Friday, November 16, 2018

Tresor Island

Les garçons sauvages/Wild Boys (2017) - Mandico *reviewed at Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2018 in April. It plays at Anthology Film Archive starting 11/16 - 11/21
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Five handsome boys from an exclusive boarding school go a little too far with their sexual desire with their literature teacher, reaching a state called 'Tresór,' symbolized by a jewel-crusted skull. As a punishment, they are cast away by a greasy, bearded ship captain (Sam Louwick) with a gigantic tattooed penis. Chained and fed only a fruit that resembles hairy balls, the boys go through a harrowing sea voyage under the ruthless captain. The ship is headed toward a mysterious island where men turn into the fairer sex. The idea is, taking a short trip to the island might make these wild lusty boys a little more even tempered, a little less testosterone filled.

Bertrand Mandico makes a feature debut after many fantastical, colorful, playful shorts with the crazy beautiful The Wild Boys. He flips gender roles, having the roles of the boys played by female actors (Vimala Pons, Pauline Lorillard, Diane Rouxel, Anaël Snoek and Mathilde Warnier) in ties and suspenders with short hair. After they get to the seemingly wild and unkempt island full of weird vegetation that resembles secreting penises and hairy balls (their only means of sustenance), they meet Dr. Séverin(e) (Mandico's muse Elina Löwensohn), a zoologist who became a woman after he landed on the island. One of the boys, Hubert (Rouxel) gets left behind with Séverine and the rest go back to the ship due to the captain's urging. But soon the boys revolt against the captain because they want to go back to the weirdly seductive island. The boat capsizes in the storm, and the boys end back up on the island.

A gaudy, sensual, daring and inventive take on both Goto: Island of Love by Polish master Animator/filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk and Lord of the Flies, The Wild Boys is a lot of fun. It plays out like a prettier, sexier Guy Maddin film. And its pan-sexual theme is not without a dash of humor. The beach fight/orgy scene complete with flying feathers and sand alone is worth the price of admission.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

James Joyce in Brazil

Araby (2017) - Dumans, Ochoa
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Andre, a sullen teen, lives in a small mining factory town in Brazil with his sick little brother. His aunt who works at the factory as a nurse looks after them since their parents aren't around. There isn't much to do around. We are presented with their small sad lives. We see Andre's aunt giving a quiet laborer, Christiano (Aristides de Sousa), a ride to work. One day Christiano's hurt at the job and falls into a coma. At his aunt's request, Andre goes to where Christiano has been living to fetch some of his belongings. There he finds Christiano's journal. He starts reading it. The title appears and the real story begins...

Sharing the title of James Joyce's short, the film beautifully presents an everyman's story as he travels around Brazil, job to job, trying to eke out the living. A folksy soundtrack enforces the film's rather old fashioned approach. Yeah I get that everyone you see around has a story to tell. They all have hopes and dreams and good times and bad times. It follows the tradition of Olmi's social realism lyrically presented. Christiano's small existential angst is appropriately heartbreaking at the end.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Violent Sport

Infinite Football (2017) - Porumboiu *reviewed at Art of the Real April 2018*
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Romanian helmer Corneliu Porumboiu (Police Adjective, 12:08 East of Bucharest) makes a wacky yet poignant documentary about his childhood friend Laurentiu Ginghina, a middle aged bureaucrat who is obsessed with changing the rules of soccer to make the sport safer. At 19, he fractured his right fibula as many players in the opposite team ganged up on him in the corner when he had the ball. Because of the injury, he had to give up hope of going professional. Now he is hell-bent on changing the game - he wants to implement octagonal shaped soccer field with sectioned groups where 5 offensive and 5 defensive players can't cross each other's lines and no offsides. He says this improvement will speed up the game and make it smoother and safer.

He wanted to go to Forestry university but it required physical where you had to run which he couldn't do with his leg. His dream of coming to the US twice - first to run the ranch out in the West, then in Florida, gets thwarted by 9/11 and its aftermath with tighter restrictions. He ended up where he is, some desk job which is not that exciting. Ginghina's sad sap story, told in his office where he keeps getting interrupted with his daily tasks- an old lady with her inheritance questions, paperwork, meetings and appearances, brings out chuckles rather than sympathy.

Porumboiu prods his friend's obsession about 'the ball being free' in a sport where beauty is in player's skills and the ball is just an object. Our bureaucrat obviously is self aware, that deep down he equates himself with the ball and trying to escape from tight corners. That he sees himself as a superhero from comic books, like Superman or Spiderman who has a normal boring dayjob. Is his situation a stand-in for the general disillusionment with European Union, felt by majority of its members? Maybe.

