Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Dancing with the Ghost

This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (2020) - Mosese Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 3.16.16 PM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 3.52.55 PM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 3.48.06 PM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 3.57.45 PM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 4.03.25 PM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 4.14.01 PM Screen Shot 2021-03-17 at 9.12.13 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-17 at 9.19.57 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-17 at 9.22.37 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-17 at 9.40.42 AM Mantoa (Marytwala Mhlongo) lost all her family members over the years and now she is a recipient of her son's dead body. He died in an accident, presumably while working nearby mining field. Since she has no will to live anymore, she starts preparing for her death. She puts on a dress her husband gifted her long ago, lays down in her bed for death to come and take her away.

But the death doesn't come. She tries to hire a local man to dig her grave for him. He refuses – it’s a bad omen for digging a grave for someone who is still living. She will need to do it herself. In the mean time, her village is under the threat of a dam being built nearby. All villagers will need to relocate because of their valley will be flooded. It means their ancestral burial ground will be flooded as well. As Mantoa objects to the dam project, pleading with the villagers about the importance of having their land, she unwillingly becomes a leader of a movement.

Mosotho filmmaker and visual artist Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese's This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection is a stunning film that defies easy categorization. Gorgeously shot in full frame by Pierre de Villiers with captivating score by Berlin based electronic composer Miyashita Yu, the film is a highly visual, aural experience that charts new frontier in its cinematic language. Only comparison I can think of is the work of Pedro Costa in its painterly, static framing and its visual poetry.

Steeped in Lesotho's natural beauty and its culture and history, the narrative moves languidly forward as our grief stricken, life beaten heroine picks herself up and fight against the village chief and the catholic priest who are resigned to give up the land, their heritage and dignity in the name of progress. Her refusal to relocate and her passionate speech about protecting their land and ancestral burial ground where all their families and ancestors are buried, the villagers finally come to her aide. They start cleaning up the cemetery and pressure the village leaders to reconsider.

The company which is behind the dam construction, uses scare tactics and violence to oppress the villagers. As their celebration turns into tragedy, the villagers are forced to relocate. It is again Mantoa, who has nothing else to lose, making the last stand.

It's Marytwala Mhlongo's weathered old face that speaks thousand words here. Her dignified stand in her forever black mourning dress stands out like a sore thumb in the frame mostly populated by giant Lesotho sky. Nature, however beautiful, doesn't let you forget that human are insignificant in Mosese's expressive framing. There are so many memorable scenes but Mantoa dancing in her best dress dancing with the dead - shot in close handheld camera, and women in black choir singing at Mantoa’s son’s funeral, stand out for me.

This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection signals the arrival of a major new voice in international cinema, one who is gifting us a unique cinematic language rooted in his tradition and culture. One of the year’s best.

Sundance winner This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection opens April 2, in virtual cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A Perfect Combination of Punk Rock and New Wave

Breaking Glass (1980) - Gibson Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.14.14 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.00.40 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.02.58 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.03.42 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.25.07 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.04.34 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.06.05 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.07.41 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.08.42 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.09.33 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.10.31 AM Screen Shot 2021-03-16 at 9.11.12 AM There has been a number of 'rise and fall of a rock star' movies, but nothing quite got my mojo going as Breaking Glass has. It stars Hazel O'Connor as Kate, a talented musician struggling in the dreary music landscape still dominated by disco - it's the end of disco era and the rise of New Wave, the year is 1980. Her music is just the right combination of punk and new wave, the look, the staccato singing style, energetic beats - it's extremely catchy and very awesome over all. O'Connor wrote and sings all the songs that are in the film.

Danny (Phil Daniels who played pretty much the same character in Quadrophenia a year before), a music promoter trying to find a talent in the grimy clubs and pubs in London, finds Kate and sees great potential. After sweet-talking her to be her manager even though she doesn't believe in either manager or record deal, he forces her to hold auditions for her new band in her flat. Soon the cool band, Breaking Glass is assembled, including a quiet, hearing aid wearing junkie Saxophone player Ken (a semi-young Jonathan Price) who hits off with Kate musically.

