Monday, February 27, 2012

This Is Not a Review

This Is Not a Film (2011) - Panahi
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This is Not a Film is not a film. Not in a conventional sense anyway. Rather, it's a 75-minute documentation of an idling film director who has been banned from filmmaking, screenwriting, leaving the country and giving interviews for twenty years. Not to mention he is also fighting a 6-year jail sentence handed down by Tehran Revolutionary Court for planning a fiction film about the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election. Jafar Panahi, one of the key figures in Iranian New Wave cinema and perhaps the most political filmmaker among them, seems to attract media attention whatever he does simply for being who he is, and deservedly so. My first exposure to Panahi was back in 2001 when I read about his detention at JFK airport. He was in transit to a film festival in Montevideo and refused to be fingerprinted and photographed by New York police. He was simply detained because of his nationality, horribly treated by the US authority and in the end sent back to Hong Kong, his original port of departure. Last year, Isabella Rossellini read his open letter at the opening night ceremony of Berlin Film Festival. At that time, he was in jail and couldn't make it to the prestigious festival to serve as one of the jury.

One would assume that This is Not a Film is a political statement and nothing else. But this non-film (credited as an 'effort' with all the key personnel names blanked out) has plenty of humor and ingenuity, and is consistent with the Iranian New Wave tradition of blurring the line between narrative and documentary. Here, waiting anxiously on his appeal process, Panahi decides to record a one-day-in-a-life-of documentary in his Tehran apartment and turns the camera on himself. As the day goes along, he talks to his lawyer and converses with his friend & co-conspirator/cameraman Mojitaba Mirtahmasb. He has an idea. He wants to act out one of his scripts rejected by the Iranian censor board in his apartment. They said no filmmaking but didn't say anything about reading script out loud or acting. The apartment is empty because his wife and daughter are out of town to grandparents' because it's the Persian New Year. Armed with a video camera and an iPhone, Panahi and Mirtahmasb embark on this 'effort'. Only obstacles to this monumental undertaking are Igi, a family pet iguana walking into the frame and the constantly crackling fireworks outside the window.

After marking his living room floor with masking tape on all fours to imitate the setting and explaining the scene and reading lines, Panahi stops. It doesn't feel right to him. It's all lies. It is comical yet touching to see a filmmaker with very limited means (literally) trying to keep his sanity in check doing what he knows best while abiding to his artistic integrity. While the night is closing in and the fireworks intensifying, the non-film takes an unexpected turn with an appearance of a handsome janitor in the building, stopping at Panahi's doorstep to collect garbage. The young man becomes a willing participant in the experiment. He knows the famed filmmaker Panahi and he studies media in college. Art imitates life imitates art.

This is Not a Film shows that despite the precarious situation- facing censorship and imprisonment, nothing can contain an artist from creating. The result is an intimate and self-reflexive film that transcends it being a mere political statement.

This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran in a cake for Cannes 2011 screening and has US Theatrical premiere Wednesday, February 29th at Film Forum, New York.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lilith's Garden

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010) - Fiennes
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Anselm Kiefer, a well regarded post-war German artist who is known for his metaphoric, history resonating (especially German war past) work, using paintings and sculptures made with organic/inorganic materials. Fiennes documents Kiefer's large scale projects in Barjac, Southern France. With tunnels and burrows and glass boxes, it's a labyrinthine industrial space where every room is filled with Kiefer's rough and organic creations. Anchored by an interview in the middle of the film between Kiefer and a German Journalist where we get most of the information from (his artistic intentions, philosophy, etc.), the doc is not a biographical one. Except when the artist is at work, giving his team and assistants various instructions (mostly in French) on location filled with fork lifts, kilns, cranes and cement mixers, the film is without narration.

Fiennes leaves the process and the work speak for themselves, and it's fascinating. The combination of long smooth tracking and crane shots and the nature of Kiefer's post apocalyptic, industrial work involving concrete, twisted metal and lots and lots of broken glass with the György Ligeti soundtrack are comparable to Tarkovsky images.

I really liked him making connections with the sea (where we all come from) and the books (human knowledge, which serves as foundation literally and figuratively in his works) and the giant cement towers surrounded by nature, invoking Lilith from the bible (hence the title). A great doc.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Heaven or Las Vegas

Some pictures from our Vegas trip:

Freemont
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Vegas Strip
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Shark Reef at Manderlay Bay
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Red Rock Canyon
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Criterion Cover Art #2

#2 Andrei Rublev
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Bruegel on Film

The Mill and the Cross (2011) - Majewski
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Jesus and the cross is right underneath the mill on top of the protruding rock in the middle, obscured by commotions among the crowd. Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) with his big black canvas and his patron in a top hat (Michael York) are in the foreground on lower right corner.

