Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Žižek Remains Hopeful, So Should You

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2013) - Fiennes
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Why is it easier for us to visualize the end of the human race, than the end of the free-market capitalism? This is the driving question behind the latest collaboration between Slavoj Žižek, the superstar philosopher/psychoanalyst/cultural critic of our time and director Sophie Fienne's in their new documentary, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. It's their second film since the widely successful The Pervert's Guide to Cinema in 2006. Clocking at 135 minutes, Ideology is arguably less entertaining than its predecessor despite the charming presence of the famed philosopher in several iconic movie backdrops, gesticulating wildly and sounding like the Eastern European Sylvester the Cat. But this film is a denser, more serious examination of our consumerist society that asks many of the important questions of our time, and will require your full attention. As the film jumps briskly through various components of ideology, I suggest seeing the film more than once to absorb Žižek's whole thought process.

For a person who grew up in Communist Slovenia during the Cold War, and hailing from a Marxist/Anarchist perspective, Žižek is equally critical of all ideologies -- the Soviet Communism, Fascism, Capitalism and religion. With various examples of Soviet era war films and Nazi propaganda, he demonstrates the manipulative nature of ideology.

While this film is intellectually complex and sometimes hard to follow, there are many brilliant moments that you just have to nod and smile. One of these is in the beginning, with John Carpenter's hidden gem of the Hollywood Left, They Live. Žižek begins his dissertation by the dumpster in a back alley in LA, where the epic fist-fight between Roddy 'Rowdy' Piper and Keith David takes place, because David's character refuses to put on the sunglasses that will let him see the hidden messages used by the yuppie aliens to control the human race ("Obey", "Money is your God" etc - all the good things about the Reagan years). Ideology is essentially the filter that we see the world through.

Žižek uses different cultural examples to demonstrate how historic ideological movements manipulate the masses. Beethoven's 9th Symphony -- Ode to Joy, a world famous melody associated with a vision of fraternity amongst all human beings, has been appropriated by many political movements: Nazis, Marxists, Maoists and even the Shining Path -- believe it or not, these were all 'utopian movements' in their own minds. It was the national anthem of the apartheid government of Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) and is now the anthem of the European Union. After the long historical montage, you are relieved to see Žižek sitting in the Korova Milk Bar from Clockwork Orange. The genius of Beethoven is not only utopian vision in music, but the realization that there are those who will always be excluded from this utopia, as illustrated by the carnivalesque version of the symphony's fourth movement heard in the scene where Little Alex prowls the shopping mall.

Žižek dissects our advanced, capitalist system using Freudian psychoanalytic terms and Western philosophy, giving variety of cultural examples for the laymen: Sound of Music, Kinder Eggs, Starbucks, coke, Titanic.... He takes us to the Mojave Desert -- the gravesite of derelict airplanes, for us to witness the amazing amount of waste created by the current economic system. For those who are not familiar with Plato's Republic, he sites Dark Knight to explain the 'Noble Lie', a conservative view of the society where it is necessary for the rulers to lie because the public can't handle the truth.

All this heady, intellectual inquiries are at times too much. Fiennes deftly moves from one iconic movie setting to another connecting the dots and continuing visual threads to keep up with our motor-mouthed host and keep the film afloat. The movie settings are perfectly matched with the originals and the visual gags are clever and funny.

Capitalism is the only revolution that survived because it thrives on economic crises and social turmoil. Why do people loot during the riot? Žižek uses an example of the London Riots of 2011. In our consumerist system, people's frustrations in social and economic injustice can be only expressed by stealing objects. We go back to his main question for the finale:

Why do we so easily envision asteroid hitting the earth or the end of days rather than seeing a moderate change in our economic system?

I saw him speaking eloquently about the possibilities of envisioning a different kind of world for our future at the Zuccotti Park, during Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. With The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, he is suggesting us to examine the past, learn from mistakes and be a little bit of a realist in seeing the world.

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology opens 11/1 at the IFC Center followed by other markets.
Slavoj Žižek and director Sophie Fiennes in person Fri Nov 1 & Sat Nov 2 for Q&As following 6:45 shows.