Kate gets inspirations from the grungy, politically volatile Thatcher area streets. Breaking Glass has to fight off rowdy pub crowd and neo-Nazis while performing. Breaking Glass hits the road and gathers some new fans. A sort of romance blooms between Danny and Kate also. And all of sudden, the music industry execs who didn't give Danny any minds before flock in to sign a record deal with Breaking Glass. And they slowly interfere with the band's business and push Danny out. Danny calls it quits in the heat of argument in the tour bus and hops off. The success gets to the heads of some band members and Kate starts taking drugs just to go on stage.

Again, the best part of the film is O'Connor's music. Her energetic presence and musical talent is undeniable. It is pretty obvious where Ridley Scott got his inspiration for Pris in Blade Runner. All the music acts, the new wave looks, the story are all so very engaging. I can't believe I haven't come across this film before. Along with Quadrophenia, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, Streets of Fire, The Commitments, Velvet Goldmine, Breaking Glass becomes one of my favorite rock films ever.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Mindgames

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2020) - Horvát preparations-to-be-together-for-an-unknown-period-of-time-movie-review-2021 Beautiful and esteemed neurosurgeon Márta (Natasa Stork) comes back to Budapest after twenty years abroad living and working in the US, because she fell in love with a fellow Hungarian doctor János (Viktor Bódo) at a medical conference. They made a lover's pact - they will meet each other at the Liberty Bridge in a month's time. But he never shows up. And when confronted at his work place, János denies that they ever even met. But instead of going back to New Jersey where she works and lives, she decides to stay put and take a job at the same local hospital where he has an office. Márta even rents an dumpy apartment with the view of the bridge.

Director Lili Horvát cleverly sets up Preparations... as a seductive mindtrip which is yet grounded in the logic (or illogic) - Márta calmly questions herself if she made up the encounter just because she wanted love to happen so badly for whatever reason, in ongoing therapy sessions - and this means she is abandoning her life in the States, best friends and all. She is there for a long term to find out.

The delicious juxtaposition of being a brilliant neurosurgeon where she can diagnose and eliminate illness of brain which affects both body & mind and letting the whim of her own heart set the course for the unknown is ahem, what's at the heart of the film.

Stork's performance as a highly intelligent and confident woman losing her grip on reality, not because of a man but rather, the idea of a man, is totally absorbing. Her always stoic façade and curt demeanor don't reveal an inch of her inner life. But it's her bare apartment - a mattress on the floor, her lack of interests in furniture that hints at her person. Camera loves Stork though, often with extreme close ups in different angles, Horvát suggests Travis Bickle like fracture in her psyche.

Arresting visuals and unhurried cat-and-mouse situations, Preparations... seduced me visually like no other film in recent years. Watching the movie reminded me of the feeling I got from watching Kieslowski films, long ago. It would've been lovely to see the film on the big screen.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The House of Ubuntu

The Inheritance (2020) - Asili Inheritance A Philly native artist/filmmaker Ephraim Asili's experimental whatsit The Inheritance draws from his days as a member of West Philadelphia Black radical collective, where a group of like-minded young African American activists, artists lived and shared their thoughts and ideas in a communal setting. The idea was heavily indebted to MOVE, a black liberation group founded by John Africa and his followers who preached importance self-sufficiency and living in harmony within nature.

A loose narrative concerns Julian (Eric Lockley) and Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), childhood friends who move in together when Julian inherits his late grandmother's multi-story house in Philadelphia. The grandma also left myriads of black cultural artifacts: books, magazines, and records - most of them from the black liberation era. They decide to take in roommates - philosophers, educators, artists, and activists and open the place up to the neighborhood as a communal space/library.