After seeing his plan implemented on the indoor soccer field to not so enthusiastic results, he keeps changing his rules and therefore his creation being tagged as Infinite Football by Porumboiu. The film ends with Ginghina's poignant and touching monologue about the world where there is less violence which the director equates for political utopia. There is no fast zoom in/freeze frame or zany music for cheap laughs. Nor the film intentionally demeans our silly bureaucrat. Just like other Romanian new wave compatriots, Porumboiu knows how to justly reflect the lives of ordinary Romanians finding themselves riding along in a rapidly changing world and facing mildly amusing situations.

Infinite Football is now playing at Museum of Moving Image. Please visit their website for more info.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Guilty Conscience

Transit (2018) - Petzold
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Transit is another tightly scripted high melodrama by Christian Petzold. Based on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers based on her experience in France under Nazi Occupation, Petzold transposes its premise to modern day Maseilles, again under the Fascist Germans. With the rise of authoritarian right wing regimes and their nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigrant sentiments here and everywhere, it is frightening to think that this film is not a too far fetched scenario. It's one of the many reasons why the film is brilliant.

Georg (Franz Rogowski) is asked to deliver two letters to Weidel, a writer of some importance in Paris. It's a dangerous mission- there are police raids daily and it's harder to get around on the street without constantly being asked for proper papers. Everyone knows the major shit's gonna go down soon: there are people being dragged away in the street by the heavily armed authorities- 'the purge' is at hand. But with some money promised, Georg is up to the challenge. But once he gets to Paris, he finds that the writer committed suicide, leaving his documents and the latest manuscript behind. With others urging to take a sick man to Marseilles and notify the Mexican consulate the death of Weidel, Georg hops on the train to the port city. The letters reveal that his has a safe passage with his wife Marie (Paula Beer of Franz) to go to Mexico and that she will be waiting for him in Marseilles.

Once he arrives at Marseilles, he reluctantly assumes the identity of Weidel, make friends with an Arab immigrant boy whose dad (the sick man) died on the way. He also sees Marie everywhere, scouring the city for Weidel, her husband, day in and day out. She is involved with Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor who has put his departure on hold because he doesn't want to leave her behind. No one wants to be the one who leaves. These characters are stuck in there, going around in circles, trapped in love, in sense of loyalty or simply in human decency.

Transit's got a lot to do with guilty conscience: Guilt of leaving someone behind. Guilt of forgetting. Guilt of being indifferent. With this, Transit is a great companion piece to Phoenix, the director's last film, taking place in post-WWII setting. It also is in line with Petzold's usual themes - people in transit, state of uncertainty caused by outside force, by something bigger than an individual, while not losing sight of its characters' humanity. Also because of this setting and themes, even though contemporary, it reminds me strongly of Nouveau Roman writers' works.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Bill Spann

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017) - Wilkerson
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Travis Wilkerson is, for lack of a better term, an investigative experimental filmmaker. His films largely concern with the buried, sordid American past. His film, An Injury to One, about a murdered union activist in the turn of the 20th century had a deep connection with me at the time and therefore was a fascinating watch. With Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun, he unflinchingly delves into his racist family history where his great granddad got away with killing a black man in 1940s Alabama. As usual, he goes on about it with his dry, raspy voiceover, words over images, split screen and old home movies as well as static/driving shots of places.

Wilkerson starts with clips from To Kill a Mockingbird, announcing that the film is not a white savior movie. Throughout the film, he self-consciously traverses Alabama, making a point that he is a white man with a movie camera digging up a forgotten murder story of a black man. As usual, even after 4 years of research into the subject, and even though it's his own family's history, there is no real resolution to the film. The truth in what happened to the powerless will be erased from history and completely forgotten. It's a timely film because with a racist buffoon being in charge, the racist rhetoric right now is truly alarming.

His name was Bill Spann. Wilkerson is nowhere near to find out what really happened, but finds Spann's final resting place in an unmarked grave in Louisville Alabama with the tip from a local woman who fears for her safety by just talking to him. Yes, the violence and racism is still rampant in the south and everywhere nowadays. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? bears witness to those who were victims of racist violence and serves as a reminder that they all had names.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Hairball Romance

Are We Not Cats (2016) - Robin
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A New York slacker Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson)'s life can't get any worse - dumped by his girlfriend, fired from his job (sanitation worker, dangling from the back of the garbage truck) and his parents declares that they are moving to Arizona, so he has to move out. Only silver lining in this case is that his father leaves him his old cube truck (from his mover business days). After unsuccessfully bumming around his friends and sleeping in the back of his truck for a while, he gets a job delivering a giant, old engine to snowy upstate. Once there, he gets stuck with a man who ordered the engine for god knows what reason, meets the man's cute girlfriend Anya (Chelsea Lopez) in some dingy basement club. Their attraction is mutual. And since Eli's got nothing better to do, he decides to hang around, getting a job as a machine operator at a logging company where Anya also works at. It turns out that they share the same tendency: They pick and eat their own hair obsessive compulsively. While Eli's tendency is mild (not that he is a healthy man by any means, he urinates blood!), he recognizes and understands Anya's near dangerous obsession. Oh man, the hairball that is cummulating in her must be huge!

