Friday, September 29, 2017

Pure Magic

The Florida Project (2017) - Baker
Sean Baker, a director of much praised iphone shot movie Tangerine, digs deeper into the flip side of American Dream with The Florida Project, starring kids and featuring the lives of kids on Route 192, under the shadow of Disney World. As with Tangerine, Baker uses mostly untrained non-actors to portray people on the skid and just have them run with the materials they were given. The result is stunning work of authenticity, brimming with humor, heartache and much humanism.

Moonie (Brooklynn Prince), a six year old girl living in the pink motel called Magic Castle with her young, tattooed irresponsible, daisy dukes wearing mom, Hally (Bria Vinaite). Moonie and her friend Scooty are always up to no good and wrecking havoc - spitting on neighbor's car from the balcony, starting fire in an abandoned house, panhandling tourist for ice cream money, etc., much to chagrin of the good-hearted motel manager Bobby (Willem Defoe). It doesn't really help that Hally is a real fuck-up. Always facing eviction for whatever violations against the motel policy and late for rent, she panhandles, steals, even prostitutes herself to make the rent.

The fake happiness of tourist subculture surrounding Disney World sharply contrasts with the pure joy and innocence of childhood captured by Baker. While kids are having fun, the adults in the film have to deal with depravity, submission, humiliation and consequences of being parents. Kids can have fights one day and make up next day as if nothing happened. Adult life is more complicated than that. With Hally, you couldn't picture a more stereotypical welfare mom. But she is also a loving mom, always trying to protect Moonie from the world and make the best out of ugliness of their surroundings.

But the film's about the kids being kids, always curious, always screaming and yelling, running across the various balconies and up and down the stairs of colorful motels, all named similar to Disney attractions - Future Land, Alibaba, Magic Castle and so on, and the nearby grassy swamp full of empty houses. It's beautifully captured verité style in mostly 35mm by Mexican DP Alexis Zabe (Silent Light, Post Tenebras Lux).

The performances by three kids – Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto (Jancey) and Christopher Rivera (Scooty) are so natural and so untamed, it makes you wonder how on earth Baker ever managed to bring them out. Firebrand newcomer Vinaite is also great, easily topping Riley Keough's portrayal of white trash skank in American Honey (which will make a handsome double feature as Flipside of American Dream). But the range these kids have, especially Prince who seems to convey range of emotions on cue, is astounding.

There is so much joy and happiness of childhood in The Florida Project. For almost two hours running time, we spend our time invested with Moonie and her friends' (mis)adventures. As Hally digs herself a hole time and time again, and as the inevitable finally catches up with her and her daughter, we deeply feel for Moonie and her well-being. We know it's not a documentary because there is unmistakable face of Willem Dafoe trying to pass as a real person (and he does because he is a great actor), Caleb Landry Jones shows up for a moment too. We know it's a make-believe and that everything is going to be all right. But the final moment of the film, taking place in the real Magic Kingdom, shot on shaky iphone, really got me emotionally. It is, shall we say, pure magic.

The Florida Project plays as part of NYFF 2017 at Film Society of Lincoln Center on 10/1 and 10/3. Please visit FSLC website for tickets and more info.

Thursday, September 28, 2017


Mrs. Hyde (2017) - Bozon
Serge Bozon's idiosyncratic WWI musical comedy La France impressed me when I watched it some years ago. In it, he demystified war heroics and masculinity with his deadpan humor. In Mrs. Hyde, in his peculiar way, Bozon takes jabs at the failing education system where intelligence is willfully ignored and pent up rage and anger simmers just below the surface.

The indomitable Isabelle Huppert plays Marie Géquil, a soft spoken, extremely ineffective Physics teacher in a rough suburban school where most of her students in her vocational class are comprised of rowdy, uninterested students of color. They incessantly make fun of her and scold her and have zero respect. But always good natured, Marie tries to get through to them, especially Malik (Adda Senani), her worst tormentor who's handicapped and relies on crutches for walking, even though no one give him the light of day. At home, she is greeted by Pierre (Sergio Garcia), a supportive, teddy bearish, stay-home husband who cooks elaborate meals and plays music for her but doesn't quite understand what she goes through day after day.