Plus book signing with Žižek for his new book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Sat Nov 2 at 9:45pm – books on sale at lobby concessions stand.
Please visit IFC website for tickets.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mother Russia

Mother and Son (1997) - Sokurov
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Sokurov's idea of the basis of all human relationship - the one between mother and child, is stunningly visualized in Mat I Syn. As the rightful heir to Tarkovsky and reining spiritual backbone in faithless, chaotic Mother Russia, Sokurov shows eternal rebirth of devotion, sadness and nostalgia. The film's dreamy, skewed images are heavily influenced by paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The look of the film is like nothing I've ever witnessed on film: its slightly distorted, no depth of field, soft green & yellow palette creates the world where time has lost all its meaning. It's a beautiful and soulful film.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"I Don't Need to be Put on a Pedestal": Claire Denis Interview

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Claire Denis goes all-out noir in Bastards, a brooding, nocturnal thriller where innocents get punished and good men die. With a star studded cast, Denis creates a film experience so seductive and mesmerizing, it reminded me of the exhilaration that I haven't felt in theaters since, gosh, maybe Mulholland Dr.?

The film's strong sexual contents are stirring controversy since it debuted at Cannes (in Un Certain Regard section). It will be a divisive film for sure. But there is no question that the film demonstrates Denis as a filmmaker in her prime. I had a pleasure of chatting with her for the second time since her last outing to NYFF with White Material in 2010.

BASTARDS plays out like a hardboiled film noir in the vein of James M. Cain and reminiscent of CHINATOWN. I know it's co-written by your long time collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau. Is the story based on anything?

Yes, it was based on something. I wanted to work once more with Vincent Lindon (they collaborated in Friday Night, 2003) and have him to play someone like James Caan or Toshiro Mifune -- someone solid, someone we can depend on. But I like seeing bad things happening to those hero types. So I started with some Kurosawa revenge movies from the [60s] -- Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. Then with Jean-Pol, we decided that if we wanted to do a noir that we will write it straight forward, scene by scene, brick by brick. Otherwise it wouldn't work because I have a tendency to revise again and again and again.

There is a plot but like many of your other films, it's all about the mood and atmosphere you create. I'm wondering how much of the script is translated on the screen?

In Bastards, the script was exactly the blueprint of the film. Nothing was invented on the set. One scene was cut and I wanted the killing of Marco to take place on the seaside. They were going to carry the little boy off by the boat and she (Chiara Mastroianni's character) shoots him and he falls into the sea. But that' about it. The weather was bad and it was going to cost too much. Other than that, there was really no big change made. Everything was planned well and it was different than shooting in other countries where I have no control over all those sudden changes. I love the locations and it was very easy shooting in Paris.

The mesmerizing soundtrack, once again, is composed by Stuart Staples (of Tindersticks). How does this collaboration work?

We are always in the process together. We go through the script and we discuss, then he sees the dailies. In this film, I told him about Tangerine Dream. I wanted something electronic, something inhuman.

It's really gorgeous.

The way Stuart helps me with the project, he is not only a working companion or musician. He's much more than that. He is someone who I trust so much. In White Material, he was the only one who made me cut out a scene. I wouldn't do it for anyone but he said, "I don't understand that scene," and I said, "Alright, if YOU don't understand it, I'll cut it out."

Wow.

No it's because...he is such a great poet, such a great musician. His feelings are so intense.

And his sensibility matches with what you are trying to do?

It's more like I try to match with him.

You are so modest.

I'm not modest, you know. When you are making films, you are clumsy because you have to take care of a lot of stuff. I'm not exaggerating about Stuart. A collaboration with him is like me flying and he is my co-pilot.

So the great Agnes Godard again shot your film. And for the first time you shot on digital video. I'd like to know what you think about the whole digital revolution that's been happening and if you liked the result shooting on video.

Of course, I like the result. We chose to shoot the film that way, so it had to work. I was happy to do it. I was thinking about shooting White Material on video already. But I thought the look of digital was too cold for the project. So we chose to shoot with low speed Kodak film with almost pinkish tone to express the heat on Isabelle [Huppert]'s face. This heat you can't get it on digital, unless you add it in [color] timing in post. But it's not the same. It still seemed too cold to me. The heat comes from the depth of field and the reaction to the film itself. For instance, when it's very hot, the RED EPIC camera won't work. You have to put an icepack around the camera. Because digital can't stand that kind of heat.