Are We Not Cats is a drolly funny and romantic even. it's an unusual comedy that is deceptively sweet and tender. Lopez is adorable even without hair, and Nicholson nails his anxiety ridden millenial hipster bit. Perfect as a Halloween night movie.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Animis Suspirium

Suspiria (2018) - Guadagnino
It's a mess. It's sad that this is the state of what passes as arthouse cinema nowadays. I didn't like Guadagnino's much phrased I am Love. Had no desire to see his remake of Le Picine, Bigger Splash, or Call Me by Your Name. This overwrought, over-serious and over-long take on Dario Argento's chinzy classic of the same name gets almost everything wrong.

We get to know Susie Banyon (Dakota Johnson) fresh from Ohio farmland as she travels to always rainy, still divided Berlin, to audition for a Martha Grahamesque modern dance school. It is 1977, same year as the initial release year of the original. But this doesn't mean that they have to contextualize anything- and they do the hell out of it- Baader Meinhoff, RAF terrorists bombings and hijacking of the airplane and all that - both on the street and on TV and radio. But only on the surface level though. AND BECAUSE IT'S GERMANY, you have to have a concentration camp story. So Ohio and Mennonites background gets lost in the shuffle, even though Susie is supposed to be the chosen one. And because Guadagnino is buddy buddy with Tilda Swinton, she has to play two very different roles unnecessarily.

Thai cinematographer/Weerasethakul's regular Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's sudden zoom-ins and busy camera movement are a total mismatch. Worse are distracting editing and terrible in camera effects. Worst is Thom Yorke's soundtrack which comes across as completely inappropriate for the material. Too bad because Johnson, Mia Goth and Swinton are all wonderful in their respective roles. There are some great visual moments -especially the eerie dream sequences and dance numbers. But the ending resembles later period Argento level of terribleness. I mean, it's From Dusk 'til Dawn bad. Wow, I mean, terrible. Guadagnino is not the knight of Shining Armour for the future of arthouse cinema. Get that in to your head.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Disappearing Act

Cherry Pie (2013) - Merz
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"I will find a perfect place to disappear," Zoé (Lolita Chammah) declares on the phone message she leaves for Toma. She just walked out on him. With only a flimsy clothes on her back and without a place to stay, she hitches rides without any destination or plan.
As you probably know by now, I'm a sucker for road movies starring a girl/woman. Swiss filmmaker/cinematographer Lorenz Merz's Cherry Pie seems to be banking on that premise because it's the only thing the film has going for. And Lolitta Chammah. There are a lot of Chammah twirling around in the wet and windy weather of the English Channel and the coastlines. I got no problem with that. Almost always in tight closeups, we get to experience and study her anxiety ridden face. Her diet subsists of coke/pepsi and pop music blaring through her earphones.

Zoé encounters some souls here and there, they are like distant strangers that she watches from afar. There are less and less people. As she crosses the English Channel on a ferry, she encounters not one soul and it gives more time for her to twirl on the empty deck.

Merz is going for an expressionistic take on 'a woman finding herself on the road' but not successfully. It's one of those pretentious student films that you wish you could change and make it better, giving it a little more soul to get bigger lingering impact on you because the premise itself is just too perfect. Chammah is not wasted here but has very little to work with and it shows.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Tug and Pull

Phantom Thread (2017) - Anderson
If you love someone, do you want to emulate their ways of life or make them conform to your ways? Or do you compromise half way? Phantom Thread, PT Anderson's exquisitely executed film, is in many ways, more refined version of The Master.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a middle aged, famous designer of women's clothes- specifically, dresses. He lives and works in his townhouse in London and follows strict daily routine. His life is always surrounded by women - Cyril (Leslie Manville), his sister and trusted confident of his business and about a dozen seamstresses working for him. He can be fickle sometimes, and lets his irritation known when the slightest details bother him. Obviously he has mommy issues. Mostly, his life is all about work and nothing else.

