakers had always grappled with the idea of memories and time- especially in La Jetée, Sans Soleil and Hiroshima Mon Amour. Ascent is a daring, visually arresting film that is also deeply poignant and beautiful.

ASCENT will have a one-week engagement, Wednesday, June 7 – 13, at Film Forum, NYC

*Film forum is showing the film with free admission, courtesy of support from the Ostrovsky Family Fund.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Nocturnal Creatures

J'ai pas sommeil (1994) - Denis
So fluid and graceful. Denis's penchant for sketching out knitty-gritty lives of Parisians, both long time residents and newcomers are present in J'ai pas sommeil. It involves two storylines, slightly brushing each other. One introduces a young Lithuanian girl, Daiga (Katerina Golubeva) in her Soviet made car driving up to Paris all the way from Vilnius. Penniless and with very limited French, Daiga bums around her distant relatives and ends up living in a crummy hotel run by good-hearted Ninon. The other story is of Camille (Richard Courcet), a gay performer, and his partner are involved in series of robbery and murder of old ladies throughout the city. Theo (Alex Descas), Camille's brother, having decided that Paris is not a place for him and his little son, is planning to go back to Martinique and that doesn't bode well with Mona (Béatrice Dalle), the son's mother.

Unlike Wenders and Jarmusch (both of whom Denis worked as an Assistant Director for) fish-out-of-water stories, I find Denis's sensibilities more modern and cosmopolitan. Her portrayal of human desire and yearning lensed by great Agnes Godard has no real parallel. The cinematography in this is so effortlessly cool without ever being flashy. And this is why I always have a hard time taking a screengrab from her films.

J'ai pas sommeil also features alluring Katherina Golubeva. Obviously the camera loves her. Her beauty is overwhelming in every frame she's in.

I have to reassess my Denis priorities here. I do love her later, more visceral, post Beau travail stuff. But nothing really beats her earlier films. J'ai pas sommeil reaffirms that she is one of the greatest filmmakers working today.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Alien: Covenant (2017) - Scott
The most annoying part of this revived Ridley Scott franchise is not its first two (and many more to come I assume) shitty movies. It's the Hollywood hype machine to turn the shit into a digestible bits even before the new movie premieres. I saw two adverts floating on youtube that are not even included in the movie. The movie obviously can't stand on its own legs, so they have to have some kind of backing that ultimately doesn't end up in the final product. I guess only slightly but not much interesting part of this pile of shit is a Fassbender on Fassbender action: David, an android from Prometheus teaches Walter, the newer version of the same model how to play flute - "Just blow in the hole, I'll do the fingering." Fingering in the hole indeed does Ridley Scott with the revival of the franchise that should've died with Prometheus.

The highlight of the film is in the beginning few minutes, by killing off James Franco in a cryo chamber in his sleep (he appears in an advert though). But everything is downhill from there. I went in to be mindlessly entertained and all I got is unwanted pseudo philosophizing and lackluster thrills. Alien: Covenant is a huge pile of crap.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Cold Fish

La Truite (1982) - Losey
truite 7
truite 4

From what I've read, Joseph Losey planned adaptation of Roger Vailland's book of the same name with Brigitte Bardot in mind. He got to make it much later with the one and only, Isabelle Huppert. The choice of Bardot makes a lot of sense to play a sexpot who can't be controlled by surrounding men and like a trout, would slip away from their grasp. But she would've been too obvious of a choice and the movie would've been less interesting. La Truite, instead, is a much more nuanced film about sexual power play, finding love in the cold society and fraternity of women.

Frederique (Huppert) works at a trout farm in the rural area. She is young and married to an effeminate young man, Galuchat, who grapples with his sexuality and has suicidal tendencies. Frederique is also disgusted by her father and his friend's behavior among village girls- 'taking them to his chalet' has an ugly connotation in her mind. It is revealed in constant flashbacks that she belongs to 'carefree girls club' where they perform rituals and swear to each other never give men what they want. It's maybe or never. Galuchat and Frederique meet an old couple, Rambert (Jean-Pierre Cassell) and Lou (Jeanne Moreau) and their friend St. Genis (Daniel Olbrychski), a rich business man while bowling. Rambert and St. Genis are immediately smitten by Fred. St. Genis offhandedly suggests to take Fred to his business trip to Japan. Rambert is mad jealous and Lou is pissed at Rambert. Fred rummages through high society and wreck a havoc.

Off they go to Japan. Fred soaks in her first plane ride and exotic culture and all the luxury St. Genis provides for her. But she never gives him what he wants. Because Galuchat's suicide attempt, Fred and St.Genis come back to France. Rambert and Lou are in the fritz because of Fred. Lou and Fred bond over their mutual understanding of men's folly.

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.

Death by Bad Art

Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) - Argento
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The serial killer is on the loose and an American man (Tony Musante) witnesses a near murder of a beautiful woman (Eva Renzi) in an empty gallery from outside the glass window at night. The incident leaves a great impression on him and he decides to postpone his return to the US and start his own investigation. As usual in a giallo, there are plenty of red herrings and pretty girls getting murdered along the way.