Right. The camera itself gets very hot.

Yeah and it needs to get ventilated all the time. And it's very noisy on the set. It only gets quiet when it's recording. It's like having a computer on set. It took me a week to recreate the relationship I had with Agnes because I don't like to watch film on monitors and I like to be close to the camera. So in the beginning, I felt I was outside the film for a while and I had to fight my way back!

Would you shoot on digital again?

Sure. The thing about shooting digital is trying not to make it look like film. If it looks like digital, it's fine with me.

BASTARDS is stunning though. I love how it looks. And I'm a film guy. But I teach college students how to use digital equipment now. And a lot of kids are not shooting film anymore and it makes me feel sad.

I've seen The Master by PT Anderson last year, shot on 70mm. I mean, wow--

Not many people are doing that though.

I know it's expensive and everything, but it's such a different experience. We should fight to keep them both.

We should.

Because it expresses something else.

I totally agree.

Let me move on to the actors. Whew, such a star studded cast in this one, including your regulars -- Vincent Lindon, Alex Descas, Michel Subor and Gregoire Collin and some actors you haven't worked with before -- Chiara Mastroianni and Lola Créton. I'm wondering if you had those actors in mind when you were planning this film.


I had Chiara in mind for such a long time. But we were shy about approaching each other. And she is an impressive actress, you know? Then we became very close. And Lola, I saw her in two films and I immediately wanted to work with her.

Was the process of working with those two any different than working with your regulars?

No. But I spent a lot of time together with Lola before shooting. I wanted her not to be afraid and trust me and to be the master of the ceremony. I didn't want her to be the victim. So I spent a lot of time with her for that. And Chiara, I know her well, so the trust was already there. But she is someone who doesn't need a lot of psychological explanation. She does it without being told. And it's good for me because I don't like explaining things. So it just the question of being together with those two.

But Vincent is different. He needs a lot of explanation. He always needs more and more. It's because he is such a generous actor. He's always afraid he is not giving you enough.

I saw Lola Créton last year at the festival here.

For Olivier Assayas'?

For Mia Hansen-Løve's GOODBYE FIRST LOVE.

Ah yes.

She was doing a Q&A session and she was so amazingly shy. But in GOODBYE FIRST LOVE, she just gives it all. I am wondering if it was the same for you.

She is shy but you can be shy at the same time as strong. She is both.

There was controversy this year at the Cannes Film Festival where people were protesting the lack of women filmmakers represented. Do you think those objections have merits?

I don't care if I don't win competition. I just don't have time to think about that. If I did, I would become furious. So I'd drop the thing completely and just accept everything I'm given. I remember once watching a Godard movie and afterward I was in a bar next to the theater with Agnes Varda, eating and drinking wine because Agnes was starving. Godard walked by us without giving us any attention and Agnes called him out, "Hey, Jean-Luc Godard doesn't even say hello to me?" So he turned around and said in a slightly sarcastic, slightly comical way "You expect to be decorated (like Legion d'honneur) eh?" as if wanting any acknowledgment was a sin. She said, "Look Jean-Luc, I'd accept everything I'm given." And from then on, I think, 'yes this is true: it's better to accept everything you are given and try not to contest'. It's a waste of time. The controversy about Bastards...I accept it too. I don't feel like a victim just because I'm a woman. I might be victim of myself but not of others.

The thing is, I really want you to be recognized at some point though. You are one of the great directors of our time and I feel sad you don't get that recognition.

Then, what the fuck?! You know what I mean? What can I do about that? Some people like my work and some people don't. Maybe my films are too weird. For some people I am important, but a pedestal I don't need.

Museum of Moving Image is doing mini retro of Claire Denis which culminates to the preview screening of Bastards on Oct. 22, a day before its release in New York. It has a limited release in theaters, VOD and Digital on Oct. 25. Please visit MOMI website and IFC Entertainment website for tickets.