Woodcock drives out to the countryside for a short getaway. At a restaurant of an inn where he is staying at, he takes an instant liking to a clumsy waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps) of an indeterminate origin (never really pronounced in the entire film). He whisks her to his London atelier and starts measuring her size under the watchful, cold eyes of Cyril who quietly jots down the numbers. The process is all work, not desire. Her gawky figure is perfect for a fitting model. So starts a delicious tug and pull relationship drama.

Alma turns out to be much more than a muse for Woodcock. As difficult of a man he is to be with, for the man she loves, Alma is determined to show him that life doesn't have to be a constant work even if you are that talented or a genius. But Phantom Thread is not 'life lessons' kind of a movie, nor does it pretend to be one of those life affirming movie where a younger woman makes older, driven man stop and smell the daisies. Anderson makes it about a woman going to extreme measures into be part of the man she loves and he finally accepting it - there is something endearing and sexy about that, even though there is no sex scene in the film. Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps is totally up to the challenge against Day-Lewis who tones it down for the role significantly. And it's a beauty.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Norwegian Pop Band

Paterson (2016) - Jarmusch
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Paterson could be alternately called "As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw the Glimpse of Beauty" or the Japanese minimalism inspired "A-ha!" Contemplation on interpreting and creating art has been Jarmusch's MO for a long time. He just applied it to existing genre conventions as in Western (Dead Man), Samurai flick (Ghost Dog), Hitman (Limits of Control) and Vampire (Only Lovers Left Alive). In Paterson, he strips things down to a bare minimum. It's about a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) living in Paterson, NJ. The town happens to be the birth place of such poets as Williams Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.

Paterson leads an unremarkable day to day life. He writes poetry in his little notebook before and after his shifts. He eavesdrops his passengers sometimes, loves his quirky, exotic wife Laura (luminous Golshifteh Farahani) who dreams of owning a cupcake business and country music stardom, takes their pet bulldog Marvin for evening walks, stopping in at a local bar for a beer. He observes small coincidences in his surroundings and experiences little dramas here and there - the bus breaks down, a fight at the bar, Marvin tearing at his notebook, meeting Japanese tourist/fellow poetry lover (Masatoshi Nagase). But in general, Paterson is appropriately quiet and gentle. Inspiration doesn't have to come from something high and grand. Your everyday surroundings, however mundane, can give you that, Paterson seems to say. It's a lovely movie.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Long Live the Flesh

*reviewed slightly different form back in November 2017. The film opens at Museum of Moving Image 10/19-10/28

Caniba (2017) - Paravel, Castaing-Taylor
Issei Sagawa killed a Dutch woman in Paris and ate part of her body in 1981. It was a case of strong fantasies that twisted one's mind and giving way to violent urges. He was declared insane and sent home. Now in his 60s and partially paralyzed, he is in care of his brother Jun. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the duo behind a mindboggling, sensory experience that was Leviathan (2012), plunge into face the darkest of human desires and capture only way they can – in extreme close ups. The result is one of the most deeply disturbing love story ever told.

With only long takes, in mostly extreme close up and out-of-focus most of the time of Issei's aging, almost reptilian face, Caniba is a fascinating movie watching experience.

It's usually Jun carrying on a conversation off screen with his semi-comatose brother on the foreground. Issei blurts out almost haiku style answers, often trailing off to yonder. For our (dis)pleasure, Jun flips through a crudely drawn but extremely graphic manga of Issei's deeds (published a long while ago- Issei's been living off of his notoriety) while chastising his brother the whole time, "This is too much for me," "some people like this I suppose," "you weren't eating her while she was alive?" and so on. It goes on forever.

In that crude manga, Issei is always portrayed as little orange creature, the worst caricature of an Orientalized person craving for a fair skinned white woman. After Jun disses the book as 'disgusting shit' and putts it down, Issei says, "C'est fini."

Caniba can be a squirm inducing, endurance piece for people who find the subject matter disturbing. It also contains footage of fetish porn where a girl pisses on a man's face.

Then there is completely innocuous 8mm home movie footage of young Sagawa brothers. They were just like any other home movies, showing happy days when they were children. Then it turns out that Jun is a lifelong masochist and has been inflicting pain on his body with barbed wires, kitchen knives and pins for over 60 years. This part of the movie is perhaps the most difficult to watch.

When he confesses his vice to his brother, it's as if they are in competition - Jun passive aggressively belittles himself and his brother - "You aren't shocked because my fetishes pales in comparison to yours." "I wasn't shocked." Issei replies. Their relationship, just like any other siblings is on a base level, very relatable. Issei, aging and invalid, knows Jun is the only one who truly understands him and loves him even though he is a murderer and a cannibal.

