Thursday, July 13, 2017

Japan Cuts 2017 Preview

Once again, always dependable Japan Cuts, a festival of excellent, current crop of Japanese cinema takes place at Japan Society 7/13 - 7/23.

Festivities start off with a bang on Thursday, July 13th, ushered in by special guest director and JAPAN CUTS veteran Yoshihiro Nakamura (Fish Story), who introduces the Opening Night Film MUMON: The Land of the Stealth, making its U.S. Premiere. Known for his masterful genre blenders, MUMON is Nakamura’s modern take on the traditional jidaigeki (period drama), full of fantastical ninja moves that uphold genre standards, yet imbued with a unique sense of eccentricity and playfulness. Director Nakamura appears in a post-screening Q&A, followed by a rollicking Opening Night Party held in Japan Society’s historic theater and waterfall atrium.

As previously announced, JAPAN CUTS is proud to present this year’s recipient of the CUT ABOVE Award for Outstanding Performance in Film to Joe Odagiri, the remarkably talented box office golden boy and matinee idol of Japan. Odagiri receives the award before the Centerpiece Presentation screening: the East Coast Premiere of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s critically acclaimed drama Over the Fence. A baseball themed Home Run Party follows the screening in celebration of the film and the performance that anchors it. Demonstrating the breadth of his talent and penchant for taking on difficult roles, Odagiri also participates in a Q&A following the U.S. Premiere screening of Kohei Oguri’s FOUJITA, about the life of the complex titular painter.

The festival's Closing Film offers a poignant and indelible deviation from traditional Japanese war dramas: Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World, winner of the Japan Academy prize for Animation of the Year. A deeply moving coming-of-age story about a persevering young woman, In This Corner of the World captures civilian life under the catastrophic tide of World War II with a tone that is at once mournful, optimistic, and enchantingly heart-swelling. The film’s prolific producer (having previously worked on Patlabor, Satoshi Kon’s masterpieces, and many other titles) Taro Maki attends for the post-screening Q&A.

Here are some of the films I got to watch from the lineup. Please visit Japan Society website for tickets and more info.

Can Sono Sion, known for his crazy movies with ultra violence and upskirt photography, have a cake and eat it too, in tackling a subject like misogyny in Japanese society? In his Nikkatsu studio commissioned Roman Porno Revival, Anti-Porno, Sono goes for it with mixed results.

Tomite Ami is Kyoko, who wakes up in her primary colored loft, prances around naked. She is supposed to be a famous author, painter and all around creator. She has a somewhat of an emotionally/physically abusive sadomasochistic relationship with her middle aged, mousy assistant Noriko (Tsutsui Mariko). Kyoko's adoring entourage arrives for a photo shoot and she makes Noriko naked on all fours barking like a dog in chain. Suddenly, director calls cut and reveals that the loft is a movie set and the roles are reversed - Noriko is the dominant one and Kyoko is the submissive, self-doubting, all around much abused young ingénue playing (terribly, she is told) the dominant role in a movie. During the course of the movie, their roles change many times.

In multiple flashbacks, Kyoko grows up with her parents’ hypocrisy on sex - their puritanical education on morality didn't match their voracious sexual appetite. So she very much longed to be a whore in high school. But yet, she seems deeply confused about what it means to be a whore. She seems incapable of escaping from being 'a woman' in a male dominant Japanese society. It's a vicious cycle- being a whore equals free equals being a men's plaything.

In this meta movie-within-a-movie thing, Sono even tries to assert artistic superiority of roman porno over straight up porno: when high school student Kyoko auditions for a roman porno project, claiming she wants to be a whore, ripping her sailor school uniform off, the director scoffs at her, "This is roman porno. Do you even know what it means to be a whore?"

Satire is one thing, but Sono doesn't seem to get the spirit of the roman porno. To be honest, this Nikkatsu revival of the genre is as dated and tiresome as James Bond franchise. The revivals are supposed to be a harmless titillation with certain restrictions - no depiction of underage sex, etc. It is sad that in depicting sex act, Sono can only resort to sailor uniforms. The movie is hardly sexy or titillating. Sono falters when he tries to be serious. At the end, he just needs to cover up his muddy messages with bucket of colorful paints thrown all over his female protagonist. I like his comedies more.