Here is my short review for Bastards

My Claire Denis Interview Nov, 2010

Reviews:

Chocolat
Beau Travail
White Material
Vendredi Soir/Friday Night
35 Rhums

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Woman Under the Influence

Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) - Dumont
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With each new film, a controversial French filmmaker Bruno Dumont continues to fascinate me. His fixation with purity is quite unflinching, and his characters suffer for (or for the lack of) it. Camille Claudel 1915, an even more characteristically stripped-down, austere Dumont film, concerns 3 days in the life of Camille Claudel, a famed sculptress and one time August Rodin's mistress. She has been abandoned and committed by her family to a mental asylum where she would spend the rest of her life until death. Her younger brother Paul, a famous poet and writer with a strong Christian bent visits her during this time, not to rescue her, but to chastise her.

Juliette Binoche, who continues to choose intriguing projects as she gets older, plays the unglamorous title role and giving a measured and beautiful performance of a woman (slightly) under the influence. From what I hear, the famed actress reached out to Dumont because she wanted to work with the director and challenge herself. She wanted to play a woman in a confined space. Camille Claudel 1915 is the result of their collaboration.

So this is quite the rare film where Dumont uses a famous actor (other than the late Katerina Golubeva in Twentynine Palms back in 2003, which I feel was the only misstep in his otherwise singular filmography). In a true Bressonian fashion, he usually populate his films with non-actors. In this film, he mainly focuses on Binoche's non-made up, anguished, hollow face as she spends her days in boredom and frustration surrounded by other mental patients.

It starts with Camille preparing her meal alone in the kitchen- a couple of boiled potatoes. A greenhorn intern who is not familiar with Camille's arrangement tries to stop her only to be the victim of her outbursts. A seasoned nurse quietly informs him that Camille is allowed to prepare her own meals because of her 'condition' that she thinks someone is trying to poison her. Tearful Camille joins the rest of the group at the dining table. It's a group of sad creatures- a toothless, drooling, howling bunch of real mental patients.

For naturalism and fluidity, Dumont and the crew shot the film during the daily routine of the mental hospital (where the film was shot): real patients going about their daily schedule and real nurses playing Sisters of the old Catholic mental asylum. The result is quite astounding. I can assure you that the controversy surrounding using real mental patients in film, that the film is exploitative is quite unfounded. Dumont has proven over the years that what he strives for in his filmmaking is showing purity and authenticity in both physical and spiritual form.

The sibling's differences are portrayed in two nearly identical, long, technically daring scenes: with the other patients in tow, Camille and the Sisters climb a rocky hill. Preoccupied but not unhelpful or uncaring, Camille assists others who are much more handicapped than her to reach the top of the hill. It's a beautiful site. But it's just a hill. As soon as they reach it, they go back down. The afternoon walk is over. Then there is Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent)'s long walk up to a hill behind a church with a friend who is an ordained priest. On the way to the top, Paul describes his first religious epiphany in detail to his friend, his story coming to a crescendo at the peak.

The only time we see Camille smile is when the news of her brother Paul's visit is announced. She is fully expecting to be freed from her unjust confinement. She might be a little paranoid, but she is still a sentient, sensible thinking being. When they meet, he lectures her why she is in her state of misfortune. He deems that it is her arrogance which is prevalent in artistically talented types that gave way to her delusions of grandeur. In his mind, God loves everyone but punishes those who are insolent. It's an unforgivable sin.

Dumont always grapples with the idea of purity of faith in his films. It can be devastating (Humanité). It can be beautiful (Hadewijch, Hors Satan). In Camille Claudel 1915, he examines this purity in a historical context in the lives of historical figures.

Camille Claudel was a tragic figure, not because she was punished by God. She was as much a victim of her paranoia as of the sexist society and its times. As Dumont throws Paul's view in, the film becomes another contemplation of the purity of faith which can be quite rigid, inhumane and self-righteous.

All the controversy aside, the film remains to be beautiful in its austerity. It's a hard film to watch but a very strong one, one that will definitely ring over your head long after you leave the theater.

Camille Claudel 1915 has an exclusive two-week theatrical run at Film Forum, starting October 16. It's distributed by Kino Lorber. For tickets please go to Film Forum website.

