Thursday, December 24, 2015

Same Suffering

Pursuit of Death/Jjacko (1980) - Im
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Song Gi-yeol (Kim Hi-Ra), an aging vagrant dying of stomach cancer gets picked up while sleeping in the streets and sent to a 'rehabilitation center': a place where old and invalid homeless people go to live and work (gardening and such) according to a strict schedule and eventually expire. It's a last stop for these unfortunates. There he finds Jjacko/Bak Gong-san (Kim Sang-Soo), his nemesis and obsession over the last 30 years. In the 50s, Song was a cop pursuing Jjacko, the notorious commie guerrila fighter, who's responsible for killing hundreds of civilians. Song's relentless pursuit of the commie took a toll on his life: lost everything that he holds dear and became a limping beggar. But no one at the rehab believes his tall tales and regards him as a mental case. Yet he is determined to bring Jjacko to justice and clear his name once and for all.

There are a lot of technical and plot issues with the version of the film I saw - there are scenes cutting out, has a terrible audio in some parts. Some seemingly important elements and motives are planted but never play out. And this being made while Korea was still in military dictatorship, there are no real political nuances to speak of: it's given that the reds are dirty, evil civilian killers and nothing more. Different ideologies that divided the country never factor in.

Jjacko is a slang for people with asymmetrical nose. It's also interesting to note that the bad commie is an ugly man with a huge mole over his nose and the cop always wears dark shades very much similar to ones Park Jung Hee (a military dictator who was assassinated in 1979)'s trademark look. I wonder if that was intentional or not.

But the film's all about how both sides suffered non-discriminately and that no one really cares now. Through overly melodramatic flashbacks, we see how both Song and Jjacko are alike in suffering- Jjacko as a fugitive and Song as an obssessive pursuer. These are also very macho characters who never regrets anything. Remorse doesn't figure in their thoughts. And women are just there to be sacrificed and remembered. Im is a competent director who always provides with some stunning compositions and energetic camera movements. He also weaves in two men's flashbacks as how their lives are connected in dramatic and bizarre ways. Jjacko is not a great film but an interesting one nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Don't Cry, So Why Don't We Sing?

Good Men, Good Women (1995) - Hou
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Compared with Hou's another Taiwanese historical epic City of Sadness which is told as a straight forward family saga, Good Men, Good Women is a much more complex film, both structurally and thematically. So it makes a much more challenging viewing experience. It starts out with a young actress Liang Ching (Annie Shizuoka Inoh) with a troubled past as she prepares the role of Chiang Bi-yu, a real life character in a film version of Good Men, Good Women, about a group of young Taiwanese idealists going over to the mainland China to join the resistance against Japanese in WWII. The monochrome version of the film within the film is scattered through out, giving the island nation's tumultuous history through these well intentioned characters who fell victims to political circumstances. It also loosely connects with the life of Liang in the present time who has been leading rather a trashy, decadent life.

Someone is stalking Liang with late night phone calls and faxing her the snippets of her own diary which was stolen. The diary reflects on her seedy past to herself as a bar hostess and a drug addict. She is also haunted by the memories of her lover, Ah Wei, a low level gangster who was murdered some years ago. We spend most of the running time with Liang in her present life and in flashbacks with Ah Wei, shot and framed beautifully in typical Hou mastery. The seemingly unconnected story resonates in the film's end as the same wide shot of people crossing the field of Chinese countryside, singing (one in monochrome and one color) reminding the prologue: "When yesterday's sadness is about to die/When tomorrow's good cheer is marching towards us/Then people say, don't cry. So why don't we sing." Liang's life can be construed as the director's comments on decadent present Taiwanese society. But Liang is a deeply unhappy character who can't escape the shadow of her past. We can't help but sympathize with her. There is obviously a larger context in play here - the nation's shameful past needs to be recognized in order to go forward.

Complex, asymmetrical and enigmatic, yet richly rewarding, Good Men, Good Women is the Hou film I was craving for. But now I have to watch Puppetmaster to finish the Hou's Taiwanese History Trilogy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Blood Soaked Feministing

Tag (2015) - Sono
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Most of its 1 hour 25 minute running time, our titular heroine(s), Mitsuko/Keiko/Izumi are engaging in cardio vascular activity. Tag is Mulholland Dr. meets Ken Russell over the topness for the video game crowd. Sono even takes jabs at the largest movie watching demographic (his included) teen male, and teaches them a thing or two about respecting women while still engaging in upskirt photography (not as predominant as his other films though). Can he take the cake and eat it too? Is this even allowed?

