Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Scandinavian Fever

Henning Mankell's Wallander: Revenge (2012) - Brandstrom
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As if The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy, The Killing and The Headhunters weren't enough to satisfy the recent Scandinavian films/literature craze overseas, the superb, original Swedish TV series Wallander (not to be confused with the equally popular Kenneth Branagh's BAFTA winning adaptation on BBC) finally makes a landfall in the US, in a standalone, 90-minute film version, titled Henning Mankell's Wallander: The Revenge in theaters. As a shrewd marketing ploy, Music Box Films is releasing the entire first and second season (13 espisodes) on VOD itunes, Amazon and Vudu earlier and DVD on May 29th. The Revenge is the season 2 premiere episode.

Before Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander, there was Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander. Based on an original story from immensely popular Swedish crime writer Mankell, Wallander: The Revenge follows the titular chief inspector Kurt Wallander (Krister Henriksson) as he investigates crimes and solves mysteries in the deceptively dark underbelly of picturesque modern Sweden.

The film starts with Wallander having achieved his life's dream- buying a house by the sea. The celebration is cut short by the citywide power outage. Someone blew up the only transformer in Ystad and in the middle of chaos, a civic official who allowed a controversial exhibit, depicting the prophet Mohammad in an unflattering way is murdered. Then the strategic car bombs go off and a nurse is murdered in the hospital in the same fashion as the official. The military is called in and the small idyllic town turns into a war zone. Wallander's hunch is the murders and the bombings are connected.

In the wake of the killing rampage in Norway just last year, Wallander: The Revenge weaves the state of multi-ethnic Scandinavia today into a storyline. It paints the complex picture of the society in tumultuous times where fear-mongering and racial profiling have become household names.

So how does Wallander: The Revenge stack up as a standalone film? Fast paced, topically up to date with likable characters, it works as a tight, intriguing thriller. Sure you might feel that you are thrown into the world of Wallander cold feet. But thanks largely to Krister Henriksson's downbeat, old fashioned, heavy drinking and slightly sexist Wallander, you feel somehow at ease in his world. His Colombo-esque affability is the film's best asset against the cold, tech savvy and always changing world.

As the film sets up for the rest of the season, one can detect future conflicts (with the sexy new recruit) and a new love interest in the form of his new boss and neighbor (Lena Endre from the Millennium film trilogy), I can see myself easily getting addicted to the series.

Henning Mankell's Wallander: The Revenge opens June 1 in limited release in New York and LA. The 13 Wallander films are available on VOD and DVD now.

Crystal Clarity

The Devil, Probably (1977) - Bresson
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Which is more painful: seeing a baby seal clubbed to death or the main character shot dead in mid-sentence? This precisely measured condemnation of the modern world seeing through an intelligent young person, The Devil, Probably is a quietly angry film. Watching it is a frustrating experience also. Bresson's 'actors' go through their lines in their monotonous delivery. We don't see the victim when the bus runs over him. We only see passengers' feet and so on...

Charles denounces everything, from religion to psychoanalysis to money and sees no reason to go on living while the world is getting destroyed. What's remarkable is its clarity in disdain for destructive nature of human and making the case for ending life, without judgment.

There is a short poignant moment at the end where Charles stops before on his way to die. From an apartment, its door ajar, there is a music blaring from TV set. The scene is very brief and in typical Bressonian fashion, there are no discernible emotions, no coverage, no closeups. Even art can't change his mind. Superb spiritual granddaddy to recent Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Man Who Sailed His house

Found this article in, of all places, GQ magazine. It's a true account of a man, Hiromitsu Shinkawa, who survived three days at sea on the patch of what it was the roof of his house after the devastating tsunami in Japan last year. It's a harrowing tale of survival. it's a bit long but amazing read:
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Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

Click here for the story:
The Man Who Sailed His House

Friday, May 25, 2012

Visual Aural World of Jean Detheux


I hate the term 'experimental' cinema, it has a bad connotation, for me at least. The term is too loose and too narrow at the same time. But I am at a stage where I feel more and more attracted to non-narrative films, searching for pure visual aural experience. I stumbled upon the work of Belgian computer artist (living in Montreal, Quebec) Jean Detheux. His computer generated abstract animations are best experienced alone in a dark room with a headphone set over your head. It's truly a hypnotic experience. The best example of his amazing work I recommend is 10 minute piece called "...lilac shrieks and scarlet bellowings..." It's a beautiful symphony of colors, music and human voices.

