Saturday, July 21, 2018

The World is Ending, Let's Fall in Love

First Reformed (2017) - Schrader
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Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a mild mannered, wise pastor of the First Reformed church in small town upstate New York. His congregation is tiny. Even though the historic white chapel church is about to be reconsecrated for being 250 years old, it is functioning more as a tourist site and in Toller's own words, "gift shop", to the megachurch next door, Abundant Life. He lost his son in the Iraq war and so his marriage fell apart. He drinks and has health problems which he won't seek out help for. In the beginning of the movie, we see Toller starting a journal where he pours out his heart and soul. It's a test, self discipline of sorts. When it's filled, he will rip it up and burn the pages. We see the glimpse of internal struggle with his faith already there.

Things get shaken when a young couple come for his advice. Mary the pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried) says her environmental activist husband Micheal (Philip Ettinger) is conflicted. He visits them at home. There Michael lays out the evidence of man-made destruction of the earth. That he sees no point of bringing a child to the world. Toller's typically wise man of god talk won't comfort the troubled man. After Michael blows his brains out, Toller's laissez-faire attitude at least from the outside perspective, changes. Not to complicate the suicide case, Toller tells Mary to get rid of any possible incriminating evidences - including a suicide bomb vest that her husband hid in his garage for whatever reason. Helping Mary coping with the death draws them closer too.

Things come to focus as Toller sees that the big donor of the church, is a coal baron whose industry is wrecking a havoc on the environment. As the First Reformed reconsecration service looms, he has one thing left to do.

I believe Schrader mentioned Bergman's Winter Light as a source of inspiration. And yes, there is more than the narrative thread with the suicide and everything in the beginning, that the film has its affinity with. But also that sinewy human entanglement that many Bergman's characters see as a prison is there too - definitely Bergman-esque. But whether you consider Schrader's filmography spotty at best, he is responsible for penning Taxi Driver. First Reformed is definitely not a rehash of the masters' older films he is inspired by. Dealing with the contemporary issue that we all face (it was the threat of atom bomb in Bergman's film), Schrader squarely puts the ball on our court to toil with.

Shot in stately full frame 4:3 and simple, straightforward narrative, First Reformed is an extremely lean film. There is a lot of humor in it too. Mystery Magic Tour scene alone is worth the admission. Ethan Hawke, with his craggy forehead, finally aging appropriately, gives the best performance of his career as a conflicted, religious man in the time of uncertainty. The ending goes haywire in the most beautiful way and I really loved it.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Japan Cuts 2018 Preview

Japan Society's always immaculately curated film series, Japan Cuts, to me, over the years has been regarded as a smaller, quieter sister to massive and crazy and unruly New York Asian Film Festival. And I don't mean this as a bad thing. I think what happened was, when it comes to choosing films to cover from the full line up of Japan Cuts, after extravagance of NYAFF, my attention shifted toward Lo-fi, indie films. This year I specifically chose women directors' works. Many of them unknowns and first timers who need more exposure. And I was richly rewarded for it. Japan Cuts runs 7/19 through 7/29 at Japan Society.

Here are four films I was able to sample:

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Matsuoka Mayu makes a star making debut playing Yoshika, an introverted twenty-something accountant, in Tremble All You Want. Stuck in her uneventful, lonely life, Yoshika the virgin resorts to a fantasy world where she converses with strangers at a coffeeshop, buses and streets. She is still carrying the torch for Ichi, a princely classmate from Middle school days. But her life takes a turn when Kirishima, a goofy co-worker, confesses his crush on her. In her mind, Ichi will always be number one (ichi) and however nice of a guy Kirishima is, will always remain number two (ni).

Yoshika organizes school reunion under a false name in order to see Ichi again but gets heartbroken when her doesn't remember her name. Going steady with Kirishima seems to be OK at first, that it feels good and natural. But it gets thwarted by her crushing insecurity. Sooner or later, she has to choose between the fantasy and real life.

Tremble All You Want's strength is in its incongruous details - Yoshika's daily rituals, her quirky mannerisms and her eccentric neighbor are all intimately observed. The film rides on the charm of Matsuoka as she breaks out in to a song or does something equally irrational at a moment's notice. A bit overlong for its foregone conclusion, yet with beautifully written characters and and winsome cast, the film is a constantly watchable rom-com.

AMIKO - Yoko Yamanaka
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20 year old Yamanaka Yoko's no budget debut Amiko, played drolly by Sunohara Aira provides a window to the low-fi angst of a high school girl leading a boring suburban existence. Mostly in close-ups, Amiko, our bowl cut haired, Radiohead listening heroine, leads an uneventful life in Nagano. Her ideal fantasy world comes in the form of Aomi (Oshita Hiroro), a nihilistic boy obviously too cool for school. He is in the school soccer club just because. And when things get boring at a practice, he'd fake leg cramps. They bond over their hatred of sports and Radiohead one day. Then it's the waiting game for Amiko. Time passes and nothing happens. She deliberately passes by him in the stores. Nothing. Then she hears that he ran away to Tokyo to live with a former student who was pretty and popular, the kind of shallow girl Amiko thought they both loathed. The life gives you lemons, you better suck them in the bathtub.

