Sunday, May 5, 2024


Samsara (2023) - Patiño Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 8.52.41 AM Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 9.02.12 AM Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 9.46.08 AM Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 9.49.21 AM Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 9.58.49 AM Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 10.01.03 AM Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 10.31.17 AM Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 10.31.49 AM Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 10.32.36 AM Screen Shot 2024-05-05 at 12.16.35 PM In his new film Samsara, filmmaker/visual artist Lois Patiño channels the Tibetan Book of the Dead via Apichatpong Weerasethakul. In his natural, documentary style narrative which is a departure from his previous, silent, non narrative, visually stunning work, he invites us to meditate. There are two parts, er, three parts to the film: first part takes place in Laos, the second part, we are supposed to close our eyes for 15 minutes, then third part in Zanzibar. His gamble pays off. I'd love to experience this film on a big screen with other people and perhaps fall asleep and not feel ashamed to do so. It's that kind of film.

In the first part, a young man is reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead to a dying old woman in a small fishing village in Laos. She knows that her time is almost up and ready to travel to Bardo, the intermediate stage where your soul will move on eventually. Reincarnation is mentioned. The young man is to take bunch of monks from the local monestery to a famous waterfall on his boat. This affords Patiño to do some really gorgeous long transitional shots with images overlapping each other.

The old woman passes and we are prompted to close our eyes and travel with the old woman. For the next 15 minutes, we are supposed to close our eyes and feel the light flashing in our closed eyelids with the sounds of what she is hearing from her life. Then silence.

We are now introduced to a little girl in Zanzibar, to a small fishing community where local women gather seaweeds to make soaps out of it. A new white goat is born and the little girl goes everywhere with the goat on a leash. The old woman tells the little girl that the goat might be an incarnation of a big tree in the forest, or an elephant (which we saw in Laos part), or an old woman. The little girl loses her goat.

Gentle and deeply contemplative, Samsara is a truly unique experience. Go see it in theaters if you can.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Tonal Exercise

Evil Does Not Exist (2023) - Hamaguchi Screen Shot 2024-05-03 at 1.09.46 PM Screen Shot 2024-05-03 at 2.17.49 PM Screen Shot 2024-05-03 at 4.03.06 PM Screen Shot 2024-05-03 at 4.06.47 PM Screen Shot 2024-05-03 at 4.08.56 PM Screen Shot 2024-05-03 at 4.10.28 PM Concieved as a accompanying video for composer Eiko Ishibashi (Drive My Car), Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Evil Does Not Exists plays out like a tonal exercise, unsure of where it will ultimately lead to, like a good looking sourdough bread just came out of the oven, yet there's something wrong with it - underproved - a little dodgy.

It starts out unhurriedly with a long dolly tracking shot of the wood, looking up, with Ishibashi's swelling, mood setting score. Then it introduces Takumi (Hiroshi Omika), a tan faced, stoic widower in rural Japan. He is a local handyman in a close-knit community facing a development company from Tokyo trying to set up a 'glamping' site which would contaminate the water source- famous for its purity- that the whole village is dependent on.

The two city slicker representatives from the company, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani) get grilled by townsfolks (including Takumi) at the townhall presentations of the company's flawed plans. They realize that these people are no pushover country bumpkins. Through the long, soul searching conversations on the long drive back to Tokyo and back to the village, they realize they are on the wrong side.

Takumi is a forgetful fella. He constantly forgets to pick up his young daughter from a daycare and finds her in the woods walking home alone. It's a hunting season in winter. He tells her about the dead deer carcass in the woods they stumbled on. Deer don't attack people, they stay away from the presence of human activities, but a shot deer may attack you if you approach.

The city pair returns, thinking about quitting their jobs and learn the way of rural living from Takumi. It all seems idylic and unfussed, very different from cut-throat capitalist Tokyo environs where they are killing their souls and aspirations to make a living.

Hamaguchi is a very skilled director. His approach to filmmaking is unhurried, and dialogue and acting, natural. His films stand out among other contemporary Japanese films for that reason. He also has a way to bring out humanism of his characters who at first may not be too likable. He deals with many nuanced issues with Evil Does Not Exist - environmental destructions, city vs rural living and human nature.

