Thursday, March 31, 2016

Do not fear mistakes. There are none.

Miles Ahead (2015) - Cheadle
 photo f086320b-96b1-468e-a402-241f71b9a061_zpsenhauinq.jpg
Doing a biopic on a legend is always a challenge. Doing justice to the subject it is portraying, even more so, especially when it's on someone like Miles Davis. It's rather surprising that there wasn't a movie or two made about Davis already, given his status as one of the most influential musicians America has ever produced. Don Cheadle, one of the most gifted, underrated actors of his generation, was approached by the Davis Estate (son Erin Davis and nephew Vince Wilburn) to take on the challenge and with their blessings, goes on to tell the story the way he wanted and ended up directing and co-writing and starring. He even raised money through crowdfunding. Cheadle succeeds in making an energetic, entertaining cinematic ode to a true legend.

I can't think of any album that is more perfect than Kind of Blue. Its melodic, incredibly elegant musical arrangement was a revelation when complex, virtuosic solo oriented be-bop dominated the jazz scene when the album came out in 1959. His extremely emotive trumpet playing had no equal and is still instantly recognizable. It was my staple background music in my college dorm room and I have to admit, the album got me laid many times. Even though Miles Davis was responsible for putting jazz on the higher echelons in the music world with improvisation that influenced countless other jazz greats, Davis didn't want to be pigeonholed as a 'jazz' musician. He moved on to exploring other sounds, always trailblazing in things to come. Jazz purists turned their back on his music in his later years and stuck to Birth of the Cool, 'Round About Midnight, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, but In a Silent Way (1969) is a great album, so is Tutu (1986), so is Doo-Bop (1991). Along with David Bowie, Davis was one of the true innovators and musical geniuses of the 20th century.

With the phrase, "It's all about improvisation," starts Miles Ahead, a very unusual biopic on one of the most iconic musicians ever lived. It's set in 1979, at the end of Davis's 5 year seclusion (around 1975 to 80) while battling with drug & alcohol abuse, various health ailments and Columbia Records after the success of Bitches' Brew during his jazz fusion period. Blending elements of fiction and the musician's real life stories, the film is in part a love story and part genius artist struggling with his demons and part a buddy action comedy that can easily be titled as Ride Along with Miles Motherfucking Davis.

Ewan McGregor plays a fictional Rolling Stone Journalist named Dave Brill. Out of extreme personal interest as a fan, he longs to hear Davis (Don Cheadle)'s demo tape that supposedly contains yet another breakthrough masterwork the musician has been toiling away in his Upper Westside apartment during those missing years. But as it turns out, he isn't the only one who wants to get a hand on that tape. Columbia Records execs are holding Davis's payments because he is contractually obligated to turn in any new materials in order to get paid. Throw in a shyster producer Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his drug addled trumpet protégé Junior (LaKeith Stanfield, Short Term 12, Straight Outta Compton) into the mix and we got an unforgettable night out with the ill-tempered, crazy little man with a wild jerry curls and a raspy voice in colorful silk pajamas. Through the course of the day, the duo goes from his basement/studio for impromptu boxing lessons, to the ringside, to a Columbia University dorm room (to score some high-end cocaine), to wild car chases in the city that ends in gunfights.

But it's the memories his first wife, Frances Taylor (luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi), that haunts the famous musician. In inter-cutting flashbacks shot on super 16mm film, we see suave Davis courting Frances, then an ingenue classical dancer, who goes on to give up her career to be a stay-at-home wife for him. She is a constant reminder of his happier (and tumultuous) times as she graced herself on the cover of his 1961 album, Someday My Prince Will Come Along which he somehow finds everywhere he goes. Cheadle and co-writer Steven Baigelman don't shy away from Davis's drug addled violent behavior. The couple's fight scene that lands both of them on the floor littered with shattered glasses is brutal and appropriately explains why Frances left him for good.

Miles Ahead doesn't play out like the work of a first time director. Shot on HD and film, frenetic editing, and some of the best syncopating transition shots in any movie of recent years, the film demonstrates Cheadle's cinematic flair. The film also showcases Cheadle's dexterity as a performer who can turn on the heat. He is completely at ease as the enigmatic musician, actually playing trumpet in many of the musical scenes himself. My favorite scene in the film is that of Davis working on a recording session with legendary jazz pianist, composer Gil Evans (Jeffrey Grover): it captures Davis's creative process in a natural, intimate setting among other musicians. It's so lived in, it feels like you are watching a documentary.

The fiction part of Miles Ahead, however entertaining it is, is a pulp. It doesn't resemble the incredible smoothness and sophistication of Kind of Blue. But in the spirit of jazz improvisation, Cheadle has the right attitude- the film is bustling with energy and crackling with wry humor. I remember Davis's appearance in a Miami Vice episode, playing a pimp in a flamboyant red garb. He really didn't give a fuck what anyone thought. Miles Ahead is definitely something Davis would have enjoyed watching, since he was never a classicist anyway.

Don Cheadle and Emayatzy Corinealdi on making MILES AHEAD

 photo 7f74a82f-ae74-49bb-89c5-f066f7c4a9d2_zpszxewhsv9.jpg
Got a chance to attend a roundtable interview with the star, director and co-writer Don Cheadle and his co-star Emayatzy Corinealdi for his unconventional Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead which opens this weekend in New York and LA. Clearly a passion project for Cheadle, he talks in-dept about how he became involved in the project that's been brewing for such a long time. He and Corinealdi also talk about trials and tribulations of low-budget independent filmmaking and channeling the real life subjects.

Q: How did you get in to that raspy Miles Davis voice?

Don Cheadle: It’s just listening and trying to find where it’s centered and…just working on it. It feels like a second skin, I guess in a way. And staying in it, you know. It was something that many days I had to stay in to keep it there. It was tricky because when you were directing from across the room. (laughs) So there was a lot of getting up and crossing the room to talk to people.

Did it ruin your voice though?

DC: No I don’t think so. Tried to support it and do it the right way so you are not just tearing your throat out.

The thing I like the best about the film was the energy and I really felt like your filmmaking technique was mirroring Davis’s iconoclastic, restless approach to music.

DC: That’s what the intent was of course. To create something that felt like Miles as opposed to doing a document that is kind of didactic - this is when he met Charlie Parker, then he met John Coltrane…you know, there are books that cover his life like that, there’s documentary, there’s radio play, there’s articles, there’s a lot of places that you can check off all the achievements and get cliff notes of his life. I wanted to do something that felt impressionistic and expansive and creative and dynamic and… Frances can be doing a pirouette toward Miles in the past and Dave Brill can finish her fall in the present, Miles looses Frances in a sort of a spin and then and it wakes Dave out of a dream. I wanted you to feel like you are walking around Miles Davis’s brain.

I love the transitions. They were so brilliant.

I thought this project was something you were born with that you had to tell Miles Davis story. But it was his nephew and son who said “we want Don Cheadle to play Miles Davis”. And you weren’t aware of this fact.

DC: I was looking to do anything but another movie about a historical figure. At that point I had done the Rat Pack and Rebound and Hotel Rwanda, Talk to Me… I kind of felt like I’ve done that and was getting sent a lot of those, “The First Black Man to X,”(everyone laughs) I mean I don’t really want to do The First Black Man to X, I mean they are great and if they are done right that’s fine but I wasn’t looking to do that. I wanted something modern and of the time, not unlike Miles.

