Monday, December 19, 2011

Me Hug Nim

Project Nim (2011) - Marsh
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In the 70s, a group of vain scientists took a baby chimp from an Oklahoma animal ranch to NY. The project was to see if apes are capable of learning higher form of communication (sign language). So starts the tragic tale of Nim, a chimp who was plucked off from his mother and went through series of human surrogates only to be abandoned and discarded when project proved unfruitful and ran out of money. The doc, equipped with tons of materials (home movies, lab documentations, interviews with many involved), highlights the human arrogance and cruelty like no other. Nim is obviously a sentient being and also a wild animal. While not making a villain out of just one person, Marsh reflects on how we tend to treat animals in general. It's a heartbreaking doc and one of the year's best.

Monday, December 12, 2011

No Formal Rules

Mourning Forest (2007) - Kawase
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Machiko (Machiko Ono) just started working at an old folks home. It's a difficult job dealing with the old, day in and day out. With the physical and emotional stress, she is not sure if she is cut out for the job. The older, wiser co-worker (Makiko Watanabe) tells her, "There are no formal rules, you know?" That comment not only applies to their profession, but also the main theme of the film - coping with the loss of the loved ones.

Machiko connects with one of the elders, Shigeki-san (Shigeki Uda), who's been mourning his wife's death for 33 years. It is hinted that Machiko is grieving too; the death of her young son. According to the Buddhist monk who's giving a philosophical pep talk about death to the old folks at the center, it is the 33rd year that the soul of the deceased moves on to another realm, never to return. After celebrating Shigeki's birthday, Machiko and Shigeki take a trip to the mountains. And the simple day trip turns into an overnight stay deep in the forest where they share their common loss.

Naomi Kawase, yet another great Japanese documentarian-turned-narrative filmmaker, combines documentary sensibility and naturalism to her filmmaking (while watching Mourning Forest, I couldn't stop thinking about fellow Japanese documentarian/filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda's Maborosi). With such maturity and simplicity, Kawase presents two different people in mourning in the most understated yet beautiful manner. I haven't cried this much since god knows when.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

I Have Found What I'm Looking For

Eureka (1983) - Roeg
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What a weird film. It starts out with a bang literally, then comfortably slips into a melodrama peppered with fate, chance, mysticism, true love and discovering oneself. Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) hits the jackpot in Alaskan gold rush in 1925. He became filthy rich and now lives on some Caribbean island. His daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) is madly in love with beguiling, yet sinister Claude (Rutger Hauer in his prime beauty). It's the gold and wealth that puts rift on McCann's relationship with the world- his family and others alike. McCann and Claude don't see each other eye to eye. Daddy's a little more than possessive. Then there is Miami businessmen (Joe Pesci and Mickey Rourke) trying to buy McCann's island and build a casino. They won't take no for an answer. They will take it with force if necessary.

All this is told in true Roeg fashion- crazy zoom-ins, expressive editing, dizzing set pieces: all in the first 20 minutes (visually, the rest of the film doesn't hold the candle to its strong beginning). Even though it's messy as hell, it retains that organic Roeg quality- beautiful, ugly, sensual, abrupt, violent....

The eclectic mix of actors in Eureka can be distracting. I guess John Malkovitch and Christopher Walken weren't available for the roles. Hauer resembles David Bowie in Roeg's Man Who Fell to Earth. Obviously he is an actor with limited range, but here has the most complex role in his career as a vain man who floats through life without searching for anything. Russell always strikes me as an odd duck and no exception here as the millionaire's daughter, but personally I like her working class delivery and her edginess. Hackman is all volatility and cockiness as always.

One can easily draw a comparison between this and There Will Be Blood. But where Daniel Plainview is merely a one dimensional insatiable greed personified, McCann's pathos runs deeper. The film is a spiritual one. McCann sums up the film nicely when he says, "Yesterday I had it all. But today, I just have everything." In essence, McCann's journey to find that 'Eureka' moment in one's life ends in the beginning 10-15 minutes of the film. The rest is 'now what?' But like all Roeg films, it's an interesting one.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Subjective Memories

Pastoral: To Die in the Country (1974) - Terayama
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Terayama's take on the subjective nature of memories and time is a dazzling array of surrealistic whimsy. Pastoral takes place in a small mountain village and concentrates on core group of people- a 15 year old schoolboy and his pestering, war-widowed mother, an unhappy housewife next door, a village girl with an illegitimate newborn baby and a circus woman with an inflatable suit. Faces of the boy and his mother's as well as some other characters' are painted white, as if they are some sort of disclaimer, that they are fictional characters. The boy's yearning to leave his home and be free of his mother, as well as burgeoning sexuality is presented with constant mention of trains and train tracks. The film is full of contrasts : the villagers are stuck in the past, oblivious of the fast changing society elsewhere.