Just static images of quiet empty rooms, subway rides, cityscape at dusk consist Once Upon a Dream, a cult film that has been gathering followers over the years, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa who compared it to Jean-Luc Godard's. Indeed, the film's carefully composed exterior shots remind me of many of 80's Godard.

It tells a barely seen protagonist, a soft-spoken school teacher whose somnambulist existence and her weird demeanor are affecting her day to day life. We hear her thoughts in her voice over and her conversations with others, without us seeing anybody on screen. We hear the rustles of bed sheets, footsteps, breathing, moving of locomotives, idle, unintelligible conversations of others in the shops and cafes. Perhaps Once Upon a Dream is the most intimate eavesdropping film as opposed to the most voyeuristic.

Director Shichiri Kei, on the film's 10 years anniversary, added crisp new footage and redid sound design, giving this avant-garde classic a new life. The result is hushed contemplation of urban loneliness that is beautifully, uniquely realized visually and aurally. Quiet yet deeply affecting, Once Upon a Dream is a truly one of a kind experience.

It seems that people who want to die end up in a cafe in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest. It is run by a young man known only as 'manager' with the help of an old woman who sits in a rocking chair, knitting, and a boy name Haru.

The glimpse of the lives of would be dead are projected on a make shift screen, followed by sing-along, accompanied by an indie rock group with a white papier-mâché of a cat on their heads. After that, they are driven through a tunnel of no return deep into the forest where they disappear slowly and become the part of soundscape in the air.

Misty forest settings are highly evocative. It recalls Tarkovsky and the idea of a station between two realms reminds me of Koreeda's affecting Afterlife. Strange and beautiful, Haruneko is a somber, haunting and highly ambitious whatsit that falters a little in its own preciousness.

Yamato, a city 35km south of Tokyo, hosts the largest US military base in Asia. A Yamato native director, Miyazaki Daisuke, tackles the influence US still has on its inhabitants in his indie feature, Yamato (California), and he has some pointy things to say about it. Sakura (Kan Kanae), plays a wayward high school dropout, first seen rapping in the city's garbage dump. She lives in a tiny house with her busy single mom and her nerdy brother. She works part-time at a traditional Japanese restaurant that serves grilled eels, but she spends most of her time alone practicing rap inside an abandoned van or tit-tatting with her brother over sharing a computer or their tiny living space (divided only by a curtain).

She hasn't quite found herself yet and her rebellion and thuggish attitude are not winning hearts and minds of her surroundings. In order to pursue her music career, she needs to get a computer and a smart phone. She finds out that there is a singing contest at a local cultural center with $2,000 US dollar prize.

Things get a little more interesting when Rei (Endo Nina), an American-Japanese daughter of mom's unseen American boyfriend comes to stay with them. At first, Sakura is downright hostile, but Rei's sunny disposition wins her over and they start hanging out. Sakura takes her to her drab local attractions - mostly shopping malls, cheap stores, the van and a rap music venue, which they get kicked out of, for being underage. They share beers and bad pizza. But Rei's insistence of hearing her rap pushes Sakura to re-evaluate her directions.

Yamato (California) treads the same path as Irie Yu's indie hit 8000 Miles trilogy in terms of disaffected youth with their shot at success theme. The interesting subtexts of US cultural dominance and the rise of jingoism are also there. It's also in the casting of Kan, a Japanese-Korean actress, playing downbeat young woman with cultural identity crisis.

There are so much potential in Yamato, especially with two beautiful, striking actresses- Kan who is very charismatic and has a good screen presence and Endo, a short haired gamine. I just wish Miyazaki concentrated more on the characters and details of their lives instead of awkward, obligatory actions that only serve to move the story forward and take up too much screen time.

No Washing Blood Off Hands Necessary

Lady Macbeth (2016) - Oldroyd
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Exquisitely acted, framed and paced, William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most accomplished debut feature I've seen in years.

Based on Nicolai Lestov's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, a 19th century Russian novel which was adapted and scripted by a well regarded feminist playwright Alice Birch, Oldroyd sets out to tell a Victorian era tale of adultery and murder with a twist. The result is a riveting movie watching experience. Lady Macbeth totally does justice to its title.

