Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Devil's in the Details

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil (2015) - van Huystee
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To mark the 500th year of his death, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil follows a team of Dutch Bosch scholars and experts, headed by art historian Matthijs Ilsink, as they try to shore up existing paintings by the Dutch master, known for his elaborate, detailed depiction of literal, biblical heaven and hell, in an exhibition at Noorsbrabants Museum in his hometown of Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.

There are only 25 paintings and 20 or so drawings known to be painted by Bosch or at least by his workshop, scattered throughout Europe. The film works as an enthralling art detective story and a fascinating history lesson. There is not one boring moment in its 89 minute running time.

With his surrealistic, imaginative paintings, Bosch is now considered by many as the father of the renaissance, with the reasoning that his paintings, filled with grotesque creatures and unspeakable torture and human suffering, mark the beginning of expressionism and the humanist movement. You find his The Garden of Earthly Delights appropriated in pop culture, from The Simpsons to a pair of Doc Martin boots. There might not have been Dali or Geiger if it weren't for Bosch.

Since I've seen his paintings only in art books, it's a real delight to see his work up-close and personal, blown up on the big screen. As Matthijs' team compares and investigates the authenticity of each piece -- Bosch never dated his works -- with cutting edge technology, be it The Haywain Triptych or Death and the Miser, we get to have a closely-examined guided tour of a wondrous, hidden world we never will get to see, not even by looking at a real Bosch painting (since his actual paintings are on rather small wooden panels0, in a crowded museum behind the ropes.

We get to see the underdrawings of the master, as well as his intentions and last minute changes of each piece, by scanning each one through the computer and x-rayed images. It is an artist's brush strokes and techniques embedded in these underdrawings that determines their authenticity.

We get to see the intense politics behind the scenes of the high echelons of museum and academia worlds, as Mattijs and his team beg and plead to borrow Bosch paintings from some of Europe's biggest museums. It's the Museo del Prado of Madrid, a powerhouse among great European museums, that owns most of the most famous Bosch paintings since the reign of Philip II. The paintings have not left Spain for the past 400 years.

A frenzy of political maneuvering here plays out like an espionage thriller, complete with villains and colorful characters. Their detective work takes the team to Madrid, Venice, New York, Berlin, Rotterdam, Antwerp and even Kansas. At the climax of the film, we are presented with the discovery of a “new” Bosch in a small Kansas City museum, which prompts Julian Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, to exclaim, "You love all your children. But it’s like one of your children just won the Nobel Prize”.

Long-time producer of the great Dutch documentarian Johan van the Keuken, Pieter van Huystee makes his great directing debut here. Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is one of the most engrossing documentaries about art and an artist in recent years, along with Das große Museum (2014), about The Kunsterhistorisches Museum in Vienna. While never losing sight of the human element, the film is filled to the brim with great works of art full of intrigue and mystery. A great watch.

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil has an exclusive two-week engagement at Film Forum in New York from July 27 through August 9.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Making of a Monster in Brady Corbet's Accomplished Directorial Debut

The Childhood of a Leader (2016) - Corbet
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An allegorical tale set in the shadow of WWI Europe, The Childhood of a Leader is a very accomplished first feature from 27 year-old American actor Brady Corbet. Considering his face has been showing up in the films of who's who in European arthouse cinema over the years -- Haneke, von Trier, Bonello, Assayas, Hansen-Løve, just to name a few -- this exclusively European production (UK/Hungary/France) seems far less surprising.

The film sees an American diplomat (played by Liam Cunningham) working for President Woodrow Wilson to end the horrific war that the world has ever experienced after the industrial revolution. His newly transplanted family consists of an educated, worldly wife (Berenice Bejo, The Artist, The Past) and an effeminate young boy (amazing Tom Sweet) with a bobcut blond hair, holed up in an old chateau in rural France.

With his parents always busy, the boy is neglected and being brought up by servants and tutors. In the first segment of the film "A Sign of Things to come," the boy is seen throwing rocks at the fellow church goers after the Christmas mass. Their stern, but emotionally distant parents don't know what to make of his violent behavior but still too preoccupied to do anything solid about it.