Then the film becomes metaphysical, movie within a movie half way. But it's not all celebration of the creative minds like Fellini's 8 1/2. As the lights come on in the screen room, the director (or an actor playing one) discusses the subjective nature of memories. He is conflicted as to how to proceed. On one hand, he feels exploitative, on the other, the film is an embellishment of memories. It's the director's love/hate relationship with Japanese past full in display and is pretty dark: as the director contemplates his existence, he proposes to kill his mother when confronted with his younger self, wondering how it would've turned out if he were never born or became someone else.

Pastoral is a very Japanese film, a reflection of changing times still under the shadows of its war past. I loved its messy lyricism and playfulness. More Terayama films are in order.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Darkness Visible

Un Lac/The Lake (2008) - Grandrieux
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If one could describe a certain cinema as a pure sensory experience, where one can feeeel (as Bruce Lee would say) it without licking the celluloid, Un Lac would be it. Unlike Philippe Grandrieux's two previous films where he seems to borrow the turgid noir/serial killer setting, the storyline (if you could call that) here is totally barebone- a family living in a shack near the lake in the snow swept landscape. A handsome stranger comes in and takes the daughter away, the end.

With extreme close ups, desaturated colors, intentionally underexposed, shaky and out of focus imagery (yet not quite abstract) is also extremely hard to make out especially in indoor scenes. Sound of whirring wind, river, rain, snow, breathing, footsteps, etc., are always present, accompanying the dark, grainy imagery and making Un Lac a living, pulsating entity, much like an injured horse in the film. The only music in the film kicks in the two third way in, by way of beautiful Hege, the sister of Alexi (the young epileptic lumberjack, whom Grandrieux opens the film with). Hege sings Mondnacht from Schumman's Liederkreis, Op. 39. and the music accompanies her high pitched singing. It's not only not out of place but enthralling and sad- sad because Alexi knows that she now loves another man.

The film's darkness gripped me and never let me go. Darkness can convey so much more than light and Grandrieux knows this. All in all, Un Lac is a lovely experience. I can only imagine how the theater viewing of this would be like. If you are interested in watching this, I suggest watching it alone with the headphones on with all the lights off.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bright Lights Big City

Shame (2011) - McQueen
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It's an odd choice for Steve McQueen after his breakthrough debut, Hunger, to do a film about a hotshot Manhattanite's hollow sex life. The premise is so very 1980s NY, circa Bright Lights, Big City - decadence, soullessness, cynicism. The only difference, besides the cyber age references, is how it is done. McQueen lets us know from the first frame, that he is not a normal filmmaker. As a visual artist, his visual approach is completely unique and refreshing.

Michael Fassbender again, teams up with McQueen and plays another physically demanding role (there are a lot of frontal nudity and sex scenes in this). Brandon (Fassbender) lives a high life in a posh midtown apartment, enjoys anonymous sex and pornography at home and at work. His magnetic good looks gets glances everywhere and he answers them back. His life style is sabotaged when his little sister Cici (Carey Mulligan), a lounge singer and an emotional wreck invites herself into his apartment unannounced. It gets complicated when Cici sleeps with his womanizing boss.

In a 5 minute long take, their backs to the camera and a black and white cartoon playing on TV in front of them, the siblings argue. The scene is just as compelling as the one long take in Hunger with Bobby Sands and the priest. Then there is an uncut restaurant scene where Brandon takes his lovely co-worker (Nicole Behari) on a date. Perhaps because of her down-to-earth quality, he confesses to her that his longest relationship with anyone was about 4 months. The following morning he takes her to the posh hotel suite overlooking the Chelsea Pier in order to have sex. He can't perform, all captured in agonizing 5 minute uncut take. The long takes require enormous amount of trust put on the actors and Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan oblige with perhaps the two of the greatest performances this year. What I like about Shame despite its rather conventional plot is it's deeply rooted in reality. Characters are very naturally drawn and believable. Mulligan's adorable as a hard edged, suicidal little Cici who might be Brandon's only salvation.

A reflective/introspective look at society's ills in the time of economic crisis and the world in turmoil is perhaps not very well timed. And Brandon's sexual escapades in the last act reach almost a comedic level. But Shame demonstrates a major talent stretching his cinematic muscles and I'm looking forward to McQueen's next project.