But it had been swirling around a lot from different places. Like when I did the Rat Pack, I had to play drums in it so I bought a drum kit. I knew how to play but I didn’t know how to set it up. So I called my friend and he said I find somebody to set you up. So he shows up at the house with Tootie Heath (legendary jazz drummer). He said hey I’m Tootie Heath. I was like, I know who you are. And he sets up my drum set, tuning up toms and everything and he goes, hey did you ever think about doing a Miles Davis movie? I was like, no I never thought about it. So it was coming in from a lot of different places for years. Every eight or nine months someone would say Miles Davis. And I felt like that he was coming, to me.

And when this announcement was made, I went, well this was supposed to happen. I met with the family and they pitched, kind of conventional biography story. I said, "You gotta do something that feels like your uncle and your dad. It should be wild and inventive, unexpected and startling and weird and crazy and… I want to a gangsta movie with Miles Davis. I wanna do a heist movie with Miles Davis. I wanna do a movie that Miles Davis would want to star in. Don Cheadle is Miles Davis as Miles Davis in… that’s what I wanna do." And they said oh that sounds great. and I said, "OK, when you get something like that, call me."

And it became pretty apparent pretty quickly, in fact on my way home, the phone rang, they were calling me as I was about to call them, “ I don’t think anybody’s gonna come and pitch that. I think I have to do that." and they said, "Yeah that’s what we were going to say. you have to do it."

So they were pleased obviously.

DC: Yeah, I’m not going to say it was all a glide path to the promised land. There were some come to jesus moment - they were like, "You gotta talk to Cheryl and Erin," So we meet in the trailer. And I just let them talk, to each other. At the end of the day, I said, "I want you to be pleased. You are the first audiences and I wanted to make sure you guys are happy with this. If you guys in any way this is not honoring his legacy or shining a light on him that is unfavorable that you guy don’t want to carry forward you have to let me know." But I said, "Do you think he wouldn’t wanna do something in other movies in this kind of uncomfortable area that we’ve seen before that he’s gone on record to say that he did not like. Or do you think he would't wanna do something that feels that it wasn’t done before, especially with artist like Miles Davis?" And they always come down to say, yeah the latter.

And he wasn’t shy about things he’s done in his life. People might look at him and go wow you gonna show that? He was the first one to talk about these things. So if we tried to somehow whitewash or be coy with and skirt around those things in his life, then we would be blasted for that too. so I said I think we gotta tell that and let people see it all.

Also I wanted to bring miles back. I didn’t want to tell a story that is set in 1968 and I am locked in to this music or '54 and I gotta use this music. I wanted to bring all his music - I wanted to use hiphop, rock, funk, R&B, I wanna use everything he messed with.

How did you create his apartment? It looks so authentic and lived in.

DC: We shot it in Cincinnati. We did a lot of location hunting and we found a church in the process of converting into something else. We asked while they are in the process of converting it, whether we can used it as a set. We shot a very complicated sequence which took 2-3 days and we had to turn that place around quickly. That place had four different looks. We shot with this circular track and took a lot of scheduling to figure out. You still get to see different iterations of that place.

So it is a church—

DC: It is actually a four story church. There is upstairs and there is a main area and there is that basement that I walk down into the recording studio. Yeah that place actually exists in Cincinnati.

Emayatsy, I know you’ve spoken to Frances (Taylor) before. What were the some of the things she tell you about Miles Davis?

Emayatsy Corinealdi: She had so many stories that we was really excited about sharing. I was so glad that Don set that up early on because we really got to sit down with her and talk good three four lunches. She is as excited about having this movie out and telling his story as everyone else.

So she would just tell me little stories, little treasures that I think she had of him and she speaks of him very fondly despite all the trials and tribulations they went through. It seems to me that she has come to a place of forgiveness. they were friends, after all of that happened. They just couldn’t be together. But she was very excited about sharing all of the good times she had with him when they were together. She really and truly loved him and really wanted his story to be out.

Has she seen it yet?

EC: Yeah.

What did she think of your portrayal of her?

That is why it was so nerve-wracking. Again, Don having done playing historical figures before and me doing it for the first time… I didn’t know that she was in the theater when it played at the New York Film Festival. It wasn’t until there was a scene where it’s my face in the album cover (Someday My Prince Will Come Along) that is supposedly hers. And she shouts out from behind me, “Yep there she is.” I was like why didn’t anyone tell me that she was here? So the whole rest of the movie I am kind of watching and kind of listening to her reactions.

DC: That’s the worst.

EC: The worst! No one told me she was seating right there!

DC: Because I was freaked out too!

EC: So afterwords we had a party and she sits down and she comes to me and says, “I just loved that you really showed me with such strength and integrity." And that was just it. That’s all I needed to hear. So I would say that she was pleased with it.

I think that’s the fabulous thing that Don did have the cooperation of the family. There might have been disagreements and everything but the fact that you can sit down in the trailer and have a discussion, that doesn’t always happen. I think that’s been a wonderful part of getting this done.

What was the most difficult part of portraying Frances?

EC: All of it was really difficult for me. The point of entry that I was very intrigued about was her saying yes to the question of giving everything up for him. That scene for me was… when that happens in the bathtub really left me speechless - you don’t really know what to say or how to respond. And I think that was kind of the hardest part for me just because of the nature of what you are being asked to do. And because of the career she was already building for herself up to that point.

That was what was so interesting to me. She was one of the original members of the West Side Story and worked with Sammy Davis Jr. and all of that. So she had this career that was burgeoning. but again that time period, that’s what a lot of women did. It’s also not as common to women to have a career like she was beginning to build. So that might have been the hardest part for me.

And then, I was telling Don the other day in an interview that it was hard for me to see the movie where he is talking on the phone with me and he has all these women around him in bed. It shocked me watching it, “My god that’s what you are doing!?” I know it was in the script but it really gave me a different reaction when I saw it on screen. So all of that was very difficult.

Was that scene where you are physically fighting and it gets really violent. Was it difficult to shoot?

DC: Well, Emayatsi was upset with me that day because I wouldn’t let her go through the table with me. (everyone laughs).

EC: I could’ve done that!

DC: She was like, "I want to go through the table!" No no you can’t do that. If I go through the table and get hurt that’s one thing but you go through the table and you get hurt then that I can’t live with. So, stunt actress is gonna go through the table.

EC: And I was standing on the side watching her like, (giving us snake eyes)

DC: Oh man, she was really upset. But the way that scene happens in the movie editorially actually was kind of happy accident. We were playing the scene back and there were different tracks - one is dialog and one is music and one is effects and so on. And when I come upstairs and we had started our argument that turns into the fight and for some reason audio track was down for the dialog and the music was just up and I had this visceral reaction where it felt to me like putting your hands over your ears - I didn’t want to hear the fight and I knew what the fight was about, we know what the fight is- it's like we don’t need to hear the specific words of the fight and this beautiful music is playing juxtaposed against the violence that’s happening upstairs and they are tearing their relationship apart and yo uknpw what’s being said that you don’t have to hear the words to understand it. That was an accident.


DC: And my editor starts to turn up t he sound and I said don’t turn the dialog up and lets just sit here and listen to this music as they are having this fight and tearing their relationship apart and just feel it. and we stop the scene afterwords and my editor and I just looked at each other and went, what the fuck just happened? Wow that was intense. And I’m like, "That stays. do it like that!"

You do play trumpet in the movie. Tell us about that process.

DC: Just like anything you know. You pick it up and I had a couple of good instructors. Fernando Pullum who is actually in the film in the recording session - the columbia session. But it was mostly me spending hours with that unrelenting, mean instrument, playing every day. It was important to me that I was out there trying to reach Miles and pulling Miles toward me and we met somewhere in the middle out there. and playing trumpet was an important part of it.