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.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Visual Journal of Raymond Depardon

Journal de France (2016) - Depardon
An intimate portrayal of a journalist, photographer, filmmaker Raymond Depardon as he embarks on a tour of his country with his large format still camera. Unseen narrator is his long time collaborator/wife/Sound recordist Claudine Nougaret. It's both journey through time and intimate portrayal of Depardon and his unending curiosity around the world and at home. Depardon's assembled, mostly handheld reportage takes us to various political hotspots around the world since the 60s - Venesuela, Chilé, Czechoslovakia, Congo, Djibouti, South Africa and a lot more. It also illustrates the artist's obsession with the desert with all it represents. We get to see how Depardon and Nougaret hooked up through various stock footage. It's a great doc that avoids being a sentimental nostalgia piece. Great Saturday morning movie it turns out to be.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Great Western Pathos

Day of the Outlaw (1959) - de Toth
The self-righteous anger and violence has been a staple pathos for the Western genre. This tough male victimhood is as privileged and outdated as white supremacy movement that is rampant in this country. One can't deny that America is built on violence but no one wants to admit it. All highly regarded Westerns follow pretty much the same pathos - The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Balance, etc. Andre de Toth's Day of the Outlaw is no exception but it makes a hero out of Robert Ryan's gruffy rancher without ever firing a gun. So kudos for that.

Ryan plays Blaise (more like Blasé), a hardened rancher who's had enough of Crane, a farmer and husband of his former lover Helen (Tina Louise), encroaching his territory. Blaise has no qualms about shooting down Crane just on principle alone. But a group of outlaws, headed by former army captain Bruhn (Burl Ives), rolls into town, just in time for Blaise & Crane showdown and start terrorizing its twenty or so citizens of the small town. Bruhn's men are thirsty and lusty. But perhaps because he knows that he is dying, Bruhn promises the townsfolk that his men will not touch the booze and women, until they have secured a safe passage, away from trailing calvary. Blaise, knowing that Bruhn's death will commence raping and pillaging, urges the town's horse doctor to extract the bullet from Bruhn's chest and keep him alive as long as he can.

After a night of dancing and some molestation of women, Blaise decides to deceive the gang and lead them to certain death in the mountain, promising that there is a secret safe passage through the snowy mountains. Greedy and trigger happy, the gang starts to kill each other off.

Day of the Outlaw is a great western. Top notch acting from Ryan and Ives and Louise is a real beaut. Snowcapped vista also accentuates the harshness of the American west.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Chip on His Shoulder

Moonrise (1948) - Borzage
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Danny (Dane Clark) has been fighting against a stigma of being a son of a murderer who was hanged- as a child, he was relentlessly bullied and grew up to be a young man with a major chip on his shoulder. He gets into a fight during social dance and ends up killing Jerry, a local rich banker's son (Lloyd Bridges) who's been tormenting him all his life. Danny starts romancing Gilly (Gail Russell), a comely school teacher and Jerry's sweetheart, who's been having feelings for Danny and sees goodness underneath his erratic behavior and moody nature. Soon enough, local sheriff suspects him of foul play and closes in on him. Still struggling with his father's demise, Danny blames the bad blood running in his family for his predicament.

Moonrise starts with an ominous shadowplay and its dark, moody photography never lets up until the very end. Its redemptive plot is nothing to write home about, but there are several beautiful details that makes the film stand out. It's indoor shot southern backwoods has its stagey appeal (with swamps and everything). The foretelling and suggestive dialog/singing reflects Danny's increasing paranoia is quite delicious. It has several poignant moments involving the village idiot (Harry Morgan) Danny projected himself to, animals - coons and bloodhounds, sage black man Mose (Rex Ingram) who has the best lines in the film.

There are several striking scenes in the film that highlights Borzage's skill as a highly visual filmmaker. Most notable ones are the swooping crane shot of Danny and Gilly dancing in a derelict mansion and of course, Danny going crazy on a ferris wheel ride as he jumps off from his seat to the ground. Borzage's sensibility is close to that of Jean Cocteau and Jean Epstein than his Hollywood contemporaries. This could have been a great Farley Granger vehicle. I loved it and looking forward to delve into Frank Borzage's filmography.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Holy Cinema, in the Subtlest Possible Way

La niña santa/The Holy Girl (2004) - Martel
Amalia (María Alche), a sullen teen girl, lives with her divorced mom Helena (Mercedes Morán) in an old hotel with a thermal pool where mom works as a representative. She attends bible study group with her catholic school girl friends and recite prayers under her breath obsessively. Lately, she is obsessed with 'vocation'. A ear-nose-throat doctors convention is taking place in the hotel. Amalia finds herself being an interest of Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a married man with kids, when he rubs against her bottom in the crowd gathered for a theremin player just outside the hotel. On the verge of sexual awakening with the help of a promiscuous, gossipy best friend Jose(fina), the experience leaves her not repulsed but curious.

She soon becomes obsessed with Jano, sneaking into his shared room, smelling his shaving cream, following him and spying on him at the poolside. Whatever this man means to her, her obsession becomes her 'vocation'. Jano's guilty conscience is not helping Amalia's cause. To make matters worse, Helena finds him attractive as well.

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!