Sono's strength has always been his manic energy and with all the drone shots and running, Tag is an unstoppable ball of energy with plenty of violence and gore. The cartoonish violence against these girls are not overtly sexual and interestingly, Sono keeps sex and violence separate until the last minute. There is obviously an agenda here that all of the characters are female until Mitsuko enters the 'male world' that Sono's commenting on male oriented society where 'girls' are treated as objects. But is he really serious about desensitization of these boys through games and pornography or half-heartedly commenting while actively engaging in desensitization himself? Is suicide the only option for girls everywhere? Unlike the promo trailer for the film where bikini girls get their heads blown off, Tag is much less scintillating in its presentation. He made a conscious choice not to push farther and mire him in contradictions. Like Sono's dark satire breakthrough Suicide Club, Tag leaves you in a somber, rather sad mood. In many ways, Tag is a better Sono film that actually has a direction and is a more concise and less exhausting experience than his grander scale, sprawling, unruly films. Sono exemplifies, along with Paul Verhoeven, that one can make a biting satire while awash with the very trope he's satirizing.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Top 10 Discoveries of the Year

The films below are the ones I discovered for the first time this year. Actually, I've seen Godard's Eloge de l'amour in theaters and I remember hating it. I wasn't really a Godardhead back then. Innocent times. But the rest of the films are the first time viewing.

My search for the works of particular artist continued and I landed on the works of Lisandro Alonso, who is by far, one of the most interesting filmmakers working out there. Then there is of course, Pedro Costa and Godard. My film viewing dwindled because of a job change in the middle of the year and not as robust as last few years. But still got to discover quite a few gems, the the ones below:

O Sangue - Costa
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Los Muertos - Alonso
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Il Futuro - Scherson
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Liverpool - Alonso
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Eloge de l'amour/Forever Mozart/Passion - Godard
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Mildred Pierce *mini series - Haynes
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La belle personne - Honoré
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Yearning - Naruse
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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Beautiful Melancholia

Dust in the Wind (1987) - Hou
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Wan (Wang Chien-wen) and Huey (Hsin Shu-fen) are teenage lovers in a small mining town. After graduating middle school, they decide to go to bustling Taipei to earn money for their families. Wan takes a job at printing factory then later as a motorcycle delivery man while going to night school. Huey works as a seamstress. They befriend with billboard painter and his gang at a movie theater, hang out and drink sometimes. But life is tough and as you know, things never go the way you wanted.

Hou's elegy to his adolescent times is full of stunningly beautiful moments - a train ride home in the beginning, normally shy Huey taking off her shirt in a spur of the moment, grandpa's firecrackers, suspicious, shipwrecked Chinese family in the army barracks, watching people fighting fire from across the street, drunken dad trying to lift a stone, etc. It feels almost indecent to share these memories of Wan and Huey as intimately and vividly as I watch Dust in the Wind. But like past memories, Hou's treatment of these moments are so fleeting and democratic, it just quietly floats by without much time for reflection (which comes later). And before you know it, the film ends and leaves you with beautiful melancholia. Another bittersweet masterpiece by Hou.

Friday, December 18, 2015

My Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015

Due to job changes in the middle of the year, my film viewing has been less than robust in 2015. There were films I very much wanted to see but missed the opportunity, namely: Carol, Cemetery of Splendour, Right Now, Wrong Then and Our Little Sister. But there is always next year, right?

On the same coin, the list I got going here is a little different than two other web publications I contributed my list to - CriticWire and ICS (International Cinephiles Society) which restricts to the films theatrically released in that particular year. Since this is my personal site, I list them as I see fit here without any restrictions put on myself. So don't be surprised if you don't see such great films as Clouds of Sils Maria, The Look of Silence, Jauja, Timbuktu and Eden on here- They all ended up in my last year's list. So without further a do:

1. Arabian Nights
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Sprawling, uninhibited, playful, languid, beautiful, funny... Miguel Gomes's cinematic reflection on Portugal in Crisis didn't have a real match to be my favorite film of the year. This 6 hour movie in 3 volumes might be giving the film distributors gigantic headache, but it's better to see them back to back and enjoy its fabulous labyrinthine storytelling, melding reality and fantasy, narrative and documentary and everything else. So good.

* My interview with Miguel Gomes

2. Court
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A big surprise of the year. On the surface, Court is a biting social commentary but the film is much deeper and more humanistic than that. Chaitanya Tamhane takes a daring formalist approach in painting India's very complex class system without losing the sight of humanity.

3. The Assassin
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In my review, I compared watching The Assassin to watching the flow of a river under the sunset. It's a rapturous experience.

4. Phoenix
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Finely tuned inverted Vertigo from one of the most gifted storytellers of our time. Nina Hoss gives the performance of the year. Now streaming on Netflix.

5. Louder than Bombs
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Nuanced, rich, beautifully written story of grief and family ties. Best American film not written by Americans. Joachim Trier and his writing partner Eskil Vogt really nail it here.

6. Son of Saul
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Not only a technical marvel but it also punches you in the gut. Bravura filmmaking at its best.

7. Li Wen at East Lake
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A droll examination of China's changing society with much playfulness and humor by Li Luo, which shows you that China's underground indie filmmaking is alive and well.

8. Girlhood
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Karidja Touré gives a great performance in this beautifully written, beautifully acted coming of age film by the great Celine Sciamma.

* My Interview with Celine Sciamma

9. Mad Max: Fury Road
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I had so much fun at the movies thanks to George Miller. But I think it will take at least 2-3 George Millers to save that sacred experience. But I'll take what I can get for now.

10. Taxi
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No restrictions or bans from powers that be can prevent from Jafar Panahi from making films. He makes giving middle finger to authority so much fun!

