Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Deprived of Dignity

Paradise Now (2005) - Abu-Assad
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Rarely one sees a good political thriller that humanizes its characters. Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assan does an amazing job at portraying two childhood friends/would be suicide bombers from Nablus, the Occupied Territory. The film is neither a by-the-numbers, robotic Paul Greengrass actioner with the apologist bent nor a satirical black comedy.

Two underemployed friends- sad eyed Said (Kais Nashef) and happy-go-lucky Khalid (Ali Suliman) are chosen to be martyrs. They will blow themselves up in Tel Aviv tomorrow. Just like that. They are not to talk to anyone about it. They seem to be not only resigned to the fact but giddy about the prospects, especially Khalid. After some technical snafu, they finally tape their video statement wherein Khalid gives his mom the tips where to buy water filters. They get half-hearted congratulatory remarks by the leaders, haircut, dinner, suits, the works. With bombs strapped to their chest, their plan gets thwarted by sudden appearance of Israeli Military vehicles at the border fence. Khalid safely gets back in time but Said is left near the border and gets lost. He unwittingly becomes a fugitive.

The film buys some time for two men to think about their options. The appearance of Suha (luminous Lubna Azabal of Incendies, Here), a woman from a well to do family, returning from Europe shakes things up a little bit. Paradise Now is a great balancing act, avoiding pitfalls of heavy handed political statement without ever losing sight on showcasing the mindset of the people whose dignity has been taken away by the occupation.

"Please Think of the Children!"

The Hunt/Jagten (2012) - Vinterberg
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Yes, Mads Mikkelsen is great as Lucas, a kindergarten teacher who's falsely accused of sexual molestation in a small, tight knit community. He deserved the best actor award at the Cannes and everything. But it's Vinterberg's regular Thomas Bo Larsen who plays Theo, Lucas's best friend and the father of a little girl whose little lie that starts up a shitstorm, really shines here. Vinterberg is smart not to make it a courtroom drama or about the loss of innocence. It still retains the sharp critique on the 'please think of the children' mentality and deals with thorny subject expertly without sacrificing the narrative. The Hunt is about simmering tension underneath the society that looks picture perfect. That even someone as well regarded and decent like Lucas isn't safe once the seed of doubt is planted. The Hunt is a less grandiose, down to earth Haneke film. It's a chilling reminder of once well to do northern Europe and its turmoil in a much more complicated world. The ending is really chilling.

Falstaff

Chimes at Midnight (1965) - Welles
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Another great Shakespeare adaptation by Orson Welles. This time, it's Henry IV. It's the story of a young prince becoming a king, shedding off his scoundrel days and his former friends, on the way to greatness. Welles is great as massive, vulgar, cowardly and utterly sympathetic Falstaff. It's perhaps one of the most hammy (haha) roles an actor can play in the Bard's plays, which imbues both comedy and tragedy. And he is mesmerizing. With visibly limited budget, his direction is as distinct as ever, with use of vast space, light and shadows. The field battle scene where the King Henry's force meets Harry Percy's, is brutal and energetic - Welles speeds up the action in some parts, accompanied by rapid cutting. But compared with his other, better known cinematic work, it's a lesser Welles. Supporting cast includes John Gilgud, Keith Baxter, Jean Moreau and Fernando Ray.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pop Psychology

Still of the Night (1982) - Benton
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80s pop psychology abound, Still of the Night is simple but effective, moody noir. Meryl Streep plays a mousy, mysterious woman working at an auction house who may or may not be a murderess. Roy Scheider is Sam, a psychiatrist whose patient gets murdered. Streep is unbelievably attractive in this! The high point is the night in Central Park chase sequence and a creepy dream sequence beautifully shot by master cinematographer Nestor Almendros. It's one of those films that lingers you for days, if not years.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

This Film is Gazing Back at You

Visitors (2013) - Reggio
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Koyaanisqatsi (1982), a genre-defining, landmark film that features stunning time-lapse photography and the hypnotic Philip Glass's score, expanded boundaries of film. It garnered cult following and spawned countless imitators in commercial, documentary and narrative film world (most recently, Samsara). Its director, Godfrey Reggio, followed it with Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002) to complete the long intended trilogy.