Monday, October 14, 2013

New Anthem of the Millennials

Her (2013) - Jonze
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It's hard to believe that Her is only Spike Jonze's fourth feature film because it feels like he's been in our pop culture consciousness for a long time. With his music videos and films, he's always been creating worlds that are just ahead of the curve. Written solely by Jonze for the first time, Her is a surprisingly thoughtful and moving film. In a mere two-hour running time, it raises a lot of important issues in our society which is heavily dependent on technology. And it's bound to be a cult classic.

Her refers to the new operating computer system that our sad sack protagonist Theodore Twombly (played beautifully by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with. She is a cross between an operating system and Siri. The setting is Los Angeles, in the very near future, where IKEA and Banana Republic seem to have spawned and populated every pore of the city with their sensible furniture and clothing. In this future, everyone pretty much walks around with a cigarette-box sized mobile computer device with a wireless earplug in his/her ear, verbally dictating tasks on the screen at work, playing 3D video games alone at home and have one-night-stands on the internet. Do these sound too close for comfort?

The genius of the film is how Jonze makes us quickly suspend our disbelief and surrender to his world. It's like how much we cared for an abandoned desk lamp in his 30-second IKEA commercial. An inanimate object, in this case a talking computer, becomes a sympathetic, three dimensional being before you realize it (Of course, it helps to have her voiced by sexpot Scarlett Johansson). And yes, there is a lot of humor to be found in many of the film's ironical situations, but it doesn't feel like a gimmick. In Jonze's view, there is no cynicism in irony.

Theo is a lonely divorcé working for a company specializing in crafting handwritten personalized letters for their clients. His insights and ability to personalize the lives of strangers are well regarded among his co-workers. Still reeling from the memories of his ex, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he still cares for, he finds love and companionship in his new artificial intelligence enabled computer operating system, Samantha. She is smart, personable, funny, always available and most of all, knows everything about Theo, because his whole life is stored in his computer.

Theo finds out that he is not the only one having a relationship with an operating system. In Jonze's world, this practice seems widely accepted. He and Samantha even go out on a double date with his co-worker and his girlfriend. As their affections for each other grow, Samantha starts to question her bodiless existence. But that doesn't stop them from having a physical relationship which plays out more like hot phone sex. But soon after the ' honeymoon period', they are having problems like any other couple, with jealousy and attachment issues.

After Samantha's attempt at body surrogate with a devout volunteer (Portia Doubleday) who finds their relationship beautiful, fails miserably, things slowly take a turn. With forever expanding her knowledge and consciousness, Samantha starts corresponding with other A.I.s and much to Theo's chagrin, she realizes the restriction of the physical form.

Amy Adams is great as Theo's sympathetic, long time friend and neighbor Amy. Olivia Wilde and Chris Pratt round up the supporting cast. But it's all Phoenix. It catches you off guard when you realize that most of the time, it's him talking to himself, carrying out the phantom relationship. It's another amazing performance from him. His sensitive, vulnerable modern man persona is instantly recognizable and relatable.

What's remarkable about Spike Jonze films is that regardless of his boundless cleverness, there is always an emotional core and sincerity inherent in his work. With Her, Jonze also proves himself to be a very acute observer of the hypersensitive generation which was raised on the computer. Her will resonate and undoubtedly garner a cult status among the Millennials just as Fight Club did with the Gen X.

Leaks

The Fifth Estate (2013) - Condon
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There should be a rule in Hollywood that forbids making movies about current affairs that are less than 5 years old. With a grand, manipulative soundtrack, The Fifth Estate is everything I hate about Hollywood biopic. There is absolutely no exciting way to portray computer based info war in films, so Condon and Co. resort to very unhip, breezy 'text across actors' faces' style. Then there is the fake Argo suspense involving Libyan family (friends of concerned State Department employee played by Laura Linney) crossing the border after Bradley Manning's Wikileak of the Pentagon papers. There is a scene where Linney character dismisses Manning as "a 22 year old kid who has mental problems" even. I could give too shits about Julian Assange's private life. He could really be an egotistic rapist people make him out to be. So what if he was? It seems Condon and the screenwriter of the film don't care about anything. Is the film for transparency in our Gov't? Is it saying Assange was reckless man who put people in danger? Is it supposed to be a commentary about a new era of information age? The only good scene is near the end where The Guardian editor in chief played by David Thewlis and Wikileak's former cohort/friend Daniel Berg played by Daniel Brühl talking about the impact of Wikileaks. Benedict Cumberbach and the rest of the cast do a great job. But with its muddled message and by-the-numbers Hollywood filmmaking, only thing general moviegoing public would take away from the theater is this: Assange is a creepy asshole. Ugh.