The rest:

11. Lost River - Gosling

12. Le Dos Rouge/Portrait of the Artist - Barraud

13. 100 Yen Love - Take

14. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence - Andersson

* My Interview with Roy Andersson

15. Voice of Water - Yamamoto

16. La Sapienza - Green

17. The Duke of Burgundy - Strickland

18. Metamorphoses - Honoré

19. Parabellum - Rinner

20. Violet - Devos

Monday, December 14, 2015

Present Reimagined

Dreams Rewired (2015) - Luksch, Reinhart, Tode
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Directed by Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart and Thomas Tode, Dreams Rewired is a fascinating historical reflection of our obsession with connectivity. Appropriating old world technology to draw the parallels to our own, the post-NSA era society where files can be stored in the ether and anyone can have access from anywhere, any time.

The film digs deeper into history of mass media- early films, phonograph, radio and early television- culling from more than 200 archival silent movie clips and retro style animation, the Austrian experimental filmmakers examine not only development of technology but also human desire to connect with one another and to relentlessly innovate. The film also puts a mirror on 21st century society as it asks serious questions about our blind dependency on technology.

Narrated, ever so appropriately, by our resident alien queen from the future, Tilda Swinton, in her crisp, otherworldly voice, Rewired is a dense, playful, philosophical and poetic look not only at how the old, both real and imagined, technology (roughly from 1880s to 1930s) matches up to 21st century world that we are taking for granted - from radio transmitter on a garter belt, mobile device the size of shoe box, notions of virtual reality and world in harmony and understanding. Swinton playfully plays along, often having conversations all by herself in clips with two characters.

Beautifully structured, It sets up with the clips from infant stages of film technology - films by Edison, Feuillade, to early greats like Griffith, Vertov, Eisenstein, to early avant-garde silents where they imagined technology fueled Utopia.

The film takes a darker turn as it talks about invasion of privacy ('I can see everything through the wall!') and 'human zoo' with the exotic world archival footage that is today's equivalent of the third world poverty porn. It cleverly makes a transition from early Soviet propaganda films (including Battleship Potemkin) to aerial view of bombed out Europe after WWI, to the first international TV broadcast of the Olympics game being Nazi Germany in 1936. That 'the world within arm's length also means within striking distance.' Then it hints at the rise of fascism and totalitarianism and surveillance.

Dreams Rewired is not only an entertaining visual feast for the eyes, but also a kin, thoughtful, cautious observation on how these 'imagined' world where total connection might have meant a 'transparent future' unlike our uncertain world where we store and share information in ether and deal with whistle blower scandals in the deepest reaches of the governments every other year.

Dreams Rewired has world theatrical premiere, Wednesday, Dec. 16 at Film Forum.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas Spirit

Krampus (2015) - Dougherty
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'Tis the season folks. The slo-mo scene of stampede and mayhem at the mall that opens Michael Dougherty's Krampus is one reason enough to give this rather old-fashioned horror movie the thumbs up. Krampus, a goat hooved, horned creature with a long red tongue who punishes naughty children who forgets Christmas spirit of giving and sharing in German folklore is the counterpart to fat jolly St. Nicolas who climbs down the chimney and leaves you present under the Christmas tree. Krampus is a silly fun film that pokes fun at rampant materialism and Coke bottle Santa worshiping and uses puppetry, and animatronics rather than CGed monsters for scare. Dougherty does a real good job with the actual Krampus design too. Incidentally, it was Krampusnacht on Dec.6

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Arabian Nights, Portuguese Style

*originally published 10/2/2015 at NYFF
Arabian Nights: Volume 1, 2 & 3 (2015) - Gomes
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The last time I talked with Miguel Gomes, the subject of our conversation was not about his latest film, Tabu, but almost exclusively about the impact of the devastating austerity measure by the Portuguese government on the Portuguese film community and its general population in this global recession era. It is no surprise then, that the Portuguese director's next project concerns just that. He makes it clear in the preface of each volumes of Arabian Nights:
This film is not an adaptation of the book ARABIAN NIGHTS despite drawing on its structure

The stories, characters and places that Scheherazade will tell us about acquired a fictional form from facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014. During this period the country was held hostage to a program of economic austerity executed by a government apparently devoid of social justice. As a result, almost all Portuguese became more impoverished.

As soon as I'd heard of its release at this year's Cannes, it became my most anticipated movie of the year. And it definitely doesn't disappoint. What's surprising is that the result is a sprawling, ambitious 6+ hour film divided in to 3 volumes, shot on anamorphic widescreen format.

Political films are often boring. Well intentioned films are even more boring. But since it's Miguel Gomes, the director of such genre defining, inventive, playful films as Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu, Arabian Nights is nothing but. Even with limited resources, the film is full of wonder in the best sense of the word. Gomes's aim is to tell as many real stories of people of Portugal under economic siege, which explains the 6 hour running time. But he does so so effortlessly with his fluid, unhurried filmmaking.