Reggio insists his films are not experimental, but rather, experiential. He asserts this notion again with Visitors, his new film in more than ten years. It's a visual tone poem presented in stunning monochrome 4K. Like his previous -qatsi trilogy, 'life unbalanced' theme is still present. But consisted of only 74 shots, the film is much more graceful, subtle, abstract experience. As for the meaning of the film, it is anybody's guess. Watching Visitors is not a passively immersive experience like Cuaron's Gravity. Its inhabitants (including a lowland female gorilla) in mostly closeup look directly at you. The film is watching you watching the film. It requires audience to be active participants to interpret the meaning of the film themselves.

Philip Glass's score makes up the other half of the film and it's just as awe inspiring. Unhurriedly, one piece of music ends and the other starts accompanying the crisp imagery, perfectly in tune with what's being seen. It's beautiful, powerful and deeply moving. After experiencing Visitors, I purchased its soundtrack the same night, so I could listen to it away from its visual partner. I realized how rare it is for a film soundtrack to stand on its own. It is by far, the finest orchestral writing I've heard from always masterful Glass.

Except for the view from the moon SFX shots, the scope of the film seems much narrower than his previous films- New Jersey for urban decay and Louisiana Everglades for nature in time-lapse photography and aforementioned human & animal portraiture. But it's a majestic film going experience. It wouldn't be a stretch to call Visitors a little mute brother of Malick's Tree of Life.

Visitors received its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival and will open theatrically on Friday, January 24 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, New York, with a national rollout to follow. Please visit the film's official website for more information.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Mirage

Another Sky (1954) - Lambert
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A comely English Governess Rose (Victoria Grayson) arrives in bustling Marrakech, Morocco. She is hired by aging socialite Selena to keep her company and do house chores. She is escorted by Ahmed, a stoic Arab who shows her around the town. Even though she doesn't speak much French or Arabic, Rose gets by with the help of Ahmed, who seems to understand everything. One day at the party, thrown by a flamboyant American Bancroft at a former Sultan's palace, Rose lays her eyes on a young Arab musician, Tayeb. After several rendezvous arranged by Ahmed, Rose is head over heels for Tayeb. His sudden disappearance makes Rose to abandon everything and go on a whirlwind journey into the foreign desert landscape.

Writer Gavin Lambert, a friend of writer Paul Bowles (Shetering Sky, Up Above the World) perfectly captures the melancholy and loneliness of the desert in his only film. Elegantly photographed and with great local music, Another Sky is a beautiful film about magnetic force of the desert landscapes, being lost while searching for something unattainable, a mirage.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Interview: Hirokazu Kore-eda on Like Father, Like Son and Parenting

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Regarded by many as the best contemporary Japanese filmmaker and spiritual heir to the master filmmaker and humanist, Ozu Yasujiro, Kore-eda Hirokazu has been making quiet, deeply affecting films about childhood, family and death. I told myself not to cry while watching his new film Like Father, Like Son at the New York Festival last fall, but couldn't help tearing up at the end.

Soft spoken and a with gentle demeanor, Kore-eda was exactly how I imagined him to be when I sat down for an interview, one early October morning.

Many of your films deal with family and childhood and this film is no exception. I'd like to know about the origins of this particular film which involves a 'switched at birth' story.


For the last couple of films I tried to incorporate my life in it as much as possible. I tried to incorporate motifs and things from my life, the subjects that are close to me. In terms of this movie I think the starting point was what happened with my daughter. I actually didn't have very much time to spend with her. While working on my last film, I Wish, I was away for about a month and when I came home after being away for that duration, she recognized me as a father but I could see that there is this 'resetting' in her mind as to who I was. She was three at the time. Then when I was leaving the next day, in the hallway to say good bye, she said, "Please, come again." [laughs]

It was shocking to me. Then it came to me that even though we are connected by blood, a father has a very different existence and relationship, compared to that of a mother to a child. So I actually panicked. I thought, "this is not good." And based on that experience it made me to think about the ties between the parents and the children. Especially time. The time we spend together, compared to just blood ties - all these went into making this film.

So then do you feel closer to Ryota (played by Japanese TV and pop star, Fukuyama Masaharu) more so than Ryudai (Franky Lily)?

That's right. Ryota. And making him the main character, I thought about 'who would be the least appealing character in terms of who you want to raise your child with. And that was the type I'd like the least.

Fukuyama Masaharu, who plays Ryota is a big star in Japan. Did you have him in mind for the role?


I wasn't conscious about him playing the role when I was working on the screenplay. It was Fukuyama who approached me and wanted to work together. This offer from him was the starting point. I thought I'd portray him in a different way than the way he is usually portrayed before. So that was how it happened.

