Saturday, November 30, 2013

Collective Amnesia

12 Years of a Slave (2013) - McQueen
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Masterful filmmaking. It does limit the shameful American slavery experience to 12 years and have unwanted famous faces popping up to say hello. But McQueen's focus is all on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his unjust slavery. Even Michael Fassbender's powerhouse plantation owner Epps doesn't eclipse Solomon and other slaves' harrowing experiences. The punchline is that without a big payback or satisfying epilogue, we are left to grapple with the fate of the fellow slaves Solomon leaves behind at the end.

It gave me a pleasure seeing this in a packed theater the day after Thanksgiving in one of the beautiful screening rooms of the Brooklyn's cultural mecca, BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) with very mixed audiences. I couldn't help but comparing this film to the best film I've seen this year, The Act of Killing- for both dealing with a collective amnesia of sort, especially when witnessing older white audiences wincing in their seats during many of the film's difficult moments.

My minor issue with the film is what Solomon went through in the film didn't feel like 12 years. If McQueen's intention was that of a surprise that, indeed it's been 12 years and his kids are all grown up, that he's been unjustly kept as a slave, it didn't work for me. It would have a better impact if there was some kind of indication of passage of time. I totally understand how that come across as anything but cheesy, but McQueen would have found the way to show it, just like the rest of the film not being anything but cliché. Definitely among one of the best this year.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Melancholic Landscapes

Une femme en Afrique (1985) - Depardon
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Photographer/director Raymond Depardon equates his unfulfilled desire with the vast, empty desert. The whole film is told by an unseen narrator observing a young, androgynous French woman/traveling companion (Françoise Prenant) as she mumbles back sweet nothing to the camera in various stages of undress. The main draw of the film is not the Woody Allenesque neurosis of the narrator. It's the scenery from Djibouti to Alexandria, seen from the balcony, train, boat and plane, mostly over the young woman's shoulders. Depardon captures the melancholy of the desert landscape like no other.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Heist of the Highest Order

In the Shadows (2010) - Arslan
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Arslan's foray into genre exercise is perhaps one of the tightest heist film that would make Michael Mann blush. There is nothing remarkable about the plot: A criminal gets out of the jail. He regroups and plans another job with his former associates. His old boss and a corrupt cop are on his trail, and that sets up for various confrontations.

It's not 'what' that's important in In the Shadows, it's 'how'. The mechanics of procedural takes a precedent- getting unregistered guns, counting money, getting rid of the bodies and simple wait-in-the-corners-until-bad-guys-approach-then-shoot set ups, not one moment of the film is wasted. Arslan's treatment of locations is also impeccably economical and has an almost documentary feel to it. It's the empty parking lot, non-descriptive hotel rooms and corridors and gas stations off the freeway, not some recognizable landmarks. But the still shots of those places provide the sense of real and concreteness against the characters who are constantly in motion. People are speaking German but our aptly named protagonist Trojan (Mišel Matičević), with his broad lion face, doesn't come across as a German. In this economical climate, even the heist money is modest- 600,000 euros.

Arslan, a German-Turkish filmmaker who has made a point early in his career not to repeat what he's done previously, makes a sly turn with In the Shadows. At the onset, In The Shadows might not be the best film to represent him as one of filmmakers of the tenuous Berlin School. Although not politically as blunt as fellow filmmaker Petzold in his films, Arslan acknowledges in his (whatever the genre might be) the influx of immigrants which Germany had never experienced before in its history.

In the Shadows plays part of MoMA Film Series The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule Nov.20 through Dec.6. Please visit MoMA website for details.

I Confess

I am Guilty (2005) - Hochhäusler
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Fragmented, distant and elliptical, Hochhäusler's I am Guilty aka Falscher Bekenner (False Confessor) is a deeply disturbing film that stays with you for a long time after viewing. It tells a story of Armin (Constantin Von Jascheroff), an aimless teen from a middle-class household, who might be a terrorist in the making. He seems to be into mechanics and has a fascination for mechanical objects but not much else. Being a third son in a German household, therefore exempt from the mandatory military service isn't really helping him to get a headstart in life by any means. Because his concerned parents' constant nagging, Armin goes to job interviews only to get rejected, one after another. He lacks enthusiasm, focus, social skills, qualification...everything. The interviewers absurd questions and methods are as troubling as Armin's withdrawal. There is no discernible human quality to the process.

The film keeps things as lucid as possible. Did Armin actually committed the arson in his neighborhood? Is he engaging in some dark sexual activities in the public bathroom at night? The thing is, because of Hochhäusler's precise, impeccable direction, you can't dismiss the boy's lethargic behavior as shallow characterization. His troubled inner life, however hidden, beckons more of your attention.

