Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Art of the Real 2022 Preview

This House - Miryam Charles This-House On the onset, a grown version of a 14-year old girl who died in 2008 tells that the film will travel space and time since in film medium, everything is possible. So starts lyrical staging of unspeakable grief and all the potential of what could have been. Terra, played by Schelby Jean-Baptist, witnesses her funeral, carries on imaginary conversations with her mom (Florence Blaine MBaye), a Haitian immigrant, first to Quebec, then to Connecticut, US.

This House contemplates many things - the idea of home for both body and spirit, how the tragedy rips open a hole in space/time continuum, and giving voice to the voiceless/dead. The film consists of obvious indoor studio stagings, the lush greenery of the Haiti and its coastline and footage of bleak Northeast US footage all captured in grainy 16mm. Filmmaker Miryam Charles sort out a tough subject close to home with cinematic playfulness and poetic lyricism. This House is a poignant and compelling cinematic experience.

Train Again - Peter Tscherkassky Train Again-2 From the beginning of motion picture with Lumière Brothers, trains and film have a long and intertwined history. With Train Again, the assemblage-film master Peter Tscherkassky painstakingly creates a thrilling cinematic cake, pulling clips from as far back as Lumière's, The Great Train Robbery, Ballet Mécanique, to The Spirit of the Behive, Shining to Hollywood B-action films. His usual technique - rapid cutting, erratic camera movement, repetition and flicker effects, Train Again tests your persistence of vision to a dazzling effect. With Dirk Scheafer's tension building score, the 20 minute long film works like a thrill ride just like Tscherkassky's previous works like Outer Space or Dream Work. You really want to see it on pristine film print.

Super Natural - Jorge Jácome Super Natural-2 From the visual void we are introduced to a static noise. This static noise decked with subtitles is an omnipresent being, guiding us through Super Natural, a visual aural invitation to a group meditation called film watching. Shot in stunning backdrop of Madeira, Portugal, the film remind us that we are all connected in this world, the air we breathe in, the rock we are standing on, the fruit we eat, the various sea creatures, a little plastic bugs, our bodies, our imagination, our consciousness....

Shot in various medium - super 8, VR computer graphics, instagram images and using a group of people, some with disabilities and some not, Super Natural wants to place us in an environment not as strangers. It wants us to acknowledge that we are part of the ecosystem in the unstable world we are living in. Jácome and his collaborators use loose visual and words associations throughout with vivid colors and humor. The non-narrative images colliding but holds its shape together like a collage. Super Natural is a sensual meditation on human existence and connections with one another.

Geographies of Solitude - Jacquelyn Mills Geographies_of_Solitude_Landscape Zoe Lucas is a naturalist/environmentalist. She first came to Sable Island, a patch of land 20 miles long and one mile wide off the coast of Nova Scotia some 40 years ago to study wild horses living there and made it her home. She has been diligently and meticulously logging data, not only on the horse population, but also sorting through mountains of plastic debris being washed up ashore and cataloging them, leaving records of environmental impacts of the anthropocene age.

Filmmaker Jacquelyn Mills in collaboration with Lucas, lovingly documents all that a windswept remote island can offer - sand dunes, horses and seals, its intricate ecosystem. She also comments on the human footprints on environment through Lucas while capturing some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous images on 16mm film, plus naturally exposed footage only by moonlight and hand printed footage using natural surroundings. Here, tiny insects footsteps turn into music, grains of sand become twinkle of the stars, dead horse brings forth new vegetation. Geographies of Solitude is one of the loveliest feature debut in years.

Come Here - Anocha Swichakornpong Come Here-2 A group of young theater actors take a trip to Kanchanaburi, west of Thailand, where Death Railway, once a site for WWII atrocities where tens and thousands civilians and Allied POWs lost their lives in labor camps. But the museum is under renovation and closed. The group, consists of 3 boys and 1 girl, leisurely hangs out at the lake house, smoke weed, mimics animal noises and engage in mundane conversations.

