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.