Hochhäusler, a former critic turned filmmaker, says that this loss of identity theme in his as well as many other films of the Berlin School is not particularly limited to reflect the post-Wall German society. He sites that many of these German compatriots see themselves as cosmopolitan and get their influences from filmmakers from other parts of the world. With that in mind I feel there is an unspoken fraternity with Armin and all the young protagonists on the periphery of society with identity problems in so-called 'skipped generation' of wayward youth films around the world (films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Gus Van Sant and current Greek cinema immediately come to mind).

I am Guilty plays part of MoMA Film Series The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule Nov.20 through Dec.6. Please visit MoMA website for details.

Suspended State

Bungalow (2002) - Köhler
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A teenage soldier Paul (Lennie Burmeister) deserts his squad at a roadside gas station and comes back home. His parents are on holiday in Italy, so the house is empty. Things get complicated when his older brother Max (Devid Striesow, Yella, Three, The Heart is a Dark Forest) shows up with his pretty Danish actress girlfriend, Lene (Trine Dyrholm). They are on the way to Munich because Lene is about to star in a low grade German Sci-fi flick. They leave in two days. It's quite obvious that the brothers don't get along. Paul lies about his AWOL status and develops an unhealthy obsession with Lene. Stooped, sulking and completely inept in human interactions, Paul is not just another lost, wayward youth. There is something more dangerous hidden in his unmotivated actions. There is something missing in him.

The post-Wall Germany's collective identity crisis and its angst is demonstrated by an unexplained, ominous explosion in the middle of the film, as our characters watch the plume of smoke rising in the distance from the roof of the house in their quiet suburban town. No one knows what exactly happened. Everyone has their own theories and no one believes the news media. Everyone remains suspicious and on guard. Bungalow does an amazing job at showing the German society treading dangerous, unforeseen territory in the new millennium.

Bungalow plays part of MoMA Film Series The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule Nov.20 through Dec.6. Please visit MoMA website for details.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

John Sayles Interview

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Go for Sisters, a new film by director/writer John Sayles, the godfather of American independent cinema (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Brother from Another Planet, Lone Star, Limbo), is just as I expect in a John Sayles film; beautifully written, beautifully acted, mature and always relevant -- the qualities so rare in mainstream American cinema these days. Recently I had a chance to talk to him briefly on the phone about his new film, Edward James Olmos and the country's immigration reform debate.

Can you tell me the origin of GO FOR SISTERS?

Chinese smugglers of illegal immigrants are called Snakeheads. There was a case in New York where the head of this organization got indicted for human trafficking. She was operating in a hole in the wall place down on Canal Street. They would come first to Belize, Guatemala by ships, then to Mexico through our southern borders or through Canadian border up north. They come from China for economical reasons. So for many people, she was a good business woman providing valuable services for those who want to come over.

Then I had this situation in my head for a long time -- about two very close friends whose lives have taken different paths and are reunited in the most awkward of circumstances. I've heard that there is a stricter rules now in monitoring parolees in the parole system. It's in the film where Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) has to pee in the cup in front of her parole officer, Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) -- the two High School friends who haven't seen each other for a long time. So those two things just came together.

It's such a beautifully acted film. Did you have certain actors in mind for these roles?

I usually don't do that when I make a film. There are a lot of actors I want to work with but that doesn't mean I can get them -- sometimes their schedule doesn't work out, they might not want to work on a reduced scale, they are having babies.... But when I was writing Go for Sisters, I had these three actors (Hamilton, Ross and Edward James Olmos) in mind.

I've worked with LisaGay before in Honeydrippers. I've auditioned Yolonda for LisaGay's role. I remember jotting down next to her name, 'not quite right for the role but a terrific actor, will need to work with her in the future'.

It's so opposite of Hollywood. There are no mainstream films about two African American women in their 40s.

There are so many talented actors who are not getting work, let alone good roles. Lucky for me, they both were available for this project.

Eddie James Olmos is an actor I've been admiring for a long time. We've met at film festivals and such before but I never got a chance to work with him before.

Edward James Olmos is also credited as one of the producers, how did he come on board as a producer?

He's a legendary actor. He's done a lot of films. And half of the films he's been in had to be independent. He was in most of Robert Young films.

Yeah I remember watching Robert M. Young's great film, CAUGHT, which Olmos produced also.

Not only that, he is a director as well. So he knows what making small independent movies, shooting on a shoestring budget is like. There are a lot of components to producing and he was a great help.

So what's Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos's character)'s backstory? Why is he helping these two women out?

As it was portrayed in the film, first it was money. Because Freddy was disgraced when he was in the police force, the pension is gone. He needs to pay for paying the mortgage. Two thousand dollars is not much money but he is in a desperate situation. So he takes the job to help Bernice and Fontayne to locate Bernice's son. The second reason is, as he learns along their trip, he wants some sort of redemption. Not that what happened to his career was his fault, he still wants to redeem himself for doing something right.