In theory, Caniba is exactly what I look for in filmmaking - technically daring, psychologically complex, and intellectually stimulating, etc. But its subjects' sexual fetishes are too far extreme and disturbing, I can't say I enjoyed the film. Its somewhat happy ending involving cosplay maid in her black and white uniform taking care of Issei was an interesting touch if not a little jarring tonally.
To regard Caniba as just another observational documentary would be a great disservice. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor definitely make an adventurous pair. Their approach and methods in expanding cinematic universe with taking on a challenging subject is more than brave endeavor. The duo peeks into the heart of darkness and it’s truly disturbing. Caniba is a best non-horror horror movie of the year.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Running Away is Not a Solution

Taipei Story (1985) - Yang
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It is hard to let go of old ways. Taipei Story tells the story of Lung (Hou Hsiao Hsien) and Chin (Tsai Chin), an on and off childhood sweethearts adulting in the fast changing world. And it's a good one.

Lung just got back from living in California and finding it way too easy and comfortable slipping in to old ways - managing his father's fabric shop, visiting his old baseball coach and reminiscing good old times with Chin's father. It seems Lung left Taiwan because of his love Gwan (Ko Su-Yun) chose Kobayashi over him and moved to Japan. Chin, working at a classy architecture firm as an assistant to powerful Mme. Mei, finds herself out of the job after a company takeover. Chin decided to take some time off, hoping that now Lung's back, maybe they can get together and move to Cali. In the mean time, she hangs out with her little sister's motorcycle riding group of youngsters. And this provides some of the most memorable visual sequences in the film.

Still bound by tradition and loyalty, Lung blows an opportunity partnering with his brother-in-law in Cali by lending his nest egg money to Chin's father who is a sentimental drunkard and helping his old buddy who now drives a cab to make ends meet. Lung hates all these sinewy old connections in Taipei, but realizes running away is not the solution. You can't run away from who you are.

Chin's brief fling with her married co-worker doesn't go anywhere and she gets super jealous when Gwan visits the city. And her shenanigans with cram school kids brings more complications when one of the boys taking a liking to her. Where is her prince charming, her knight with shining armor to take her away from all this clinginess? Always hiding behind her dark shades, Chin wants very much to be free.

Somehow I could see the ending from a mile away. But don't matter, Taipei Story is a terrific film with great characters charting growing pains of 30 somethings in a specific city which also happens to be very universal. Hou is amazing as Lung, a moody man with a chip on his shoulder.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Godard Points Us in the Right Direction

Le livre d'image/Image Book (2018) - Godard
With Image Book, Jean-Luc Godard is still at it at age 87. With his presence strongly felt at Cannes this year with its poster of Belmondo and Karina kissing from Pierrot le fou (purely out of their nostalgia trip and other superficial reasons) and Cate Blanchet led Jury ironically awarding him 'the Special Palm d'or', whatever that means. But in stark contrast to youthful exuberance and liberty of his earlier films, Image Book is in large part and as expected, dark, brooding and more inscrutable than ever and indirect condemnation of the cheap spectacle the festival has become. Completely consists of existing footage - from Hollywood, European and Soviet films, war atrocities, news footage of ISIS and films from the Middle East in later part, Godard grimly goes on about the power, or lack thereof, of images in his raspy, groveling voice over.

Like most of his essay films since the monumental Histoire du cinema, his fragmented, loosely connected images have been, if not anything, reminder of the terrible history of humankind. Image Book is no exception. With Bertolt Brecht's quote, "Only a fragment carries a mark of authenticity," he somewhat frees us from dwelling over his use of edits - how he cuts two images together, how he stops and drags an image, his discontinuous soundtrack, spastic English subtitles and digital manipulation where colors bleed and image become almost abstract. Truth is in the images themselves. And as far as collages go, it's an assault on your eyeballs, very much like that famous shot from Un Chien Andalou which he references to in the film.

His thin image thread is there with the picture of hand pointing up, renaissance paintings where gestures have hidden meanings to recognizable movie clips include Vertigo, Kiss Me Deadly, Ivan the Terrible, Dr. Mabuse, Johnny Guitar, many from his own filmography and countless others I don't recognize. Train shots from various films invariably ends up in Auswitz footage. With Godard saying, "I have the courage to imagine. I take the train of history and I think of people who take the train for a job and who do not have courage to imagine." With images of 35mm film going through a projector, its thick and hammy celluloid strip jittering through the loop like a convulsing snake or slap of meat going through a tenderizer, Godard puts emphasis on the physicality of communication, the visual language, rather than spoken one.