The film's staccato, but unhurried episodic structure gives way for Asili to interject with many archival footage: Shirley Chisholm's Presidential campaign, MOVE's standoff with police in 1978 and the police bombing of MOVE compound that took 11 lives in 1985. It also features black liberation luminaries such as Mike Africa Jr and Debbie Africa and renown poets, Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker who appear on screen as guests in Asili's narrative universe.

The Inheritance's freewheeling form owes great deal to Godard, right down to the brightly colored walls, editing and the constant, exaggerated noise of a 16mm camera rolling. Asili doesn't try to hide his influence by putting a giant poster of La Chinoise as a centerpiece on the living room wall. His intention was to make a hip-hop/reggae version of Godard's agitprop classic.

The film is heady with many memorable quotes from black liberation era thinkers and writers, often provided by giant black boards located on the wall and Julian, Gwen and others repeating many of the quotes in dramatic fashion, looking straight at the camera. But in Asili's hands, The Inheritance doesn't feel like a dogmatic film. There are many funny moments as the residents of the 'house of Ubuntu' have to deal with any communal living, following such strict rules as 'no shoes inside the house', 'don't eat someone else's food in the fridge without asking' and so on. Rather, this airy fusion of filmed experiment gives opportunity to its unsuspecting viewers the window to unseen/under seen, unheard/under heard pieces of American history that give them the proper context to understanding the current political climate - the continuing police brutality against black community, the BLM movement and the white supremacists storming of the Capitol building.

In its rather conventional movie ending, Asili closes his narrative part of the movie on a positive note. But we all know that there's more work to be done. The Inheritance is an ode to black resistance and fitting cinematic experiment for the BLM era.

The Inheritance opens virtually on 3/12. Please visit Grasshopper film website for more info.

Searing Indictment of War from Not So Distant Past

Quo vadis, Aida? (2020) - Zbanic Quo Vadis Jasmila Zbanic's Quo vadis, Aida? puts its protagonist, Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a middle-aged schoolteacher working as an English translator for the UN peacekeeping troops, in a very difficult position. The place is Srebrenica, Bosnia, the year is 1995 and the film is based on a true story. The Serbian troops incursion is imminent. Like in all wars, people have to make difficult choices to survive. The kicker of the film is that this life and death situation it depicts has actually taken place merely 26 years ago.

Considering estimated 100,000 people killed, and 1.3 million displaced in The Bosnian War, I have to say right off the bat that the outcome in Quo vadis, Aida? is not a positive one. But it says a lot about how horrific the war actually was. And however well meaning the international interventions were, they were not at all prepared when faced with humanitarian crises.

The setting and the story is pretty specific. Srebrenica is a town of 30,000 people, consists of mostly Muslim population. The shelling by the Serbian tanks has started. The Dutch UN troops confined to their camp just outside the town are completely impotent since the entire UN command in Europe seems to be on vacation. So their ultimatum to the Serbian troops to halt or face the air strikes become empty threats. The snide Serbian commander knows its predicament and uses it to his advantage. Aida, working as a translator for the UN Command unit, sees that they are making promises to the townspeople they can't keep. The air strike never materializes. Once Srebrenica is taken by Serbian army, all of town's folks seek refugee in the UN compound. And the UN troops are not set up to deal with the unfolding humanitarian crisis - shortage of supplies, food, water, fuel and even toilets. All they can do is provide shelters for about 4,000-5,000 people on the concrete floor and the rest camping out just outside the barbed-wire fences.

Aida, using her connections with the Dutch, brings her husband and two sons into the compound. Her husband who is a learned man, will act as one of the civilian leaders to negotiate the terms with the two faced Serbian general.

Things get dire as the Serbians dictate the terms of "moving refugees out of harms way" by buses. Women get separated from their men, but no one knows if the buses are headed to where they were supposed to be headed. Some of the UN soldiers witness men being rounded up and executed. And some young women are dragged off by Serbian army.

