Sunday, August 20, 2017

Rare Occurrence

Le rayon vert (1986) - Rohmer
Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 10.13.53 AM
Delphine (Marie Rivière) just got dumped by her fiancé just before the Summer vacation. Now she has no idea where to go and who with. The Green Ray follows her one uncomfortable situations after another, as she vacillates, agonizes every choices she makes in desperation, out of loneliness. She doesn't want to go to Ireland with her sister's family. It's too cold there and weather's lousy. She agrees to go to Cherbourg with her friends but once she's there, she's miserable even though everyone around her is very nice and trying to accommodate her eccentricities at every turn. Her vegetarianism turns into a discussion on being light which Delphine can't quite explain (so as a lot of things she's feeling) and they end up calling her a being like a plant. Once back in Paris and still plenty of time left for her vacation, she goes to the mountains alone where she and her ex-fiancé have had a contact who rents out a cabin. But soon as she gets there, she gets bored, ends up coming back to Paris the same day- this must've been a nightmare scenario for Rohmer's producer: "what, you want to go to the Alps for a couple of shots that lasts less than a minute screen time for a character to show she doesn't know what she wants? Boy, that would be a logistical nightmare and will cost you half of your budget!"

Delphine's life might not be too exciting but she is a perfectly lovely woman. So she's not exactly an extrovert nor extremely neurotic. She cries a lot, out of her loneliness. The thing is, we've all been there or know someone who's been there. Rohmer gently, beautifully sketches out a woman who suffers greatly from loneliness but too stubborn to be outgoing. The Green Ray makes me think about the relationships in the age of social media generation where everyone seems to have their emotions on their sleeve, ready to divulge their innermost feelings for everyone to see. With her complicated feelings and her lack of clear communication skills, Delphine is a hard woman to like, but that's precisely why I find her so lovely and relatable.

Back in Paris, she runs into an acquaintance who has an access to an apartment in the resort beach town of Biarritz. So she is off to Biarritz, swimming on the beach but still lonely. She meets a vivacious topless Swedish girl who doesn't take things as seriously as she does. The two men come over to flirt with them. They are perfectly nice, but that's not what Delphine wants. After she runs away from the scene, she eave drops old folks talking about the green ray, a rare occurrence where you see the sliver of green light at the tip of the setting sun for a second as it disappears on the horizon. Dephine needs that rare occurrence in her life. That it is possible that there is somebody who is in the same wavelength as you. However rare meeting that person is, it could happen.

Deeply humanistic and beautifully drawn, Le rayon vert is one of my new favorites of all time.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Lost in La Mancha

The Trip to Spain (2017) - Winterbottom
The trip to Spain
The third installment of The Trip series, which started as a TV show in 2010, Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's The Trip to Spain delivers yet another delightful, charming road movie.

Coogan and Brydon again reprise their slightly exaggerated (still fictional) roles as themselves, on another assignment given by The Observer (Brydon again, serving as a food critic) and The New York Times (Coogan, travel essayist), this time to Spain and engorge themselves on great food and appreciate local culture in spectacular scenery of many different Spanish regions while wrestling with aging, self-worth and fragile masculinity.

Calling The Trip to Spain anything other than an overly indulgent project would be an understatement: the endless in-jokes, impersonations and food porn aplenty. But who cares? As a fan of the series and Coogan and Brydon's sardonic banter, Spain is by far the funniest of the three.

In Cervantes-esque whimsy, Coogan, the cocky narcissist of the two, takes on the Don Quixote role to good-natured family man Brydon's Sancho Panza, which ties nicely in with the theme of Lost in La Mancha, later in the movie.

They start in England, taking a ferry to their first destination, Getaria, a picturesque fishing village in the Basque region. After dining on some grilled seafood and some hilarious Mick Jagger impersonations, they drive to inland region of Rioja. There, the arid desert vistas of inner Spain is spectacular and the medieval town built on the ledge of the barren mountains is a site to behold.