The second half of the film settles into West's notion of Middle East as it was chastised by Edward Said in Orientalism. With barrage of film clips from old Egyptian films and other Middle Eastern nations, Godard examines An Ambition in the Desert, a book by Albert Cossery, an Egyptian born French writer. The book tells a story of a imagined Middle Eastern emirate of Dofa, a non-oil producing state therefore escaped from the Western colonialists' influence. It's deemed as paradise in the Middle East. Series of explosions rocks Dofa and Samantar, the main character of the story, would find out the attacks are planned by machiavellian Prime Minister of the emirate, Sheik Ben Kadem, who welcomes the influence from the west for his own political gain. Godard delves deeply into the subject, juxtaposing old Egyptian movie clips, surveillance ISIS footage and everyday street footage digitally manipulated to abstraction.

Godard's latest offerings are hard nut to crack, even more so than usual. Image Book is also the ones that needs to be mulled over after viewing. I didn't know about Cossery's book. I had to look it up. Even as an avid fan of his filmography, most of the stuff he talks about go over my head. But with Image Book, there seems to be a concerted effort for Godard to point us in the direction where he sees a corner of the world that is underexposed, underseen and misrepresented by the western world. He references his 1987 film King Lear a lot in Image Book, especially a shot of Cordelia (Molly Ringwald)'s dead body lying on the rock - as if telling us that Cordelia, the righteous, virtuos one, is dead and there is no good one left in the world. He also leaves in his coughing fit during the middle of voice over. Godard knows his time is almost up. There is a sense of urgency in his gravelly voice. Say what you will about cranky attitude, his stubbornness all these years not to conform, his perceived snobbiness. Yes, the representation and how you tell the story matters. But I'd rather get dictation from Godard and have him point me to the right direction than from anybody else. I sincerely hope Image Book is not his farewell message to the world.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Alfonso Cuaron's Roma is Quietly Spectacular

Roma (2018) - Cuaron
Alfonso Cuarón, a director known for his meticulously crafted Hollywood sci-fi movies Children of Men and Gravity, goes back to his native Mexico and gets more personal with Roma, based on childhood memories of his nanny. It is his first Mexican film since Y Tu Mamá También in 2001. The result is a well-balanced, mature, humanistic and highly subjective observation of a woman’s life.

We are introduced to Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous woman working as a housemaid for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City. Shot in sumptuous black and white, large format (instead of getting help from his regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón shot the movie himself) and using subtle unassuming techniques (mostly in wide angle, slow pan and tilt), the movie focuses on the life of a woman and her profession, which is seldom a subject for a major motion picture.

We start with a long, static shot of the stone floor of a narrow, gated driveway being washed. We hear sounds from the lively neighborhood – dogs barking, children playing, various street sellers signaling their arrivals. The sudsy water is thrown over and over, and we see a plane going across the sky in its reflection on the floor. After the initial title sequence, we slowly tilt up to reveal Cleo doing chores in the courtyard. With this opening, Cuarón sets up the rhythm of Roma – the steady, forward march of time. We are about to witness for a little more than two hours the trials and tribulations of Cleo, the house servant, within a year’s span. The year is 1970.

Cleo and Adela (Nancy García García) are two live-in housemaids for Señora Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and her mostly absent husband, her old mother and their four rambunctious children. Cleo and Adela wake up before everyone else, cook, wake the kids one by one, get them ready for school, clean, wash, get groceries, carry luggage, make tea and do everything else in between. It is clear that much love is shared between the family and Cleo. Kids love her and say so often, and Cleo does too.

Sofia goes through a tough time dealing with the fact that her husband is cheating on her – he fakes business trips to Canada when in fact he is staying in the city with another woman. She appreciates all Cleo does but also lets her know her place on occasion. Cleo is part of the family but not quite: in one continuous sequence we see the whole family viewing a TV program together. It is some silly comedy and everyone is watching and laughing. Cleo, while mindful of everyone’s needs, watches and laughs with them. She approaches the couch where the kids are sitting and sits down on the floor next to them. One of the kids leans his head on her shoulder. Sofia tells her to go and make some tea. She gets up and goes to the kitchen.

Cleo gets pregnant by Adela’s cousin Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a brash martial arts practicioner. He abandons her as soon as she tells him that she is pregnant. Sofia, perhaps feeling the sisterhood of abandoned women and/or out of the goodness of her heart, embraces Cleo’s pregnancy and pledges her support.