The film starts with two differing occurrences in a declining port town: there are massive lay offs in the shipyard and an sprawling invasion of Asian wasps in vineyards and homes. Unable to make the coherent story out of these two seemingly unconnected happenings, a haggard, lost film director (Gomes) is seen cowardly running away from his film. He is not seen again until the Volume three as he makes a brief appearance as one of the Arabian slaves of the queen Scheherazade. Then we are told about Scheherazade's fate - The Ruthless and murderous King weds beautiful virgins and kill them off one by one if they can't provide nightly storytelling. Beautiful Scheherazade has to keep telling myriad stories to keep alive, hence, begins the labyrinthine tales within tales of Gomes's own version of Arabian Nights in three volumes- Volume One: The Restless One, Volume Two: The Desolate One and Volume Three: The Enchanted One.

The episodic storytelling ranges from a full on satire - as in 'The Men with Hard-ons' about camel riding politicians and bankers (so-called Troika- IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission) whose wishes come true by an African genie they encounter on a dirt road. Their wishes- a round-the-clock hard-on. Pleased with themselves, they decide to throw out the harsh austerity measure but only to find out that eternal hard-ons are not only unpleasant and hurtful but also major inconvenience, they put the austerity measure back on, to a weighed symbolism - the explosion of a beached dead whale on a New Year's Day in 'Bath of the Magnificents', to a tragicomedy - in a lovely chapter called, 'The Owners of Dixie', going into the history of suburban housing projects and its low-income occupants, to an observational documentary in 'The Inebriated Chorus of Chaffinches' about brusque urban bird-trappers and the finch singing contest.

But above description doesn't do justice to the immense beauty and lyricism of Arabian Nights. Even its political subtext is always there, Gomes doesn't abandon the human element and showing resilience of ordinary people in dire circumstances neither does he neglect playing with conventions of cinema as a narrative medium.

Fittingly, he uses both professional actors and non-professionals in different roles in three volumes throughout, building the sense of intimacy of each 'person' and lived-in atmosphere.

Gomes's cinematic playfulness is evident in every aspect - sometimes Scheherazade's narration and texts on screen are literal translation of what's unfolding before us, sometimes not. Sometimes he leaves the story to unfold itself without interruption. Simple edit tricks like a long cross-fades and some costumes and papier mâché are the extent of the special effects he incorporates. Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, a long time Apichatpong Weerasethakul's collaborator lends his magic here with his languid visual poetry.

Since I saw the three volumes in succession, I can't really say if each volume works as a standalone film. It would be a hard sell for distributors to release it as a 381 minute film though (Kino Lorber is distributing in stateside). The thing is Gomes's storytelling (via Scheherazade) could go on forever, in order to stay alive (haha). But I can't say enough about what a wondrous, one of a kind cinematic storytelling Arabian Nights is. It is definitely this year's cinematic highlight for me.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Miguel Gomes on Arabian Nights Vol.1, 2 & 3 and State of Portugal

*Originally published on 10/2/2015 at NYFF. ARABIAN NIGHTS VOLUME 1 Opens Dec. 4, VOLUME 2 Opens Dec. 11, VOLUME 3 Opens Dec. 18 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
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It was 3 years ago I first met Miguel Gomes in a cramped office of New York's Film Forum. His third feature Tabu was a big international success and I was just discovering his fantastic films. But it was the state of Portugal under stringent austerity measure that dominated our conversation, not as much the film itself. At that time, Portuguese government was about to announce a new law concerning how the small but vibrant Portuguese film community would get funding, which had completely stopped because of the country's financial crisis (and greed of corporations, you can read it here). As a film lover, it was one of the most invigorating, memorable interviews I've conducted.

Gomes's new film (or should I say films), Arabian Nights Vol.1, 2 & 3, has been my most anticipated film of the year. And I was more than eager to continue our conversation. And I was pleasantly surprised that the director remembered me from the last time.

So, the last time, we were talking about the Portuguese film industry under the country's austerity measure and the government delaying the announcement of the new law concerning the funding. Can we pick up where we left off?

Miguel Gomes: Yeah, we are talking about the year (2012) when the funding was completely stopped. It was the year zero for Portuguese cinema. There wasn't any support like the way we used to have from the Institute of Cinema. From then on, the new law was enacted. But we were more than a little bit disappointed because they said the support would be a lot bigger than what we normally had. I can still remember when I first started to make films, there were about 20 feature films made every year. Nowadays I would say, about 8. Yes, it's better than zero. That was what we had in 2012. But it's very hard for filmmakers because there is no other means to make films in Portugal. The market itself is so small there is no money to be made, hence no corporate sponsors. It's's almost impossible. But I have to say that at least there are films being made. It continues. They now say they will raise the numbers (of films produced per year). We just have to wait and see.

That's the Portuguese cinema side. What's going on in general in Portugal?

I think it's much more difficult when compare specifically to cinema. The whole society was of course deeply affected by the changes that occurred in the last few years. The country was under the program where we borrowed money to help lower the national debt. But in my opinion, what happened was that the debt didn't go down, it continued to be the same. So for me, it means something failed.

On the contrary, the incomes of general Portuguese population and state welfare were very much affected. The pensions of retirees were cut 30-40 percent, the salaries of public workers were also severely cut and support for the unemployed were also very restricted. In general, the whole Portuguese society is much poorer than 7 years ago.