I have a personal pet peeve when I see actors in movies and they are playing musicians and its clear that they don’t have any real relationship with that instrument that they are playing. You are just over the back of the piano and see someone’s hands, So I wanted to play I really wanted to find that. You know I travel with my horn every day now.

I was gonna ask you. so you kept it up.

DC: Yeah I’ve been keeping it up. I actually like it and miss it when I don’t play.

So is there an album that's in the works?

DC: No no no no. But I play on the sound track a little bit.

What was that scene at the end. How did you bring everyone together? I bet it was an easy ask, like Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding…

DC: It was an easy ask? It was not an easy ask! If we didn’t have bonding in the film we wouldn’t have gotten that scene. We didn’t budget it, we didn’t know where we were gonna shoot it, we didn’t have a schedule for it. It was something that we shot after we wrapped. In Cincinnati, we were carrying the scene and my producer and I were like, "We have to shoot this." "I know. How are we gonna do this?" "We don’t know." so we had to keep figuring this out and robbing peter to pay paul and figuring out and calling favors and ultimately they all just wanted to do it for the love of the game. You know they were like if you put us up and get us there and feed us, we’ll do it.

So you shot that in Cincinnati.

DC: No it was shot here, at BAM later.

Who were the people involved for the last scene?

DC: Esperanza Spaulding, Gary Clark Jr., Antonio Sanchez, Herbie (Hancock), Wayne (shorter), Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold. Keyon actually did a lot of overdub for trumpet playing when we were using Miles’s music I am actually playing but we are not using my sound. We are using Miles when it’s Miles but Keyon also does music for Junior (LaKeith Stanfield in the movie).

But he was doing magic because in regular ADR, you are looping to what you already said. There is a guide track and you are covering your guide track when you are doing it verbally. You watch it on the big screen and you time it and in three beeps you synch it with your lips. Keyon and Rob and all of the band had to come in after and play over what we had done improvasationally. So especially Rob, with playing with his hands and approximate what that was on the screen, and for Keyon, there’s only three valves in the trumpet. And so he had to look at pictures…

That's crazy.

DC: It’s insane and impossible. But it was possible because he is a musician. They are all musicians and they were able to do that.

Did you enjoy working in the costumes? You have these amazing period costumes. I mean Michael Stuhlbarg has a lot of those in the movie.

DC: It’s all Gersha Phillips, our costume designer. But Frances's costumes broke the budget. That’s a tricky thing when you are doing a movie at this budget level. You have a lot of extras. In the boxing scene, there’s at least 200 extras and their costume has to be right on each one of them. So you have to be very strategic where you spend money and how you spend it. The favors you are pulling, the costume houses Gersha’s calling up and grabbing things and army of people across the country and leaning on her outre relationship to go to thrift stores and pull things. Just being very creative was how she put all the stuff together.

But there were couple of things she had to build though. (to Corineadi) Like your wedding dress, my suit the first suit you see me in and I think the first dress you are in. She had to make those.

EC: Yeah she did.

DC: There were time she’d come in and say, the suits are 1200 dollars and I had to spend it. You can’t be Miles and go out there half-assed. So we gonna break the bank on this one. But you don’t get to do this over here instead. and that’s what you do when you do a low budget movie. Pamela Hirsch, one of our producers, was playing wackamole figuring out how to save and how to spend.

Ultimately, you wanna spend all your contingency money, you don’t want anything left in the bank when you are done. No reason to wrap and go, wow we saved 5 grand. But why the fuck you save five grand? Should’ve put that in there. We were actually very effective.

But I mean Miles Davis is jazz. Why wouldn’t anyone give money to do this movie?

DC: I think Miles would’ve gone off on you when you say that or he would’ve just walked out. (laughs)

When we were planning this, we would do a survey in the room: Miles Davis. Who is he? And you go… a musician? OK. You got that right. Black? you got that right. What music? Some people go, I’m not sure. So we lose people there. Jazz? OK. What did he play? What instrument? Eh…, we lose about 30 percent there. A trumpet. Ah ok. He is the guy who blew cheeks out really big? No.

This is the thing. We all kind of investigated and wanna know all about that stuff but it’s still not bigger percentage of general population knows about Miles Davis - who he was, what he did and what he played, what his music is. A lot of people think that jazz is something you put on in the background of a cocktail party or something that goes in the elevator. They don't really think about it as an American history. So it wasn’t surprising to me that this movie was difficult to get made. They attempted to do this decades ago. They predate me for about twenty years. They tried to do it for a long time.

What’s Wynton Marsalis’s contribution to this film

DC: He’s an old friend. He gave me my trumpet. I called him up and asked him what kind of trumpet I’d need when I started to learn the trumpet. I said, "I’m gonna work on this can you point me the right direction?" He said, "I’m gonna get you a trumpet. You can’t buy a trumpet. But don’t worry about it. I can get you the axe." So he called the trumpet maker, asked him, "I know it takes a year to make one but Don needs one right now." And he gave me the shop horn which was a sort of a demo horn. But everyone had played on it. Arturo Sandoval had played on it. Everyone had played on it. I almost didn’t want to touch it at first. I mean this is better than a brand new horn.

Did you ever get a chance to meet Miles?

DC: I just did a radio thing with Marcus Miller the other day and talked about this. I saw him in 1982 in Red Rock Colorado amphitheater. It was the actually the tour right after he came out of this silent period. The We Want Miles tour. It was with rock musicians, Mike Stern and Marcus Miller and I think Harvey Mason I saw that day and Mino (Cinelu)… this African percussionist. It was just crazy mix of all these different artists from all these different disciplines and they went out that night. They really played. That’s what they would do. Miles paid them to rehearse in front of people and to figure it out in front of people which to me is the highest respect that you can give. It’s like, “We are gonna show you the process, not just give you the thing that tied a neat bow and hand it to you. We gonna show you how we get to this place.

But I was with some of my school friends there not to see Miles. I was there for Miles but they listen to a song or two and they were like, we should go. We stayed for Spyro Gyra and we gonna leave? No offense to Spyro Gyra but it’s Miles Davis. So that was my last High School concert before college.

Emayatsi, there’s a lot of talk about #blackgirlmagic. What about Frances was the embodiment of that?

EC: Frances even now has this light about her, this energy, zest for life that I found very attractive from the first time I met her. As soon as you meet her you feel that she has this energy.

DC: She sure does.

EC: She really does! She does. I definitely think that she possesses that. She has this very positive outlook and was very warm to me. To me for her to just be of age that she is and still just wonderfully independent and her mind is very sharp and I think that’s beautiful.

The official Miles Davis bio section contains the line: Miles forever forged ahead, trusting and following instinct until the end. Did you find your instinct ever crossing path with Miles’s?

DC: I think Miles’ instinct was to always to follow your instinct. That’s why John Coltrane got his solo for twenty minutes sometimes because, there were other band members going, why do you let this dude play twenty minutes? and he’d say, because he is trying to find something. He is hunting for something and I’m gonna give him the space to figure it out.

Herbie said one of the first time he played with Miles. He’d go out on stage and Miles starts playing and Herbie’s like 19, 20 years old and was like, "I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to play," and he’d go, “Piano motherfucker!” He was like, I hired you because you can play. You are the man. Do it. You wouldn't be sitting here if you weren’t good. I want you to follow your instinct cause then I can follow you. I don’t want do dictate here what has to happen.

I mean Tony Williams, when he was leading the band, leading rehearsals, dictating how things would go, he was seventeen years old. Miles let seventeen year old drummer lead his band, basically. He was saying, "I’ll follow you." I mean who does that? Miles dictum was always, you follow your own instinct.