"...lilac shrieks and scarlet bellowings..."   (9 min 57 sec)


Here is another beautiful one with pianist Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven, music written by Steve Reich

NY Counterpoint   (11 min 34 sec)



Please be sure to check out his vimeo page

Breillat's Feminism

The Last Mistress (2007) - Breillat
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I really dig Catherine Breillat's brand of feminism now. I don't know how much is actually adapted from its source novel by Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, but The Last Mistress is quite opposite from other nineteenth century novels about suffering women in the rigid society. The film is a period piece about a married woman (Asia Argento) being seduced by a handsome young aristocat (Fu'ad Aït Aattou). Then she leaves her old husband, goes through a tumultuous relationship and ends up owning him like a slave.

Argento, at age 32 when the film was made, is a radiant beauty and magnetic force, opposite of Aattou's girly man. She struts around in various ethnic costumes, smoking, whipping, knifing, etc. Her husky voice and evil laughs have more seductive power than ever. The ending was kinda draggy and unfocused. But it's definitely a must for Argento fans.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester

Across 110th Street (1972) - Shear
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Capt. Martelli (Anthony Quinn), a Harlem veteran, honkey with loose knuckles, is obviously displeased when a young black Lt. named Pope (Yaphet Kotto) declares himself in charge in a high profile murder case of money laundering gone awry btwn mafia and black folks. Bringing Pope in was a political decision by the higher-ups. The three suspects of the massacre are on the loose only to be hounded by mafia and cops alike. The (anti)hero of the film is Jim Harrison (Paul Benjamin), a down and out parolee who pulls out the job with the others and dreams of a small time happiness with his aging girlfriend who works at a club. Even though he is a ruthless killer, you root for him somehow, feeling his sadness all the way through the final shootout.

110th St. is that archetypal 70s New York film: dirty streets, scant characterizations, appearances by many NY character actors and moral muck all captured in energetic and gritty handheld camera. Even Bobby Wormack's titular song is in its mono-glory, quite different from the superslick cleaned-up version Tarantino uses in Jackie Brown. Its un-stylized violence and melancholy without cornball make Michael Mann movies look like high school plays. It doesn't cater to John Singleton style hammering approach to make a social comment either. I loved it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Silent Lovers

Cœur Fidele (1923) - Epstein
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Great use of camera movement, close-ups, rapid cuts and focus for psychological impact and poetic visuals. But it's all about Gina Manès's unusual beauty that shines through. Will investigate the world of Jean Epstein more.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Unsentimental Mood

The Docks of New York (1928) - Sternberg
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Bill (George Bancroft) is a brutish stocker, shoveling coal in the boiler room of the ship. He gets one night off ashore before he ships back out. He happens to witness a blond girl (Betty Compson) plunging into the water in a suicide attempt. He rescues her and carries her to a local bar (naturally) to bring her back to life. Since she doesn't have anything to wear, he breaks in, steals some lady clothes from a nearby store. With encouragements from others, on a whim, he asks the girl to marry him. Everyone including the wedding party knows that they have no intention of keeping their bows.

The Docks showed me that not all silents are slapstick comedies, camera tricks or overacting. It's unsentimental, pessimistic and its emotions complex and subtle. Our hero and heroine are not button-cute but downtrodden and world weary. No one asks the girl why she tried to kill herself. We never get to find out. But Compson's sad smile is more telling than anything. The ending is sort of a copout but Sternberg doesn't go all the way to make it corny. Beautiful cinematography too. It's great.

No More Lonely Nights

Lonesome (1928) - Fejos
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Jim is a factory worker and Mary, a switchboard operator. They are lonely working class folks in the big city. It's July 4th weekend and they decide to go down to Coney Island to have some fun. Jim notices Mary first, soon the attraction is mutual and they spend the whole time on the beach until they realize it's night. After having a good time at the boardwalk and various amusement ride, they get separated. A terrible thunderstorm ensues and they come home, wet and melancholic.