To be honest, even though there are some signs of economic recovery, it was not because of these programs but because we really hit rock bottom, there was no way but to go up a little bit. Now they are trying to paint a picture that Greece is a bad student and we are a good student. For me it's a bad fiction. This fiction is pretending that it's the reality that people have to go with. This is one of the reasons I made this film because I thought, "Let's fight bad fiction with fiction."

That said, ARABIAN NIGHTS is in 3 parts, 6 hours. It's big and sprawling. How did you come to the decision that you will make something this big?

I would say it was like an accident. I received lots of support because Tabu was very successful. It was released in dozens of countries. So I got more money than I had making all my previous 3 films combined. This is why I think I ended up with three films. But we did know that when we started it, it would be in three volumes. We had more time to shoot than we normally would have, so I spent all my money to shoot more and more stories. But we didn't know how big a stretch of a film it would be. Of course we were worried, we weren't so naïve that we could prolong the shoot indefinitely. But during the shoot, we didn't want to think about it.

Then we had some options. We could have made certain sections of the film completely cut out or to make a very very big film. Then we went back to having three volumes. I had my Portuguese translation of Arabian Nights in three volumes with me. I showed them to my producers that it is possible that the film could be divided in to three and three very different experiences of cinema.

Each part of the film is something I've done before. In Tabu, I organized the structure in two parts. So this would be in three parts and they will be in communication with each other, like Tabu. In each part, there will be stories connecting to each other or opposite of each other, so when you see the film, this would give that narrative labyrinth--

Just like the book.

Exactly. For me the book is like a vertical labyrinth that has great potential for film adaptation which is much richer than my film, I mean, they have more space... (chuckles)

Were there any stories that you had to cut out?

No, in the end, we used every segment we shot. We cut lots of sequences in each chapter. What we cut was ideas - we had many more stories in mind but couldn't afford to shoot. The drama of the shoot was in what we decided to shoot and we had 20 possible ideas that were even better than what we shot. But we had to choose what ideas to shoot.

I liked your use of non-professional actors in fictional settings. Like...

Chico Chapas.

Chico Chapas exactly.

In his case, I already filmed him as himself in the last segment of in Volume Three about the bird trappers (in chapter: The Inebriated Chorus of Chaffinches). We have a very artificial elements in the film because it's not reality but cinema. Cinema talks about life but it's not real life. I myself am much closer to Wizard of Oz than realism. So we already had some professional actors who were playing more than one role. And I saw this guy (Chapas) catching birds in the woods in the countryside of Portugal, then we had this story of criminal running away in the countryside (Chapter of A Man Without Bowels). I didn't have an actor in mind for that role. But I also didn't have anyone who can walk with same elegance as Chico Chapas.

The part didn't have many lines. I couldn't ask him to play the judge because it was played by a very good theater actress Joana de Verona. So for each chapter of the film I had people playing with their specific skills. For Simão in Man Without Bowels, I needed someone who has John Wayne like aura. Chico carries himself like John Wayne. I never told him how to walk or anything. I called action and told him walk from left to right and nothing else and it was always the first take we used. He was a natural.

The owner of the cockerel (Fernanda Loureiro) in chapter: The Story of the Cockerel, for instance, she was also playing herself. She really is the owner of the real cockerel who ended up in court. But the cockerel we had to have a double because it got very famous after the court case and we didn't want anything happen to it. But Fernanda was the real owner. So we found out while talking to her on camera, what she will tolerate, what she can and can't do. We found out that there are certain people who can direct themselves in certain way.

In the Swim of the Magnificents chapter, we had these unemployed people telling their stories. We had to work with them a little bit. I was with them all throughout and asked them every 2 days or so to tell me their stories. It was like directing them to tell certain part of their stories differently just for the better structure, not the content. It was about letting them talk. I wasn't going to write a script for them to recite like robots. That's not what I intended to do.

Every time it was different, even with professionals. Because you are always dealing with different people. But in the end, it's about them. For me it's finding out what you can do to help them bring out the best that they can give you.

I want to hear about how you got together with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom.

In this case, in the beginning I wanted to work with my regular cinematographer (Rui Poças) who shot My Beloved Month of August and Tabu, but he wasn't available. And it was such a rigorous shoot. We shot for a year. But someone in the crew who worked in Italy with Sayombhu, the cinematographer of Apichatpong (Weerasethakul) and she said, "He is a nice guy and I think you two will get along." But I said, "But I don't think he will be crazy enough to come to Lisbon from Thailand for a year. And I have to tell him that we don't know what we are shooting because there is no script. There is nothing." But I phoned him and he said, "OK, let me talk with my family" and one week later, he said, "I'm coming." I was like, you are crazier than I, RESPECT!

So he came and it was very good working with him. He is very good at shooting only with natural lights. One great thing we shared was our love for shooting on film. He gets frustrated if someone asks to shoot on digital. So it was one of the reasons why he traveled so far. It appealed greatly to him for a fact that he can shoot on film for a year. We shot on 16mm and 35mm.

It as very easy to work with him. We didn't discuss anything before starting the film - no look of over all film or anything. It was very natural process. It was always during the shoot we discussed how to go about shooting that scene. Except the Tears of the Judge part - with three moons with three different colors which we did some preparation. We got along fine because we have the same spirit of not calculating everything beforehand.