In a parallel action, a woman who is camping in the forest seems to be lost. Dazed and confused, she finds a stream, drinks the water then changes into a boy. Then we see the lakeside bungalow scene play out again on stage, with a scenery shot from the train out the stage window, moving us forward.

In her previous films, Suwichakornpong engaged us in a socio-political history buried underneath the lush forest of Thailand. Her approach is getting more and more abstract with each new film. Come Here, clocking at just over an hour, is like a puzzle piece with some of the vital pieces missing - what's the meaning of the transformation? Is the camper dreamed up by the girl by the lake or vice versa? How does a Bangkok's zoo closing figure into the story?

With the country's train and railway having imbued historical significance, Suwichakornpong's new film charts progress, nature, harkening back to animism, the younger generations collective historical amnesia, and the country's physical and spiritual transformation... in such a mysterious yet seductive manner. Watching Come Here is not frustrating- it provides you enough of threads, not at all in a teasing way, to decipher and mull over its sinuous connections and implications regarding history and it's thrilling.

If From Every Tongue It Drips - Sharlene Bamboat If From Every Tongue It Drips-1 An intimate potrayal of a Tamil queer feminist activist and historian Ponni Arasu and her activist partner Sarala Emmanuel as they record their daily lives and discuss Indian history and quantum physics in relation to human connections and the state repressed desires. Shot in sticky, tropical climate of Sri Lanka, If From Every Tongue It Drips is sensory overload experience with constant chatters of people, birds, insects, mechanical humming, traffic, street noise, water lapping at the shore, and music. Bamboat uses discordant sound, highligting the film's multicultural everywhere-ness. Arasu, almost always a subject of attention, recites Rekhti poetry full of passion and sensuality about female desires for one another that went against British colonialism and its purification of the culture that dominated much of the British rule.

The film is fascinating, informal history lesson done through many languages and culture, all spoken and sang by Arasu who gives a queer perspective on history that is sorely needed to understand the cultural, political landscape of modern India and its feminist movement. The film also celebrates tender, proud and loving relationship the two women shares.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Domestic Terror

The Strange Little Cat - Zürcher Screen Shot 2022-03-27 at 9.10.25 AM Screen Shot 2022-03-27 at 9.11.44 AM Screen Shot 2022-03-27 at 9.12.33 AM Screen Shot 2022-03-27 at 9.13.12 AM Screen Shot 2022-03-27 at 9.14.02 AM Screen Shot 2022-03-27 at 9.16.16 AM An unusual chamber piece that holds more mystery and tension in its 70 minute runtime than an average thriller, Ramon Zürcher's The Strange Little Cat calls on a normal German middle-class family life into question: Are they OK?

The film is composed entirely of medium static shots in the family's small apartment, never to reveal the goings-ons of off frame. Everyone says things in a matter-of-fact fashion and their interactions with others are limited to us watching them staring vacantly to the other person off camera. Mom, played by Jenny Schily who always looks like she is suffering from migraines, tries to hold it together for one day, hosting a dinner party for her extended family. Her two grown children, Simon and Karin, are visiting from elsewhere. Her younger daughter Clara screams on top of her lungs whenever the blender is on and always wrecking havoc with the growling family dog and the orange tabby cat, which won't stop jumping on the dining table. The washer is broken and in need of service, there's moth flying around the kitchen and there's a rat scurrying around in the courtyard below.

Everyone has a strange encounter stories to tell but no one really pays any attention to them. Are they not significant enough or are they the signs of distress? How about the shots of objects - a glass of milk on the kitchen counter with floating hair on top, a yellow ball the dog plays with, a dancing bottle on the stove - what do they signify?

Anything that is said and heard in The Strange Little Cat accumulates into an uneasy feeling. Everyone's saying something to the others but nothing really sticks. This is more of the case to mom than others. She tells a weird story about going to the movies and a stranger next to her put his foot on her foot but she missed the opportunity to withdraw or let him know. Was she getting hit on, or was she making things out of proportion? She tells Karin about a crowded place she goes for lunch during the dog walk, just to have lunch next to some strangers.