But with its surprise ending, I question Hamaguchi's motive as unserious about all the issues he raised with the film. It feels like a mood experimentation with Ishibashi's score; setting things up to change the mood of the film this way or that way. Mysterious its end maybe, but I am left with feeling manipulated in a hollow exercise feeling like a bait, not unlike a little girl lost in the woods.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024 Preview

Taking place from February 29 through March 10, this popular annual festival showcases the verve, creativity, and depth of contemporary French cinema in a variety of genres.

This year's opening night film is the critical and box office hit The Animal Kingdom starring Romain Duris, Adèle Axarchopoulos. Others in the lineup includes Little Girl Blue with Marion Cotillard, Book of Solutions, Michel Gondry's new film in 8 years and loads of films by talented newcomers - Ama Gloria by Marie Amachoukeli, Banel & Adama by Ramata-Toulaye Sy and Nora El Hourch's Sisterhood (HLM Pussy).

With the recent critical success of Justine Triet's Anatomy of a Fall and Tran Anh Hung's Taste of Things, French cinema is having a moment with American Audiences. As always, Rendez-Vous provides the glimpse of what's hot in French cinema here and now.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema is sponsored by Villa Albertine, TV5 Monde, Maison Occitanie, FIAF, The Plaza, New York

Little Girl Blue - Achache Little Girl Blue Filmmaker Mona Achache recreates her mother Carole through Marion Cotillard in understanding her suicide a fascinating docu-drama Little Girl Blue. In the beginning of the film, Achache hands her mother's jeans, t shirt, blue cardigan, glasses and a perfume to Cotillard who accepts quietly and transforms into Carole, a writer, photographer who left mountains of journals, photographs and audio recordings behind.

Achache, uses a massive studio wall space to painstakingly catalog her mother's life, like a crime investigator. Carole, who herself had tumultuous relationship with her prolific writer mother, Monique, who hung out with other literary giants as Jean Genet, Maguerite Duras and William Faulkner in the 50s Paris.

The film tells the abuse perpetuated by men (all coincidentally named Jean/Juan) and how it reverberates through generations. A little heavy on the use of stock footage to drive home the points, but Cotillard's committed performance on screen, as she fluffs the lines and retries under her breath are all documented as the process. It's a fascinating, personal art therapy of a film.

On the Adamant - Philibert ON-THE-ADAMANT_image_FINAL To Be and To Have director Nicolas Philibert's points his camera to the Adamant, a psychiatric daycare center for adults on the embankment of Seine. This floating, two story wooden structure is a safe haven for many people who struggle with mental illness. Philibert gently documents its patients and staff as they conduct series of workshops - music, painting, book keeping, jam making, etc. As one of the participants says, it's all about having someone to listen to their anxiety and neurosis.

Philibert, with his infinite patience and compassion, listens to these people without judgment and shows how each individual is talented and unique in his/her own way in the process.

On the Adamant softens its social stigma placed on mental illness.The Adamant is a project of St Maurice Hospital and all the patients are under some medication to control their conditions - many hear voices or suffer from hallucinations. By providing positive, calm environment, the project has been successfully operating since 2010. There's singing, there is poetry, there is traveling film screenings, all in the backdrop of the lively and romantic Seine. A real gem.

The Book of Solutions - Gondry The Book of Solutions A typical Michel Gondry manchild protagonist is perfectly played by Pierre Niney. Niney is Marc, a film director first seen fleeing the film executive's board meeting after they watch the footage and shut down his project. He drives to his childhood village in the rural home with his producer, editor and assistant in tow, to working on editing his 4 hour long, incomprehensible film. He flushes away all his anti-depressants against the advice from his beloved aunt Denise, in order to free his creative energy and gets sidetracked by everything around him, much to the dismay of all his crew members.

As always, Gondry puts his chaotic creative process on display while keeping it close to his heart with a film director as the protagonist. Not as visually creative as his earlier films but it has that madcap Gondry energy that is quite infectious.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Novelist's Films: The Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Ceylan The latest film by Turkish film director, photographer, screenwriter, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, About Dry Grasses is three-plus hours of novelistic contemplation on human conditions in a stunning rural East Turkey backdrop.