Would you ever work with him again?

Yes of course. But I'd love to continue working with Rui too. I'd love to work with both.

I saw the new Apichatpong's film yesterday (Cemetery of Splendour), very sweet, very moving film too but he had to use another cinematographer for that because of me. (laughs)

How do you feel about VOLUME 2: THE DESOLATE ONE getting chosen for the official Portuguese entry for Oscar Foreign Language Film?

I had nothing to do with that selection. It was Portuguese Academy who decided that. I think there is some rule that a film should end with a credit. So there is no way the whole Arabian Nights will get nominated as one film.

Ah, the technicality!

I'm not expecting anything. But strange things happen. We will see.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Pirates of Whimsy

A Espada e a Rosa (2010) - Nicolau
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Manuel (Manuel Mesquita) says goodbye to his ordinary life in the city to join pirates, a knick-knack of characters who are his long time friends. He brought on-board a mysterious substance called Plutex that some mad German scientists invented as a gift. The highly volatile substance helps when they are pirating, making their victims to freeze in motion or even disappear. It's a good, free life filled with nightly dances, music and wine. But a treason among them breaks the group's happy-go-lucky mode and they have to resort to kidnapping various types of people- pretty fair skinned French girl, skinny, short German man, a Lebanese girl and so on for the enjoyment of a all too powerful Prospero-like old man whom the group owes favor to. João Nicolau's whimsical comedy includes a singing tax collector, no-budget animation sequences, philosophical musings, lots of dance and a lot of non-sensical humor. It doesn't quite justify its 2 hour 20 minute runtime and the charm kinda wears off mid-way. In tradition of no-budget Portuguese comedies of Miguel Gomes, João Nicolau doesn't lack ideas, but his sensibilities are more suited for episodic TV or shorts.

A Cinephile's Wet Dream

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) - Jones
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We all know that everything has a meaning in a Hitchcock film - gesture, pose, framing, inanimate objects, camera movements, architecture, everything. It's layers upon layers of these cinematic elements that make his films stand the test of time. But to whom do we give credit for discovering this fact?

Surely there have been flow of books, articles, university courses, conference panels devoted to the master and his films over the last two decades or so. But it was François Truffaut, a film critic and French New Wave director of such films as 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules et Jim who interviewed his favorite filmmaker, the master of suspense, in 1962 and published the subsequent book Hitchcock/Truffaut in 1967 that really put Hitch among the echelon of cinema gods.

Truffaut, as a film critic, along with many of his esteemed colleagues at Cahiers du cinema (Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and more), had been the driving force behind elevating the status of many of the Hollywood Studio directors who were regarded as mere entertainers with the auteur theory under the guidance of the magazine's founder, André Bazin.

Hitchcock was already a one-man franchise in the industry and a TV personality with his weekly television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But back then, he was never considered as a serious filmmaker nor he received due respect from anyone. Flattered by the attention given by Truffaut, Hitchcock took up the interview proposition and welcomed the young Frenchman in to his Paramount Studio office and granted a week-long interview. There, they discussed his filmmaking craft in great detail, one film at a time, going through his entire filmography.

Kent Jones, a film critic for Film Comment Magazine and a chief programmer for the NYFF documents the film companion version of this momentous meeting in cinema history, using film clips, audio recordings of the interview, and photographs taken by Phillippe Halsman at the studio and interviews with contemporary directors who are deeply influenced by the master in breezy 80 minutes running time. And it's a cinephile's wet dream.

Jones shows that going through his favorite filmmaker's entire filmography and asking pertinent questions, Truffaut was able to demystify Hitchcock the filmmaker, the man, the artist. Hitchcock's wrongly accused and guilty men alike stem from his Jesuit school upbringing and his fear of police. The interviewee in turn, was very frank and forthcoming about himself reflected in those characters, who had perverted secret desires and tendencies (hence the recurring motif of handcuffs and keys on both fear of police and secret desires).

Hitch Truff poster.jpgIt is a hard task to compress almost 13 hours of initial radio broadcast (out of 30 hours of actual recordings) of the interview and a 350 page book to a digestible feature length film and Jones is careful and considerate in what needs to be include in the film. He avoids the talk of obvious, well known Hichcockian narrative elements like MacGuffin or how many trick shots are in Birds.

Yet there are so many delicious morsels of information, aided by the film clips in Hitchcock/Truffaut. As the interview goes along, we get to see and hear examples of Hitchcock's craft: he answers that suspense doesn't have to come from the fear of violence with the clip from his early silent film, Easy Virtue: where a marriage proposal is only seen through the reaction of a switchboard operator- is she going to say yes, or no? Or insight to his view on actors and the role of the audience by giving an example of the kissing scene between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious, "They complained how uncomfortable that shot was. I didn't care if they were uncomfortable or not, I was giving the audience a ménage-a-trois with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant!"

Jones interviews contemporary directors who are as much cinephiles as they are filmmakers: Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Olivier Assayas, James Grey, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, Richard Linklater and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Many talk about their well-worn copies of Hitchcock/Truffaut on their bookshelf.