The film is divided into the boy's 'tantrums' and builds up to its violent climax. These could be seen as minor outbursts of a normal boy his age, maybe a little more violent and erratic. He paws at the breasts of his French tutor (Stacey Martin, Nymphomaniac) and manipulates a sympathetic old servant (Yolanda Moreau), getting them both fired by his mother. The boy, whose name is revealed toward the end as Prescott, is a bratty, spoiled kid who can be seen as a result of bad parenting or Devil Incarnate, like Damien in the Omen movies.

Despite its allusions to the political dictators of the past, Corbet and cowriter Mona Fastvold set the film and the boy's age somewhat removed from the rise of Fascism and Bolshevism in order to not to make it an overtly obvious biography of someone in particular.

You can tell that young Corbet takes a lot from Michael Haneke in terms of theme and stoic presentation. Cinematically speaking, the film is an impressive feat: Lol Crawley (45 Years, Here), director of photography, is responsible for the seriously underexposed cinematography (practically lit interiors) and Scott Walker's stirring string score dominate the film's dark, jarring mood, comparable in its greatness to Jonny Greenwood's blood-pumping There Will Be Blood soundtrack.

There are many fine small moments that wink at immoral adults who surround Prescott. It seems that there are some amorous relationships occurring in the father and the tutor and mother and the family friend in the form of an expat (Robert Pattinson). He also hints that neither parent wanted Prescott in the first place: mother never wanted to be a housewife, father wanted a daughter.

Tonally restrained yet vigorously formalist, Corbet's directing debut definitely doesn't feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker. Corbet also gets uniformly subdued performances from the veteran actors involved. Bearded Robert Pattinson does a fine job playing a double role in two of the film's most enigmatic roles.

But The Childhood of a Leader owes big to its young star Tom Sweet. As a wide eyed, bratty kid, his brave performance alone will cause a string of nature vs nurture debates in the minds of many audience members long after leaving the theater.

After winning the Best Director and Best Debut Prizes at the Venice International Film Festival - Horizons, The Childhood of a Leader had its New York debut at BAMcinemaFest and will open theatrically in New York on Friday, July 22, as well as on VoD, before rolling out nationally.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Time Lost, Time Regained

El abrazo de la serpiente/Embrace of the Serpent (2015) - Guerra
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Gorgeously filmed in black and white, Ciro Guerra's film from the perspective of a native Indian deep in Amazonian jungle of Colombia is a rare beauty. The film centers around Karamakate (played wonderfully by Nilbio Torres in his younger years and by Antonio Boliva in later), the last of his tribe which is wiped out by encroaching white colonial rubber plantation in the early 20th century. First it was Theodore Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), a sickly German scientist who came to find a rare medicinal plant that might cure him. His diary, published in Germany after his death inspires another botanical enthusiast Evan (Brionne Davis), retracing the steps of the journey with now older Karamakate who claims he doesn't remember anything anymore.

Embrace covers a lot of territories, not only geographically, but also the effects of colonialism thoroughly - religion, culture, language, spirituality, materialism, violence, etc. It's also very poetic and timeless in its presentation as the past and present, dream and reality overlaps each other. It strikes a good middle ground to be not too preachy nor too new-agey. The color part of the film is what Malick aspired to achieve in Tree of Life and Guerra does it with 1/1000th of a budget, I'm sure.

This made me to revisit Herzog's Ten Thousand Years Older, a ten minute documentary he made about Uru Erus of Brazil for Ten Minutes Older project which is Sublime. They go well together.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Japan Cuts 2016 Preview

Along with New York Asian Film Festival, Japan Cuts has become the cultural institution, a must see event in New York Summer tradition. Celebrating its amazing 10th year, the contemporary spread of the choicest Japanese cinema again opens its doors to the salivating public for two weeks at Japan Society. This year's lineup includes a new film from the always controversial Masao Adachi (Artist of Fasting), a couple from ever prolific Sion Sono (Love & Peace, The Whispering Star), a couple from Gakuryu Ishii (Burst City, Bitter Honey) and many more. More so than NYAFF, I find many gems that will eventually end up in my top films list at Japan Cuts every year. And this year is no exception. Japan Cuts 2016 runs July 14 - 24 at Japan Society. Without further a do, here are my take on some of the films presented this year.

