Monday, January 25, 2021

Super Dark Romantic Comedy

The Apartment (1960) - Wilder Screen Shot 2021-01-25 at 2.50.26 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-25 at 2.51.14 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-25 at 2.55.11 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-25 at 2.52.44 PM 
Billy Wilder's comedies always had an edge, that he had a very dark sense of humor, bordering on being offensive. A person taking too much sleeping pills over love or shooting oneself in the leg to get over a relationship aren't really funny. Nor is letting your apartment used as a sex den. It is though, in Billy Wilder's world. HAHAHAHAHA.

The Apartment, about a good natured white collar worker, Baxter (Jack Lemmon) at a skyscraper insurance agency, trying to climb corporate ladder by letting his bachelor apartment on 64th Street in Manhattan to be used as a fuck den for his superiors and also falls for a cute elevator operator, Fran (Shirley MacClaine). But he finds out that she is already taken by an executive (Fred MacMurray) as he pushes Baxter to let him used his apartment for, you know what. Baxter in turn, has to be content with having a reputation as a crazy party monster and sex maniac in his apartment building with music blaring every night and discarded mounds liquor bottles at the door every morning. All these for a shot at promotion!

Heartbroken by the executive who wouldn't leave his wife and family and who has been sleeping around with numerous female office workers at the job, Fran takes the whole bottle of Baxter's sleeping pills one night after the one of those arranged nights and spends 48 hours recuperating under Baxter's care. He tells the story of him shooting himself in the leg getting over a girl in the past. THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY. Oh at one point a character says about ending up with Egg Foo Young all over her face in one of those date nights too. SO FUNNY.

Wilder's direction and technical prowess are, as always, a marvel. Both Lemmon and MacClane are aces in their roles. Young MacClane is a beauty to behold. But the blatant sexism, the subtext in male oriented corporate culture of the late 50s, early 60 are all really icky.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Wandering Dreams

Vanishing Days (2018) - Zhu Screen Shot 2021-01-24 at 9.17.42 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-24 at 10.12.38 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-24 at 10.26.42 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-24 at 10.41.53 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-24 at 10.46.39 AM Young Chinese filmmaker, Zhu Xin is apparently a big fan of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His debut feature shows the Thai master's influence - languid visual style, abstract plot line, supernatural elements... etc. While not quite succeeding to pull off his idol's innate, spiritual lyricism, there are plenty to admire and chew on in Vanishing Days. 

It's the beginning of hot summer days. The film takes place in picturesque Hangzhou- a glut of urban development surrounded by lush nature - parks, caves and lakes. The world is first seen from a wide-eyed teenage girl Senlin. It's everyday life during summer break. She does a lot of lounging around in her small apartment where she lives with her mom. Things change when her middle aged aunt Qui visits. Qui used to sail a freight ship with her deceased husband Bo. The point of views switch back and forth between Senlin and Qui. 

There are couple of indicators that we are either seeing scenes from a parallel universe/dreams. Senlin's dad disappears in the beginning of the film after going into the cave and communicating with his dead son who is also named Senlin. We hear stories Qui tells Senlin's mom - about Qui and Bo being lost in an island, which we see later on the screen. Qui whispers in Senlin's ear in a taxi ride, "Tell mom that you want to come live with me. But don't tell her that I said so." Is Senlin Qui and Bo's daughter in an alternate reality? If this is all a dream, which one is real? It's as if two realities vying for its legitimacy in front of our eyes. Senlin's ordinary existence in the city and her boredom takes on another dimension in Zhu's waking dreams. 