Lonesome is a virtuosic filmmaking: graceful, playful camera movements, sophisticated editing techniques- multiple exposures, impressive shot transitions, ingenuous setups- handheld rollercoaster rides, cheap but effective in-camera thunderstorm effects, etc. Jim and Mary's connection and their heartache in being separated after finding someone special is very palpable. You can feel the sexual energy when they reunite at the end. I bet they get to have the best sex of their lives after the credits roll- one can only hope. Barbara Kent has the most beguiling smile among the silent era actresses.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Trapped

City of Pirates (1983) - Ruiz
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Ruiz's adult fairytale has no city nor pirates but crazy colors, incomprehensible plot and Anne Alvaro's long, emotionless face. It has something to do with Ophelia complex and being trapped by family, gender, history, time.... Most of the surreal dialog/monologues completely went over my head, but the haunting images have cumulative effect as the film progresses. Not completely impenetrable and not as mystical and silly as Jodorowsky surrealism, but there seems to be more of a meaning and weight to Ruiz than just a simple mindfuck. As I'm left with a lot of things to chew on, I think I can really get into Raoul Ruiz.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Norwegian Crumb

Pushwagner (2011) - Benestad,Hanssen
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An aging Norwegian pop artist, Hariton Pushwagner, is the subject of this larger-than-life documentary, directed by Even Benestad and August B. Hanssen. And it's a great doc about an eccentric artist, rivaling Crumb in its charm and scope.

It is clear from the beginning, this pint sized, chain smoking, always inebriated man let us know just who is in charge; he dictates the first scene of the film, "Ok, it starts with me reading a book, now you ask me a question 'what are you reading Push?' and I just hold up the book over my face like this." We soon find out that there is no need to cover his face. Resembling Harry Dean Stanton on a bad day, his face, devastated by years of drug abuse and alcoholism, is worth a thousand words. The book he is reading is Lord Byron's Selected Letters. He goes on saying that one has to live like he reads. "This will be a meta-movie," he predicts.

Pushwagner's philosophy: one has to be living in action, not in theory, is what he realized late in his life. As the lawsuit proceedings against his former assistant, Morten Dreyer (in his muddled mental state, Pushwagner apparently signed a contract enabling Dreyer all the rights to his artwork in the 1990s), put much stress on his mental health and aging body, he knows that he hasn't got much more time left. His only regret in life is everything but the moment right now. His only pleasure left in life is the booze, fame, TV appearances and meeting adoring fans.

The main attraction of the documentary is of course, Pushwagner's idiosyncratic art: crudely drawn, yet extremely detailed Kafkaesque nightmare of banalities of everyday life. Benestad and Hanssen makes the most of these bright colored, repetitive figures and buildings to their advantage in computer animation sequences such as the artist's best known work, Soft City.

A born exhibitionist, Pushwagner is not shy about his dark past. In one of the many hilarious sequences in the film, he eagerly shows the film crew around where he spent his nights in his homeless days- next to an air duct of a roof of some building. It kept him warm on winter nights. He loses his trace of thoughts in an impossibly tiny shack where he used to sleep. He and the team also reenact his collapse from a kidney failure and subsequent hospitalization. But it has a lot of tender moments too. A footage of him visiting the deathbed of his long time mentor/collaborator, novelist Axel Jensen is very touching.

Lack of dates and contexts surrounding the artist, unless you are Norwegian, it is perhaps hard to imagine the whole magnitude of the tragicomedy that is Pushwagner's life. But with loose, intimate and visually inventive storytelling with compelling hero, Pushwagner is a great entertaining documentary and the one to remember.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

MIB3 with Rick Baker at MoMI

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Museum of the Moving Image is hosting the exhibition of creatures and props for upcoming Men in Black 3 by the legendary special effects and makeup artist Rick Baker (American Werewolf in London, Thriller, Videodrome, Ed Wood, Hellboy). The exhibition runs May 9 through September 23.
Rick Baker, the master special effects makeup artist who has won seven Academy Awards, created the alien creatures for the Men in Black movies. Baker's extraterrestrials are among the most memorable visual elements in the comical action adventure series about a pair of agents who monitor a population of unruly space aliens posing as ordinary citizens. Futuristic firearms and ingenious gadgets are also integral to the vividly imaginative world of the Men in Black. Aliens, Gadgets, and Guns: Designing the World of Men in Black 3 presents over 25 objects from the forthcoming third installment of the series, and includes Baker's alien creatures, memory-erasing neuralyzers, alien weapons, a monocycle, and the iconic black shades worn by Agents J and K. Exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of Baker creating alien creature makeup is also featured in the exhibit.
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There will be a special preview screening of MiB3 in Dolby Digital 3-D on Thursday May 24, at 8 p.m., followed by conversation with Rick Baker who will discuss his work on the Men in Black movies. The first Men in Black film will be shown on Wednesday, May 23, at 3:30 p.m. The film opens nationwide in theaters on May 25, 2012.