Beauty in Death

La Rose de Fer/Iron Rose (1973) - Rollin
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I'm really getting into Jean Rollin's sodden, poetic imagery and melancholic vampires. Iron Rose doesn't feature any fanged creatures though. It tells young lovers on their first date, end up in a large cemetery- boy playful, girl reluctant at first. They get lost their way out in the dark. Panic ensues. The girl, who slowly gets to discover the beauty in death, dances on the graves all night and decides to stay behind. Nothing much goes on in its 85 minutes running time, no blood, no guts, no real violence, just primary colors of the couple's shirts. But it's really gorgeous.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Fat Brown Unicorn

Black Moon (1975) - Malle
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It starts with a young blond girl in disguise running over a badger with her car. She stops, looks at the body dispassionately, then drives off. So begins an Alice in Wonderland style, surrealist sexual awakening film by Louis Malle. The symbolism heavy imagery is never subtle and quite ungraceful; a unicorn, hawk, lambs, snakes and various other animals, naked children roaming, water overflowing, decapitation, full blown out artillery war between the sexes, Joe Dallesandro, breastfeeding etc. Still, it's beautiful to look at, thanks to Sven Nykvist's stunning photography and its star, Cathryn Harrison as Lily.

Like Alice, Lily goes under the similar treatment - bullied, ignored, seduced and abused. Her pale skin always visible through forever unbuttoned white shirt, on the verge of revealing what's (not)underneath, Lily gets to observe the world that is full of contradictions. The talking unicorn she is chasing after, without knowing why, is fat and brown, the old matriach of the rural mansion resorts to infantile desire, beautiful twenty something siblings (Dallesandro and Alexandra Stewart)don't talk at all but engage in a violent duel. Lily doesn't have a choice to go back to Kansas or wake up from a dream in Black Moon. She seems to accept the fucked up grown up world by the end. Black Moon is a messy, unruly film. It's too creepy and dark to be satirical. It's not quite enthralling as I hoped, yet still fascinating enough to watch.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Shirtless Russia

Khodorkovsky (2011) - Tuschi
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As the Russian Parliament election looms and Putin announces his bid for the presidency for the third time, a controversial documentary about a jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, directed by German director Cyril Tuschi, opens here in NY at Film Forum (November 30 - December 13). When the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this Spring, the film's promotion office was burglarized and the final cut of the film was stolen, just before its scheduled showing date. Fortunately, Tuschi had other copies of the final cut made and was able to screen the film. It's not having any luck showing in Russia though- it was set to open there this week, but no movie theaters are willing to host the film. The filmmakers suspect that the theater owners are getting direct order not to play it from the Kremlin itself.

Armed with journalistic fervor, interviews (including one with Khodorkovsky through the glass box in the courtroom) and animated reenactments, Tuschi chronicles the rise and fall of a billionaire in rapidly changing Russia. Khodorkovsky's story is a paradox of Shakespearean proportions. He used corrupt political system to gain wealth but ultimately fell victim to it.

Started out as a staunch socialist youth, Khodorkovsky quickly transformed himself into a savvy businessman creating banks and businesses. Riding high through Gorbachev's Perestroika in the 1990s with Yukos oil company, he became one of the richest man in the world. He didn't see eye to eye with the Russian strongman, then president, Vladimir Putin. Ignoring Putin's urges to stay out of politics, he has been supporting Putin's rival political parties.

In 2003, he was arrested in a dramatic raid on his private jet and charged with tax evasion. He was sentenced 9 years and sent to a Siberian prison (and a recent trial added 7 more years to his sentence). While his Yukos colleagues fled (being Jewish, they ended up in Tel Aviv and Khodorkovsky's father happens to be Jewish- the anti-semitic angle at play as well), after away on business abroad, he came back to Russia, fully knowing he would get arrested. He then became a martyr for Human Rights groups around the world.

Tuschi sheds a light on Russia's bizarre political landscape. He interviews many young people on the street about the case. Some see Khodorkovsky as nothing but a thief while others are totally apathetic toward politics. He categorizes Khodorkovsky supporters into three groups: human rights activists, neo-liberals and people who think he is good looking. If the recent staged photo ops of shirtless Putin riding a horse and hunting bears are any indication, physical attraction seems like a big deal in Russian politics. Khodorkovsky himself went through a physical transformation (got rid of his mustache and dons a rimless glasses) after consulting with an American PR firm. Why did he come back only to get arrested? Tuschi ever so slightly hints that Khodorkovsky might have a political ambition after his release in 2017.