Katherine (radiant Florence Pugh), a young, bright-eyed, newlywed bride, quickly learns that a marriage in Victorian era England and at large is a life of submission, humiliation and being a captive.

The Father-in-law and husband team, Boris (Christopher Fairbank) and Alexander (Paul Hilton), represents a patriarchal world so rigid, hostile and loveless, it resembles a prison run by abusive guards - Katherine is not permitted to go outside the castle. She is told that she's not in need to ask the nature of her husband's businesses nor to know his whereabouts when he's supposedly away on business for days.

When Alexander returns, the bedroom business is anything but tender -- he orders her to strip and stand against the wall, looking away from him, while he jerks off. There is no touching, no tenderness, no passion. It's just a humiliating power game. But Katherine is no damsel in distress by any means. Far from it.

When the two brutes are out on business, Katherine is finally, temporarily, free to go outside and walk around the misty moors at the expense of horrified female servants.

One of the half-breed male servants, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), working in the stable and horsing around with other stable hands, catches her eye and soon they become lovers. It starts out sensual and passionate. But soon the sexual power dynamic is reversed and Katherine dominates Sebastian both intellectually and physically.

Soon Boris discovers her secret, divulged by Anna (Naomi Ackie), a terrified black servant. Boris and Katherine's confrontation becomes violent, ending in death by a premeditated poisoning. With no witnesses around (except for Anna), Boris's death is ruled as a massive coronary. When her husband comes home while she is in bed with Sebastian, Katherine daringly manipulates the men to fight, plunging Sebastian deeper into the guilty party and deeper into her grasp.

Katherine's acts are so shocking to Anna, who witnesses her lady's immoral deeds, that she soon stops talking altogether.

Oldroyd orchestrates his theater trained, extremely measured, fitting visual style reminiscent of Haneke: static long takes, visual symmetry and only a few closeups. Ari Wegner's cinematography captures the beautiful, picturesque expanse of the moors and contrasts that with the cold, confounding interiors of the castle.

Even though Katherine is a murderess and not a likeable person, it's her youthful defiance that makes us root for her. She is radiating ball of energy that can't be contained by societal restrictions or codes or morality. She does whatever she can to survive, even using her perceived femininity and her status as a lady-of-the-house, to the fullest extent.

The real victims of Lady Macbeth are the servants. Oldroyd reminds you that in England, injustices are done and seen less as a racial issue and more of a class issue.

Pugh's central performance is nothing short of phenomenal. She wears her arrogant beauty and uses it so well in both being an offender and a victim. Her turn as a wide-eyed, untamable young woman becoming a calculating femme fatale is a sight to see. We are seeing an emergence of another important British actress and a heiress apparent to Kate Winslet.

With a crackling, loaded script by Birch, Lady Macbeth is an exhilarating, radical and timely examination of being a woman in a man's world.

Lady Macbeth opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 14.


Kékszakállú (2016) - Solnicki
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Gáston Solnicki's take on Béla Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára) is a concise observation of lives of a group of loosely interconnected young, upper-class women in various ages in Argentina. We track girls swimming in a pool in summer months then through fall and winter, as they struggle through growing out of childhood - working at industrial factories to avoid living under their parents and afford their own place, deciding what to major in school, struggling with self image, dealing with young motherhood and men. Instead of the straight up narrative storytelling, Solnicki's chooses to show episodic, small moments of these young women's lives - eating ice cream in bed and being chastised by dad, cooking octopus and being grossed out by it, being casually sexually harassed in a sausage factory (get it?), getting a car wrecked while parking, struggling to fit in the kid's play tent, getting locked out while on the roof, having a moment with a younger man, etc. He moves from one moment to another with such nonchalance and abandon, but there is undeniable cohesiveness to Kékszakállú. His formalist approach- static, picturesque framing, impressive sound design and minimal dialog, conveys much more than what the film doesn't actually tell or show. Great film.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Interview: William Oldroyd on Lady Macbeth and Working with Largely Women Crew and Cast

I had a privilege to watch Lady Macbeth at this year's New Directors/New Films Series this spring and got a chance to talk to its director William Oldroyd about his very accomplished first feature. The riveting, radical film was definitely the highlight of the series and is no doubt an early entry for one of the best films of the year.