Among the best Turkish New Wave directors, along with Reha Erdem (Times and Tides, My Only Sunshine) and Semih Kaplanoğlu (Honey, Commitment Hasan) Ceylan built a reputation as the world's most novelistic filmmaker, with deliberately slow pacing, long takes and themes steeped in vagaries of human existence, in often beautiful rural and urban settings in Anatolia and Istanbul. Indeed, experiencing each of his films is similar to reading a great thick book. And it's deeply satisfying, every time.

Ceylan studied engineering in school, then became a photographer: it is apparent that he has an eye for landscapes as you watch his films. Consider the snowy streets of Istanbul in Distant, ancient ruins on a hot summer day in Climates, the winding mountain roads from above at dusk in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the icicle covered resort in Winter Sleep, and snow-capped mountains in About Dry Grasses, just to name a few. And there is always a cinematic showstopper in every one of his films that makes your jaw drop.

Yet, it's his juxtaposition of close-ups of the faces and their surroundings that gives meaning to his work. We humans exist among those spectacular places, with our jealousies, greed, lust, pride and other qualities intact.

With his wife Ebru Ceylan as a writing partner on most of his films, along with actor/physician Ercan Kesal (Three Monkeys, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) and actor/teacher Akin Aksu (Wild Pear Tree, About Dry Grasses), he sketches out great, lived-in melodramas like no other.

Within the generous running time -- since Anatolia's comparitively modest 155 minutes, the runtime of Ceylan's films are more than three hours -- we get to know every main character in an intimate way with their faults and weaknesses, as well as their redeemable qualities. We get to live with them, like a main character in a great thick novel, at least a short while in darkened theaters. With Winter Sleep, the Palme d'Or winner 2013, adapting Anton Chekhov's play, The Wife, Ceylan explicitly let his audience know where his influences originate and where his interests lie thematically, while not sacrificing his cinematic playfulness.

About About Dry Grasses: Screen Shot 2024-01-23 at 3.29.12 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-23 at 3.29.52 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-23 at 3.34.36 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-22 at 4.19.55 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-22 at 4.26.07 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-22 at 4.54.37 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-22 at 2.01.27 PM About Dry Grasses deals with the usual Ceylan themes: how to live within your environment without making your surroundings a personal living hell.

Samet, our protagonist, skillfully played by Deniz Celiloglu, is a teacher in a small rural village, returning from the summer recess. He is counting the days until he is to reassigned and out of rural living, after the government's mandatory assignment period ends.

He is easily irritable and self-centered. Overall, he is not a likable character, like many other of Ceylan's male protagonists. All three principal characters -- Samet, Nuray (Merve Dizdar, Best Actress at Cannes 2023), Kenan (Musab Ekici), and Sevim (16-year-old Ece Bağcı) -- are exceptionally great.

There are many great moments in the film but one showstopper comes in late in the third act of the film. After accusations of inappropriate behavior with the students quiet down, Samet's favorite student Sevim poses for him outside school in the snowy field, as he is an amateur photographer.

It's the closeup of Sevim's face, where Samet sees betrayal, lies and vengeance, while the audience sees innocence, beauty and indifference. While self-absorbed Samet might not realize, but we do, that it's our projection on others that makes our lives miserable.

Also, it is the first time in a long while Ceylan plays with the film medium. He used non-professional actors until the mid-2000s. He even starred along with his wife Ebru in Climates as a fictional couple in a tale of disintegration of a marriage shot on digital video.

If the run of Anatolia, Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree gave the impression that the Turkish auteur is just making wordy filmed plays in a spectacular setting, About Dry Grasses will surprise you. There is a third-wall breaking scene in Grasses, where Samet and Nuray get intimate after being drunk.

The camera follows Samet to the bathroom, then out the door to a film set in a lot, revealing that the tiny apartment filled with trinkets of Nuray's life is indeed a film set, which takes you out completely from the film narrative. It gives you a sudden jolt that all the characters' lives, their thoughts and intimate details and blemishes that you invested in for the last two hours, are indeed a fiction. That now you can take a breather and reset.