She takes solace in her laboratory in a trailer in the school lot after hours where she deals with complicated blinking machines and math equations. One day she is hit by a lightening in the trailer and becomes an occasional red-glowing night crawler.

Things change after the incident. Having more confidence in herself (as the energy visibly moves through her vain), she finally gets through Malik, despite objections of favoritism by do-good students (two white girls who always talk in unison in class). With the laws of reflection, not only she shows the path from Point A to Point B, she shows him how to stop and think. But despite the breakthrough, Malik still wants to belong to a street rap group consists of dropouts. In her sleep walking glowing form, Marie ends up frying one of the rappers in front of Malik one night.

I can watch Isabelle Huppert picking her nose for two hours no problem. She's done comedies before, but in Mrs. Hyde, her performance is completely against her type and it's still mesmerizing watch. Romain Duris, playing smarmy, self-loving, small time principal here represents, along with an uppity 35-year old teacher-in-training, the clueless establishment.

I didn't expect a biting, timely social commentary from Bozon and from Mrs.Hyde. Unlike Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, Bozon's two faced, mild mannered school teacher parable has a lot more to do with the society we live in - which lacks self-determination, individual thoughts, and honestly, is more and more very much anti-intellectual. Dangerous Mind it's not. The film shows us that we have responsibility to teach our new generation faced with a lot of problems and distractions to stop and think for themselves. That they can't rely on a savior ('white savior syndrome' that is prevalent in popular culture) because that will eventually burn you. I was mildly and pleasantly surprised by the audacity of Bozon's moral lessons that digs deeper while maintaining his brand of deadpan comedy on the surface.

Mrs. Hyde is a social commentary that packs a punch wrapped in a screwball comedy form. Highly recommended.

Mrs. Hyde plays as part of NYFF 2017 at Film Society of Lincoln Center on 9/29 and 10/1. Please visit FSLC website for tickets and more info.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Alienness of Human Bodies

Malgre la nuit (2015) - Philippe Grandrieux
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Malgre la nuit plays out like a lurid Lars von Trier film, plot-wise. Gotta say, it is perhaps the most narrative heavy Philippe Grandrieux film to date. But the imagery he presents here is still tour-de-force. The bodies, the alienness of white human skins against its dark backdrop - in the woods, unlit bedroom, basement, whathaveyou... make strong visual impact and brings out visceral, emotional reaction from me. Grandrieux makes a good use of his two skinny actors bodies - Ariane Labed (Yorgos Lanthimos regular) and Kristian Marr. Often completely naked, with their fawn-like sad faces, they go through raw emotions of being in some kind of mythic tragic love story.

Lenz (Marr) is in town, looking for love of his life, unseen Marlene. At some sado-masochistic gathering, he meets Helen (Labed), a deeply troubled young woman with a Laura Palmer style deathwish. Through his sleazy friend Louis (Paul Hamy of The Ornithologist), Lenz is introduced to an alluring dream pop singer Lena (beguiling Roxane Mesquida). She falls for self-distructing Lenz and as he rejects her, she burns with jealousy for both Madelene and Helen. She will be relying on her powerful underground boss dad to exact revenge.

I've said this before. In Lynch's long absence, I welcomed Grandrieux's artistry to fill the void. They are kindred spirits in more ways than one - their love of texture, steeped in noir trappings, fatalistic love, the dark side of human desires etc. As Lynch came roaring back with Twin Peaks: The Return, their differences are more pronounced - Lynch loves puzzles and working in his inner logic, Grandrieux is only interested in images. And these are not criticism at all for either one of the artists. Just an observation. But seriously, narrative is for pussies.