Friendly and humble, Oldroyd talked about his transition from theater to film, his influences, his directing method and so on. But what struck me the most about him was his insistence to pay utmost respect to where it is due- his cast and crew, for the success of the film. Lady Macbeth signals the arrival of a major British directing talent since Andrea Arnold.

Lady Macbeth hits theaters July 14 in New York and Los Angeles.

When I watched the film I couldn’t believe that this is your first film! It’s so strong and accomplished. I know you were in theater and I want to know about your transition a from theater director to a film director.

Before I was working in theaters, I was in Art College and part of that program was to doing some multi-media. So I used an old VHS camera. But the things I was filming was something more abstract, non-narrative stuff. I’d project things on to difference surfaces and film it and so on.

But it did give me access to some simple editing facility. So I was able to learn how things come together. But then that got sort of lost for a decade when I got into theater and worked with actors and writers. That part of education I received was put aside and laid dormant. It was something I wanted to come back to eventually.

So when I found a script that I had quite an interest in, I wanted to see if I can film it. And so I got a little bit of money together and camera and some actors who I knew from theater, we just went for it. I wanted to see why that is different than theater. This is sort of how I began my education in cinema. I was relying too much on spoken words and had focused more or less on one direction. Then I started to watch films and broken them down, read some books and talked to filmmakers. Then I made a second short film, Best. It’s three minutes long.

I’ve seen it. It’s great.

I was more satisfied with it that I achieved something more cinematic. And then, when I was at Sundance, people told me; “You’ve made a short, so now you have to make a feature.” I thought to myself, “how do I go about it?” As you know for some people, the (Sundance) Lab helps you to do that. Similarly, in the UK, there’s I Features that supports independent filmmakers making features.

I see.

But you know, they still need, even the risk is pretty small - they produce 3 features for a million pounds each a year, you still need to prove to them, convince them that you will make a good film. So for me it was a further study. It was more like preparing a dissertation. Even if I was going to make a film alone, this is how I’d do it- providing all the supportive materials, test shooting, getting some actors together to show them. Actually, I’ve made a film before I shot it. (laughs)

But it was good. It was very useful. So when I got to do a real pre-production, I was already on the right path.

Lady Macbeth was based on a novel by Nicolai Leskov, a Russian writer. How is your film different than the source material?

The book for me was very plot heavy. It’s a novella so it’s pure plot really. What we had to do apart from Katherine is to flesh out the characters, because they are quite stereotypical. What Alice (Birch) did so brilliantly in writing a screenplay for Lady Macbeth was to make them live and breathe: Katherine is the same but Alexander and Boris are amalgamation of two other characters, Sebastian doesn’t exist in the book.

The ending we changed because it would be more satisfying from Katherine’s point of view that she’d get away with what she did rather than like all those women of that period…suffer. (laughs)

Like Mme. Bovary or…

Yes, exactly. I really supported that. It was great to allow her to get away with it even if that victory felt a little bit hollow.

Obviously we move it from Russia to England, so we had to be very careful about how to adapt it to reflect the class society and its penal system coming across the pond. We felt like we did just enough to get it right.

You mentioned Alice Birch who is also a playwright. Have you worked together before?

No. It was the first time.

How was the collaboration with her?

Great. We were very honest with each other. We both did theater. We both wanted to work on film. So we would go, “Is what I’m writing too theatrical?”, “Is what I’m filming too theatrical?” We would be constantly…we were just so super aware. I think what Alice wrote was very cinematic on the page.

There are two scenes I’m particularly pleased with, that they feel like as they were written which is when Katherine comes in drunk and there’s a confrontation with Boris making her spin on her hands and knees and the scene where Alexander comes in and says, ”You have to remain indoors.” and she humiliates him before the assault. And that’s literally what she wrote. We just presented it and filmed it as it was written. I knew when I read it that these are going to be remarkable. She uses these words like weapons. She is so precise. Her language is just amazing.

I can’t stress enough how visually striking the film is. It’s so accomplished with how it’s framed and so forth. There is a visual symmetry in the film I found very interesting. How did you come about this visual language?