It's an amazing performance. I hope he gets some kind of recognition for this.

It can happen. Hopefully many people will see the film and I am actively talking to many of my actor friends to vote for him come awards season.

I can't help thinking about what would be left out while watching your films compared to Hollywood films. There are two beautiful scenes I want to talk to you about: And these are the scenes that if GO FOR SISTERS was a Hollywood film, they would surely be cut out.

Right. For Hollywood projects, there can be no breathing room. It has to be a roller coaster ride and you have to move on. I do a lot of script doctoring for Hollywood films so I know how that works. The thing about doing your film your way is that there is no financial pressure coming from studios.

I love the scene with Bernice and Fontayne at the AA meeting, where Bernice understands what Fontayne has been going through for the first time. The other scene I love is Freddy buying the young Mexican mother and her little girl breakfast.

That's the trade off, isn't it? On one hand I am shooting a movie in 14 days with under a million-dollar budget, barely making it. On the other hand, I have a freedom to really get into creating characters and give them more nuances.

I know it's always a struggle for you to find funding for your film. The last time I interviewed you for AMIGO which was a historical period piece, you told me that one of the main reasons you shot that film in the Philippines is because you could do it cheap down there. I am wondering what you could've done differently if you had more money for GO FOR SISTERS.

(Without hesitation) I would have liked to pay actors and crew better. I mean the reason I could've (barely) made Go for Sisters was because its budget was low enough to qualify for the SAG Modified Low-Budget Scale agreement, which I understand, is about the same as the California State minimum wage. Because of this I could worked with many of the actors (besides those three principals) I always wanted to work with but didn't get a chance to -- Hector Elizondo, Harold Perrineau and Isaiah Washington. So I would've definitely paid them more - actors, crew, everyone involved.

Can you tell me your assessment on the climate of Washington in terms of immigration reform?

The problem with immigration laws in this country is that they aren't practical, they're symbolic, and the government is unwilling to enforce our minimum wage laws. If immigrant workers had to be paid minimum wages, fewer employers would hire them, and we'd have a better idea of what their true employment situation is. Then we could arrange a work-permit and visa system -- this has been done before. Instead we have a free-for-all that is both racist and hypocritical.


Go for Sisters played at SXSW this year and has a theatrical release on Nov. 8 in NY, Nov. 15 in LA and regional roll out in Nov/Dec.

Ethnography of Mirage

The Days of the Eclipse (1988) - Sokurov
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Strange and heady, Sokurov's semi-Sci-fi is a surrealistic meditation of the USSR on the eve of its dissolution. It starts with the POV shot of a celestial being flying over the barren, arid Turkmenistan landscape and crashing down to earth, accompanied by laughter of a child and Ennio Morricone inspired carnival music. Then we are introduced to its inhabitants - old, toothless people with decidedly Asiatic features. Sokurov points out many times throughout the film that this dusty small village in the desert could simply be a mirage.

Dmitri, a fresh faced young doctor/writer from Moscow is our prince Myshkin: he is more of an ethnographer, observing the foreign landscape and its inhabitants. The unrelenting heat makes many of the residents sleepless and Dmitri shirtless most of the time. His adobe is strewn with papers, exotic animals and strange artifacts and uninvited visitors. His life is total chaos: he talks to a recently deceased friend at the morgue, gets into a fist/kick fight in the street while trying to intervene the fight between two men and gets taken hostage by an armed military man.

The Days of the Eclipse can be read as a palimpsest of a Soviet federation's history: not quite understanding different ethnic groups with completely different culture and religion under one large umbrella. And its past still haunts even in the remote valley in the desert. The most beautiful scenes are the ones with celestial cherubic blonde kid appearing at his doorstep. He tells how handsome Dmitri is, but sees time passing in his face. Perestroika is good looking and all, but is it going to last?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sisterhood

Go for Sisters (2013) - Sayles
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A solid movie from John Sayles. It's not mindblowing or anything but as usual in John Sayles film, acting and script are superb. It concerns two childhood friends, Bernice (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) reuniting as a parole officer and a parolee. Their lives went different ways after High School. Bernice became a no-nonsense, "I can sense your bullshit even before you finish your sentence" law enforcement agent and Fontayne has been struggling with drugs and bad relationships. Bernice gives Fontayne a break with the parole violation for old times sake, but its her asking her old friend's help whose seedy underworld connection might help locate her son who maybe in trouble. With the help of an old disgraced cop, Freddy 'the Terminator' (Edward James Olmos) the odd trio embark on a road trip down south of the border. Fine tuned performances never delves into caricature territory. Class differences explored and so is the problems of human trafficking across the border. Olmos is so fucking good in this as an aging cop who is amazing at his job while going blind. And there are some very fine moments in the film that would've definitely ended up on the chopping block if it was a studio film. Go for John Sayles!