Coogan is seen flirting with women everywhere he goes, and Brydon is seen skyping with his wife and their young kids every night. It's their established rapport through the years, which makes them such a great team. Their priorities are slightly changed since the last time: Coogan's success as a writer/actor boosted his ever growing self-importance. But he still struggles to be recognized as a serious artist. Last seen having an extra marital fling with a tour guide, Brydon is settled in domestic bliss. His only job now is ribbing Coogan whenever he deems necessary to do so.

Their impersonations of course, gets the most laughs- Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Anthony Hopkins, Marlon Brando, John Hurt by way of Caligula in I Claudius and Quentin Crisp (in Naked Civil Servant).

Talking about Moorish influence in Spain, they start impersonating Roger Moore to impress their female companion. A plate of grilled scallops develops into a stand off between Moore’s Bond and Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga. Brydon's insistence in Moore-ing everything, which goes on forever, should in theory outlive its welcome in a minute, but because its Coogan and Brydon, it's consistently funny all the way through.

And of course, their version of Michael Fucking Caine. They pull out "SHE'S ONLY SIXTEEN YEARS OLD!" in the film's most inappropriate moment and I couldn't stop laughing.

My minor quibble is that perhaps because the film is basically a shortened version of the 6 part TV series (like the other two films were) into an hour and a half movie, I find the ending quite muddled and unsatisfying.

On paper, two middle aged white male British comedians going through beautiful places, eating delectable cuisine, always cracking silly jokes and impersonating celebrities, don't sound all that attractive. But because it's Coogan and Brydon, who are genuinely funny and charming, makes The Trip to Spain one of the funniest movies I've seen in years.

The Trip to Spain opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, August 11.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cog in the Machine

Machines (2016) - Jain
machines 3
In my humble opinion, digital filmmaking, with its extremely sharp image, isn't really suited for general narrative filmmaking. I do not need to see every pore on Charlize Theron or Scarlet Johansson's face. I do not need to see every piece of debris when an alien space craft explodes.

But the high resolution digital technology renders wonderfully in documentary filmmaking, capturing nitty-gritty details of everyday life that was not possible with shooting on a film stock. In comparison and in context, I can think of Forest of Bliss, a lyrical documentary depicting life and rituals in Benares, India, directed by much-revered documentarian Robert Gardner.

Even though I have a film background and am a big fan of anything shot on film (just the sight of 16mm shot, grainy images triggers Pavlov's effect on me), seeing that deteriorating film reel projected on screen -- scratched, high contrast, with no details in the shadows -- I can only speculate what Gardner, Malle, Van der Keuken and a lot of other great documentarians could've captured with light(er) weight, larger censor cameras that can shoot 6K to 8K images for hours on end without stopping.

Machines, a film by Rahul Jain, answers that possibility. Shot entirely in and around a textile factory in the Guajarat region of India, the film doesn't only depict the everyday working conditions of the hundreds of manual laborers, but also captures it in a startlingly clear, beautiful imagery.

Using only medium to wide lenses, Jain invites us into the giant, labyrinthine factory where shirtless male workers go on about their work day. Even though the process is pretty heavily machinized on the floor, each step of the process needs human hands and eyes: moving the heavy loads of fabric, dragging paint drums from one place to another, the actual silk screening process, mixing paints, guarding fabrics through the machines, keeping the furnaces going, maintaining the axles of the machines. Their shifts in the factory require long, grueling, hard work.

Perfectly framed, these static shots of the interiors of the greasy, grimy factory, lit only with cold, dim fluorescent lights, is strangely, hauntingly beautiful. Colors and texture -- steam, metal, glistening human skin, the brightness of the fabric they produce -- all contrast/accompany each other in mind-boggling detail on the screen.

Is Jain drawing a correlation between heavy machinery and human labor, as demonstrated in cinema history as early as Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Charles Chaplin's Modern Times? Machines and their beautiful imagery can be easily used for poverty porn, but Jain takes a different approach.

Without a swooping score to manipulate audience's emotions, he silently observes the workers and they in turn talk about their working conditions. The filmmaker rightfully excuses himself from being seen or heard, leaving his silent questions to be answered by workers in a breathtaking 360 degree shot just outside the factory, surrounded by workers.

They came to Guajarat because there is work. Their travel cost put them into debt. Their 12 hour shift pays 300 rupees (about 5 US dollars). They have a short break, then go back for another 12 hour shift. The only thing they can afford is chewing tobacco which will keep them awake.