Even his Erin (his son) at the press conference at the SXSW, when they were asking him about how the movie was made and if he thinks his dad would be proud, he goes, "I watched the movie and I don’t feel like I was watching Miles Davis, I know that’s Don. That’s not my father." But he knows that Miles doesn’t want him to be me. He wants to be himself being me. "Do your version of me." And that’s how I saw the place where my imagination of him and he intersect and not do something that is pure mimicry, you know. We go to Vegas and find a cat who can probably do Miles Davis spot on perfectly. I was trying to find out what’s going on underneath there.

Small minor details I noticed: there is a scene where Bewitched is playing in the TV in the background. Why Bewitched?

DC: Well, there is a reality that things you can afford. (everyone laughs) Something that is licence-able in our price range. In fact, that clip is amazing.

I thought there was a meaning to it.

DC: And there was. In a clip, Endura is saying something about, I think she is talking about Darrin in the clip. She’s talking about him being in this state of confusion. It is commenting on what’s happening with Miles at that moment.

Was Ewan (McGregor) always in your mind to play the role of Brill? I kept thinking Velvet Goldmine.

DC: Ewan was always high on the list for me. He was definitely our first choice to play that role. That was in the script that we wrote in 2008, when we wrote that character in in the second reiteration of the reboot. But Ewan was someone we had hoped to get and we were very fortunate that he had read the script and jumped right in. There were some things people talked about the way things should be different. We need to change this and we need more of that. But when I finally sat down with him, he said, “Anything that you hear about I need to be different, that’s not me. I think the part’s great and I love it. I don’t think you should change any of it. I wanna do it just as it is. I can’t wait to be part of it.” And we were so lucky to have him. A great additive that made everything better. Him being onboard also got the ball rolling financially for us.

Not you?

DC: No. Look, there are realities of making movies at this budget level. Any movie is hard to make. Any independent movies is hard to put together and casting is a big component of it. And you have to have a foreign market sales strategy - you have to have something that appeals to foreign market not only to domestic market. And Ewan checked all those boxes for us. And he is a great actor. So it was a win-win.

Did you cast LaKeith yourself or he came to the casting?

DC: No I cast LaKeith. I mean I cast both Emayatzy and LaKeith. I mean I saw Emayatzy’s movie, Middle of Nowhere, also saw her audition and casted her. The first day we shot was the scene where she running out of the house screaming. That was her first day of shooting. Welcome to the set.

Lakeith, I cast him off tape. His audition was really interesting because it was just…he shot it himself in his house and he was reading the lines and some dude was reading off camera and it was an intense scene. He really was jumping off the screen even on the computer. I was like, who is this dude? And I met him and told him, " You have a very strong audition tape and who was the reader in your tape? I think he was great too. Can I put him in the movie too?" and he said, “That was me, too." What? And he said, "Oh I just recorded myself playing the other part with an iPhone and just played back." I was like, OK, this kid is good, "You wanna play Miles?" (laughs)

In the press notes it said you wrote the script to the musical cues. Can you talk about that process?

DC: I think many writers write with music in mind as they are creating the story. We were lucky to have Miles Davis’ library to rely on. Steven (Beigelman) and I wrote with a lot of specific music that’s in the movie in mind. And kind of imagined scenes to the soundtrack. His music is very cinematic and lends itself very well to soundtrack. We were lucky to get most of the music we wanted to get for the film. That sequence right after Bewitched where Miles is dragging Frances through the house looking for her imaginary lover and the fight scene in the present where he is trying to find the tapes, to try to get back his music, I just kinda wrote all of it in a blur to the So What in Miles’ Tokyo record. That I just regurgitated out in one sitting. I sent it to Steven and asked him and he said, "Yep, put that in." So sometimes it works like that to be inspired by a piece of music.

Do you wanna direct more?

DC: Not like this. I have been offered jobs to direct since this which is great. I’ll probably take it on after a long nap.

Are you thinking about crowdfunding for the new one too?

DC: I hope that won’t be necessary. I mean I am glad that we were able to do it and it's nice to have in a movie where main character is about social music and social media be part of it. To have it crowdfund and have that hashtag social media behind it. But I hope to be able to have a budget that it wouldn’t require me to call Pras and kevin Hart and put all my money and pay for myself and all the things we had to do to make it happen.

Now people know what you can do. so hopefully that will make a huge difference.

DC: We’ll see.

Miles Ahead opens in New York and Los Angeles on 4/1. National roll out will follow.

Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Stunning Allegory of Man's Fear

Evolution (2015) - Hadzihalilovic
 photo 87d33d59-d843-436e-9c9e-2d4b41345b8e_zpsu3ir4fl0.jpg
So more than 10 years after Innocence, Lucille Hadzihaliovic returns with a stunning companion piece, Evolution. Innocence, an allegorical tale of reaching puberty and womanhood was a cinematic feast for the eyes. This time she turns her attention to young boys. Shot by Manuel Dacosse (Amer, Strange Color of Your Body's Tears) in anamorphic format, the result is equally impressive. If all-girl boarding school in the forest served as a conditioning girls to conform to traditional female roles, or worse, be a man's toy in Innocence, in Evolution, a remote, manless white village on the jagged coast of volcanic island and coarse black sand (shot in Lanzarote, Canary Islands) with a creepy medical lab serves as the backdrop for men's fear of penetration and pregnancy.

There are no grown up men nor young girls in this white walled village, literally a stones throw away from roaring sea. All the women are uniformly androgynous, wearing the same style beige clothes, including Nicolas's mom, who feeds him some kind of green worm mush and ink drops "to make him strong". One day, diving into the bottom of the sea floor, he finds a dead body with a bright red starfish on it. He mentions this to mom. She shrugs it off, telling him that he doesn't know what he actually saw. He notices that mom sometimes goes out at night to the shore along with all other young moms in the village. He secretly follows her one night and witnesses a ritualistic orgy of women. They are all naked and putting some sort of slime all over their bodies.

Nicolas is soon taken to a decrepit medical building few steps away where they inject something in his belly. It is all perceived as a normal procedure, as his friends are all there, spending the night to recover. Nicolas senses that there is larger conspiracy and decides that mom is not his real mom. Soon he finds that his friends are disappearing in the lab and he finds bodies floating in a tank filled with green water. With the help of a kindly red haired young nurse, he plans to escape.

Anamorphic cinematography is out of this world. Underwater photography is rapturous. Its intentionally underexposed look gives the film ominous feeling whole throughout. Don't miss seeing it on the big screen.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

An Affecting Ghost Story Set in Death Valley

Valley of Love (2015) - Nicloux
 photo a64beffc-ae44-4e48-bfbe-02a37bfac3f7_zpswtf9p7tx.jpg
It strikes me as peculiar that Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert, two of the French cinema's titans, each appeared in hundreds of films (Depardieu 217 films, Huppert 126 to date according to imdb), had previously worked together in just 2 films - Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuse (1974) where young Huppert had a supporting role and Maurice Pialat's great Loulou (1980). But some 36 years later, they are together again in Guillaume Nicloux (Kidnapping of Michel Huellebecq, The Nun)'s Valley of Love, a film that takes place in Death Valley, playing themselves, well, sort of. Deeply anchored in these two veteran actors' chemistry, the film is much more than a coy, reflexive exercise in celeb-dom but a deeply affecting drama about grief and a physical manifestation of guilt.

Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) and Gérard (Gérard Depardieu), French actors who were a couple 30 years ago but divorced and now each with own family, are summoned by their dead son who sent each a letter just before his suicide, to be in Death Valley for a week and be at specific places at specific times because he will reappear in front of them. It's November, but the sun is blazing and temperature reaches almost 140 degrees day and night.

Isabelle gets there first, spending most of her time in the hotel pool or in the shade while fighting bad cell phone receptions. This is Isabelle Huppert we know, at least physically - a petite redhead with more pronounced freckles on her pale skin because of unforgiving desert sun.

Then comes Gérard, a beast of a man, who is sweating profusely and wheezing with his each step. He is grown more beastly now- simply gigantic, following the footsteps of other greats who let themselves go- Welles and Brando. "Are you happy?" she asks, "How could I be, being like this?" he retorts. But never a prude, he lets his girth out in the open most of the screen time.

There are some funny bits about them being famous French actors being in America. A man recognizes Gérard at a poolside, but doesn't remember any of the titles that he saw him in. He asks for an autograph and Gérard signs it Bob DeNiro. Later they were asked which one is more popular in France.

Isabelle is the one who feels more guilty about being a bad parent. She sent away their son to a prep school when he was young and never really connected with him. Gérard saw him from time to time but not much better. Their son was living in Mission District of San Fran and had a boyfriend. He had visited Death Valley before. That much we know. Did he have AIDS? The grieving mother can only speculate. In his letters, he adamantly asks both to ask each other to come because they wouldn't come alone. Out of duty (Gérard) and guilt (Isabelle), they did. He says that he is leaving early to make an important appointment before the end of promised week. Besides, he thinks the whole thing was their son's last attempt to have them get back together And it's working somehow.

As the days pass by, strange things start to happen. In a gripping sequence, we follow Gérard in his night time stroll. He looks up on Isabelle's hotel window (it's a bungalow style two story hotel) full of yearning and sees the lights inside go off. Then he hears her scream, and the camera tracks behind him as he slowly, clumsily makes his way to her room. No intruders are found but she claims that someone was in her bed and grabbed her ankles. He tries to convince her that she had a bad dream, but someone's left a physical mark on her ankles. Later in a Lynchian sequence, Gérard encounters a girl with a deformed face at an empty tennis court at night. She says she was waiting there for him, to die.

What's great about Valley of Love is two veteran actors' effortless rapport. With their complete ease with each other, you could totally believe that they were once a couple and have known each other forever. Huppert, prolific as ever, is no surprise here and gives a beautifully fine tuned, vulnerable performance as a grieving mother. Depardieu, whose real life antics drew more spotlight than his acting outputs in the last decade or so (though I haven't seen Inspector Bellamy or Welcome to New York), proves here why he is still one of the greats. Despite the physical discomforts, he gives a very understated, introspective, tender performance. The best scenes are perhaps them reading each other's letter from their son that are addressed to them. The long letters tell missed opportunities, regrets and love.

Death Valley, the place full of mysticism and spirituality, makes a great backdrop for a ghost story. Nicloux uses its physicality in cinemascope to highlight what's invisible, intangible - grief, regrets, love. Valley of Love is a quietly affecting film with beautifully nuanced performances by two of the greats.

Valley of Love played as part of this years Rendez-vous with French Cinema. It opens theatrically on 3/25 at FSLC. Please visit their website for details.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Adolescent in Spirit: Arnaud Desplechin Interview

 photo 9cc81f2d-a615-4734-80b2-eb5f7668eac4_zpsaszytukv.jpg
Arnaud Desplechin's magnificent new film, My Golden Days, opens theatrically today at FSLC in New York. It was preceded by a week long 8-film retrospective. I was lucky enough to snag an interview on the eve of the film's theatrical release with Desplechin who's known for his slightly amplified, messy, life-like stories.

Our conversation topic went from his new film, to his muse Mathieu Amalric, to other directors work he admire. It was a great experience talking to another cinephile who also happens to be a director of my favorite film of the year so far.

First of all, congratulations for winning the Best Director award at this year’s Cesár.

Arnaud Desplechin: Oh yes. I was happy. I was very happy with that.

I watched MY GOLDEN DAYS the other day and I have to tell you. It’s one of my favorite movies this year so far. It’s really fantastic.

Thank you so much.

So we saw Paul (Dedalus) and Esther characters some twenty years ago in your film, MY SEX LIFE (OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT). What’s the reason behind bringing them back again after all these years?

Actually I didn’t start with the idea of writing a prequel or whatever of Paul and Esther. I started with this couple with different names. In My Sex Life, the guy was already a Parisian and the girl was from the countryside you know. Then I realized that in My Goden Days, there are four characters who have to fit together and again I thought of My Sex Life. I talked with Mathieu (Amalric), “Twenty years ago, you and I regarded Paul as a sort of a hero, so if My Golden Days is going to be a prequel of some sort, you might have to go back and resume playing that character” and Mathieu said, “ No, I wouldn't be able to make the film.”

Because things have changed since then. Mathieu is a big movie star now and he wouldn’t be able to go back and play the same character the way he did. You know back then, he wasn’t an actor. He was a technician. He didn’t plan to be an actor. So in order to go back to the character, he had to find new ways to portray - the idiosyncrasies Paul had, the difficult relationships he had with his mother, how her death made deep impact on him dealing with women. You know the fact Paul was much more cautious and shy than Esther who seems solid as a rock. I thought it would be interesting to see the birth of their love.

MY GOLDEN DAYS can’t be an autobiography since the characters are about ten years younger than you. So is it loosely autobiographical or is it pure fiction?

I can see it as both. On one hand I am older than the characters, more than ten years. But I liked the idea of making a period piece. I wanted to set it during the fall of the Berlin walls, 1989. There was still the feeling of Cold War time and how we thought of Russia and all of that ended up there.

You know I’ve been a cinephile since I was ten. We cinephiles lead a very boring life. I don’t share the expanses of experience that Paul had. He is much more adventurous throughout his whole life. On the other hand, I tried to give a sense of autobiography. I like to share the feeling the characters are experiencing.

It’s funny because I could phrase it that way - I am asking actors on set not to just give me their acting craft. I’m sure their craft is wonderful and I expect that because I respect the art of acting. But I am asking them to give me the feeling of intimacy, something… the feelings that come out when they are speaking as themselves. So I’m just trying to be a good actor amongst good actors. I am trying to give you the feeling that the film is autobiographical.

I have to comment amazing performances by newcomers Quentin Dolmaire as Paul and Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther. I had a chance to interview Mathieu Amalric for BLUE ROOM last year. He says he owes everything to you. What is your method for actors that they say such things about your directing?

I would say Mathieu is too generous. I owe him a lot. There is a scene in My Golden Days where Paul writes a very long letter to his friend saying that he hopes he was good for Esther. I loved the words that was written and my friend (Julie Peyr of Parisienne) was helping me on the script and she was asking me how I would film that scene. Mathieu would come and we would find out the solution! I wouldn’t dare to write such long lines but he would come and help me. I owe him so much.

I don’t know about my method. But I know one thing and I am quite proud of it. I talked with Quentin before the shoot. I never behave like a teacher. When I did My Sex Life with Mathieu, we just had dialog, just simple ordinary dialog.

The only trick, if you can call it that, I have is even though I am a terrible actor, but I tried to act in front of them. So if we don’t find a solution, I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself by acting in front of them, rightly or wrongly. They see you are ridiculous. It encourages them to be ridiculous as well.