Helped greatly by sound design and editing, Vanishing Days is an intriguing film full of great potential. It's great to see the new generation of young filmmakers emerging from China is doing some extraordinarily cinematic stuff - Bi Gan (Kaili Blues, Long Day's Journey into Night) and Zheng Lu Xinyuan (Cloud in Her Head) come to mind. I wish Zhu's visual was a little stronger: Vanishing Days doesn't quite convey its waking dream aspect of the film.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Love on the Frozen Land

Atlantis (2019) - Vasyanovych Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.02.35 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.12.02 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.01.14 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 3.59.59 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 3.59.17 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.10.51 PM Screen Shot 2021-01-19 at 4.06.39 PM The pitfall of political filmmaking in general, in my view, both fiction and non-fiction, is its didacticism that turns people off, however well intentioned and informative it might be. Without fail, these films come across as snobbish and classicist. It is doubly difficult as we live in an era where irony is dead and satire is getting harder and harder to pull off when the real world already feels like a grotesque satire of itself. 

Good filmmakers know how to use genre filmmaking in order to tell a topical, timely and socially relevant stories. In the recent surge of those films - Bacurau and Transit come to mind, filmmakers brought down sci-fi closed to home - political/economic instability & ecological devastation into a revenge thriller against first world, and a fascist takeover (history repeating itself) into an identity crisis, directly referencing the current state of Brazil and Germany/Europe respectively. These sci-fi genre tropes gave the filmmakers a lot of freedom to reflect on the current state of affairs while giving themselves a bit of distance to play around and even have some fun, while regarding them as if they are mere sci-fi and works of imagination, not socio-political realist films.

Writer/director/cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych (who lensed The Tribe) is one of those good filmmakers. And his stunning new film, Atlantis, proves that a science fiction can be both visually arresting and also socio-politically relevant to the present. In this case, it concerns his home country of Ukraine.

The subtitle in the beginning says it's the year 2025, a mere 4 years in the future. The Ukraine-Russian war seems to be over but wintry industrial landscape suggests that the war devastated the ecosystem and made a large swath of its land uninhabitable. The human toll both physically and emotionally is even greater, as we are introduced two PTSD ailing former soldiers whose sleepless nights are spent on driving around and shooting at makeshift targets planted on frozen tundra. The steel mill they both work at is taken over by multi-national corporation: an English-speaking figurehead on a giant screen talks of the bright future while pumping up Soviet style propaganda reminiscent of 1984. Many are fired from the job because of the automation of labor.

After his PTSD buddy's fiery suicide T2 style into the furnace at the steal mill, Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) moves on and gets a job as a water tanker driver - water became scarce since the bombardment and landmines planted during the war contaminated much of the country's water supply. On the road, he meets Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a volunteer for a humanitarian group which identify the war dead by digging them up from half-frozen, muddy mass graves. It's a gruesome process, but it will give a lot of people closures, she says.

Talk of homeland takes a center stage. Ukraine might appear to be an unforgiving, desolate wasteland now, but where else would its inhabitants live? Sergiy is offered to work for an international organization and go abroad by a woman he rescued from a landmine wreckage. He says resolutely, "This is my home. Where could I go?"

The visual symmetry in wide ratio shot Atlantis is awe-inspiring. The industrial landscapes and machinery, as well as decay of abandoned houses (think of decay porn of Detroit, but doubling here as the war aftermath) have common with Ed Burtynsky's photographic documentations of the late stages of capitalist society - Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Anthroposcene (2018) and other documentaries that focuses on ecological devastation and human footprints on earth. Charting the country's recent history with human elements, Vasyanovych also finds common spirits with Jia Zhangke, the master chronicler of China and its people.

Vasyanovych unsubtly comments on Russian expansionism as seen in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Western commerce influence, but the film is not without hope. Working with non actors (Rymaruk is a former soldier, Bileka is a medic), the director imbues real life experiences within their fictional characters to give sense of connection, sense of national identity. The bare bone romance between Sergiy and Katya with the cold and unforgiving backdrop hints at the glimmer of hope, human resilience and connection despite dire circumstances. It's there, even if we are only able to detect it through infrared camera footage.Atlantis marks the arrival of the first great film of 2021.
Please visit Metrograph for virtual tickets. The film opens on 1/22.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

We Won't Die Together Hand-in-Hand

Viaggio in Italia (1955) - Rossellini Journey to Italy Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.11.50 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.20.23 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.38.58 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.55.05 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-14 at 3.55.41 AM The childless Joyces - Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) are English couple travelling to Naples to settle some inheritance matter (Katherine's uncle Homer left them a villa). It is pretty obvious as the film progresses, their marriage is on the rocks: After 8 years of marriage, they don't know each other very well and find themselves uncomfortable when left alone only with each other. She hates his snobbery and self-absorption; he hates her jealousy and resentment. Reconciliation doesn't seem possible. 