People's cruelty to one another seems more accepted - Karin's attitude toward the neighbor's kid who kicked a hacky sack into the kitchen window, or mom's lingering foot above the cat's head, Simon's story about a drunk woman at the party who later got arrested, or mom's contemplation of pricking her finger with a sewing needle, and so on.

There's a lot to unpack in The Strange Little Cat. It's the everyday domesticity that plays out like a horror film.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Preview: First Look at MoMI 2022

First Look, a Museum of Moving Image's annual showcase, scoping new innovative films from around the world, is back and I'm happy to announce that it's a real treasure trove this year.

This year's lineup includes Murina, a Cannes Camera d'Or (Best First Feature) winner from Croatia, two documentaries by Ukrainian master filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, Valentyn Vasyanovych's all-too-precient realization of the Russian invasion in Reflection, Chinese artist Qiu Jiongjiong's spectacularly cinematic display of history and art, A New Old Play, Tsai Ming-liang's love letter to flourescent light soaked Hong Kong's afterhours in The Night, Adèle Excharpoulos starring satire on capitalism, Zero Fucks Given, just to name a few. The festival runs 3/16-3/20. For tickets and info, please visit MoMI's website.

Murina - Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic *Opening Night Film Murina Julija is a teenage girl living in the small fishing island off the rugged, picturesque coast of Croatia with her overbearing father, Ante, and a former beauty queen mother, Nela. Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic's debut film strongly develops into a fraught father-daughter relationship out in the open, or under the surface in this case with the striking opening sequence- they are spearfishing for an illusive sea eel together. As they come out of the water, you can see there is a cut in Julija's upper thigh near her groin. She was manhandled in the water for something she shouldn't have done. The tension rises when Ante's old friend, millionaire developer Javier (suave Cliff Curtis) visits the island for a land developing deal that Ante is cooking up. They are hoping to move to Zagreb and get an apartment if the deal goes through, possibly leaving behind the fisherman existence. Sexual tension, jealousy clash with controlling nature of patriarchal society. With lush cinematography and great feature acting debut by Gracija Filipovic, Murina stands above the usual coming of age film.

The Night - Tsai Ming-liang *screens with Murina as Opening Night Film The Night Shot in November of 2019 while making Days in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, this 20 minute short, The Night, is an amalgam of all Tsai's films in a small package - urban loneliness. Long static shots of night exterior with a cold fluorescent lights with ordinary people walking, waiting at the bus stops, eating in tiny stalls, with occasional cars passing by, play out like a Hong Kong version of Edward Hopper painting in motion in a concrete jungle, where human beings seem tiny and insignificant. A melancholic old song "The Night is Too Beautiful to Last" by Pei Ni kicks in around 15 minute mark. The film is Tsai's love letter to the night and melancholy it brings.

Babi Yar. Context - Sergei Loznitsa Babi Yar Babi Yar is a ravine near Kiev where execution of 33,771 Ukrainian Jews took place when the city fell to invading German troops in 1941. They were rounded up by German SS soldiers and the Ukrainian Police Force. In this all archival footage documentary, Ukrainian filmmaker, Sergei Loznitsa, approaches the subject in his typical, non-authorial way, without any narration and spares no one in the process. The holocaust memorial wasn't built until 2016. Now with the Russian invasion with Putin's shrewd campaign to 'denazifying Ukraine' and Svoboda - ultra-nationalist/neo-nazi element in Ukraine and also having a Jewish head of the state Zelenskyy emerging as the national hero during war time, Babi Yar. Context provides Ukraine's complex history and counters what is termed as chronocide, or erasing history, in our modern society full of misinformation and propaganda.

Feathers - Omar El Zohairy Feathers When her husband turns into a chicken during the magic trick at their son's birthday party, our unnamed female protagonist has to deal with 3 young children and crippling poverty and absurd amount of bureaucracy.