Well, I watched film and I saw what I like. I like Haneke very much but I didn’t want to just rip off Haneke. I wanted to see what I liked about his films - the composition and the stillness and simplicity of the camera positions and how he presents a character in the framing. Then Ari (Wegner, cinematographer) pointed me to Last Days, which she liked very much. Night Moves, also. Kelly Reichardt and Gus Van Sant then became the directors we watched a lot of.

That’s interesting.

Because if you like Haneke, you like simplicity and that moved us into American minimalists or whatever you call them. Obviously when we mentioned Last Days, our editor didn’t jump for joy- when we suggested sort of slow single takes. He said, well you are going to be in trouble because when you go into edit, you are stuck. Then he encouraged us to get coverage because we were pushing for times, but shoot it, not to use it as he used to say. When you don’t have time and no money it doesn’t make sense to get coverage but I completely got it when we were there in the edit. Because had one of our longer takes wouldn’t have worked, we’d be in trouble.

Anyway, we had a system set up - trying to get the whole scene in one shot and think about two or three maximum set ups to get what we need to tell the story. We did 3 or 4 setups each scene, which makes sense if we had three hours for each scene.

Oomph, that's pretty short.

And that sort of defined out aesthetics. (We both laugh)

…which is experience i suppose. We then, for example, we didn’t shoot coverage. We didn’t get reverse, we didn’t get close ups and we didn’t get pickups. And that was the decision Ari and I made everyday. We were not going to set up for close up because we know what to use in one take. If we get coverage, there will be always a temptation to-

To use it.

I realized that I’d never have this opportunity again. We will never be allowed to do such things. People will say. “You need to insure that you get the scene.”

The coverage in that crawl scene wouldn't have been necessary. It's perfect as is.

I think I took my lead from Ari who were more experience than I am. She shot couple of films before. She would say, “We don’t do things like film our rehearsals because it always ends up in the film." Everyone will get upset because it will look like what it will look like, and performance won’t be right and that’s waste of time. I learned a lot from her that we make sure we have everything, as we want to be.


Film is quite different. You have to break it down and it’s quite precise. And I’m used to running a scene 10-15 minutes just for the actors getting into it. Well you never do that in film, which is quite odd. It’s a little too mathematical, you know?

Is being a filmmaker just an extension of your artistic endeavor? Are you going back to theater after this?

Right now I’d like to do film. I can’t see doing both at the same time. It just takes so much time doing film. But there is something I love about being in a room with actors working out a scene. It’s really satisfying. I like that.

Speaking of actors. Florence Pugh is amazing in this.

She’s incredible.

How did she get involved?

Shaheen Baig, the casting director for The Falling, Carol Morley’s film, did the casting for our film and she knew Florence from that film. Brought her in because she thought Florence would be tremendous. So yes. We worked with her and she did few scenes and she came back. She’s just great.

Amazing, amazing performance. She is going somewhere because of this film.

Can you talk about those beautiful locations?

I was really lucky. There is a real love and support in UK for independent filmmakers. We were lucky because they are backed by government money. Each region has its own film agency. So it was Northern Film and Media in New Castle- they look after Northeast near the Scottish border. You go in and say, “we need a local crew and we need a location.” And they say, “well here is our location book, we know all of these people and here are the crew who are available.” And they introduced us to a person who runs the estate of all of Durham and they have this castle, which is empty. Probably because it’s too expensive to run. So when we walk around this empty castle, which is perfect, then you can have it for six weeks. So we moved in. We didn’t live there but we had our production office there, all of it- the equipment, wardrobe, everything was in there. It was kind of mini-studio.

And the outdoor scenes?

A lot of them are around the castle and we could afford two days in the moors. We were lucky because our location was 15-20 minutes from New Castle. The locals who were involved in it could commute in the morning. Had we found a house out of nowhere, people would’ve had to travel two hours each way to get there. So we shot the moor scenes on separate days.

It works. They match seamlessly.

As you said before and you changed the ending from the source material. Even though Katherine is a murderess, I can’t stop rooting for her. Does it make me a bad person?

No, because you understand what her predicament is. The stakes are pretty high. I don’t think we necessarily need to comprehend the consequences of her actions. But we understand how desperate her situation is. No I mean, Alice loves this character. We got few notes in early days of the production, “well she’s not likable.” Well, yeah. And? (laughs). It isn’t about making a film that young woman should be likable.