While the estate matter is being settled, Alex leaves for Capri to unsuccessfully pursue an affair and Katherine remains in Naples visiting museums and archeological digs and thinking about that sickly young poet who stood outside her window in the rain. 

 Just like in Stromboli, the rugged, imposing background- active Mt. Vesuvius, which erupted only a few years before, reveals the chasm between the couple. 

There are a lot of driving shots. Rossellini emphasizes the couple's isolation and strict observers status as life happens outside the windshield of their car - Naples with its crowded streets, religious processions, livestock, a river of humanity on the other side of glass. 

While narratively weak and with the unconvincing ending, Viaggio in Italia is, as Deleuze points out in Cinema II, the prototype for what's to come - Antonioni's Urban ennui and isolation in L'Avventura and La Notte.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Role Play

 La Madriguera (1969) - Saura

Screen Shot 2021-01-12 at 10.48.37 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-12 at 10.59.53 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-12 at 11.56.09 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-12 at 11.56.38 AM Industrialist Pedro (Per Oscarsson)'s life is work, coming home to his ultra modern concrete and glass house, saying how tired he is and going to sleep. His young wife Teresa (Geraldine Chaplin) has some deep seeded issues from her childhood (her parents died in a plane crash), attached to her old furniture and suffers from nightmares and sleepwalking. Their childless marriage of 5 years is not going well. After indulging her in daddy issues and reliving her childhood in role playing, the couple goes into a full self-isolation - sending maids home and literally drawing curtains to the outside world, even pretending to be not home when their gossipy couple friends stop in with their children in tow. Pedro and Teresa engage in elaborate role-playing where he is Richard, Teresa's childhood sweetheart, a father of Teresa, and a St. Bernard dog saving sleeping beauty in a blizzard. Teresa is always a young girl, often dressed in Tartan miniskirts like a school uniform. But when it comes to real fantasy, like dressing in sexy black dress and lingerie, she refuses to consummate. After one such role-playing game, they end up in a maid's room with pictures of movie stars on the wall. And it seems they can only express their innermost thoughts, even class-consciousness, when they are playing a role. But their full-blown adult play game is obviously destined to end badly. Again, like a bourgeois satire of Buñuel, La Madiguera portrayal of upper-class decadence, contrast of old and new in the Franco era Spain is biting. Yet the portrayal of these couple by Oscarsson and Chaplin are deeply human and nuanced. This is a great film.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Relevance of Socialism a Century Before

Her Socialist Smile (2020) - Gianvito

Screen Shot 2021-01-11 at 6.44.41 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-11 at 6.44.54 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-11 at 6.49.16 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-11 at 7.12.09 AM
Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf but overcame her disabilities and became a renowned women's rights activist and socialist is the subject of John Gianvito's documentary, Her Socialist Smile.  She made her first public speech more than a century ago and have written numerous books and her words are as relevant and powerful as back in 1916.

She became aware of economic disparities causing preventable diseases - such as blindness, and radicalized. Reading Marx and other philosophers, she decided that capitalism is the source of these inequalities and became an activist, opposing American involvement in WW1 under president Woodrow Wilson. She travelled the world advocating her pacifist stance and against militarism. She was disillusioned by the left's infighting and sympathized with syndicalists who sought action, such as IWW by general strike. 

Through series of fires - including one in 9/11/2001, destroyed much of Keller's records and archival materials.