I loved where grown up Paul going off on his old friend and his wife at the end. It was such an impolite thing to do as a grownup to a friend you haven’t seen for twenty years. And that’s why I loved it. I loved Paul at that moment, his imperfections, his passion, his resolute behavior that he’s never going to forgive his friend as long as he lives.

Without Mathieu that scene wouldn’t have been possible. Absolutely not. Being serious and being humorous at the same time. It’s serious and funny at the same time. During the scene there was a wonderful moment I realized because when Paul was 19, he was behaving like he was 55. He was too reasonable, cautious, wise… and when he finally became an old man, he behaves like he is an adolescent! That’s what I love about the scene. Paul is a fool, full of rage and anger.

Do you share the same sentiment if you were in the same predicament?

(laughs) What I share with Paul is the idea to save certain things from the past- not forget it but save it. Obviously there is a price to pay if you save the past. You have to move to another chapter of your life somehow. But you also should be faithful to your younger self.

I couldn’t shake off the film’s melancholic mood. You can totally feel Paul’s heart being broken as he drifted apart from Esther. The differences in this film from something like Fellini’s 8 1/2 is that it’s so truthful to life that we never grow up and we still act like children sometimes. That life is not really a fantasy.

But now you’ve grown older and you made about 9 to 10 films, do you consider this film as your 8 1/2?

What is it?

The Fellini film?

Oh Huit et demi. Funny you mention that film. I just finished writing a script and I was so happy and full of excitement. I was discovering new writing process and et cetera, and for the first time in my life that my main character is a film director!

That’s so funny!

It's always difficult to do because with that kind of character, it could be obnoxious. I think I found a way. Mathieu told me one day that the best European actor we ever had was Marcello Mastroianni. An actor who was not afraid of being ridiculous and so beautiful at the same time. I think Mathieu has learned something from Mastroianni for sure.

He is your Mastroianni.

Oh yeah. He is not Jean-Pierre Leaud. He is definitely Mastroianni.

Speaking of Jean-Pierre and Truffaut, back in 2005 when you came to Brooklyn, you showed double bill of MISSISSIPPI MERMAID and THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS instead of your movies when asked about your retrospective. Your cinephilia is well known. This year you are here for your real retrospective. What would you have shown in place of your films if you had a chance?

Funny you ask me that question. I was supposed to present a double feature at Metrograph but because of my schedule, I had to cancel it. I was going to show Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach which I adore and The Earrings of Madame de… by Ophüls. Both heroines with no full names.

That would’ve been really excellent!

You showed your admiration for Wes Anderson and Tarantino. Who are some of your favorite contemporary directors nowadays?

Right now a lot of them for sure. One of the best directors alive is Jia Zhangke, of course. I didn’t get a chance to see his new film (Mountains May Depart) but I am seeing it tomorrow. I really have a high hopes for it because I heard about it a lot and I just couldn’t see it because of my schedule.

It's fantastic!

I am also very interested in seeing the new Scorsese series Vinyl. I heard a lot of good things about that and I can’t wait to see it.

I’m really happy that you have a very strong, mature generation of filmmakers working here in America. You've always had Hollywood but today you have Tarantino - I loved Hateful Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson, who is so fascinating, and you have Noah Baumbach, whose films I love. You have a very solid generation of directors, Wes Anderson being one of them.

That’s a great affirmation of American cinema from a reputable cinephile as yourself. One film I really loved last year was EDEN by Mia Hansen-love.

She has a new one out: L’avenir. The one that was in Berlin?

The one with Isabelle Huppert?

Yeah the one with Huppert. I haven’t seen it yet.

Me neither but I am dying to. I really loved EDEN. When I was watching MY GOLDEN DAYS--

Eden is a great film. A great film.

I can see the correlation with your film and EDEN.

I love that you mention her because she is the most important talent today. She stands alone in a way in France. She is so peculiar and singular…I was not lucky enough to catch her art in previous films before but after I watched Eden…oh I love that movie! Now I know I am a fan.

What’s the name of your new script?

Ismael and the Ghosts.

And it’s going to be Mathieu who’s going to be playing the director?

Oh I don’t know. I don’t write scripts with particular actors in mind anymore. I try not to do new projects with actors I already worked with. But I love him so perhaps he will be in it.

It’s been really honor to talk to you. As a fellow cinephile, you are an inspiration to me with your enthusiasm and your filmmaking. I loved JIMMY P and hope you make another film in the States. It will be fascinating.

Thank you. It will happen one way or another.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Wounded Heart, Haunting Memories

Les trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse/My Golden Days (2015) - Desplechin
 photo 4f438fca-c7fd-479f-b1d0-3a5d8cafaf5b_zpslrstlbwn.jpg
Paul Dedalus, a character last seen in Arnaud Desplechin's playful romantic comedy, Comment je me suis disputé... (Ma vie sexualle), reemerges to guide us through intensely vivid, intimate memories of his life as a young man. Trois Souvenirs has very little in common other than some names of the characters and the time frame. It is also interesting to note that it's not quite an autobiographical film since Desplechin, now in his mid 50s, is making film about people slightly younger than his age (in 1989, he was 29 years old not 19). But in its melancholic tone and sense of regret, and 10 films after since his debut in 1991, the film has the feel of aging artist searching for a defining moment(s) in his youth. And it's a beauty to behold.

The film's unwieldiness and varying tone settles after 1/3rd way in and it becomes a heartbreaking, long drawn love affair of Paul and Esther(mainly played by newcomers Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet). Desplechin knows how first love affects people- how it makes people certain way for the rest of their lives. We see Dedalus as a kid who was traumatized by an overbearing, crazy mother who commits suicide, as a teen who resolutely gets involved in pseudo political espionage act to help a total stranger escape from dire situations in the former Communist Russia on a school trip there --the episode that catapulted now grown up Paul (Mathieu Amalric) to revisit his past, and as a chain smoking, competent petit-intellectual whose life gets rattled by a long beautiful/torturous relationship with a beautiful girl, Esther (Roy-Lecollinet).

All the characters, even the minor ones, are so well drawn and beautifully acted by Desplechin's young cast. Utterly believable and charming in its sincerity, Trois Souvenirs puts any bombastic films looking back at one's life to shame. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part is Paul, now grown up anthropologist, getting a letter from Kovalki, one of his childhood friends who slept with Esther in his absence, asking for her address. Months later, he then runs into him at a concert, now a married man, Kovalki asks him about the letter. Now supposedly all grown up, yet still keeping all the bottled up feelings for those heartbreaks and memories, Paul blows up on his old friend and his wife. Childish and self-centered one might say. But Desplechin knows all too well that it's our abilities to remember that makes us human. Easily one of the best films I've seen this year so far.

DIY Mission to Mars

A Space Program (2015) - Neistat
 photo 47d58d0e-327d-4af2-9c69-4582d01f301f_zpsmsd9tllq.jpg
The moon landing conspiracy theories have been around -- and a constant subject for documentaries and narrative films -- since Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon in 1969.

The story goes that Stanley Kubrick was hired by NASA to fake it because they didn't have resources or technology and were on tight deadline from the commander in chief. It was the Cold War era and the space race was on full swing. There are at least a couple of movies that are already out about this very subject this year alone: Antoine Bardou Jacquet's Moonwalkers and Matt Johnson's Operation Avalanche.

In keeping with this tradition, A Space Program, directed by Van Neistat (HBO's The Neistat Brothers), documents Tom Sachs' 2012 interactive installation show Space Program 2.0: MARS in 33,000 square feet Park Avenue Armory in New York. Sachs, a sculptor known for his ironic take on brand name products via DIY means, set out to do a massive scale interactive show about a staged space mission to Mars with all the materials built from scratch.