One of the juicy tidbits that are not present in the film from the vast audio interview sessions, is when he gets down and dirty on actresses: he tells Eva Marie Saint was terrible in North By Northwest, "She cost the studio a fortune for wasting films because I had to do so many takes." And that girl (Kim Novak) in Vertigo was 'no good'. He dismisses actresses who have sex written on their faces (Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot) because there is no more mysteries left in them. He prefers librarian types, "British women make the best Hitchcock heroines." At this, Truffaut protests, "I don't think majority of men will agree with you. And whether you realize or not, you are making them the standard (for sexual desire) with your films."

But Jones also includes what's not aired (I know this because I listened the whole French radio interview) when Hitchcock talks about famous transformation scene in Vertigo where Judy (Kim Novak) changes to Madeline at Scottie (James Stewart)'s incessant insistence: "When she comes out of the bathroom, Scottie has the biggest erection...don't include that.... Cut the tape!"

While Fincher seems very much tickled by the pervading perversity in Hitchcock films, the French directors - Assayas and Desplechin give insights to Truffaut's singular mission: He genuinely wanted to know all about Hitchcock because he was a fan. Assayas (also a former Cahier du cinema critic) points out that Hitchcock and Truffaut were much different from each other as filmmakers. Even though Truffaut was never a stylist, he always maintained that Hitchcock was his favorite filmmaker. Their amicable relationship continued through correspondences long after their conversations.

Perhaps Jones's biggest contribution here is in contextualizing their meeting and its impact in cinema history, thus also elevating the role of film critics (considering Truffaut was one) that, as raging cinephiles themselves whose respect and fanfare can reconfigure a certain filmmaker to be recognized as a great artist.

Thanks to Truffaut, much of Hitchcock/Truffaut is recognizing the genius of Hitchcock. The film glazes over Hitchcock's influence on Truffaut himself with only a couple of brief clips from his films other than 400 Blows without any voice overs. I wish Jones spent a little more time on Truffaut's filmography where we can see Hitchcock's influence. But still, hugely entertaining and informative, the film is a required viewing for any serious cinephiles.

Hitchcock/Truffaut Opens on Wednesday, December 2 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas; December 4 in Los Angeles and December 11 in Major Markets Nationally

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Lackluster End to Daniel Craig's Bondiverse

Spectre (2015) - Mendes
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So everything in Daniel Craig's Bondiverse comes together to a close with this forth installment. And everythings lagging - script, visceral action sequences, a great villain, even a spectacular opening usually associated with this franchise. Sure, Day of the Dead celebration sequences in Mexico that opens up Spectre looks like a gazillion dollars (or more) but it lacks the energy. Beautiful settings in Rome, Austria, Tangier shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Her, Interstellar) wasted. They decided to make a character study out of Craig's Bond from its inception in Casino Royal. They knew that deeper they dig, the franchise is going to be short-lived. Unfortunately, this is the most lack-luster film of the series. It has that by-the-book kind of feeling and unbelievably stupid plotholes everywhere. Monica Bellucci is completely wasted, so as Christoph Weitz for the most part. Lea Seydoux is all right, but her part is not so (her name is Dr. Swann forgodssake). Bond doesn't seem to have any scruples banging the daughter of the man who tortured Vespar Lind whose death catapulted this whole supposed journey.

It's still an entertaining ride to a degree. Since they put an exclamation mark on Craig's Bond era, where do we go from here? The much publicized Black Bond (Idris Elba) taking the barton? Or female double o agent? Would it start with a clean slate, creating another alternate Bondiniverse? Craig had some beautiful moments with the well worn character struggling at being an outdated tool in a changing society (in Casino Royal and Skyfall). I wished their would be a plot line involving the Middle-east, reflecting the current mess we are in without inciting Hollywood's racist caricatures in the past. I mourn this chapter of the franchise.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Que Viva Eisenstein!

Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) - Greenaway
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Greenaway depicts Eisenstein's unsuccessful stint in Guanajuato, Mexico, famous for its mummies in El Museo De Las Momias which were featured in the opening sequence of Herzog's Nosferatu. For wide-eyed, clownish Soviet filmmaker (Elmer Bäck) of such films as Battleship Potemkin and October (Ten Days that Shook the World), who just had a bad experience in Hollywood, is seen driving down to Mexico with his small crew, while Upton Sinclair and uncle Lenin bankrolling the money for his Mexican project, Que Viva Mexico! Enamored by his colorful surroundings and swooned by his handsome Mexican guide- a religious scholar and ostensively a family man, Palomino (Luis Alberti), Eisenstein's not too subtly repressed homosexuality come to the fore and distract him from working, at all.

With series of wordy exchanges about politics, death and sex in a whirlwind of spinning visuals (actors in front of projections, seemlessly looping the tracking shot, 360 degree panning shots, etc.- almost fit for 3D at times), Greenaway makes it clear that the film is not about Eisenstein as a filmmaker but a 33-year old virgin (but married) discovering sensuality for the first time. And this being Greenaway film, a full frontal is given and sex acts are graphic. There must be tons of Greenaway's dense stylistic innovations I'm missing with the initial viewing here, but I feel Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a lesser Greenaway, failing at holding attention of the viewers in a relatively short running time (105 min).