I couldn't help wondering about your method working with child actors. In films like Nobody Knows, I Wish and now Like Father, Like Son, you capture the moments of pure delight in their faces that is too real to be just them acting and being in characters.

It actually starts with an audition process, forming communication with them to see whether they understand what I'm saying and I understand what they are saying- that's where it all starts. Once that communication is formed with the premise (of the film) then we move audition into rehearsals. It's not that I'll pass out the scripts to them or give them lines to say. It's more of doing a particular scene with me or a person who's going to play the father and just to see how to say the words, have them hear through their ears and have them come out of their own. It's a natural process. Out of hundred children, there are maybe five or six who I'll be able to interact in this way, with those I'll bring them to the set. In terms of the lines, I don't feed them lines, I try to incorporate their words and vocabularies into the lines I create. So i consider myself sort of borrowing their words and returning them. They are the inspiration of those lines. I might say something like, 'try to say something like you did last time or say what you told me the other day'. That's how I've been working with children the last ten years or so.

Has the Great Eastern Earthquake that hit Japan and The Fukushima disaster which has been going on since then changed anything for you as a filmmaker?

Yes, it is something that I am conscious of. It's not really about something that has affected how I express myself. That's something I don't really know for sure. There's probably a portion which unconsciously incorporated into my work, but it's not really simple. Of course there are a lot of works regarding the subject and it's important. But I really think that we are not going to be able to digest everything that's happened until, maybe 5 or 10 years down the road, in terms of its impact on Japanese society.

[He pauses for a long time, then continues]

But I think this time, in terms of making this film, there were couple of motivations for it. One was definitely had to be the earthquake. I think it really enforced the idea of bonds in Japan. The idea actually became very trendy. In a way, it wasn't so good in Japan before (in that regard). But the idea of bonds and people supporting each other and all of Japan becoming one has become very common in Japan. I've been thinking about that, about how we can reduce that feeling to a small community that is family. So I think in terms of how I came up with the idea for the movie about a man and his bond with his family, I suppose the earthquake played the role.

There is always a sense of optimism I feel in your movies. Is it your inherent nature as a filmmaker to portray childhood or the next generation in optimistic light? Is it why you always go back to the subject of family?

In Japan, the word optimism doesn't have a positive connotation. It has a tinge of 'escape from reality'. I wouldn't use the word to describe my work. I don't like making films about downcast or pessimistic side of life. That's just not what I do. The thing about making movies about family is that it is a troublesome subject but also essential. Something that you need.

I know that you support the younger generation of filmmakers by producing their films. Nishikawa Miwa (Dear Doctor, Dreams for Sale) is one of them. I'm just wondering how you go about supporting certain projects with younger directors. And can you tell us some young directors you can think of that we need to know about?

Some of them I supported have already been in my crew so there is a connection already there. And when I actually read a script by someone and it seems interesting, I'd support them. That's usually the process. It may not be so in the film world, but in the Japanese TV community where I came from, it is pretty common practice to help younger pupils. And also I don't have any director friends, so it's a good way for me to make friends who are directors. [laughs] Young directors, young directors….

[Thinking really hard… asking others]

Yamashita Nobuhiro (Linda, Linda, Linda) and Nishikawa Miwa, come to think of it they are not that young. they are all in their forties. [we all laugh] Right now, they are the two I can think of…

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Avatars

The Congress (2013) - FolmanImage
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Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir) returns with a trippy new live action/animation feature. The selling point of this highly ambitious parody on stardom and movie industry, loosely based on Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress, is first and foremost its dazzling animation. The look of The Congress is decidedly retro - a combination of Astro Boy, Fantastic Planet, Betty Boop on acid.

The story concerns Robin Wright, a middle aged former actress who lives in a airplane hangar with her two kids, Sarah and Aaron. Hollywood had tired of her because she's been a 'difficult' actress all her career. Her long time agent Al (Harvey Keitel) visits her with one last offer which seems to be the norm for the aging actors in the business ('Keanu has done it!') - total body scanning. Once she is scanned completely into the computer system, she will never be able to work again. But her computer generated younger self, forever at age 33-34, will star in whatever studio demands. She will be handsomely rewarded. Aaron having some sort of sensory debilitating disease and half-threat from the ruthless Miramount studio head Jeff (Danny Huston), Robin reluctantly agrees to the deal.