Mother, I've Pretty Much Forgotten Your Face
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Michiro Endo, once the frontman of Japanese punk group Stalin, turned 60 in 2011. He decided to travel all around Japan and make a movie. Turning 60 in Japan which is called called kanreki, has a special meaning. They consider the birthday as a the day of your rebirth. That you are a newborn into the world again. While touring and performing solo and with a group, Fukushima happens. Being a Fukushima native and hasn't visited his mother regularly, Endo journeys back to his hometown with a Geiger counter. With other musicians, Endo creates Project Fukushima! and launches the festival on August 15, 2011. 'Japan suffered 2 atomic bombs (in August 15), and one nuclear meltdown- the latter one was our own fault' Endo explains, 'that maybe the way we led our country after the war wasn't really right.' The festival was not to make Fukushima another place with forever negative connotation.

Mother is a documentary of not only a poignant personal journey but a hopeful reflection of Japan after such national disaster. Endo cites small radio stations popping up amidst disasters, connecting people, young and old, people getting together and influencing each other. He's still kicking ass on stage though, with his guttural, expletive filled screams against imperialists, parents and capitalism still resonate. The documentary also showcases the beauty of Japan in different seasons as Endo travels around.

Artist of Fasting
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Masao Adachi, one of the key figures of the Japanese New Wave and definitely the most radical of the bunch, had to live most of his adult life in hiding because of his associations with the Japanese Red Army, a radical communist student group which took up armed struggle in Lebanon. Even after extradited to Japan in 2000 on some trumped up passport violation charges, the controversial writer/director still kept on making films. His turbulent past has been a subject of many adoring western filmmakers over the years (It Maybe that Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, dir. Philippe Grandrieux and Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, dir. Eric Baudelair). At age 77, marooned forever in Japan (Japanese gov refuses to issue him a passport), he turns his attention to contemporary Japan, the country in the midst of prolonged economic stagnation and reeling from Fukushima, where the militarism he was so opposed to is once again rising.

With that background, Artist of Fasting is a full blown, not so subtle protest against Japan's rising militarism than a movie, equipped with the footage of the Fukushima disaster, dying third world children, war atrocities, etc. His 'pinku eiga' background also comes to the fore with schoolgirl nudity and rape which will surely raise some eyebrows of modern movie going audiences. Appropriating Kafka's The Hunger Artist, Adachi tells a parable of a misunderstood man: our silent hero (Hiroshi Yamamoto) decides to sit down in the middle of the shopping district and fast. He is a non-emotive man, an empty vessel that everyone can reflect their desires upon. He soon becomes a media sensation and thoroughly exploited by 'entertainment' industry which puts him in a cage adorned with the infamous 'rising-sun' flags for arousing nationalistic fervor. The film ultimately raises a big middle finger to powers that be- current Abe government, religion, media, military, yakuza and just about everyone.

Burst City
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Without Gakuryu Ishii's seminal Burst City, there wouldn't have been no Tetsuo: The Iron Man, no Wild Zero and no Japanese cyberpunk culture for years to come. With his new film Bitter Honey playing at this year's Japan Cuts, this cult classic is making a North American theatrical debut and is a not to be missed! Never mind its almost incomprehensible narrative. But there are enough metal attire and rusty weapons to give you tetanus just by watching it. Starring who's who in punk rockers of the day (The Rockers, The Roosters, The Stalin, etc), this frenetic, handheld filmmaking is a dizzying mixture and excess of energy, attitude and absurdity, recalling anywhere from Mad Max to Rebel Without a Cause. It's mad fun!

Bitter Honey
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A fantasy love story set in post-war Japan, Gakyuru Ishii's Bitter Honey is a beautiful accomplishment in filmmaking. Loosely based on Saisei Muro's book of the same name, the film tells an old dying writer Saisei (Ren Osugi) and his very unusual muse, Akako (Fumi Nikaido), a goldfish named after her bright red color. Living with his bedridden wife for 19 years, Sai finds an inspiration in the company of child-like Akako, a ¥300 goldfish he bought from a sage-like fishmonger (Masatoshi Nagase), who says the fish has an ass like "Brigitte Bardot". Their love is consummated by her being swallowed whole by Sai, then swimming back up to his mouth. There are many double entendres to be had in her torn tail and him fixing it with his saliva and what not. But Ishii keeps everything classy with immaculate period set design, slick camera movement and fully committed acting from both Osugi and Nikaido. This balance is the key success of Bitter Honey.