Khodorkovsky is an in-depth look at recent complex Russian history that is obscured and ignored by the rest of the world. It's an absorbing and fascinating film that serves as a great source of information on understanding the current state of Russia.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Nostalgia

Super 8 (2011) - Abrams
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There is no way I can write a legit review of Super 8 without sounding corny. But this nostalgic look at movie-making hits all the right spots for me. Yes, there was a time when filmmakers cared about making a good film for kids with characters full of charms and dialog witty and funny. It was before the whole toy tie-ins, ad campaigns and franchises.

The film is not all that original. But it doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator which is rare for a PG-13 rated children's movie. If The House of the Devil faxsimile'd late 70s- early 80's slasher to a T, Super 8 does it for late 70s- early 80's Sci-fi fantasy. The kids' middle class upbringing, suburban setting, their flaws and inadequacies, harmless grownups, all are very authentic. Even the way it was shot, not relying on mangled metals and CGs has that 80s feel to it.

It's safe to say that this film was not a big success at the box office because it was targeting my generation, who's jaded, cynical and would not go and pay $13 on a film unless it's something special (we'd rather go see something more sophisticated, say, a period piece about Freud and Jung doing hanky panky instead- for the record, A Dangerous Method showing that I went to was sold out and I didn't notice anyone who was younger than 30 in the theater). Super 8 has got scares, awkwardness of growing up and a lot of heart. Abrams has got it right in every way and it's a good film.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Neurotics

A Dangerous Method (2011) - Cronenberg
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A big disappointment. Based on a play and script by Christopher Hampton, A Dangerous Method feels more like a stuffy stage play than a Cronenberg film. The problem with Hampton's script is that it fixates on the drama of three main characters - Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielrein, there is no room for historical background of the early 20th century, characters fantasies or anything else. It is nice to see Viggo Mortensen stretching his acting ability a bit while buried in suit, pipe, fake nose and dark contacts, stubbornly professing human sexuality as the root of all psychological problems. Michael Fassbender is adequate as young Jung, a family man, thrown into exercising 'talking therapy' on Spielrein and then moving into hanky pankies. Keira Knightley has no range or physique to do a sexually dysfunctional young woman justice (to her credit, she does an amazing human barracuda impression unintentionally).

I wished that at least some of the dream talks among them would materialize on screen, to give some Cronenberg touch- especially Jung's dream of a horse suspended in the air and a heavy log placed in the way and keeps the horse advancing forward and Freud suggests, "the log is, perhaps, your penis?" No luck. Berg keeps everything too classy.

Only interesting part is when Hampton and Berg treating Freud as a neurotic Jew trapped in a society where everyone's poised to tear him down when given a chance. Hence, his unflinching stubbornness in his theories. This is a masterpiece theater with a brief nudity of a skinny flat chested girl. Thumbs down.

High Brow, Low Brow

Die 3 Groschenoper/The Threepenny Opera (1931) - Pabst
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Pabst's interpretation of the famous musical by Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill is a glorious one. Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife), the immaculately dressed underworld crime boss and known womanizer, seduces and marries Polly, the beggar king Peachum's daughter. In order to break off the marriage, Peachum goes to the police chief (and a friend of Mackie), Tiger-Brown, and threatens to unleash his beggars into the street en masse on the coronation day, unless Mackie is behind bars. Upon hearing the news, Mackie leaves his empire to Polly and flees only to go to his whore house and get caught by the police. Polly turns out to be a cunning deal maker and an effective crime boss and everything culminates to the coronation day where the reigning monarchy meets the angry crowd face to face. The famous song Mack the Knife by Ernst Busch (who narrates the film with his songs) bookends the film.

Threepenny Opera is an incredibly sophisticated and biting satire of the capitalist society where criminals and the law go hand in hand and even the beggars are categorized and commodified. There are some very foretelling quotes. As Polly addresses the board of the bank (City Bank it's called!), "One can rob a bank, or one can use a bank to rob others," as she takes over as a chairman. And the film ends with Peachum declaring allegiance to Mackie and Tiger-Brown. When asked "If the poor are so powerful why do they need us?" Peachum replies. "Because they don't know we need them."