Feathers is an Kafka-esque absurdist social satire of the patriarchal, sexist Egyptian society. Director Omar El Zohairy, assistant director for fantastic 2016 film Last Day of the City, making his feature film debut, prefers tight, off-centered framing to accentuate the cramped interiors, physical dominance over the female heroine. Part surrealist comedy and part neo-realist drama, Feathers illustrates that there are very limited options for women living in a men's world.

A New Old Play - Qiu Jiongjiong A New Old Play Impeccably crafted, Chinese artist Qiu Jiongjiong's epic A New Old Play is seen through the eyes of Qiu Fu (Yi Shicheng), a gifted Chinese opera singer through the tumultuous modern history of China from 1920s to Mao's Cultural Revolution and beyond.

Qiu, with a white patch around his nose permanently because of wearing his clown makeup all his life, is summoned by two demons (Bullhead and Horsehead) to report to hell, because he is dead. We are then taken back to Qiu's early years as a street urchin being picked up by the Sichuan theater troupe headed by Chinese opera enthusiast and army commander Pocky. Spectacular handpainted sets and backdrops (production design done also by Qiu) and with simple but clever camera staging - slow dolly tracking and playing with deep focus, A New Old Play has in common with Roy Andersson's and Wes Anderson's cinema, if only aesthetically. Through its 3 hour runtime as these carefully orchestrated sets and movements settle you in to lived-in, comfortable feeling. And its Qiu's unbiased approach to Chinese history that gives melancholic resonance and wisdom being a witness to history on a personal level. Qiu hits home the idea of life being a stage, where we live and die on it

Reflection - Valentyn Vasyanovych Screen Shot 2021-09-13 at 10.36.22 AM If Valentyn Vasyanovych's previous filmAtlantis was dealing with fictional scenario of the future ecological devastation and human toll from the prolonged war, Reflection, using gray landscapes and claustrophobic interiors, delves into the psychological damage of on-going conflict and threat from the neighboring ominous superpower. Sly metaphors, like dead pigeon, makeshift pyre, ravenous stray dogs are all present. But as with Atlantis, there is a glimmer of hope in Reflection. This time, it's not the love between a man and a woman, but that of father and daughter. Known to use non-actors in his films, Vasyanovych uses his own daughter to play Polina. She in turn, gives a great performance in long takes, engaging in religious and spiritual discussion with Lutskyi who plays her father. Her innocence shines through in a dreadful industrial, monochrome winter Ukraine landscape. Daring in its cinematic language, and unflinching in its presentation of the present, the film makes you impossible to ignore the state of the on-going conflict in that part of the world.

Read my full review from Venice 2021:

Zero Fucks Given - Emmanuel Marre, Julie Lecoustre Zero Fucks Given Sharp observations on the service industry in the 21st century capitalism is at the center of Zero Fucks Given. Adèle Exarchopoulos is Cassandra, a flight attendant at a small European airline company, Wing. The film devotes most of its running time to the banal day to day life of young flight attendants who dream of one day working for Emirates Air, the creme de la creme of the industry and hard to get into. But Cassandra seems to have no directions or ambitions, other than going through, repeating her daily routines of work, dealing with constant micro-management, partying off-hours, being lazy by the pool side in sunny Lanzarote where the company hub is located and countless one night stands through online apps.

Things take a drastic turn when she is reprimanded for buying a distraught customer a wine out of compassion and sent home to Brussels. Staying with her younger sister and her sad widowed father, it is revealed she was running away from her mother's sudden death.

With verité style candid cinematography by Olivier Boonjing and Exarchopoulos's committed performance, Zero Fucks Given comments on hyper capitalist society where work and personal life exist like oil and vinegar, yet one dictates another whether we like it or not.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Life Restricted

Great Freedom (2021) - Meise GreatFreedom It's almost unthinkable now, in a free, democratic society that Paragraph 175, a provision of the German criminal law that criminalized homosexual act, existed more than a century and was only abolished in 1994. Austrian director Sebastian Meise tells the injustices done under such law and concentrates on a character with the camera firmly stationed behind the prison walls most of the time. Great Freedom again showcases the immense talent of its star Franz Rogowski, an actor best known for recent string of films by Christian Petzold - Transit, Undine, whose quiet demeanor and soulful stares communicate with the audience way better than wordy dialog. His portrayal of Hans, who frequents prison for just being who he is and living his life, once again proves that he is one the best working actors out there.