So how do you make a film about a woman who was blind and deaf? Gianvito resort to a narrator Carolyn Forché reading some of the texts in a sound studio and use nature footage around Keller's childhood home in Alabama as well as some archival footage of her. The rest is her white texts in black screen with no sound. I understand it is important to read her texts on screen and Gianvito graciously grants enough time for us to read it. But it is a lot of texts. I mean A LOT. 

There are some graceful moments visually. Some of the close ups of nature accompanying the narration is beautiful and gets its sensory message across. But better alternative will be getting a copy of her book Out of the Dark and go out to a field and read it.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Approximation

Peppermint Frappé (1967) - Saura Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 10.51.18 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 10.58.19 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.24.31 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.28.17 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.33.27 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.34.32 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.45.12 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.54.39 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.56.40 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.58.13 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 11.59.00 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-09 at 12.08.26 PM
Geraldine Chaplin plays double roles in Carlos Saura's deliciously perverse Peppermint Frappé. A repressed radiologist Julián (José Luis López Vázquez) zooms in on his childhood friend, Pedro's young coquettish young blonde wife Elena (Chaplin). Convinced that they've met before, Julián can't help but obsessing over flirtatious and outgoing Elena.

While Elena's teasing continues, Julián moves in on his introverted brunet assistant Ana (also played by Chaplin). It is precisely because Ana's resemblance to Elena that Julián seduces her, to approximate her to his sexual obsession.

Dedicated to his idol Buñuel, the film's surrealism and Catholicism's grip on Spain, satire on bourgeoisie are all on display: Pedro and Julián grew up in a health retreat run by Julián's aunt who was a nun. They kept themselves busy by looking through the keyholes to satiate their raging hormones. It was Pedro who was always a dominant one. Driving a sports car with young blonde wife, Pedro still dominates the square Julián to this day. What's worse, Elena, a teaser with a mean streak, relentlessly plays with Julián's emotions and plays pranks on him with Pedro. Something's gotta give.

Peppermint Frappé closely resembles Vertigo in its sexual obsession and perverted desire of replacing unattainable with its approximation. A woman's identity is something Buñuel also plays with in his last film That Obscure Object of Desire which would make a fine triple feature.

Chaplin is quite enchanting in playing the double role. I might have to binge on some more Saura/Chaplin combo.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Your Wedding, My Funeral

 An Autumn Afternoon (1962) - Ozu


Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.04.56 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.23.14 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.33.25 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.46.41 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.46.46 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 6.51.17 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 7.00.23 AM Screen Shot 2021-01-08 at 9.13.15 AM From a pure aesthetic point of view, with symetry of the frames in both interior and exterior sets, boring but exact shot/reverse shot in dialogue scenes, perfunctory movement and gestures of actors, An Autumn Afternoon is not disimilar from Jacques Tati films. But just as with all Ozu films, it's about changing times and its effects on family - mutual guilt, regret, loneliness, nostalgia, melancholy. Also it's a good reflection of the recently minted materialist society - industrial factories with smoke stacks, golf clubs, designer handbags, household gizmos. And they all but overshadow real human emotions. Its that none-emotiveness, holding-backness and the boomer humor leaves a bad taste in my mouth. An Autumn Afternoon is supposed to be wise and poignant observation on fleeting human life, like all Yasujiro Ozu films are. And in a way it is. An old salary man is afraid of losing his daughter by marrying her off. She is 24 and not getting any younger. If he does, he will be alone and lonely. She doesn't say anything out of duty as a daugther because father knows best. The film is way too geriatric for me to appreciate it more.

Someone once mention that if the cinema survives for ways in the future and got discovered in some sort of archeological digs by our descendents or aliens from outerworld discovered it in a cosmic dust, without recognizing its language, what the future men or aliens will get out of it is perfunctory human activities - walking, in transit (car, train etc) and eating & drinking. If they dug up and saw An Autumn Afternoon, what they will mostly see is men eating and drinking, a lot. I mean, the amount of drinking scene in this movie far surpasses any Hong Sangsoo movie I've seen. It's too bad that Ozu had no interest in actually showing what they are eating. I'd like to have known that.