Long Term Relationship

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) - Jarmusch
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Jarmusch's latest is a take on vampire genre. Just like anything he's ever done, the genre trapping is in the name only, it's all Jarmusch. An extremely good looking couple, aptly named Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in seclusion. They have very distinctive personalities- Adam, a depressed musician, lives in once the great American music mecca, Detroit. Eve leads a nomadic life in Tangier. Adam has no interest in technology and the changing world around him, while Eve flourishes. After sensing Adam's destress, Eve comes to Detroit and they hang out, touring the beautiful decay of now all but abandoned city. Things get complicated when Eve's spunky younger sister, Eva (Miwa Wasikowska) shows up. The little brat from LA is cramping their style. They have enough when Eva kills Adam's human minion and drinks his blood. It's time to fly back to Tangier where they have connections to fresh blood supplies.

As usual, with Jamusch's deadpan humor abound, Only Lovers Left Alive is a beautiful, funny, playful pun at vampire genre and also a poignant contemplation on long term relationship. I mean, how do you keep up the freshness when you have eternity together? Sometimes the film feels like self-indulging exercise in coolness. The namedropping of his cool friends gets kinda annoying. But that's Jarmusch for you. He is a cool dude and no one can deny that. Oh and amazing soundtrack as usual.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Bangkok Dangerous

Only God Forgives (2013) - Refn
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Only God Forgives is not very different than Refn's previous films. And I have no complaints. Immaculately designed and choreographed, the film looks and sounds fantastic. Its composition and colors all seem like house of cards at first, but its plasticity grows on you. Ryan Gosling's expressionless face and sparse but totally lol dialog hurtle the film toward unintentional black comedy territory. But once you shake off that unavoidable, nagging tendency to compare him to the stylings of Kubrick and Lynch, deep down you know this guy has got something. It's his use of silence that gives his vulgar, low life characters weight. And I love that. All in all, it works. It was a blast!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Coming of Age Film of Different Colors

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) - Kechiche
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The film makes me think about why it feels different than other comparable French coming of age films. I don't want to generalize anything, but could the reason be because it was directed by a man? I don't mean whether this or that feels more sincere and honest. This film deserves all the accolades it is garnering. Adèle Exarchopoulos gives an unbelievable performance as Adèle, 15-year old High school junior who falls hard for an older, blue haired art college student. Léa Seydoux, the elder of the couple, assumes the older, wiser, more emotionally stable Emma. The three hour film covers about ten years of their relationship. It breezily moves along. There is no time for life's little details in Kechiche's direction. He prefers long-drawn out natural dialog scenes that don't necessarily signify anything.

Adèle is not some sensitive damsel who cries from reading flowery poetry. She is a tough talking, voraciously gastronomical, voluptuous girl who wants to be a teacher. When she cries, she is a blubbering mess. The much talked about graphic sex scenes render their bond more palpable. I understand that majority of lesbians don't look like Exarchopoulos and Seydoux and there is an exploitation tinge when Kechiche enthusiastically talks about his actresses 'bodies' in interviews. But no filmmaker I can think of used sex this way though in portraying first love. It's something everyone goes through and it hits home hard. Therefore Adèle's joy and heartbreak has much more resonance. This would make a good double feature with Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love for further discussion on female directors vs male directors on 'adolescent girl/coming of age subject. They are equally great film, but with different sensibilities. I find Blue resonating more for me because of its honest depiction of physical attractions and intimacy of two people who love each other. After winning Palme d'Or at the Cannes this year, Blue is the Warmest Color plays as part of NYFF on Oct. 11th. Please visit FSLC website for tickets.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Unabashedly Noir

Bastards (2013) - Denis
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It's raining. Hard. The camera descend alongside the wall of a building glistening in water outside. The man in the building seems distressed. Then we cut to a naked, teenage girl (Lola Créton) walking down a wet street. She seems to be in trance. Then it's Marco (Vincent Lindon), a sea captain coming in to the harbor. This is how the film starts. With moody music by Tindersticks, I'm instantly hooked.