Anyone knows how to get a hold of the soundtrack of Malgre la nuit, please let me know. I need Roxane Mesquida's sweet dream pop in my life!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Some preliminary thoughts on Twin Peaks: The Return

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) - Lynch

Defying conventions

One thing that defined David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return is it defied everything we know about the tv or film narrative, genre, structure, casting, sound.... It even defied the original two seasons of the series. He didn't set out to make lip service for the diehard fans of the old series. Just as he re-imagined it with Fire Walk with Me, he has built a grander, larger mystery on top of the original Twin Peaks frame with co-creator David Frost. But he did not in any way disrespected the old characters. Notice that it's all the new characters who are fucked up, and all the old characters, growed up and wised up. OK, Shelly is still dumb as a doorknob

Who's dreaming who?

There have been many time traveling, dimension jumping Sci-Fi films and TV shows in the past. Some of these were cleverly done but they were always more interested in/in love with themselves in their own logic than metaphysical, spiritual consequences of such actions. None of these shows rose above the rules they set themselves within. Lynch applies it to 'the girl who lives down the lane' story. So much of Twin Peaks: The Return revolves around Dale Cooper and his evil doppelganger but by the end, we realize that he might have been dreamed up by Laura Palmer, a 17 yr old troubled High School girl all along, who died 25 years ago. It was Laura. It was always Laura. Laura is the one. That in fact the whole series, including all the 200 some characters are dreamed up by Cooper who is dreamed up by Laura. But if it was one of those 'it was all a dream' movie, everything is a lie, and it means nothing. But to Lynch, as his other films before this can tell you, dreams are as real and important as real life, that our lives, flesh and blood with its meaning of it all, may indeed be someone else's dreams. It's a humbling experience for sure.

You can't go home again

Twin Peaks part 8
It's a well known fact that Wizard of Oz and Hollywood's golden era influenced 71 year old baby boomer Lynch greatly. There was Hollywood and there was WWII and an atomic bomb. Without being cynical, he sees beauty in the darkness in this often contrasting, dual world. Time and time again, Lynch plays with this duality over and over.

Lynch's approach to his fears and nightmares, whether it be homeless people or that drugged up naked brunette who walked down the white suburban neighborhood street or trailer park white trash or seemingly normal parents (all the flip side of Land of Aplenty) or a roach-frog he swore he saw as a child or an atomic bomb blast, is to face them head on- exorcising these negative thoughts out of his system on to the screen. They are frightening and mysterious. They are beautiful.

Even the well-meaning, special agent Cooper, who splits into two then becomes a whole again by the end, gets lost in his journey to make things right. The past doesn't dictate the future. The wicked witch, born out of an atomic blast, sidetracks him. He is as lost as poor Laura Palmer.

Mystery continues, beauty retained

The Return's finale was Every bit as frustrating as it had been expected. Part 17 neatly wrapped many of the messy threads the show was building up to. It was indeed the actual ending of one mystery, just as Lynch and co opened up another one with Part 18. Thankfully for us, the mystery continues and retains its beauty forever as the show ended. The whole show was still the most exhilarating viewing experience ever. It provided the most beautiful, spellbinding images I've ever experienced in my life. Part 8 alone is the most cinematic, thrilling event of all time in TV/film history, easily topping any works of Brakage or Malick had ever done.

I just feel so fortunate that this summer, we were blessed with 18 hours of new Lynch creations. Even if Lynch doesn't make another movie or tv show for the remainder of his life, this has been a true blessing. And I am very grateful for it ever happening.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Night the great equalizer & enabler

Toute une nuit (1982) - Chantal Akerman
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Night is a powerful equalizer - in the shadows, we can hide all our imperfections. In the shadows, night is also an enabler for those who act on their impulses. This is how I felt watching Toute une nuit. No one does loneliness like Akerman. She stitches together these lonely souls in short, almost silent segments as they sit in empty bars, cafes, rooms, balconies, corridors. They also run around, pack and leave, break up, and embrace each other and dance. There are so many embraces in Tout une nuit. They are not the happy ones. They are desperate, sad ones- holding each other tight, not able to let go and becoming sad dances.

Toute une nuit is a beautiful, melancholic piece that speaks to the lonely hearts everywhere.