They talk about the futility of organizing; who has time for union activities? In debt and exhaustion, they literally can't afford to go to a union meeting. It's a vicious cycle. Jain interviews the management also. A boss gives a speech that's right out of some early 20th century capitalist handbook: "If the workers get paid more than what they get now, they get lazy. They need to be hungry to be a good worker."

There is an imminent danger we feel when a child worker nods off while on the job, then there's a tranquility in the shots of workers taking a nap during their break wherever they can. It's all beautifully captured. Even their makeshift raincoats, a big plastic bag with the hole for their face under a torrential downpour, are beautiful.

Bosses vs workers is an age old subject. But Machines is a visually sumptuous observation piece that transcends being a mere social commentary.

Machines will have a one-week engagement, August 9 – 15, at Film Forum.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Melancholic Fable

Bella e perduta/Lost and Beautiful (2015) - Marcello
Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 9.46.53 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 9.52.13 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 9.53.53 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 9.50.13 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 10.50.22 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 10.56.31 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 10.47.17 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 10.55.34 AM
In Lost and Beautiful, Pietro Marcello concocts a heady and lyrical mixturer of fantasy and reality. There is Tommaso the sheep herder turned the keeper of an abandoned Bourbon palace who kept up the structure by his own means, against vandals and loiterers. There is Pulcinella, a masked actor from the 17 century who is ordered to take an orphan water buffalo calf named Sarchiapone (who narrates part of the film in voice over) from Tommaso. There is Gesuino, a larger than life hermit with a booming voice....

Shot on gloriously beautiful 16mm, the film is really something else. Marcello presents everything so gracefully, putting equal measure of importance on everything, whether it's the footage of ordinary people taking to the street against Mob violence or intensely blue-eyed Tommaso giving a silent tour inside the decrepit palace or a close up of an old farmer brushing her hair or picturesque pastoral countryside where Pulcinella and Sarchiapone take their long journey on foot.

Is human existence is all a dream of a buffalo calf? Lamenting the loss of the way of life, Lost and Beautiful is an immensely wise, melancholic look at what it means to be human. Beauty.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Fallen Out of Love

La Notte (1961) - Antonioni
Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 8.47.39 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 8.49.50 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 8.48.25 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 10.06.26 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 8.56.42 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 10.26.49 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 8.59.38 AM
Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 9.00.11 AM
La Notte is perhaps the most heartbreaking film ever made about falling out of love. In a matter of two days and one night, the unhappy bourgeois intellectual couple in Milan, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) slowly hurtles toward the inevitable.

It starts in the hospital room, where the couple's friend who is suffering from terminal illness. All pleasantries but they all know the case is hopeless for the patient. Lidia makes an excuse to run out the door. It sets the tone going forward, as they contemplate their strained relationship. In the hospital, Giovanni is attacked by a nympho girl and feeling guilty that he was tempted, he tells Lidia about it later on. Antonioni demonstrates the couple's sexual frustrations as Lidia watches young men shooting rockets in the field and as she stumbles on a group of shirtless young men fist-fighting.

Giovanni is celebrating his new book, Sleepwalkers, being published. In series of conversations, we find out that it's Lidia's family's wealth they are living off of and he has no qualms about not having another book published in the future. Then they meet Valentina (Monica Vitti), a 22 year old daughter of a industrialist whose dinner party the couple half-heartedly attends. It was Lidia's passive-agressive suggestion for Gio to talk to her since Val is seen away from the party reading his book. And surely enough Gio is smitten by a young, smart woman.

Both Gio and Lidia have chance to have an affair that stormy night. Lidia rejects the offer out of what, and Gio and Lidia are both rejected by Val, who stands for object of desire and the new generation rejecting the old. La Notte might not be the most cinematic films in Antonioni's oeuvre. But with older, knowing protagonists, it is a lot more impactful and sadder than L'eclisse. The last scene, as the unhappy couple trying to have sex in the field is perhaps the saddest movie ending ever. I think I am beginning to appreciate Michelangelo Antonioni's artistry more now that I'm older.