Audiences were invited to experience a TV-studio-like fake retro Mars landing in all seriousness. The result was an entertaining spectacle of make-belief and a performance art on stage that successfully faked the NASA Control Room dramatics. Neistat, who with his brother Casey started his career making fun of Apple's lack of a battery replacement policy in a short video, is a good choice to chronicle Sachs' highly idiosyncratic endeavor.

The documentary covers the installation show in painstaking detail. Think of A Space Program as a DIY version (everything was built with plywood, tape and epoxy glue) of a Mars landing movie co-directed by Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry and you get the picture, perhaps slightly less whimsical. On stage, we see how things are laid out: a makeshift Control Room, working replica of life size Moon/Mars Lander, and surface of Mars all right next to each other.

The elaborate Control Room set up is quite impressive: multiple old style tube monitors with handwritten signs, switchboard and speakers manned by men (including Sachs) in white half-sleeve button down shirts, horn rimmed glasses and black ties. Many of them don big mustache and seizelessly smoke cigarettes. Everything is captured by DIY TV studio cameras and small handheld, wired DIY video cameras, from astronauts going into the lander (using the rickety ladders to climb up and into) to the launch of the historical Mars landing.

Glued to the grainy video feed on the big screen, they eat their McDonald's dinner. Our lovely astronauts are steel metal worker Sam (Sam Rataranat) and Carpenter Mary (Mary Eannarino). After the Wes Anderson style character introductions with their funny code names, brief bios and catchy visuals, the narrators put an emphasis on the mission's real mission: Putting the first woman on Mars.

Throughout the mission, we are informed with helpful hand drawn and physical instructions on the complicated inner-workings of tybek space suit, ingenuous compartmental system of Mars Lander interior, a shelf full of space-food (rows of whiskey bottles) and a graphic demonstration on how to use a space toilet.

A big globe is a stand-in for the mother earth. A giant unevenly shaped red ball is Mars. They simply fake the space travel with the combination of stock footage, pulling the small makeshift camera on a string and toy rockets on a wire with hand drawn, LED lit background.

As if these cool technical specifications and all the handmade gadgets aren't enough, we have Lt. Sam and Commander Mary's team dynamics battling for our attention. After their successful launch into space, they are seen tending to their lesbian tendencies rather than their astronaut duties. Once they get to Mars, tempers fly and blame games begin when the mission doesn't go as they planned (getting samples of Mars soil in search of intelligent life).

Our astronauts finally get the samples after digging through the Mars surface (the hardwood floor) with a hack saw and circular saw and send it back to earth in dramatic fashion while their oxygen running critically low. The entire Control Room team watches their mission on the big monitor, completely gripped. And live audiences watch them from their bleecher seat and we watch the whole thing on screen. Would they make it? This is a nail-biting, edge of your seat stuff!

A Space Program's charm largely depends on Sachs' ingenuous designs, his attention to details and playfulness- from life size Mars Landers to plywood constructed, red painted Mars rocks to fake seriousness of his crew. His ironic take on name branding, this time the NASA logo, is seen everywhere- the space suit, the Lander, tumblers on the desks and many more. Neistat's snappy visual style is a good match for Sachs' idiosyncratic creations. The film isgreat fun.

A Space Program opens on March 18 at Metrograph in New York and April 7 at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. Zeitgeist Films is releasing the film. Please visit their website for more roll out dates and other information.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Vampirism Feminism

Byzantium (2013) - Jordan
 photo fa06594d-a82c-492c-b2f8-9f7b729499bc_zpscfdljf85.jpg
I can't think anyone more qualified than Neil Jordan to direct a hardcore feministing vampire film. This sumptuous, bloody take on cold blooded, eternal beings is a total antidote to what the genre has become over the last dacade. Byzantium concerns Clara (Gemma Atherton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a 200 year old vampire mother/sister/daughter team in England's depressed seaside towns, trying to eck out a living any way they know how. Clara works as a stripper and a prostitute to provide for her teenage daughter but seems determined to keep Eleanor out of her profession. Some vampiric men from the old order, under the guise of law enforcement, are after them because Clara defied their every rule, especially the one about creating a female kind. It's brotherhood of the vampires, sisters not allowed. The duo ends up in a small seaside town where Clara successfully seduces a local schlub who owns an old empty hotel called Byzantium. They move in and turn it into a whorehouse. Eleanor befriends a frail local boy Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) who is undergoing treatment for leukemia.

Through the series of flashbacks, the girls plight is revealed: their origins, foes and deplorable conditions they had to endure in the Victorian era.

While Ronan's classical, timeless beauty is perfect for the incorruptible eternal youth, it's Atherton who shows a great range as a tragic figure as a ferocious survivor and a protector that she is much more than a t&a. Too bad about the hunky knight of shining armor saving the day at the end. I would've liked it more if Clara kicked a little more ass. Byzantium could've easily been a not so subtle message film: the old era is no longer valid, the old way needs to be severed in order to move on, etc (it was based on a stage play by Moira Buffini). But Jordan does a terrific job, making it as an entertaining narrative with beautiful visuals. And it's touching as well.

Friday, March 11, 2016

We are all Parisians

Parisienne (2015) - Arbid
 photo 2e674a3c-f8b2-48cd-8606-b0d28521a0ee_zpsu7p5qzdn.jpg
There is no shortage of a-young-girl-coming-of-age films in French cinema. Danielle Arbid's Parisienne charts this common, seemingly familiar territory. But it's from a perspective of a foreigner, a Lebanese girl to be precise, in the 90s. Even though the film is set in the pre-9/11 world, it resonates strongly today, with France (and much of Europe in general) going through a social upheaval the scale not seen since 1968, because of massive influx of people from the Middle East region.

The strength of Parisienne comes from stellar performance by a newcomer, Manal Issa, playing Lina: a young, defiant girl with a dubious visa status attending university in Paris. Its semi-autobiographical, beautifully nuanced script (co-written by Julie Peyr of another semi-biographical, period film, Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days- also playing as part of this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema) also helps making the film memorable.

The film starts with Lina on the eve of her life as a university student in Paris, fleeing sexual advances from her uncle (played by terrific stage and film actor Waleed Zuaiter) from Paris suburb. Once in Paris, penniless and homeless, Lina somehow manages to force herself into the cramped apartment of her classmates. She even scores a telemarketing job through one of her roommates. Just like any good foreign student, she is enrolled to study economics. But she soon has a change of heart after taking an art history and literature classes. The passionate professors Mm. Gagnebin and M. Lemernier (veteran actors Dominique Blanc and Alain Libolt), leave a big impression on our young protagonist in shaping her artistic tendencies. She also takes up an older lover Jean-Marc (Paul Hamy) who showers her with affection and gifts.

But things start falling apart when Lina inadvertently sabotages her roommate's job by being good at what she does while battling the unsympathetic immigration system. Tempers fly and the typical, jingoistic rhetoric- 'filthy immigrants are only here for handouts' is invoked. Lina ends up in a women's homeless shelter (she calls it a palace). Jean-Marc, being a married man, dumps her when things get too touchy. Then she hears her father in Lebanon is in his deathbed.

Lina then hooks up with a cafe waiter Julien (Damien Chapelle), whom she met when she first got to Paris. A low level drug dealer and a musician in his spare time, Julien introduces her to the other side of Paris - more gritty and working class, if you will. She also befriends with the royalists who frequently hang out with skinheads. Ironically, it's them who provide her with lodging. With the help of Mm. Gagnebin's lawyer friend, she tries fend off the impending deportation.