The film starts with surveillance camera footage of seedy men's bathroom where homosexual sex acts are taking place. Hans (Rogowski) is seen taking part in that footage. It is documented that German police engaged in surveillance program in public places to 'weed out' illegal activities in the SC and SC extensively. As Hans is arrested and thrown in jail and his casual self-deprecating exchange with the long term convict Viktor (Georg Friedrich) that this isn't the first time Hans was in prison. The year is 1968.

After trying to protect a young gay man in a prison yard fight, Hans is thrown into a solitary confinement. This also seems like a reoccurring theme. Meise uses these solitary confinement and release from it as a temporal jump points to the past and back, highlighting the longevity and persistence of Paragraph 175. Hans is seen being liberated from a concentration camp by Allied Forces only to be transferred to another prison to serve his remainder of his sentence for performing homosexual acts.

It's this prison where he meets Viktor for the first time. Viktor, a convicted murderer serving a long sentence and an innate homophobe, first acts violently at the news that his new bunkmate is a homosexual. But over time, his hostility and aggression softens and takes a younger, sensitive bunkmate under his arm. Being an amateur tattooist, he even offers to cover Hans's concentration camp numbers on his arm.

Hans can't help himself for falling in love with younger, vulnerable gay men being sent to prison. And they are always the target of prejudices and violence in a prison environment. Against Viktor's warning, Hans keep getting involved in fights while protecting his lovers and keeps getting thrown into an unbearable solitary confinement.

With the simple date titles, we go back and forth between three time periods. Over 3 decades, the law stays the same, Hans keeps coming back to prison. Meise puts a soft touch on these transitions rather than actor's physical transformations, accentuating that time passes differently from the inside the prison wall. The moon landing on TV doesn't have the same effect there as outside. The world keeps evolving, but the unjust, inhumane law is still prevalent. Rogowski's performance adapts to the passing of time, his silent expression and dancer trained body language showcases from nervousness to volatility to resignation.

Friedrich, a veteran German actor, is also fantastic as Viktor, serves as a witness to the injustice done to his fellow inmate and friend, while contemplating his misdeeds as a young man; his sad and weathered face reflecting our humanity.

As the talk of the reformation of the law, Hans finally gets a chance to be free. Would it be the last time he and Viktor will see each other?

Great Freedom beautifully illustrates about genuine human connection while examining the injustices done to generations of people who were persecuted just for being who they are. The film is also a great reminder, along with the recent films like Audrey Diwan's Happening, that the rights we have gained (fairly recently) are not to be taken for granted, especially the world is experiencing great fascistic conservative pushback from the right.

Great Freedom opens in New York on 3/4 and Los Angeles on 3/11. National rollout will follow. Please check Mubi website for rollout dates.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2022 Preview

The 27th edition of celebrating the best of contemporary French cinema offers a star studded 23 film line up. And after going all virtual last year due to the pandemic, this year's Rendez-Vous is back at the beloved Walter Reade Theater, Film at Lincoln Center, NY. The festival runs 3/3 - 3/13.

Opening night film is a highly anticipated Berlinale winner, Claire Denis's Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon drama, Fire. Other notables include Mathieu Amalric's Hold Me Tight with Vicky Krieps as a grieving French housewife, Jacques Audiard's contemporary romance Paris, 13th District, Christophe Honoré's stage adaptation of Proust going awry during Covid-19 in Guermantes, Arnaud Desplechin's adaptation of Philip Roth's Deception, starring Léa Seydoux.

For showtimes and tickets, please visit FLC website.

