Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Strong Condemnation of Religious Extremism

Timbuktu (2014) - Sissako
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Timbuktu, that faraway place, the end of the world, is an actual city in Northern Mali in Africa, being once the bustling trade town in sub-Saharan Africa and famous for its fabulous architecture, libraries and scholars. Abderramane Sissako (Bamako) tells a tragic tale based on true events, taking place in this famed city.

The film starts with traditional wooden African statues being used as targets in a target practice by the Islamic militants who just rolled into town. When Alain Resnais and Chris Marker made Even Statues Die, I don't think this was the image they had in mind: they were talking about reappropriation of those artifacts being mass produced for Western consumption, losing its intended cultural significance, not being literally blown to pieces. Now times have changed. These so called jihadists, walks around with AK-47s across their chest, warning the townsfolk that they are under strict sharia law from now on - no smoking, no music, women have to cover their hands, faces and feet, no public gatherings, the list goes on. Despite city imam's pleading, they start arresting people and carrying out the punishment - public lashings or executions for playing music, unmarried men and women hanging out together, playing football, women washing their hair in public.... They even start marrying their young soldiers (who don't even speak the language) to local girls without their parents' consent.

In the midst of all this, is a story of Kidane, a nomadic herder with his beautiful wife and daughter, living in the desert. All their friends and neighbor are gone, fearing these rude Arabs from the north. But he and his family have no intention of moving on. They have seen many occupiers come and go, so this also will pass. Besides they don't have anywhere else to go. A tragedy strikes when one of his cows gets killed by a local fisherman and during heated dispute, Kidane accidentally kills the fisherman. He is promptly arrested and condemned to death by sharia law.

Timbuktu's tragedy is accentuated by achingly beautiful surroundings shot in widescreen format by cinematographer Sulfiane El Fani (Blue is the Warmest Color). There is a lyrical sequence of young people playing soccer without the ball in the sun drenched desert. They sprint, pass the invisible ball, score or block and cheer. A sort of an impromptu in-your-face defiance and condemnation, highlighting the ridiculousness of the law. The sequence is both comical and sad.

Sissako paints a complex society where several different languages are spoken. Even though all of the inhabitants of Timbuktu are people of faith, the director makes it clear that they have different cultural backgrounds and customs. Timbuktu is a strong statement against the extreme Islamic militants who seem to take the moral high ground and impose their laws upon people they don't understand. It's even more disgusting when they don't even try to understand. We've seen this kind of hubris time and time again in any types of colonial occupying forces. And we know that it breeds human tragedies everywhere.

As the film builds up to its heartbreaking conclusion, one wonders the true fate befallen on Timbuktu and its inhabitants in 2012 when it was briefly taken over by Islamic rebels - many were killed and maimed. Its famed Ahmed Baba Institute which housed many invaluable manuscripts was set on fire. The film is a beautifully told human tragedy and strong condemnation of religious extremism.

Timbuktu won Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and François Chalais Prize at this year's Cannes Film Fest. The film screens on 10/1 at 6pm and again 10/2 at 4pm. For more information, please visit FSLC website.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


The Blue Room (2014) - Amalric
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The Blue Room is a hard film to like-- its tone is cold and distant. But it is designed that way to accompany the mind of its passive protagonist. Based on the book of the same name by popular French novelist Georges Simenon, the film tells a brief obsession that causes double murder and ensuing courtroom drama. It harkens back to the olden days of film noir with hidden motives, loose morals and a (unlikely) femme fatale. The film is a Hitchcockian intrigue coupled with Chabrol's breeziness. Even the film's score (beautifully composed by Grégoire Hetzel) reminds you of Bernard Herman.

It starts with Julien and Esther in the throes of sweaty, passionate lovemaking in a French door shuttered, stifling hotel room. In the heat of passion, she bites his lips and he bleeds. "Did it hurt?" "No, it's fine." "Would your wife notice it?" "I'll just tell her that I ran into a post." They tell each other sweet nothings. It's a thoughtless pillow talk for him, but for her, it's something more. "Could you spend the rest of your life with me?" "Sure." Julien has a comfortable life, he manages a successful John Deere dealership, has an upbeat blonde wife and a daughter. It's his passivity that becomes his downfall. It's not that he is unhappy with life, but he finds the enigma of Esther too irresistible. Before we know it, Esther's ill husband is found dead and Julien's wife strangled. All the things Esther said, as Julien recalls in a series of police interrogations, have ominous significance for the crime(s). "If I am suddenly free, would you be free too?" After Esther's husband's death, he gets a cryptic message from her in two words, "Now You."

The Blue Room feels completely opposite of much improvised, free wheeling, 8 1/2-esque, On Tour, a film which Amalric won the Best Director award for at Cannes, few years back. It is an extremely measured film with subtle performances.