That’s the thing about this film though. She gets away with it precisely because she is a woman.

A woman of position.

That’s right.

That’s something that possibly in the States, there is a slight distinction that the class is very important in England. And it is very useful that your words are worth more if you are a woman of position than your servants. And it’s not to do with race. This is the thing that works in the UK and probably Russia because of those class distinctions.

That’s why the scene at the end makes the character Anna, much more tragic as you can see it in her face. What a great scene!

Naomi Ackie. She’s amazing.


It’s not a criticism at all, but how do you feel about carrying the torch on behalf of women who are involved in the project - you have Alice Birch who wrote the script, you have Ari Wegman who was your DP, you have your producer, actresses making a film about a defiant young woman in a very patriarchal world?

I’m delighted. I think it’s fantastic. I was very lucky to have Alice as a writer and Ari who shot the film as well. Shaheen who casted all the great talent, Jacqueline (Abrahams), who was a production designer, Holly (Waddington) who did costumes, Sarah Golding who was our script editor… there are so many I want to name them all. Over 50 percent of cast and crew were women. And that’s the way it should be.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Mondo Bava: A Near Complete Retro of Italian Horror Maestro Mario Bava and Kill, Baby...Kill! in 2K! at Quad

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mario Bava's horror classic Kill, Baby...Kill! New York's newly renovated Quad Cinema has organized a near-complete retrospective of the highly influential Italian horror maestro's filmography.

But the main draw here is the world premiere and full theatrical run of the 2K restored (courtesy of Kino Lorber) Kill, Baby...Kill!, a gothic masterwork that influenced Fellini, Lynch, Argento, del Toro, J-horror and countless others.

A young woman in a medieval-looking Transylvanian village runs up to the ruins in fear. She, as if in a trance, throws herself onto the iron fence and impales herself to death. So begins this hallucinatory ghost story.

Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stewart), a young, impossibly coiffed doctor is called in to perform the autopsy with the help of a fetching blonde, Monica (Erika Blanc). He discovers a coin shoved in the victim's heart. The superstitious townsfolk, it turns out, in order to ease the evil spirit, placed the coins themselves in all the dead who met their untimely demise.

killbabykill1.jpgEswai soon finds that most of the townspeople are not only unwilling to cooperate, but afraid of a spirit of a dead child named Melissa, who was accidentally trampled to death by a horse carriage.

Preceded by an iconic red ball bouncing down the stairs and rolling down the corridors, Melissa, the blonde child ghost, marks you for death. Then you are gripped by an uncontrollable urge to kill yourself, usually with sharp, piercing objects.

As the dead bodies pile up, in order to fight the supernatural, Eswai, the man of science, must resort to the help of a beautiful sorceress named Ruth (Fabienne Dali).

Spiral staircases, cobwebs, a labyrinthine, Escherian mansion, and outdoor swing POV shots all mix in with a hint of Bava's psychosexual thrillers to come. Kill, Baby...Kill! is a true masterpiece from the father of both gialli and slasher films.

More than anything, the film is first and foremost an audacious technical marvel. Bava's ingenious, agressive camera work is fully on display, as well as his amazing mise-en-scene, both interior and exterior. His background as a special effects technician and cinematographer serves him well here with deep focus, crazy zoom-in crane shots and claustrophobic sets.

I remember seeing the film in a murky VHS version. The restored version is just beautiful to look at: colors pop, film grains are visible in the shadows and blemishes on the negatives are all but cleaned up. The restoration makes the film truly the most gorgeous and elegant among all of Bava's films.

Mondo Bava, Mario Bava's retrospective at Quad Cinema, will showcase 21 of his films, including Black Sunday, Bay of Blood, Lisa and the Devil, Planet of Vampires, Danger: Diabolik, Blood and Black Lace, along with his foray into Westerns, sword and sandal epics and sex comedies, many of them on 35mm prints imported from Italy for the occasion.

The 2K restored version of Kill, Baby...Kill has a world premiere on Friday, July 7 at Quad Cinema and Mondo Bava, a near complete retrospective, continues through July 23.