Polish director Lech Majewski's recreation of Bruegel's Procession to Calvary with the stories and characters surrounding it is first and foremost a visual feat & a technical marvel. Rutger Hauer gives us a grand tour of hidden meanings and messages in said painting, as the famed Flemish renaissance painter. Like many of the renaissance paintings, Procession is an update on the Passion Play and features ruthless Spanish mercenaries in red tunic in place of Roman soldiers. With every frame a work of art, you can't look away from its beauty.

I like Majewski's unobtrusive, less bombastic filmmaking when compared to Greenaway's Night Watching, in making a scholarly investigation in art. And I'm a sucker for tableaux in films (von Trier uses in his films quite a lot, I even like Tarsem's slick, cartoonish ones) and this one doesn't disappoint.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Criterion Cover Art #1

Hand Drawn DVD Covers Series:

I've been thinking about doodling dvd covers of my favorite movies for a long time. Something simple and something that would take not much effort. There are a lot of homemade Criterion Designs out there so these are my versions.

The first one happens to be one of my all time favorite, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye.

#1 The Long Goodbye
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Expect a lot more of these in upcoming days.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Classics on Video

Prénom Carmen/First Name: Carmen (1983) - Godard
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Godard himself stars as uncle Jean, a burnt out movie director in a mental asylum and the uncle of a beautiful girl named Carmen (Maruschka Detmers), just like the femme fatale in Bizet's opera. Here Godard equates filmmaking to armed robbery and playing a piece of music. During a bank job, Carmen falls in love with the security guard Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffé) and they run away to the coast and lay low before the gang reunites. There is parallel storyline simultaneously happening- a quartet is rehearsing a Beethoven. They constantly stop and readjust because they make mistakes, are not playing violent enough, too slow, inaudible, etc,. It's the usual Godard stuff- fragmented, playful narrative with the mesh up soundtrack of tides, trains, Beethoven and Tom Waits.

It's Godard's reflection on filmmaking in the 80s where video ruled -there are constant references to videotapes and video cameras. It's not quite successful as his later attempts looking at art, film, the world. Here he tries many different things. It has a lot of physical slapstick comedy in it. Too bad I'm not really a big fan of that. But Godard is funny here in a similar way Woody Allen is in his films. All in all, Carmen plays out like a rehearsal for better things to come.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Open Book

Reprise (2006) - Trier
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Reprise focuses on two lifelong friends Philip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner) among a group of modern day, Norwegian city dwellers. The film starts with them sending out their first book manuscripts together to a publisher, hoping to launch their literary careers. It's sullen Philip whose work gets published first, leaving Erik somewhat disappointed but relieved at the same time. But soon after that, Philip has a breakdown and gets committed to a mental hospital, thanks largely to his obsessive relationship with lovely Kari (Viktoria Winge). Erik finally gets his piece of spotlight with his book titled Prosopopoeia. Then they deal with relationships, growing up and letting things go, sophomore syndrome, etc,.

A drama about writing/writers is very hard to pull off. Most of the time it comes across as excessively self indulgent or worse, pretentious. Trier's crisp staccato style, gorgeous cinematography (by Jakob Ihre), the literary world it portrays, and attractive actors all give an air of sophistication and can be easily mistaken as an urban hipster fantasy. But Reprise is a celebration of possibility of life. Their world is an open book and life takes them in many unexpected ways. Trier faithfully captures all those moments of nervousness, excitement and awkwardness of Philip and Erik without cliché required in movies about young adults. From the punk band concert days to meeting your hero to experiencing love and its complications, Trier seems he knows what he's talking about. There has never been a film about twenty-somethings this mature and sophisticated. Loved it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Siberian Legends

Glocken aus der Tiefe - Glaube und Aberglaube in Rußland/Bells from the Deep - Faith and Superstition in Russia (1993) - Herzog
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Herzog observes these deeply religious folks steeped in mysticism and legends in Siberia. He doesn't judge them in any way or cut in. He knows when to shut up and let his subjects talk, or sing or preach. We hear his delightful voice only in English translation. With great combination of music and visuals, Bells from the Deep has that Herzogian tranquility and clarity to dig deeper into human experience. Endlessly watchable and fascinating, it's another great doc by him.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mac-job Romance Horror Story

The Innkeepers (2011) - West
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Ty West's follow up to his superb 80s horror homage, The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers is a horror film in its hokey premise only. Rather it's a thinly disguised twenty-something mac-job romance between a cute Claire (Sarah Paxton) and dweeby amateur paranomal expert Luke (Pat Healy). For three days, the two are taking care of Yankee Pedlar Inn, a quaint three story establishment in the process of going out of business while the owner is kicking sand in Barbados. Other than a couple of quacks, the place is almost empty. It is quite visible that Luke's secret crush on aimless, restless Claire. West's talent as a writer sparkles in their effortless witty, silly exchanges. Their drunk on Schlitz confession session is so accurate and charming, that alone is worth the ticket price. Horror element is secondary and not so groundbreaking. I'm eagerly looking forward to his next project.