Twenty years later, she visits Miramount again to attend the animated world of Congress, where they announce sensory altering drugs where people can drink the portion of the celebrities of their choosing and become like their idols until the drug wears off. By now Robin's computer generated self is a mega action babe and no one recognizes her old self except for Dylan (voiced by John Hamm), an animator/scan artist who has been in love with her since her 'retirement'. She opposes the drug that suppresses individualism and promotes hiding behind mask in public and pays the consequences. Then there is an animated revolution...

Folman's take on our technology imbued society where people wear masks/live through avatars is an overly ambitious project, so much so its narrative structure has visible cracks everywhere. Yet by the end, you are so dazzled by its colors and style, you find yourself standing dazed, covered in its electric rainbow mist, asking what just happened.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

First Look 2014 at The Museum of Moving Image

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MoMI (Museum of Moving Image) presents First Look, a bona fide film series showcasing new works by established filmmakers and first timers alike from all corners of the globe, carefully selected by the esteemed curatorial staff (first by Critic Denis Lim now David Schwartz and Aliza Ma). Quietly nestled in post-New Year hangover days with crazy award season just around the corner.First Look is fast becoming one of the most sought after film series in New York City. The series runs from January 9 - 19.

This is where I first saw Chantal Akerman's gorgeous new film Almayer's Folly and Philippe Grandrieux's loving documentary, It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi, on the Japanese New Wave great Masao Adachi in its inaugural edition two years ago. Last year, the series graced me with Bruno Dumont's seldom seen 2011 masterpiece, Hors Satan (one of my very favorites of last year) and a beautiful three-hour documentary on the remote island of Corvo and its inhabitants off of Azores, It's The Earth, Not The Moon.

This year, they are presenting 13 features and 6 shorts on two consecutive weekends, including Godfrey Reggio's new film The Visitors with Philip Glass's score, Glass will be presenting the screening along with Steven Soderberg. The opening night's film, Little Feet is a new work by American Indie staple, Alexander Rockwell (In the Soup, Somebody to Love). I am particularly interested in seeing the Chilean offerings, The Quispe Girls and The Summer of Flying Fish, as well as Ape (pictured above) by Joel Potrycus. For any cinephiles, First Look offers a great start to a new year.

Please go to the MoMI website for more info, schedule and tickets.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Vision Board 2014

Our friend Crystal had her beginning of the year party/get-together/let's-all-draw-something thang at her apartment. We had to trek all the way up to Washington Heights in a slush mess of a weather and there were more than 20 of us drawing on our 'vision board': a piece of wooden board where we draw our personal vision of the new year on our hands and knees. There was homemade coconut, plantains & vegetable stew with beans and rice- Crystal's family's from Puerto Rico = a damn good stew. And I drew this for myself. Since I don't draw regularly, I was quite intimidated by all the artists around me. But I think it came out alright:

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Happy New Year Everyone!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Whaling as Art

Drawing Restraint 9 (2005) - Barney
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Japanese culture seems like a perfect match for artist Matthew Barney. In Drawing Restraint 9, his feature length film project, he takes on the ritual of whaling with the help of his girlfriend Bjork. Unlike his Cremaster Cycle films, Drawing actually has something resembling a plot. After elaborate giant whaling ship launching ceremony, two foreigners in fur coats (Barney and Bjork) gets invited (hauled in a basket) on board. Separately they get groomed and put on Matthew-Barney-hybrid kimonos (made out of animal hides) and attend an elaborate tea ceremony with Matthew-Barney-hybrid tea set (made out of various sea shells and sea creatures). In the mean time, the crew are busy hauling in some kind of manufactured sea log and what looks like a gigantic spine made out of wax in place of an actual whale. The night comes and the violent storm hits. The ship is taking in water, slowly submerging B and B. They start cutting each other's legs off with ritual daggers under water, then transform themselves into whales.

Continuing the theme and motifs from his Cremaster Cycle and marrying them with whaling - sperm, sperm whale, wax, blubber, amber gris, etc., Barney creates some stunning images accompanied by Bjork's score. All the rituals are loooong drawn out, but luckily, there are no repetitions of images or movements. I can't think of an art project that is this big in scale and ambitious yet quite coherent. Drawing Restrain 9 is quite an experience.

Sink or Swim

Drowning by Numbers (1988) - Greenaway
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Stunning: visual symmetry, use of background/foreground, lighting, insanely elaborate mise-en-scene.... Drowning by Numbers is just out of this world. The work of a true obsessive compulsive. The plot involves women, all named Cici, drowning their husbands.