For exhibit information please visit:
Aliens, Gadgets and Guns: Designing the World of Men in Black 3

Tickets for Preview Screening with Rick Baker in person, please visit:
Preview Screening + Live Event

Everyday Miracle

I Wish (2011) - Kore-eda
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Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows, Still Walking)'s endearing new film, I Wish concerns two brothers Koichi and Ryu (Koki and Ohshiro Maeda, real life brothers), who live in different parts of Kyushu (southernmost among Japan's 4 main islands) as a result of their young parents splitting up. Koichi always wishes that some day his family will reunite. He keeps constant contact with his carefree younger brother. The news of the bullet train between the two towns they live in inspire them to come up with wish granting myth- when south and north bound trains pass by each other, the energy created by the trains would be so tremendous, it will grant any wishes uttered at that moment. They enlist their close school friends with different wishes and aspirations to take a trip to a station located halfway between them, risking punishment from their parents and teachers for skipping class.

I Wish is sweeter and lighter than Kore-eda's previous films. Death, the director's usual theme, only occurs to a pet dog here. After becoming a father and making Ozu-esque family drama, Still Walking, this life affirming dramedy feels like the most logical next step for him to take.

One thing that struck me most upon watching I Wish was that it could've easily been a Ghibli film, and I say this in the most affectionate, positive way. From its adorable young protagonists, a rural setting, gentleness of the adult characters, languid pace, to life lessons learned along the way, it plays out like a Miyazaki film without a cat bus. But as was the case with Nobody Knows, It's the amazing performances of its child actors that are the front and center of the film. Kore-eda provides enough room not only for the fantastic Maeda brothers, but also for other amateur actors who portrayed their friends to shine in their respective roles with natural, nuanced performances full of childish yearnings and surprising grace.

Also many familiar faces show up in supporting roles as adults, including Jo Odagiri as the deadbeat father and a struggling musician and Hiroshi Abe as a strict teacher.

My favorite part of the film is the static shots of inanimate objects near the end: mementos from their journey. The shots are held just long enough for us to appreciate those shared eternal moments. By the end I realize that its Japanese title, Kiseki (Miracle), refers more to everyday miracles- meeting new friends, adventure to new places, kindness of strangers, taste of grandpa's homemade traditional cake, among others. Affectionate and mature, I Wish is a lovely film about embracing everything that life throws at us.

I Wish has a limited release on May 11 in New York and LA and other cities in June. Check Magnolia website for dates for a theater near you.

Sadism

Justine (1977) - Boger
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Maquis de Sade's infamous tale of moral depravity gets an arty treatment (not to be confused with Jesus Franco production with Klaus Kinski) by a Brit Chris Boger. Justine and Juliette, two orphaned young sisters get kicked out of convent school full of lusty nuns and a randy pastor. The sisters couldn't be more different- Justine is the epitome of virtue and innocence while Juliette delights in school of flesh. As Juliette skools herself in a brothel in London, Justine goes back to the pastor, gets almost raped, then falls in with thieves and murderers under threat of violation. Juliette chose to live in sin and things are working out for her whereas Justine, the proud and virtuous one, the life is torturous and under constant threat. Sade's philosophy was not only anarchistic in rigid society but also extremely cynical. In Justine, he makes sure the virtues people hold dear get completely destroyed by the end.

Interesting to see even a great DP had a humble start doing softcore porn. Justine has some great visuals rivaling Ken Russell's The Devils, especially in the dream sequence. Cynical and dark. Koo Stark is mind bogglingly beautiful as Justine.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Which came first: Music or Whiskey?

Sprout Wings and Fly (1984) - Blank
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Les Blank features fiddler Tommy Jarrell of the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina. It takes some time to understand what he's saying. Once you settle in though, Sprout Wings and Fly is filled with fascinating stories- there is Austin who got drunk and fell asleep on the road and got ran over by a truck, there is a family dining table thick with table clothes on top of each other, dating back to 1937- when Cuba was celebrating better times by eating bread and there's lots and lots stories involving whiskey. Some of them should sound a little sad or downright grotesque, but they don't in Jarrell's words. The mountain folks in this doc, including Jarrell are always upbeat and funny. Again, Blank and Co. document and revive Americana that predates white hipsterism by 40 years and still come across as authentic and sincere in every way. A beautiful doc. So when is Criterion gonna put out Les Blank collection?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Unless a Seed Falls to the Ground and Dies...

supreme The TV anchorwoman’s trembling voice announced the passing of the Supreme Leader over the images of hysterical mourners gathered at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where the body was laid in a glass casket. Everyone was crying their eyes out: the TV anchors, the thousands of spectators including everyone watching TV.