Nikaido, always in her red dress with long billowy tail, prancing around making funny faces, somehow makes this muse of a writer who-is-a-goldfish work. She is naive, coquettish, emotional, defiant and more. Her Akako turns out to be a writer's creation he can't control. She turns out to be a thoroughly three dimensional character.

It was his psychological thriller Angel Dust that introduced me to Gakuryu Ishii (then Sogo Ishii). His masterful formalism and haunting images made an indelible mark in my brain. Bitter Honey is filled with equally stunning imagery. Coming from an underground punk filmmaking, Ishii came a long way to direct such a mature and masterful film without ever losing a sense of wonder.

The Actor
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Ken Yasuda plays the title role, a bit actor named Kameoka. He is one of those actors who you might recognize from countless movies but don't know the name. But Kameoka is a hard working fellow, whatever the role he takes - in yakuza or samurai films, he gives it all. His craft always gets recognized by his peers and filmmakers alike. When it comes to his work, he is a real professional. But he is a lonely, quiet, single man in life. After meeting an attractive single mother (alluring Kumiko Aso) at her small restaurant while on on the road for a film shoot, Kameoka has to reconsider what it means to be an actor in his own life.

It's good to see Satoko Yokohama's work again. Her goofy, good natured and highly original Bare Essence of Life was one of my favorites from Japan Cuts 2010. Here again, her unhurried, low-key film about an actor going about his life is completely unpretentious, agenda-less experience. There is nothing meta about The Actor despite its movie(s) within a movie premise, or actor playing an actor playing an actor. Veteran TV actor Yasuda with his sad, well-worn clown face gives a fine tuned, melancholic performance. It's his likability that makes the film. And we can't stop rooting for Kameoka's awkward attempt at romance. Even with the use of stage and goofy rare projections, nothing juts out in The Actor. Everything is well-rounded and tranquil. It's also very hard to categorize Yokohama's film one way or the other. It could be seen as many things or could be very simple. There are many humorous moments in this film. Albeit hushed, never laugh out loud funny but the gentle film puts a big smile on your face. I guess can be called a dramedy that puts a big smile on your face the whole time you are watching it. Yokohama is a rare, distinctive voice in a current Japanese cinema.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Three Kings

El cant dels ocells/Birdsong (2008) - Serra
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Albert Serra's minimalistic approach to a semi-literary figures doesn't really concern itself with its subjects much. The star of his films are its surroundings - the changing weather, drifting clouds that casts shadows upon what's below, the light and darkness. Shot on beautiful black and white, Birdsong tells a story about three kings crossing the desert and sea to pay tribute to the birth of the son of god. On their way, they complain about the rocky terrain and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. Since everything is shot outside, Serra completely depends on the daylight. When the sun goes down, we can hardly make out the three figures. It's like Three Studges road trip on foot, only the presence of a short haired angel in cassock reminds everyone that this is the story of biblical Three Kings. Once they get to their destination, at the foot of Mary and the humble stone house in nowhere, the music swells, giving some sort of energy. But it dies down. Joseph says something about fleeing to Egypt before the Romans come, and it's time to go home for the trio. They talk about their absurd dreams in the woods while angels watch down from a tree. Beautiful, delightfully minimalistic, Albert Serra is one of a kind filmmaker.

Monday, July 11, 2016

LA Paranoia

The Invitation (2015) - Kusama
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As far as the paranoia thriller goes, The Invitation makes the grade. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) with his girlfriend (Emayatsy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party thrown by his ex, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her husband David. It's a reunion of sort with close friends who lost touch with one another over the years. The dinner party is all polite and cordial and stuff. There are two strangers who are present at the party too - a wild girl Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Caroll Lynch, doing his usual creepy serial killer type), the recent acquisition by Eden and David. They met in Mexico and are following some sort of religious group. The dinner party is hampered by David showing everyone about a video of a dying woman surrounded by other members of the group, saying death is a natural thing and whatnot. Will, already on-edge about the whole dinner party with his ex whose child they shared died in some freak accident, questions David and Eden's weird motives - locking the doors, metal grate on windows and such. Then Pruitt tells a horrible story of him killing his wife and spending time in jail. At this point, party is really awkward and uncomfortable. But time and time again, Will is proven to be wrong (the door's locked and windows shuttered windows because of recent home invasion of the neighbors) and his doubts and outbursts were seen as him being completely out of the line.