Here are some notable films I was able to sample:

Deception - Arnaud Desplechin Deception Tackling on Philip Roth's autofiction, Arnaud Desplechin's Deception showcases Léa Seydoux's talent and charisma once again (they collaborated in his last effort Oh, Mercy, where she played a poor working class girl mired in crime).

Here Seydoux plays a sophisticated Londonite whose unhappy marriage drives her into the arms of Philip Roth(Denis Podalydès), a London based American writer, also stuck in loveless marriage. In his London flat, they talk and make love. He jots down his thoughts about her in his trusty notebook for keepsake. They break up many times yet have a strong hold on each other and can't let it go completely. His wife suspects and accuses him of having an affair and he defends himself by saying that Seydoux character is just that, a character, a manifestation of a writer's imagination run amok. As usual for a Desplechin film, Deception is wordy and performance driven. And despite the setting and the characters nationalities, with the usual neurosis and everything, Deception is decidedly and predictably Desplechin and very French.

Hold Me Tight - Mathieu Amalric Hold Me Tight I've said many times that Mathieu Amalric is not only a great actor but great director as well. Yet again, he proves it with Serre moi fort/Hold Me Tight.

It starts out with Clarisse (Vicky Krieps) sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night, driving away in an old car, leaving behind her loving family - Marc, her hunky husband and two adorable children, Lucie and Paul. She tells herself that after a while they will not miss her. She is never coming back and they will have to accept the fact. But why is she running away? What is she running from?

Then the film becomes something else entirely. Krieps gives a gut wrenching performance in a film about grieving and letting go that is so portent and heartfelt than any other film I've seen in a long time. Constantly going back and forth with her and her family, feeling the absence of one another yet articulating the connection in a very ingenious way, Amalric perhaps makes the most heartfelt film as a writer/director.

Guermantes - Christophe Honoré guermantes The planned stage play of Guermantes, based on Proust's third volume of In Search of Lost Time (appropriate title for our pandemic times), is getting canceled, because of Covid. Director Christophe Honoré and a large cast of mostly theater actors, who's been rehearsing the play together for months, are devastated by the news. So they have two choices, stop the project, admit the defeat and go home, or continue to rehearse without a guarantee that the show will ever be staged in the future. After much debate, they continue their rehearsal.

So starts this delightful, communal film of actors and a novice theater director rehearsing the Proust's labyrinthine texts while making the Théâtre Marigny and its lovely garden their home- sleeping, eating, singing together and make the best out of the world wide pandemic.

Unlike the play they are enacting which lacks many of the characters back story due to it being a chapter in a 7 volume book, Honoré explores many of the actors backstory and their lives, making the film much more than a mere documented rehearsal. It's obviously scripted cinematically playful and shot beautifully on film, by frequent collaborator Rémy Chevrin. A delightful salvo of a film that shows a power and resiliency of art in the pandemic era.

Paris, 13th District - Jacques Audiard PARIS 13TH DISTRICT Les Olympiads, the high-rise residential buildings named after the cities that hosted Olympics over the years, is a middle income housing built in the 70s, located in ethnically diverse 13th District in Paris. Audiard, known for his well crafted thrillers and highly emotive characters, tries his hands at a modern romance film with his sleek, staccato style, shot on beautiful black and white.

Webcam, dating apps and decidedly young attractive actors give Paris, 13th District, a fresh, vibrant look at the lives of young, ethnically diverse Parisians of today.

Breakthrough performance here is definitely Lucie Zhang as Emilie, a Taiwanese descent millennial looking for love while living off in her grandma's apartment in Chinatown, located in the 13th District. Zhang's uninhibited performance is contrasted by Noémie Merlant (Portrait of the Lady on Fire) as Nora, a 30 something Bourdeaux transplant running away from the grip of her husband to find herself in the city. Their lives cross paths through handsome Camille, played by Makita Samba, a public school teacher whose self-assured but arrogant demeanor both attracts and repels women. Co-written by Céline Sciamma, Paris, 13th District weaves a seductive, fresh tale of modern romance.