Dangerous Lives of Catholic Schoolgirls

Don't Deliver Us from Evil/Mais ne Nous Délivrez Pas du Mal (1971) - Séria
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As far as the 'catholic schoolgirls swear their allegiance to the devil' genre goes, Don't Deliver Us from Evil is a slow burn and a pretty classy one. It concerns bff Anne (brunette) and Lore (Blonde) doing all sorts of little evil deeds - killing birds, setting haystacks on fire, reading dirty books, seducing various men (usually village idiots).... It's all for laughs though, even at times they are in physical danger of getting raped. They are not completely remorseless. Anne cries her hearts out after killing her family servant's pet bird. Director Joel Séria treads lightly on the girls psychology or characterization. You don't really get the sense of who they are. What you get is constant underlying tension as the 'innocent' girls dig deeper into their graves without ever knowing the full consequences. I still prefer Alucarda and Heavenly Creatures over this, but Don't Deliver Us from Evil has some good moments.

Silent Type

Drive (2011) - Refn
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"A real human being, and a real hero....:

From its scribbled pink title sequence to the intoxicating pop soundtrack, Nicolas Winding Refn's latest is decidedly retro- very 80s Michael Mann. It's solid entertainment but will easily be forgotten. Albert Brooks steals the show. Kids, watch Walter Hill's Driver first.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Snow Country

Running in Madness, Dying in Love (1969) - Wakamatsu
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It starts out with newsreel footages of the 60s violent student demonstration against the riot police, double exposed with our protagonist (Ken Yoshizawa) getting bashed in the head. He flees but only to get into an argument with his belligerent older brother who is a cop. During the struggle, the brother gets shot by his subservient wife (Yoko Muto). The two flees to the snow covered North Country haunted by guilt and the ghost of the dead man. They become sullen lovers. Despite his reputation as a pinku exploitation film guy, Wakamatsu is a thoughtful, subversive filmmaker and a competent craftsman. Running in Madness is presented in beautiful anamorphic format. The public's sympathy with the student protesters who cried out for revolution is the one that was tied to rigid, conservative social structure. This is embodied wonderfully by Muto.

Then there is a scene where the lovers witness a naked girl being chased by small village mob on the snow swept beach. The men proceeds to beat the girl with a whip, because she eloped with an outsider. She will be gang raped by all the village men, to teach her a lesson. As for the outsider, he will be tied to a tree in the snow overnight (invoking the image of St. Sebastian). The people who help the cause will be ostracized and punished.

Not as showy or colorful as some of the other New Wavers, but Running in Madness... is a heartbreaking masterpiece that deserves attention.

This is Where Rhodes Jumped!

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971) - Terayama
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A college student talks to the camera in the beginning, that we the audience are sitting here doing nothing. He starts smoking, because he is free. We can't because we are not. Terayama was directly addressing young moviegoers in Japan in the late 60s early 70s, in the height of Vietnam War, when the US was using Japan as a one big military base. He addresses the audience time and time again, not so subtly- "I had a lizard I kept in a Coca Cola bottle. I fed it and it grew. It got too big and I couldn't get it out of the bottle. After years of humiliation, do you have to guts to stand up for yourself, Japan?," "This is where Rhodes jumped!" and so on and so one. Throw Away also highlights the post-war dysfunctional Japanese family- senile granny is a shoplifter and liar, war criminal father is a pervert and a wimp, once innocent younger sister now nothing but a whore in training (after a gang rape in a soccer team's locker room). With the hodge-podge visual style and Holy Mountain style conclusion ('This is all movie, it's all bullshit'), Throw Away Your Books is kind of a let down. Surely the movie is filled with ideas and messages to the brim and extremely playful. But like Jodorowsky who incidentally was making films around the same time and shares the same experimental theater background with Terayama, it is more of the same as Pastoral. So unfortunately the first impression/impact isn't there anymore. I guess I gotta move on to Wakamatsu and Yoshida.