It is the small details Cuarón shows us that have a cumulative impact, like the sequence of the father very carefully parking his oversized car in the narrow driveway, the constant presence of dog shit on the floor, a plane flying across the sky…. With Roma, he doesn’t make a broad political or cultural statement. It is not that Cuarón ignores the social stratification or political climate in Mexico during 1970 and 1971. Quite the contrary – the family Christmas getaway in the mountains, at the opulent mansion of one of Sofia’s friends, reinforces the masters-and-servants relationship as they have separate living quarters and hangout areas. This is also where we get the only clue to Cleo’s background as she muses on the barren landscape and tells her friends, “This is what my hometown looks like. Drier than this though.” Then there is the Corpus Christi Massacre in 1971 where government thugs (known as Los Halcones) shoot and kill 120 protesting college students. The chaotic scene on the street plays out while Cleo, accompanied by Sofia’s mother, is on her way to choose a crib for her baby. She encounters Fermín, now as one of Los Halcones.

In focusing on Cleo and her surrogate family, who are painfully human with all their faults and blemishes, Cuarón makes the film very personal and subjective, therefore becoming universal.

Although the spectacular uncut ending sequence on the beach might be a technical marvel, Cuarón’s craft does not take away from or overshadow the overall emotional impact it has on the audience. The sequence encapsulates everything Cuarón has been working for – pairing technical virtuosity and universal human decency to a maximum impact. Quietly spectacular, this larger format, digitally shot film needs to be seen on the big screen. Hopefully Netflix, its distributor, will release it in theaters for a while before putting it in their streaming queue.

The underlying theme of Roma is giving love and respect to people who we take for granted – those unsung heroes, the backbone of our society. We make movies of spectacles and amplified emotions. Cuarón focuses on miniature crises in one year in the life of Cleo. Roma is a guileless, subtle, deeply felt human story that is definitely Cuarón’s best and most mature work and one of the year’s best films.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Fatalistic Love Story

Cold War (2018) - Pawlikowski
Cold War is a tragic, fatalistic love story set in Poland after the second world war. The year is 1949. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza), two musical enthusiasts are seen traveling and collecting samples of Polish folk music in rural areas. They are two pivotal force behind a newly established Polish State run music school. While auditioning many young, talented pupils, a sultry, troubled girl Zula (Joanna Kulig) catches Wiktor's eyes. It's a school where they train students to be entertainers on stage - involves not only singing but choreographed dancing in traditional garbs. Zula, talented and has a beautiful voice, becomes a star soon enough. And Wiktor and Zula soon become lovers. Now the year is 1952.

Soon the school and its trope becomes a success, the communist regime takes an interest and pressure them to integrate pro-Stalin propaganda songs. Irena objects at first but relents at the Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), the founder of the school's insistence. But it gives school and Zula an opportunity to travel and perform elsewhere in Europe. While they are performing in Paris, Wiktor suggests Zula that they defect to the west. But Zula fails to show up at the rendez-vous point and they are separated.

Many years passes. Wiktor is now living in Paris, composing and playing piano in a jazz ensemble living in a tiny apartment, like a true bohemian in French movies. After seeing Zula perform with her traveling Polish group on stage in Zagreb, and after forcefully removed and put on a train out of Yugoslavia, they are reunited in Paris. But the whole Paris scene doesn't satisfy Zula. It's too stuck up and Wiktor seems to have lost his mojo in a foreign land - "In Poland, you were a man!" Zula chastises him. After couple of jealousy fueled fights - involving a poet Juliette (Jeanne Balibar) and movie director Michel (French director Cedric Kahn) in Wiktor's circle of artist friends, Zula goes back to Poland. Wiktor, crestfallen, decides to go back to Poland for Zula, risking being jailed as a unpatriotic traitor.

Shot again in full frame monochrome by Lukascz Zal, Cold War is every bit as beautiful as Ida. His use of head space is there and it's lovely. Kulig has a clear and beautiful singing voice in every style, providing some of the loveliest vocal tracks for the films great jazzy soundtrack.

Pawlikowski deftly directs, like his previous film, Ida this 90 minute film in a breeze. But whereas this quick, no moment to spare, no time to contemplate pace worked for a young woman coming of age story, for something like Cold War and the subject like tragic love, I wish the director spent a little more time with Wiktor and especially more with Zula, since Kulig, resembling Slavic Léa Seydoux, is very lovely to look at and listen to. Constant fade to black after pivotal moments in their lives doesn't feel like just times passing or mere transition but more like we've missed out on a lot of details. I understand Pawlikowski's driving idea of 'love has no ideology or borders', but the absence of the couple's political allegiance/aversion as 'artists' bothered me (same way as Ida wearing religion on her sleeve in Ida), especially no background for either of them were ever fully explored. The ending is beautiful but I feel like the rest of the film didn't quite earn it.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Allegorical Tale of Haves and Have Nots

Happy as Lazzaro (2018) - Rohrwacher
Heureux comme Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice)
I've come to love folksy, good hearted nature of Alice Rohrwacher's delicate, charming films about rural Italian villages and their eclectic inhabitants peppered with her brand of unsentimental magic realism. Happy as Lazzaro, her latest offering is an allegorical tale that goes wonderfully unexpected ways.