Quo vadis, Aida? is all about one woman's mission to save her family at all costs. It's her survival mode taking over and working overtime in a dire, life and death circumstances. It also is a searing indictment of war and the West's naiveté and hubris as to believe in their moral superiority but complete impotence when it comes to decision-making and action. Compellingly and deftly written and directed by Zbanic, the film moves along breathlessly to its tragic end.

It ends with Aida going back to Srebrenica to resume her teaching after some time has passed. The life is back to normal. Everyone is supposed to be friends and neighbors again. The film questions if this so-called peace is acceptable, if you recognize a parent in the audience at the school talent show is the same person who is responsible for the death of thousands people, including your family. Can you ever forgive him? The film tries to make you understand the post-war Bosnian society, its fragile peace, its not so distant past and trauma and wounds not healed. Quo Vadis, Aida? is a powerful, harrowing film with a stellar performance by Jana Djuricic in the title role. Highly recommended.

Quo vadis, Aida is playing now at virtual cinemas across the US and will be available on digital and on demand on 3/15

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2021 Preview

It's Spring in New York. It means it's time for Rendez-vous with French Cinema, the festival showcasing the best of what contemporary French cinema can offer. But this year, with all virtual presentations due to the Covid-19 crisis, the festival is going beyond New York audience. So any lovers of French cinema in the US will have access to all the films presenting!

The 18 film line up includes Sebastian Lifshitz's affecting Little Girl - the first Documentary to open the festival, François Ozon's queer romance nostalgia piece Summer of 85, Nicole Garcia's sexy noir Lovers and Quentin Dupieux's idiosyncratic comedy Mandibles starring Adèle Excharpoulos. Rendez-vous with French Cinema runs 3/4-3/14. Please click on the Film at Lincoln Center link for tickets and information.

Without further a do, here are 6 films I was able to sample:

Little Girl - Lifshitz *Opening Night Film Little GirlSébastien Lifshitz, director of such queer art films as Come Undone and Wild Side, directs Little Girl, a poignant documentary on gender dysphoria- a feeling of distress that occur in people whose gender identity differs from the sex they are born with. The film concerns Sasha, a second grader who is having a hard time being accepted in school and the world as she was born as a boy but feels strongly about being a girl. It's a good thing she has a a very supportive family - parents and three siblings. First it's her mom who feels responsible because she wanted a girl when she was pregnant with Sasha as doctors assure her that her child's condition has got nothing to do with her wishes. The prejudices Sasha faces in school, by her principal and teachers make the little girl cry. She is also prejudiced in her ballet class as she is not treated as a girl. And it is heart wrenching to see the child cry in pain. 

There are good moments as Sasha plays with her best friend Lola with bobbie dolls in her pink girly room, or her hanging out on the beach in cute bikinis she picked out. Children don't notice or don't care if Sasha is a boy or girl. It's the adults who are narrow minded. Why not let Sasha be what she wants to be, Lifshitz seems to say. As were his documentaries on LGBTQ pioneers in Les Invisibles and The Lives of Thérèse, Little Girl is a deeply humanistic look at people struggling with identity politics of the still rigid, dogmatic world.

Spring Blossom - Lindon Spring Blossom
A lanky, shy high school student Suzanne (Suzanne Lindon) lives comfortable life in a middle-class Parisian household. But she is bored of her school-home-school routine and feels no kinship among her peers. All that changes when she meets a dashing stage actor (Arnaud Valois) who is rehearsing a play in her neighborhood.

Lindon, 18 year old daughter of French cinema staple Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain, makes a directorial debut and also plays the main role of a 16 year old high schooler in this delicately observed, sensitive love story, not predicated by its initial a school girl and an old man set up. It is refreshing to see love and mutual understanding not playing out in flesh but in choreographed dances and movements while not losing true to being a teenage girl crushing on the idea of a man, love and life.

