Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Shirtless Russia

Khodorkovsky (2011) - Tuschi
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


Super 8 (2011) - Abrams
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


A Dangerous Method (2011) - Cronenberg
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

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
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) - Durkin
First thing you notice in this film is its intentionally underexposed cinematography. It sets the tone and never lets up from beginning to end. The second thing you notice is Elizabeth Olsen's face. The crushed black, shallow depth of field and soft edges accentuate her ethereal beauty. She is in almost every frame of the film. Martha Marcy May Marlene concerns a young woman named Martha who runs away from what seems to be a communal farm house, mainly consists of young men and women, headed by charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes, channeling Charles Manson without the hippie bullshit). She calls her estranged older sister and spends the rest of the film with her and her yuppie husband in their lake front Summer house in Connecticut. Martha seems ok at first but as she remembers what she just left behind, she gets increasingly paranoid and anti-social.

Martha Marcy is not explicitly about a Manson type cult, nor it's about relationship between two sisters. It's all about dread a young woman feels after a traumatic experience. It's slick and accomplished filmmaking and has plenty of good acting and tension. But it fails to have any kind of impact on either emotional or cerebral level.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Welt am Draht/World on a Wire (1973) - Fassbinder
When Dr. Vollmer, the inventor of the Simulacron, a virtual reality world, dies in the eve of the huge conglomerate taking an interest in the project, they bring in a springy scientist Fred Stiller to take over the research. Fred has some reservations for the job since his predecessor died under mysterious circumstances, but happy to oblige to the given task, as the project is a scientific milestone. Odd things start happening around him though: he suffers from constant headaches, his friend at the company disappears in mid-conversation and nobody notices that he is gone. What's more, no one acknowledges that his friend ever existed. Then there are blackouts and memory lapses. Something is definitely wrong. Fred discovers that the world he sees as real is not at midpoint of the film's 3 hour running time. His existential crisis is similar to that of Hari, Kelvin's dead wife, created by the famed planet in Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Fassbinder tapped into the concept of virtual reality, way before Matrix. Its obvious influences are everywhere- the phone booth, contact/oracle and whatnot. But his approach is not some dumb, action filled, overblown, self-important fantasy, but got a lot more to do with identity crisis in the technologically infused world- our world. It's a talky film filled with fashionable women and colorful plastics. There are hardly any action or special effects. Nonetheless it's very intriguing and entertaining from start to finish.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Smell of Rice Cooking

Branded to Kill (1967) - Suzuki
A human blowfish Hanada (Jo Shishido) is a contract killer. Despite his irregularities- he has a fetishistic tendency to the smell of cooking rice, he is damn good at his job. But when he fails an assassination job, hired by butterfly collecting femme fatale Masako, he gets hounded by the invisible 'guild' and the ranked No.1 killer (Koji Nanbara).

This is a wild ride. Visually inventive, ultra modern sets and goofy humor, the Seijun Suzuki's gangster flick plays out like the adult, perverted combo version of Michel Gondry and Wong Kar Wai.