Denis goes all out noir on Bastards, a brooding, nocturnal thriller where innocents get punished and good men go die. With star studded cast - the mix of her regulars (Alex Descas, Vincent Lindon, Gregoire Collin, Michel Subor) and new to her clan (Chiarra Mastroianni, Lola Créton), Denis creates a film experience so seductive and mysterious which I haven't had since maybe Mulholland Dr. Its pulpy premise and fuzzy the ending didn't really bother me. I hear this was Denis' first foray into digital filmmaking, but with Agnes Godard at the DP helm, the images are just as mesmerizing as her previous films. Bastards played as part of NYFF. It will get theatrical releases in October 23rd here in New York and available elsewhere in theaters, VOD and digital on 25th. Don't miss it.

Here is Tangerine Dream inspired, mesmerizing soundtrack by Stuart Staples:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Scenes from A Marriage

Exhibition (2013) - Hogg
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British filmmaker Joanna Hogg, along with Mexico's Fernando Eimbcke is chosen by FSLC's The Emerging Artists Program, part of this year's New York Film Festival. They are playing all 3 feature films by her, the latest being Exhibition. Recently discovered her films and impressed by her talent in portraying human (dis)connections related to specific environment, I was eagerly awaiting her new film. Complex yet subtle, innovative yet basic, it's absolutely one of the best films I've seen at the festival.

A three-story modern house is just as much a character in Joanna Hogg's Exhibition as a married artist couple (played by non actors - Viv Albertine of the punk rock band Slits and artist Liam Gillick) who inhibit it. Equipped with floor to ceiling glass windows, a small lift, a spiral staircase, curtains and dividing screens, the building possesses strong sense of utilitarianism. The childless, middle aged couple have their own work spaces and talk to each other through intercoms whenever they need each other's company. He is a successful architect and she seems to be an artist who is still looking for her voice. At the moment, she is obsessed with recreating Ecstasy of St. Teresa with her own image. For hours on end, she poses almost acrobatically on a stool, looking at herself in the mirror for sketches.

Accompanied by amazing sound design, Hogg often creates and takes away these dividers, figuratively and literally between the couple, inside/outside. The large windows reflect what's inside as much as it shows what's out. We hear everything as she works in her space which is located underneath(!) his space- from heavy footsteps to sliding doors, shutters, sirens outside, street noise, people fighting, construction....

These people are still very much in love and tell each other so (through the intercom). They even take bath together. She fakes fainting so they can be excused from a friend's boring dinner party. They really want to be together and left alone most of the times. Yet they have problems communicating their feelings verbally. Each needs his/her own space too. Just like real life couple, they are complicated people.

They are in the process of selling the building which they have been living for over a decade. Their only condition to a real estate agent (Joanna Hogg regular Tom Hiddleston) in selling is that the building should remain intact and never get demolished. At the party celebrating their leaving, they ironically serve the guests the cake- the mini replica of the building.

Without much of expositional dialog, Hogg paints the complicated picture of relationship brilliantly using other means. The result is exceptional. If her previous films (Unrelated, Archipelago) showcased her as a promising writer/director of subtle emotions and family dynamics, Exhibition proves that she is also very much in tune with cinematic language. The film announces the arrival of major cinematic talent.

Along with her 2 previous films, Exhibition plays part of this years NYFF (The second viewing is on Oct. 8th). Please visit FSLC website for tickets.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Touch of Jia: Jia Zhangke Interview

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A Touch of Sin is an anomaly for Jia Zhangke. Or at least it feels like it. Known for his unique melding of documentary and fiction, observing China's transformation with critical eye and nostalgia, here he bases the film on four different recent news flashes. First half tells gritty, violent, senseless killing sprees, the second half turns a little giddy in its style with dramatic shifts. The fact that they are based on real events adds another layer to this sprawling, ambitious film. Interesting to note that Jia's version of real life events veers dangerously toward glossy fiction.

I had a privilege of talking to him on the phone while he was in town for this year's New York Film Festival.