So Amiko embarks on a journey to Tokyo, to confront Aomi. There she finds that her ideal world is not what it's cracked up to be. That everyone realizes growing up and facing the reality suck donkeys. Completely devoid of adult presence, you can detect the sweet stench of youth emanating from every frame of Amiko. Peppered with French New Wave spirit - especially the "If you two are truly in love, dance with me!" impromptu dancing scene in the subway, the film packs a rebellious, playful punch.

DEAR ETRANGER - Yukiko Mishima
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Salaryman Tanaka (Asano Tadanobu) has an adoring daughter from a previous marriage. With the company he's been working for downsizing, lately he is having second thoughts about having another baby with his current wife who also has two girls (Eri and Kaoru) from her previous relationship. Good natured Tanaka is a good dad to all three, trying to do right by everyone. But Kaoru, the older sullen tween daughter with an abandonment issue, rebels against Tanaka, saying deeply hurtful things - that he will abandon Eri and her as soon as he gets a new baby with their mom.

Even though gentle, the situation pushes Tanaka to a breaking point. He lashes out to his wife and Kaoru. Boy, ain't the mid-life a bitch to wade through? Dear Etranger is as real as it gets. But it's also a downer, just because it's all too real. Asano shows a great range here as a everyday salaryman.

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'Searching' is the main theme of Oda Kaori's deeply personal documentary, Toward a Common Tenderness. Oda, a young Japanese filmmaker, forever uncertain, is searching for her identity, both as a person and as a filmmaker. Her debut short Thus a Noise Speaks, she used the camera as a weapon, to confront her family who rejected her coming out as gay. She jumped at a chance to attend film.factory, founded by Bela Tarr, in Sarajevo. There, she was searching for the purpose of filmmaking. She discovers that she likes to film people - her hosts in a small village and Romani family who acted as guides. Their soulful, sad faces spoke volumes more than their limited verbal communication with her. Her project in the coal mines there resulted in the film Aragane.

The film is a compendium of Oda's work so far. It beautifully conveys her loneliness and isolation and longing. This time, Oda uses camera as a direct and intimate communication device. The film is a lyrical, poetic gesture of reaching out from Oda to herself, to her subjects and to the viewers.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Line in the Sand

El mar la mar (2017) - Bonnetta, Sniadecki
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As Trump's cruel zero tolerance immigration policy and its inhumane consequences play out before our eyes, El mar la mar, Joshua Bonneta and JP Sniadecki's audio visual essay on the south of the border arrives. It's abstract, artful approach to the subject might infuriate some of the viewers who are inclined to witness emotional catharsis through human suffering for sure. But its deliberate omission of identifiers (other than some of the silent inhabitants on the north of the border) is perhaps the point - the film can emote without seeing the human faces.

Frenetically moving cameras capture stripey, zoetropic images of colors - green and brown, then we realize it's the border fences stretching for miles seen from a moving car or train. There are discarded clothing and other personal items strewn about, completely alien to empty, unforgiving yet achingly beautiful Sonoran desert. The night time provides with flickering lights of the either the travelers or the border patrols.

Voices of ranchers, well wishers, border patrols and immigrants spill in and out of the film, often over blank screen. They tell sudden encounters, compassion, indifference, harrowing and often fatal journey. There are vipers, coyotes. You run out of water, you die. You leave people who are weak and sick and old to die. It's all the more resonant now to think about human cost. Illegal immigration won't stop whether there are stricter laws or not. Isolationism won't solve the problem in the capitalist society where economic inequality is the root cause of all problems. El mar la mar addresses human cost of the border politics in a way that only the film medium can.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Textural ADHD

Like Me (2017) - Mockler
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A movie made for the ADHD generation? Aptly titled Like Me concerns Kiya (Addison Timlin), a young woman videotaping her misdeeds and putting on the internet for garnering fame. Constantly on the road living in various motel rooms, she is a restless, aimless, lonely soul looking for human connections. After seducing middle aged motel manager Marshall (Larry Fassenden) and taping him on camera, humiliating him and getting one million views on youtube, they become an unlikely captor-captive pair. It works because he says he understands her. It is obvious that Kiya takes on a lot of different roles just to disguise her loneliness and her needs for validation.

Unlike other didactic take on loneliness and isolation in the age of social network, Like Me lets its loose narrative be and compensates it with candy color palette and dizzing edits. Fassenden has become as reliable of a presence in the indie world as Gary Oldman is to the mainstream films now. With all the excess style, I liked Like Me much more than I thought I would. Its textural, rough around the edges aesthetics really works for its there/not there theme. One of the year's best.