Summer of 85 - Ozon Summer of 85François Ozon is back in his old naughty self and I welcome it. In its pure Ozon set up, a young man retracing his steps in police custody, we are led to believe that the film is about a murder mystery. Alex (Félix Lafebvre) experiences near drowning after his stolen boat capsizes at sea and rescued by David (Benjamin Voisin). They strike up a friendship. David, slightly older, takes the lead in the relationship, taking Alex on his motor bike to dangerous adventures. He is everything Alex wants in a best friend and more.

Taking on a British YA novel Dance on My Grave from the 80s, Summer of 85 invokes the innocent times before the AIDS crisis and harkening back to his more salacious, hormone overloaded earlier works that he is known for. Summer of 85' is a delicious, erotically charged period piece filled with colors and pop songs and a top tier Ozon.

Lovers - Garcia lovers
A sleek noir thriller from veteran director/actor Nicole Garcia. Lisa (Stacy Martin) and Simon (Pierre Niney) are young lovers in Paris. Simon is a high society drug dealer and Lisa, a hospitality management student working various jobs. They get separated when one of Simon's clients die of an overdose and he has to leave the country.

Some years have passed, and Lisa is married to a Swiss businessman Léo (Benoit Magmiel) who travels all over the world for his corporate insurance jobs. When they are vacationing in a fancy Indian Ocean resort, Lisa and Simon (now working as a tour guide) reunite by chance and rekindle their first love and passion. After they return to snowy Geneva, they continue to see each other under the nose of Léo. Things go wrong, as they always do.

Strength of Lovers is in its casting. Two attractive leads, Niney and Martin both possess fatalistic beauty and fit the roles of ill fated lovers like gloves. Also Niney's fawny figure and face are steep contrasts to aging bear actors (Magmiel and Grégoire Colin, who plays Simon's brother, both aging and becoming more and more like Gerard Depardieu everyday). Considering Magmiel and Colin were once young and angular heartthrobs, I wonder what's going to happen to Niney ten years from now.

Mandibles - Dupieux Mandibles
Two ne're-do-well man Manu (Grégore Ludig) finds a giant fly in the trunk of an old Mercedes he just hotwired for a delivery job. With his buddy Jean-Gab (David Masais), the duo comes up with a brilliant plan- they will train the fly to grab the stuff they want, like money or food, whatever they desire. It will be like a thief drone. So starts another absurd comedy from the maker of Rubber, Wrong Cops and the last year's Deerskin. Dupieux doesn't seem to have any problems attracting top French female talents to have his silly vision realized. It was Adèle Haenel (Deerskin), now it's Adèle Excharpoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color), albeit in a small role as Agnès, who had brain damage from a skiing accident and can't control the volume of her voice.

The case of mistaken identity, babes on a Summer vacation, a school of red herrings/mcguffins plague this film. Think of Mandibles as a lazier French Big Lebowski where things amount to nothing but a chuckle.

Faithful - Cistern faithful 
A rousing period romance taking place in Algiers in 1950s, Faithful features Vincent Lacoste (Sorry Angel, Eden) and Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) as members of communist party who takes up armed struggle against occupying French military. It's a little on the nose in terms of dialog - they openly 'speak their minds' and clash with their political beliefs when they first meet in Paris. Born in Algiers, Fernand (Lacoste) is all about being communist and defending his country from France. Hélèn (Krieps), a Polish immigrant, has a different opinions about communism. But they fall in love and move to Algiers with Hélèn's teenage son in tow. Fernand's devotion to the cause and dangerous political activities threaten their daily lives. Fernand gets caught when he plants a bomb at Algerian Electricity and Gas Company where he works as an engineer. And the unjust military courtroom drama ensues.

<b>Faithful</b> is a handsomely made political intrique that exposes the shameful chapter of French history, implicating Mitterrand's role in the execution at the gallows of hundreds of Algerian citizens.