Twitch: First of all, congratulations on winning the best screenplay at this year's Cannes film festival. That said, knowing your documentary work and your documentary style, I am wondering how much of the dialog is actually written and how much of it was improvised.

Jia Zhangke: On the script level, everything was very detailed including the dialog and lines for each character. Actually there are two different, distinct states that were shot within because the characters portray two different states.

Right.

The first one is this very natural, sort of quotidian, relaxed state. When I approached writing this aspect of the script, the dialog was more loosely written and I left some room for improvisation. But the other, the opposite end, there are very dramatic scenes in the film. For those scenes I needed the actors to stick to the script so they could prepare for the scenes. So I required them to stick very closely to the dialog that was written on the script.

Your films always have been reflections of rapidly changing Chinese society, but never really this explicit about death and violence. I wonder what made you to concentrate on that aspect in this film.

Because the violence is an issue in social reality in China that has been accumulating in the past 2-3 years in particular. I digest them via the social media- from microblogs and weibo(Chinese version of Twitter). I noticed that these events are very widely discussed and I wanted to portray this in my film.

The scope of your film has been getting bigger over the years. You were making films in Shanxi, your hometown, then you moved on to other cities- Chengdu, Beijing, Chunquing, then this film takes place in 4 different corners of china with 4 different stories. Is this your biggest production yet?

Yes. It was definitely the biggest and the most challenging one. The geography required us to travel four different locations. We were arranging things in a countryside separated by thousands of kilometers. We kind of joked that we indeed made four different films in one. For instance, casting we had to do four times, scouting locations, four times, and so on and so forth.

It was also an expression of the theme of migration in wuxia films. The theme that characters are always roaming around the country...peripatetic you could say. You can also notice it in traditional Chinese paintings that the landscape also conveys sense of movement. So there was an emphasis on landscape in this film.

Considering the scope of the film did it take longer to make than usual?

The entire production we spent about half a year and the principal photography was about three months.

The fantasy aspect of the film doesn't come out until Hubei story with Zhao Tao where things take interesting turns in terms of mood and rhythm. Was there a specific method on which order the film was going to play out?

The integral structure of the film rested upon two notable considerations: One is temporal - I structured the film temporally around the Chinese New Year. The first segment occurs during the lead up to the New Year where people are migrating. Second part happens during the New Year. The third part occurs after, where everyone travels back to work and the last part is after that. It's the time of the year when this mass migration happens in Chinese society.

Also the other consideration was that of geography - going from north to south. Four stories together formed a throughway in Chinese geography.

Along with the progression of geography, there is also the progression of drama. For instance, the emotional quality in each event filled with more intensity with each character. So when it reaches Zhao Tao's segment, the drama has expanded and accumulated in such a way that wuxia form begins to inhabit. At the same time it's set in a mountainous region where you tend to associate with wuxia imagery. So it was shot with thorough aesthetic consideration.

The English title A Touch of Sin is obviously a play on old wuxia film A Touch of Zen by King Hu. And you have already answered many of the connections this film has with wuxia. Are there any other connections that I'm missing?

There is one pertinent element, which is that I see King Hu films as political allegories. They portray individuals under duress in their surroundings and they need to fight back. So I find that these stories very much parallel the four stories I wanted to tell. Although times have changed, the connections between people have not necessarily changed so much.

I found it interesting that of all your films, this one, based on true events have the most stranger than fiction quality to it.

Yes. Although all the stories have their roots in the events that happened in the real world, when you consider the characters facing such extreme situations, perhaps the only way to depict this is through the imaginary.

Since your scope of the films is getting bigger, do you ever think about making films outside China?

Currently I am beholden to a project that have already taken six to seven years in preparation. It's set in China between 1800-1900, about the beginnings of modernization of China. I have another project that is set in 1950-60s about a Chinese journeyman traveling through the world- first China to Europe then Europe to South America.


A Touch of Sin has been garnering critical acclaim since it won the Best Screenplay Award at this year's Cannes Film Fest. After TIFF and NYFF screenings, Kino Lober is rolling out the film in theaters on October 4 in New York. Jia will be on hand for the opening night screening Q & A. For tickets, please visit IFC Center website.