The 1:33 aspect ratio comes across as not an aesthetic choice but a psychological one, to show Julien's unwitting confinement in the situation. Stéphanie Cléau who co-adapted the book with Amalric, and not a trained actor, plays the role of Esther. There is not a hint of dark side in her unassuming beauty. But that's why she is so perfect for the role who is completely illegible. It still works as a whodunit thriller, but we never get to find out who killed who. In a breezy 76 minute running time, Amalric rightly concentrates on the Julien's distant passivity rather than making a psycho killer out of Esther. It's a hard to film to enjoy but to admire, because there are a lot to admire in this film. It definitely shows Amalric's ability as a director, a great one at that, proving himself that he's not only a mere actor.

The Blue Room plays part of NYFF 2014. It plays on 9/29 and 9/30. Please visit FSLC website for more info.

Friday, September 26, 2014

3D as an Art Form

Adieu au Langage (2014) - Godard
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3D seems like it is here to stay, for now. It was a gimmick to win back the audiences the film industry lost to the emergence of TV in the 50s', now it is revived as a last ditch effort to save the ailing industry, probably until TV starts broadcasting its contents in 3D (as we all know, it's only a matter of time that we'd be enjoying our football games and movies at home with silly glasses on). But can this new/old technology be elevated onto an art form, rather than being used exclusively to show us a mangled hunk of metal/asteroid as it hurtles toward us? If Herzog's awe inspiring Cave of Forgotten Dreams and now Godard's Goodbye to Language were any indications, the answer is yes. Yes it can.

Always on the forefront of visual experiment and testing the limits of cinema, 3D seems to be a logical next step for Jean-Luc Godard to sink his teeth in. After his test run with the technology in a short Three disasters (his contribution to an omnibus project, 3X3D), JLG, at 83, is fully committing to the 3D technology with Goodbye to Language.

The film starts with a quote, "Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality." With that, there is a slight narrative, concerning a couple (or two) as they bicker and contemplate murder. Women in the film are very much alike (a typical Godard heroine archetype- brunette with dark eyes) and tend to shed their clothes often. An outdoor book market becomes the flash point for the old and new. While browsing for books by Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, people furiously text and exchange their mobile devices. The bookseller shouts from his chair, "Don't bother googling Solzhenitsyn!"

"One day everyone will need an interpreter for what he says." One of the characters utters in the film. Its biblical implication of the world in chaos aside, the film is packed to the brim with visuals. Divided in 2 parts or at least in that Godard's typical chapter headings - Nature and Metaphor, the film grimly/comically announces the death of language.

The most vivid character is perhaps a dog named Roxy (Godard's beloved mutt), who graces the screen with his adorable face in about half of the 70 minute feature, playing around in nature, in all four seasons - near lake Geneva I'm assuming, generally having a good time. 

Godard's contemplation of war is there, but this time, not as specific or pointy as in his earlier films. Still, playing cinema's enfant terrible, he includes shots of burning bodies, and even graphic sex images. The sporadic, jumbled subtitles and dialog appear and repeat, accompanied by equally disjointed soundtrack - Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

Layering clear HD, pixelated DV, and other grainy archival footage as thick as Dostoevsky novel, Goodbye is denser, more uncompromising, more impenetrable and less coherent than Godard's last outing, Film Socialisme (which I adored). But it's still a marvelous trip. OK. let's talk about the 3D aspect of the film. There is the usual JLG droll word games with his trademark bold titles-- Adieu (in Adieu au Langage) becomes AH, DIEU (Oh, God). Only this time, it's in 3D! People's everyday actions and nature scenes, like drinking from outdoor water faucet or a sunset or sunflower field on a windy day, become cinematic events.

Imagine some of the most visually sumptuous JLG films from his later period. Nouvelle Vague (1990) or Hellas Pour Moi (1993) for example - the ship sailing by in the background, the foggy field, swinging light bulb overhead, a long dolly shot looking through the window. Now picture them in 3D. This is what Goodbye to Langauge is like. It's a thrilling visual experience and I thank god for JLG embracing the gimmicky technology and using it in his tireless exploration of the boundaries of cinema. Ah-Dieu indeed. It's certainly one of the year's best.

Goodbye to Language made its debut at this year's Cannes Film Fest, then TIFF. It is playing at NYFF on 9/27 and 10/1. Please visit FSLC's website for more info.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Détective (1985) - Godard
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This all-star cast hard hitting noir riff is perhaps Godard's most playful film from the 80s. It concerns monsieur Jim (Johnny Holliday), a two-bit boxing promoter who owes money around town and a lonely wife, Françoise/Geneviéve (Natalie Baye) of a sad faced pilot (Claude Brasseur) of whom Jim owes money to. They are closely monitored 'with the shitty little Japanese video camera' by a gang of amateur inspectors - uncle Prospero, Neveu (Jean-Pierre Leaud) with the help of a perky little thing/would be Neveu's fiancée after she takes the school exam, Arielle (Aurelle Doazan). Jim has a posse of his own - Tiger Jones, a young boxer whose worst enemy is himself, princess of Barbados (Emmanuelle Seigner) and a young botticelli beauty (Julie Delpy) and an accountant who literally asks computer for solutions to every problem.