The Criterion DVD has a great documentary called Brecht vs Pabst, chronicling the origins of The Threepenny. No film lover should pass this one up.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Little Deceit

Tomboy (2011) - Sciamma
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Tomboy is just as simple as the title suggests. It tells a innocent deceit by a ten year old Laure (Zoé Héran) pretending to be a boy in order to play with neighborhood kids. As with her feature debut, Waterlilies, Celine Sciamma has a knack for getting amazing performances out of her young actors. Particularly, Zoé Héran is a revelation. Her portrayal of a confused child (not of her sexuality but the sexual politics) is touching and deeply felt. Sciamma doesn't go for easy drama. Rather, she aces on acutely chronicling the behavior and mindset of a conflicted pre-adolescent. One of the year's best.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Different Kind of Fairy Tale

Sleeping Beauty (2011) - Breillat
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Catherine Breillat spins another well known fairy tale into a feminist sexual intrigue. Anastasia is cursed at her birth by a witch, that she will die after pricked by a spindle at age 16. But three good fairies intervene in time and change her fate: she will sleep for a hundred years instead. But when she is 6, Anastasia hits the road and encounters many strange people. And she is on her way to rescue Peter the prince (a childhood friend, older cousin, brother, uncle?) from the ice queen (stand-in for puberty). Now 16 and a hundred years later, Anastasia wakes up in the modern world and flirts with hunky Johan and experiments with homosexuality.

Breillat's second interpretation of the fairy tale trilogy (first Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast planned), is much more playful and sumptuous (from production design to cinematography) than her previous efforts I've seen by her. Anastasia's journey is fantastic and candy colored. It ends abruptly with the dark undertones of sexual violence (fantasy or otherwise). It's a very intriguing film.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reverse Shot

Notre Musique/Our Music (2004) - Godard
Part essay, part narrative, part lecture, this short elegy to Europe is perhaps the most definitive culmination of all Godard's work I've seen so far. Taking cues from Dante's Divine Comedy, the film is in 3 parts: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise (first and last parts are 10 minutes or so and Purgatory is the longest and the meat of the film).
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The first ten minutes is rapidly cut reels of horrors of war- both real and imagined (clips from Hollywood movies) and in both black & White and color. Colors are wildly distorted into almost an abstraction.
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Set in bullet riddled Sarajevo in winter, Purgatory mainly concerns the Israeli/Palestine conflict. Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler), a journalist from Tel Aviv is in town for a literary conference where Godard (as himself) is set to give a lecture on image/text relationship. Like a tourist in a new city, Judith is constantly visible taking pictures in the war-torn but now reviving city. While interviewing and talking to many people- a Palestinian poet, Spanish architect and so on, who appear as themselves, she is there to be assured/bare witness to, that a reconciliation is possible between bitter enemies somewhere, that the bridge (the famed Mostar bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 15th century and had been standing the test of time until was destroyed in the Bosnian War) can be rebuilt.
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Then there is Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu), a Russian Jew, planning to off herself in a sensational manner in the name of peace. In the Paradise part of the film, Olga walks through the green forest and ends up in water's edge where it is heavily guarded by American GIs.
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Godard plays with complex ideas through series of images and sound. The film devotes considerable amount of time to Godard's lecture on misinterpretation of images. There is light then there is dark. There is a shot, then there is a reverse shot. As usual, this dichotomic world view that has been consistent throughout his career is pronounced. Similar images can contrast each other side by side but an image without context can be misleading.
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The two women- Judith and Olga (both rather plain looking and not particularly noticeable) are mirroring each other. So are damaged, faded fresco of Saint Mary and Olga. The most devastating/hopeful image in Notre Musique is not of a pile of dead bodies or Mostar but close up of Olga's face at the end.

I have to admit that seeing a Godard film requires a bit of effort and get-used-to (visually, since he is not going to give you traditional looking beauty shots). Sometimes his usual heavy Euro-centric references get in the way of viewing. It also feels like a visual literacy class, albeit an exciting one.
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Notre Musique is a serious film. His image association games don't feel like tricks. Gone are his youthful glee and silly satiric humor that has been generally perceived as reductive and contradictory, that alienated many filmgoers over the years. The film doesn't give the audience any easy answers. Godard merely suggests that there are things that need to be investigated further: what you can see is not necessarily the truth. Then I realized that Godard has always been paying the highest respect to the audience- to think for themselves. It's also the most non-combative and relatively easy-to-digest Godard film I've encountered so far. Also it's thrilling.

Only misstep (if I call it that) I consider is the appearance of American Indians. The idea of imperialistic America is pretty well pronounced throughout all JLG films. But I find the inclusion of them in the streets of Sarajevo a little more than distracting. Sure they are underrepresented and their stories seldom told. But it feels like harkening back to his old silly self in otherwise somber film.