Inviolata is an isolated mountain village that seems like it is stuck in the middle ages. The farmers are seen tending livestock, harvesting tobacco plants and living in squalid conditions. Electricity seems to be scarce as they complain when the only light bulb in the common area of the house goes out. Everyone in the village, young and old, is working from morning to dusk non-stop. A wide eyed, good natured boy, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), seems to be in everyone's demand. Whatever the task, he is there to do it without questioning.

Nicola, in a funny suit and tie who seem to be in charge of the whole production comes in to collect the villager's tobacco harvest, does the calculation and tells them that they are in the red again after all the expenses that he brings in - light bulbs, supplies and what not. The villagers complain but quiet down soon enough. It seems their arrangement has been like this way for a long time. Nicola's wife, marquise de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi of Life is Beautiful and Johnny Stecchino) and their spoiled children Tancredi and Maria are in town, staying in their opulent mansion. Tancredi, a blonde boy who is clueless about the villager's living conditions, strolls around in his fancy clothes and his walkman, bored out of his skull. But he takes a liking to Lazzaro who obliges to his every whim.

After Lazzaro showed Tancredi his secret hangout up on the dusty hill, the rich boy comes up with an idea of kidnapping himself and sending a ransom letter to his parents. Days go by. Nicola suspiciously refuses to call police and marquise refuses to pay the ransom. Lazzaro, busy working, but also worried about his new friend up on the hill all by himself, worries himself sick and falls ill. Maria secretly calls the police and all hell breaks loose.

See, the first half of Happy as Lazzaro plays out like a gritty yet affable tale of small folks up in the mountains. Everything is very authentic and natural, showing their way of life- Young people fall in love and want to leave the village. They have to protect livestock from marauding wolves, tobacco plants need to be harvested and smoked and dried. It plays out something like humorous version of Ermano Olmi's realist film, except some strange inconsistencies like the presence of Tancredi's walkman and flip phones (Rohrwacher deliberately makes the time period obscure). You think it's a throw back of old, folksy yarn so far, then the film turns into something different altogether.

After the arrival of police, it is revealed that the town of Inviolata has been taken advantage of by the marquise and Nicola: after the historic flooding long ago, the town was cut off from the outside world and unbeknownst them, the marquise family continued to exploit them for their labor in their little modern feudal system. By the time our Lazzaro, who had fallen ill and in his delirium, fell from the cliff looking for Tancredi, regain his consciousness, many years had gone by and Inviolata had been emptied out.

Lazzaro meets two thieves, Ultimo (great Sergi Lopez) and Pippo, at now abandoned villa of the marquise and hitch a ride with them to their house, an old tanker beside the railroad tracks. There Lazzaro reunites with Antonia (Alba Rohrwacher, sister of director Alice), who was a little girl back in Inviolata and now is a grown up. In fact, most of the villagers who live in the same place, are all old now. They are scraping by, by way of stealing and scavenging. They regard Lazzaro, who hadn't aged a bit, with great deal of skepticism at first, calling him a ghost. But recognizes his innocence and good heartedness. Lazzaro, who had sworn his friendship with Tancredi, would never stop looking for him.

One can regard Lazzaro as Chance character in Being There. Almost saint like, Lazzaro is a metaphysical being that is too good to be true. In fact, all the villagers are. What's done is done. They don't hold the grudge against the marquise and her family. They are even willing to give them expensive pastries.

Rohrbacher makes a point about the current immigration situations that it's just as exploitative as the middle ages. As Lazzaro and Antonia watches, there is a scene involving a sort of reversed slavery auction: The recruiter shouts that a job pays four euros and 50 cents. Migrant workers grumble that the wage is too low. But instead of asking for higher wages, they compete for lowering their wage demands just to get a job.

Child actors are great, so is always excellent Alba Rohrbacher. And Hélène Louvart lensed 16mm cinematography is gorgeous. But the real star is Tardiolo. There is sense of decency in that babyface and wide fawny eyes. Lazzaro is someone who is desperately needed in this cynical, cruel world. Alice Rohrbacher's writing shines in bringing out humor and humanity in an whimsical yet pointy allegory full of wonders.