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Jimmy P.:Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2013) - Desplechin
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Jimmy P is an odd movie. Even though it lets us know that it's a true story and takes place in the U.S. 1948, it wears its cultural, racial, political contexts very thinly- not actively ignores their importance but rather, it is seemingly uninterested in them. What's left is two leisurely hours of Jimmy Picard (Hulking, understated Benicio Del Toro), a somewhat shellshocked WWII veteran Indian from Montana and Georges (always great Mathieu Amalric), an enthusiastic anthropologist/therapist of an unknown European origin. They meet in Topeka, Kansas, where the veteran hospital is located. It is slowly revealed that Jimmy has some repressed sexual issues with women and suffering from a guilty conscience of abandoning many women in his life. Georges also has a bit of a back story and seems to have a complicated love relationship with a sophisticated married lady friend (Gina McKee). But it's mostly about Jimmy and Georges talking. As the title suggests, it's a psychotherapy session of a Plains Indian so his constant headache and seeing blinding bursts of white spots would go away. But its literal presentation is never clinical nor fairytale like. The performances, nuanced and subtle, make the characters and interactions human. Jimmy P is not a gripping drama and you never quite get too close enough to the characters, but there is a sense of peace and tranquility to the film that I really dig. Great directors don't need to have their signature 'style' or whatever. They can tackle any subject and should be able to produce something that is completely different from one another. Desplechin surprises me in that respect. And I respect that.

Monday, November 16, 2015

An Impressive Debut of a Turkish Woman Filmmaker, Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Mustang (2015) - Ergüven
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The school's out for the Summer, but for the 5 luminous protagonist orphan sisters, the indignity of being virgin brides in a 'wife factory' has just begun. After some innocent water splashing horseplay with the boys on the beach, they become prisoners in their own home. It was a neighbor woman in (in the girls' own words) "shit colored traditional garb" who informed their grandmother that they were acting indecently with the boys. The panicked grandmother locks them up in the house but still shields them from their brutish uncle's fury who is even more conservative. You see, according to Lale (Günes Sensoy) the youngest of the sisters who narrates the film, Istanbul might be about 'a thousand miles away', but the small coastal town they live in is about a thousand years backwards in terms of women's rights.

First, the older three, Sonay, Selma and Ece, are milled over to the hospital to see if their hymens are intact. The metal grates go up over the windows and the girls' possessions which might lead them in to perversion (a TV, phones, colorful clothes, books) are locked away. Shit colored formless dresses, cooking and cleaning lessons follow, and the girls are bored to death.

But this imprisonment provides some sun soaked, blissful playtime among girls and give them opportunities to get out of those dresses and lounge in their colorful underwear. They also sneak out every chance they get. They even end up hitching a ride to see a soccer game (for the women-only spectators game of course) and appear on TV screen to their grandma's horror.

They are hurriedly trained and clothed into arranged marriages. After the two eldest get married off- Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) to the love of her life (by threatening to scream in front of the family guests), more resigned-to-fate Selma (Tugba Sungroglu) to some stranger, whom she 'will grow to love', it's Lale who starts seeing the indignity of the whole situation. It's only matter of time that it will be Nu (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) and her turn. Before it's too late, they need to escape!

Mustang is not as politically pointy as Jafar Panahi's Offside and doesn't point finger directly at the traditions in some Middle Eastern regions per se, but things are pretty obvious how absurd the situation is. First time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has the light touch even when things get dark. And it gets very dark at times. The film thematically and spiritually shares lot in common with Sofia Coppola's Virgin Suicides (which was also a debut film by a young female director).

The third act seems to lose its organic feeling and magic of the first 2/3rds but that's only a minor quibble. It's a beautifully realized film about being a young female in a very conservative society. It's also good to see beautiful Elit Iscan of Hayat Var (My Only Sunshine) making an appearance as Ece, the defiant middle child. She hasn't aged a bit!

Mustang is the French Submission to the 2016 Academy Awards. It hits US theaters on November 20th, 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Casanova Vs Dracula

Història del la meva mort
(2013) - Serra
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Casanova (Vicenç Altaió) is getting old. His forever powdered wig and face can't hide his aging vessel. But he's still obsessed with food, sex and defecating. He is now also contemplating death and afterlife. He takes off from his stuffy, opulent mansion to the countryside with his faithful servant, Pompeu (Lluís Serrat). Staying in the cottage of an old river raft operator with his melancholic daughter and her two scrumptious young servant girls, Casanova and Pompeu try to win over hearts. Thrown in the mix much late in the film is a bearded Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) who screams in agony whenever he takes a life (or turns one into a vampire).

The candle/bonefire lit, grainy cinematography just barely sketches out human forms and faces. Non actors in period costumes do their duties with solemnity. It might be oxymoron but Albert Serra seems to be striving for authenticity that is pure both in form and spirit in literary characters. The result is an often hilarious, leasurely paced yarn that has some really beautiful painterly moments. Història del la meva mort is an interesting experiment that strips down these well known literary archetypes to the bone and have them play it straight and lets the thin narrative reach its own internal logic's end