Kusama does a great job building tension throughout the film. It seems that loss of a child is the basis of vast majority of horror movies or clutch for some melodrama these days (let's see...what could be the most traumatic thing that can happen to a grown up? Death of an offspring!!). So Will and Eden suffer from the pain and guilt of losing their son and whatnot but they are trying to get over that in their own way or whathaveyou. But the film's yet another sinister take on the city of Angels, a cautionary tale that can be grouped with Mulholland Dr, Starry Eyes and the recent Refn flick, Neon Demon. The Invitation is a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Master Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, 1940 - 2016

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Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian master filmmaker, passed away from gastrointestinal cancer in Paris today. As an avid fan of his humanistic, genre transcending films, I can say with a certain conviction that we've lost one of the greatest artists in the world of cinema.

It was his film, Taste of Cherry, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Fest in 1997 that introduced poetic, meta-fiction laiden Iraninan cinema to the world and put many Kiarostami contemporaries (Jafar Panahi, Asghar Farhadi, Moshen makhmalbaf) on the world cinema map.

But it was seeing one of his Koker trilogy, Wind Will Carry Us, that was a watershed moment for me in my cinematic education. I've never seen such a humanistic and poetic cinema before and the film made me scramble for anything Iranian afterwards.

Over the years, even though his films were never overtly political (although they could easily be seen as Iranian sociopolitical fable), he found filmmaking increasingly difficult within Iran under the government censorship. I reckon it was exactly that transcending subtle artistry that fooled the censorship for a long time. Thankfully for us, it resulted in two international productions - Italy set Certified Copy in 2011 and Japan set Like Someone in Love in 2013.

I had an honor and pleasure to interview Abbas Kiarostami in 2013 when his film Like Someone in Love played at NYFF. As expected, he was the warmest, wisest, humbliest, most thoughtful artist I've ever encountered in my short career as a film critic.

Kiarostami was not only a film director, but a renowned poet as well. Succinct and deceptively simple, his poetry was very much akin to his cinema or vice versa. Ill leave you with one of his short poems from his book of poetry walking with the Wind, published in 2002:
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My interview with Kiarostami

Rest in Peace, master.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Los Angeles Eats Itself

The Neon Demon (2016) - Refn
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Once again, in David Lynch's absence, NWR carries the torch, delving more and more into flashy, neon-colored abstraction. If Lynch is a true artist creating certain mood with set design and texture (I'm grossly simplifying his artistry, forgive me), Refn is all about the use of lights. Still abiding by a thin narrative, he creates gothic fantasy/nightmare filled with the notion of beauty, fragile innocence and narcissism. The Neon Demon can easily be dubbed as Los Angeles Eats Itself, literally.

The paper thin story revolves around Jesse (Elle Fanning), a beautiful High School dropout from bumfuck nowhere in LA. Living out of a skeeziest motel, run by a menacing, predatory man (Keanu Reeves at his sleaziest- Refn's genius in casting), our wide-eyed ingenue is at first a bunny in a wolf's den. She befriends a pretty makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to LA modeling scene. Jesse knows she can make money off of her looks. Her natural beauty soon finds her fame and causes her meteoric rise and in doing so accumulates number of enemies. Soon her success gets to her head.

Refn has grown as a visual artist. His use of shapes, namely triangles in this film, is pastiche of 70s psychedelia or 80s rudimentary video games than actual symbols with meaning. They trigger a certain uneasy mood. Some of the images here are really striking and unforgettable yet again, devoid of any meaning. One might argue that all these are empty symbols and skin deep but so does the subject Refn portrays. Just like Lynch's Mulholland Dr., the parodying LA is not the main draw here. It is certainly imbued in its view, but artistically it's much more. The Neon Demon is very much like a Dario Argento film in his haydays. You have to enjoy it for its aesthetics and mood. Let it wash over you and you will be richly rewarded.