Lina is not a noble savage character as one typically gets portrayed in western films. She steals, and cheats to survive. Just like regular teenagers, she lies to make a cool impression on people, that she is an war orphan. One can easily dub Parisienne as 'An Education of Lina Kawal'. Concentrating on Lina's flight exclusively for two hour running time, the film is an intimate portrait of immigrant experience that is both very personal and universal. Arbid treats the 90s backdrop very casually (except for the appearance of Frank Black on stage - stock footage from the 90s I'm assuming, as Julien and Lina go to his concert) as if the setting and time are just numbers because we all know that history keeps repeating itself.

Lina, except for her stunning beauty, is fairly ordinary girl, adapting and blooming in complicated surroundings- be it politics, art, music, men and sex, taking all in. Issa portrays our complicated heroine with great intensity and thoughtfulness. Her presence is hard to ignore and you can't take your eyes off of her when she's on screen. All the supporting characters are stellar also. Vincent Lacoste (Eden, Diary of Chambermaid) plays a volatile socialist student, Rafael, who happens to be a son of the liberal lawyer who's helping Lina's case. He is a reminiscent of young Jean-Pierre Léaud- quick witted, wise and nonchalant. They become a couple. Elina Löwensohn (Nadja, Sombre) shows up as another foreigner in trouble with immigration at the court hearing and offers quietly heartbreaking backstory, again, illustrating what it means to be free and what's at stake in these cases.

The immigrant experience in France is a hot subject for a film as the country has been weathering some of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory and consequently had a close call politically with the extreme right wing National Front almost taking over the country in the last election. Jingoism and bigotry are rising. Films like Persepolis, Mustang and Parisienne are great reminder of changing face of France, that the immigrant experience is just as French as having a coffee at an outdoor cafe or riding a bicycle in a beret chewing on a baguette. The film's original title, Afraid of Nothing (Peur de rien) is an apt one and perfectly suited for the personal story of Lina. But the Parisians, considering the theme of the film that everyone living in Paris can be and should be called that, I think Parisienne, however generic it sounds, is a better fit.

Parisienne plays part of this year's Rendez-vous With French Cinema series. For tickets and more info, please visit FSLC website.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Frightening Female Empowerment

The Witch (2015) - Eggers
 photo bc00e13e-ce9b-46a3-826c-0765d0288985_zpsqjkw09be.jpg
Rich in historical details and atmosphere, The Witch sets out to destroy two archetypes associated with the world of New England pilgrims: patriarchy and puritanism. First time director Richard Eggers smartly goes about making a film that is both disturbing and joyous(?). What I am most impressed about the film is that Eggers clearly understands less is better. Seemingly shot only on natural lights and practicals (candles for indoor shots), the film lends itself a period documentary feel to it. General witch hysteria is kept within a family but that doesn't mean it's short on drama or tension.

The film starts with a family being cast out of the walled settlement. The reason, as we find out later, is because of the father William (Ralph Ineson)'s pride. He is one of those know-it-all, holier than thou types. William turns out to be incapable at anything. Crops are going to fail and they will starve but he is too proud to go back to the community nor back to England.

The focal point of the film is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teenage daughter and eldest of 5 of William and Katherine (Kate Dickie). Thomasin's younger siblings, Caleb and fraternal twins - Mercy and Jonas have minds of their own and develops into memorable characters as well. The twins, too little to know what's at stake living alone in the land without support system, are going stir crazy, making up stories and agitating everyone around them. In order to shut them off, Thomasin tells them that she is a witch in jest. Big mistake. Caleb, a kid who is beginning to notice opposite sex, can't help glancing at Thomasin's growing bosom. Things start to turn dark and weird when Samuel the baby gets snatched away from Thomasin's care. The next scene we see is a scary old naked hag pounding something in a stone mortar and smearing bloody pulp all over her body.

Katherine goes hysterical and start losing her marbles when Caleb gets taken by a seductress in the forest (probably the same hag in disguise) then returns naked, bitten and feverish. Barnyard goats start producing blood instead of milk. Parents accuse children of witchcraft and lock them in a barn. Then a goat starts talking.

Things get violent as the film develops, in a very uncomfortable, disturbing way. Eggers paints rather a gruesome, fearful picture of female empowerment. I haven't decided that if objectification of young blonde female by not an adult male but by even younger male, a brother at that, is any more progressive than much maligned 'male gaze' riding on the back of feminism, but The Witch is at least an interesting take on grrrl power and a conversation starter.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Melancholy from the Future

Mountains May Depart (2015) - Jia
 photo 0f907ef7-86a4-484b-8524-c6d7c18e92cb_zpsbq6fvdue.png
 photo f1629f10-3e75-4821-be2e-5dd391d98254_zpsce9vk2ub.png
 photo 32b12622-125b-42a5-a216-d75186efda6d_zpsb4rbpxep.png
Mountains May Depart might be Jia's most melodramatic film to date, but it's any less great than his other films in chronicling the rapidly changing Chinese society. His hometown Fenyang in Shanxi Province is once again the backdrop - vast flat area of upturned earth and old ruins. His choice of three time period shot on different aspect ratio: full frame 4:3 for 1999, 16:9 for 2014 and anamorphic for 2025 isn't too distracting, gimmicky or overstated, simply because it's Jia Zhangke film. His muse/wife Zhao Tao might be a little too old to play 26 year old woman, so is Liang Jing Dong or Zhang Yi in the first part of the film. But it does make sense when you think about Jia's first hit Platform came out in 2000. Zhao was in her early 20s then, that the end of millennium was a big turning point for China becoming a global superpower/capitalism on steroids. That these actors have weathered the tumultuous time with Jia, that they are sharing that collective experience with the audience. It is more apparent with his use of music: from Pet Shop Boys' 'Go West' to a sentimental Canto pop, extremely popular in the 1990s in not only mainland China but all over Asia.

First segment tells a love triangle of childhood friends- both Jinsheng and Liangzi loves Tao. Jinsheng hit big and is a raging capitalist now and wants to get rid of the forever third wheel Liangzi for good. First he buys out the coal mine Liangzi works at and fires him. But his intentions are more sinister. Tao, experiencing confessions of love for the first time, chooses Jinsheng over mild mannered Liangzi. In the back of her mind, she knows she is making a bad choice but ends up marrying Jinsheng anyway. Liangzi ends up leaving Fenyang.

The second segment is set in present: Tao and Jinsheng are divorced. He got the custody of their son Dollar (I kid you not). The father and son live in Shanghai. Liangzi's got a lung cancer working in the mines and comes back home with his new born baby and a wife. Dollar comes home for Tao's father's funeral. The kid's wearing ascot for crying out loud. There are some bonding moments with Dollar and Tao but will he remember her at all?

The third one takes place in Australia, where Jinsheng and Dollar live. Dollar is a college student now, thoroughly westernized and doesn't speak a word of Mandarin. He is not happy about the school or life in general. There he meets an older Chinese professor, Mia (great Sylvia Chang) who becomes Dollar's surrogate mother of sorts. He experiences a sense of deja vu when he's with her. She encourages him to visit his long lost mother whose name he doesn't even remember.

I would describe Jia's melodrama, reflecting rootlessness and losing soul in a rapidly industrializing society, as something that Ozu might have considered making in the 60s. It's interesting to see that Jia foresees this rootlessness happening for the next generation of Chinese. It's like predisposed collective melancholy that will hit China like tidal waves in the near future. Poignant and sad, Mountains is another great film from the modern master.

Mountains May Depart is now playing at FSLC's Howard Gilman Theater. Please visit their website for tickets.