Jim not only owes money to the couple but also to a mafioso boss called Prince (Alain Cuny) who happens to be staying at the same opulent Paris hotel where everybody seems to be staying in. Actually, the whole film takes place in and around the hotel. The plot is way too discombobulated to follow along. There are some slight comments on technology and porn, but it's all about characters interactions, funny lines ('Damn Italian legs!'), mad slapstick energy (thanks to Leaud) and beauty of youth. Détective is an unabashedly silly, fun film reminiscent of Breathless.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Song of Sorrows

Bamako (2006) - Sissako
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Bamako is a seething indictment on policies of 'structural adjustment' imposed by IMF and The World Bank on Africa. The setting is an outdoor trial, a courtyard of ordinary Malian households where everyday life happens simultaneously with the proceedings. The witnesses, from all walks of life, testify against how the astringent policies of the western institutions that started 25 years ago brought more poverty, deaths and unpayable debt to many African nations including Mali, instead of development and prosperity. In the meantime, there is a slight narrative with an impoverished, emasculated husband and his beautiful wife who sings at bars for their income. He is learning Hebrew in the hopes of becoming a guard for an Israeli embassy in Mali that doesn't exist. A wedding and funeral happen in the same courtyard, life goes on still. Sissako playfully exerts film within a film called Death in Timbuktu, where cowboys are played by Danny Glover, Elia Suleiman and other film directors from developing countries doing OK corral style gunfights bearing not so subtle outcome - dead are the innocent local bystanders. Music in Bamako, traditional or otherwise, is a big part of expressing people's frustrations rather than dialog. It's a pointy yet poetic film that needs to be seen by anyone who has interests in the state of Africa.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Corpo Celeste (2011) - Rohrwacher
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Drawing from her childhood experiences, Alice Rohrwacher makes a delicate, affecting coming-of-age film. Martha (Yle Vianello), a fair skinned 13 yr-old girl, is about to hit puberty. She has been secretly wearing her older sister's bras. She and her family just arrived from living in Switzerland. At home, with her single mom always out working and her pretty, domineering 18 yr-old sister ever present, Martha is left to her devices, wondering wintry small coastal town by herself.

A girl with serious disposition, Martha challenges happy-go-lucky aesthetics of the church and asks tough questions: what does Eli, eli, sabahktani mean, to a non-commital, frivolous teacher. On the faithful day of the communion, finding box full of kittens in the storage of the parish while preparing for the big communion celebration, and parish workers' cruel decision to dispose them sends Martha to a wild goose chase through the town and leads her lost in the busy motorway. Mario, a stern priest who lost his way by his own ambition, spots Martha and picks her up. He has to pick up an old cross from his old parish, up in the mountains and back before the ceremony. It becomes a spiritual journey of sorts for both.

Rohrwacher proves herself as a fine observer of human emotions. No one in Corpo Celeste is entirely evil. However imperfect and cruel they seem to be, there is a side to each that is undeniably human. In the confines of a very religious, working class community, those small desires, jealousy, envy, solitude, Rohrwacher captures them with much compassion. She has a sharp eye for composition too. Beautiful grainy 16mm is lovely.

Monday, September 8, 2014


Demanche à Pekin/Sunday in Peking (1956) - Marker
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Beauty. Marker's outsider's point of view of China stresses similarities of human existence rather than contrasts while not losing the Western curiosity of the Far East. "The revolution was against capitalists, dusts and flies..." narrates the Marker surrogate wryly. He finds in Peking that there are no more capitalists than there are flies. Sunday activities of regular people are captured in beautiful Kodachrome, restored in 2013 by The Eclair Group. I might have to get this Marker shorts collection (contains Pékin and Lettre de sibérie).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Tilda Swinton Show

I Am Love (2009) - Guadagnino
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The film is an elaborate, visually elegant melodrama set in Milan. It tells the fall of the Recchi family, of textile fortune. Starts with the patriach(grandpa Recchi)'s birthday dinner in an opulent mansion where grandpa announces his retirement and leaves the company in the hands of his son Tancredi and grandson Redo (you will need two to replace me!). Tancredi's elegant Russian wife Emma (Tilda Swinton) is smitten by Antonio, a chef friend of her son Redo's. Tancredi is a ruthless businessman who is unafraid of laying off workers or selling the company to the highest bidder, while Redo falls on the sensitive side of the family, along with his artistic, burgeoning lesbian sister Ellis (Alba Rohrwacher, sister of Alice I found out).

It's a complete Tilda show though. Including Emma, every character is very lightly sketched out and two dimensional. But who wouldn't want to see Tilda speaking Italian and Russian and looking chic for two hours? The movie is truly a director's film, it's all about meticulously choreographed swishing tracking shots and movement and editing. There is a rhythmic, fluid quality in Guadagnino's sumptuous filmmaking, reminiscent of Bertolucci and the 70s Italian cinema. The tragedy strikes the Recchis brought upon by Emma's affair with the young chef and the film builds up to virtuosic, heartpounding climax. Too bad that small gestures and subtlties of characters get lost in all the grand technical prowess.