 “…As he ascended to heaven, the skies glowed red above sacred mount Paekdu and the impenetrable sheet of ice at the heart of the majestic volcano cracked with a deafening roar…” continued the anchorwoman, dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief.

Hong-jin was astonished that even his father, a reserved man who rarely showed his emotions, was wiping the tears away under his thick glasses. But the boy didn’t cry. Not because he wasn’t sad, but because he just didn’t believe that the Supreme Leader was actually dead. He couldn’t be. He was the one and only, the most illustrious commander born under heaven. He was supposed to be invincible!

There was a long line to the entrance to the mausoleum. The mood was decidedly somber and many of Hong-jin’s classmates were sniffling under their breath, quietly wiping away tears and snot with their dirty coat sleeves. He noticed that even the guards at the gate had puffy red eyes from crying. No one talked. No one complained waiting in line in freezing January weather. Once they were inside, the sound of the wailing coming from the mausoleum intensified. The emotions ran high. Many of the boy’s classmates started crying too. It was contagious. Still, he didn’t shed a tear. He still couldn’t accept the idea of the Dear Leader dying like a normal human being. He had to see the body himself.

There he was in a glass casket, surrounded by thousands of white irises. The Great Comrade was a tiny man, much shorter than Hong-jin had seen in pictures and photographs. As he placed his iris near the casket, he was able to see the Illustrious One’s face. It was as if he was in deep sleep. His lips were ever so slightly curled at one end. A stern looking guard gestured the boy to the exit, since there was still a long line of sobbing children behind him with irises in their hands, waiting for their turn to pay respect. As Hong-jin exited, he was convinced that he caught the Leader’s right eyelid twitching for a millisecond. I was right: the Supreme Leader wasn’t dead! He was just sleeping! He told himself.

Hong-jin sneaked out of the group and hid himself in a nook in that grand memorial palace. It wasn’t too hard since he was a very small boy even for his age. Besides, everyone’s attention was elsewhere. As he was squatting under the marble staircase silently, flood of people swept through the mausoleum all in terrible distress. It felt like ages. It was cold in that climate controlled room and after a while, the boy fell asleep on the marble floor.

When Hong-jin woke up, he found himself alone in the palace. The lights were dimmed and the sun was setting outside the big glass windows, painting the sky scarlet. The door to the mausoleum was shut. But Hong-jin saw the bright light leaking out from the bottom of the door. He cautiously pushed the door in and it opened with a prolonged eerie creak. The fluorescent light was blinding. The boy took off his black rubber school shoes and placed them neatly near the door. He tiptoed toward the glass casket in the middle of the mausoleum. “Dear Leader,” the boy called out, in an almost inaudible voice. The Supreme Leader was still motionless. After a little bit of hesitation, the boy decided to gently tap on the casket. No effect. He tapped on it a little harder. Dear Leader’s eyes didn’t open as he expected to. But the boy was determined to wake him out of his deep sleep.

He undid the latches on four corners of the casket and started to push the glass top off. It was heavy and the boy had to lean his whole body against it with all his might to have it move. He was trampling irises  with his feet.

Thunk.

As the glass top rolled over and hit the iris strewn marble floor, an amazingly awful smell hit the boy’s nostrils. It was coming from the casket. The horrified boy fell backward and retreated until the back of his head hit something. He looked up. It was that stern looking guard from earlier. From the look on his face with his mouth agape, the situation was pretty serious.

Being a mischievous young boy is one thing, but he had sneaked in and desecrated the sacred body of the Supreme Leader!

His parents should be put to the public trial and punished severely!

It’s almost treasonous!

Kyu-nam, a sympathetic old guard, came into the interrogation room where Hong-jin was held. He carried the boy’s black rubber shoes in his hand. He didn’t believe that the boy had malicious intentions in the mausoleum. After all, the kid was only eight. He glanced at the boy’s feet. There were remnants of white irises stuck on his white socks. He placed the boy on the table and sat down in front of him.

Don’t cry, comrade, he said.

He gently brushed off the irises from the boy’s feet and put the shoes on.

Just like these irises, our bodies are weak and fragile. Our Supreme Leader knew that his was fading.

The old guard explained to the boy that the Supreme Leader had indeed passed on. That it was his own wish to serve his beloved country and his people by going back to earth quickly so he could bring forth fruit for the new generation, for children like Hong-jin. Kyu-nam had seen enough things during his lifetime, so he was exceptionally good at lying.