With About Dry Grasses, we are witnessing a great, mature filmmaker paving his legacy as a novelistic filmmaker with a visual flair in the league of Tarkovsky and Bergman.

About Dry Grasses enjoys its U.S. premiere Friday, February 23, at Film Forum in New York City.

My review of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012)

My review of Winter Sleep (2014)

My review of Wild Pear Tree (2018)

Friday, February 9, 2024


Unter dir die Stadt/The City Below (2011) - Hochhäusler Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.00.45 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.02.55 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.23.34 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.37.01 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.46.04 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 9.52.14 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 10.02.48 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 10.07.35 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 10.18.11 PM Screen Shot 2024-02-08 at 11.23.45 PM Non-descript glass and steel skyscrapers of Frankfurt are as much characters as the cold and calculating people who inhabit in Christoph Hochhäusler's take on Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. A young couple Oliver (Mark Waschke) and Svenja (Nicolette Krebitz) just moved to Frankfurt because Oliver got a job at a big bank which is headed by the 'banker of the year' recipient Roland (Robert Hunger-Bühler). Oliver is one of the many ambitious young men who are jockeying up the corporate ladder in a cutthroat environment. They pose for a group picture while saying "GREED". The bank is in the process of acquiring a rival in a ruthless takeover under Roland's instructions while hushing up the kidnapping and gruesome death of an employee in their Indonesian branch, as the Asian Economic Crisis deepens. Svenja wonders through the urban jungle made of glass, lying about her work experiences on her CV as a photo editor while half-heartedly applying for jobs. She casually walks on by at her husband's high-tech, antiseptic new workplace, and catches Roland's attention. Against all his instinct and judgment, he becomes obsessed with the young woman. She as well, perhaps knowing who he is, goes along with his advances and ends up in a hotel room with him. Then they think better of themselves and go their separate ways.

An opportunity comes up to get rid of Oliver from the picture, dressed up as a promotion. It's the position of as the new head of their Indonesian branch, replacing the recently deceased. Even though he is not the most qualified, Roland pushes for Oliver, in pursuit of Svenja. Soon as Oliver leaves, their affair begins.

It is interesting to see their inexplicable attractions to each other, gliding over everything: the impact of the takeover resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs, and their affair taking a toll on Roland's and company's reputation, possible death of the husband. The word love is never uttered by anyone. The affair is not even overly sexual. It's the greed that takes over in a highly capitalized environment where everyone unknowingly plays power games over each other. It's the greed that breeds like a disease. It's as if Roland and Svenja are there but not there doing what they are doing. The disease has taken them over and they are just going through the motions. The ominous ending, as mass of people running down the street, seen by the morally bankrupt, cheating couple, is chilling. The end of the capitalism has begun.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Small Things

Perfect Days (2023) - Wenders Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.25.56 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.35.39 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.40.51 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.42.28 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 9.04.54 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 9.25.52 AM Screen Shot 2023-12-10 at 8.44.47 AM It's been a long while that Wim Wenders made a good film. So this Japan shot with all Japanese cast Perfect Days is sort of a comeback for the filmmaker. And the beauty is in its simplicity.

Koji Yakusho plays Hirayama, a city worker who cleans the public toilets. His simple daily routine is repeated day after day, starting in his modest small apartment in Tokyo- he gets up at the sound of a neighbor sweeping the streets in early dawn, puts away his beddings, brushes his teeth, puts on his onesie blue uniform, picks up the items that are laid out on side table on the way out, picks up a canned coffee from a bending machine next to his house, off in his blue van full of cleaning supplies to the various public toilets in the city, eats his lunch in the park, takes some pictures with his old style 35mm film camera, works some more, goes home, change, goes to the public bath house to bathe, then to a eatery in a market for dinner, reads in bed a little bit, then goes to bed. Repeat.

He is a man of few words. There are some who knows him and regularly greets him. He finds life's pleasures in small things - the sunlight shining through the tree branches, listening to classic rock on cassette tape in his van, finding and reading books from a dollar rack at a local bookstore. He doesn't bother anybody and doesn't let others get to him too much. There are others - his young colleague and his girlfriend, his young niece who runs away from home to stay in his tiny apartment, an ex-husband of a bar hostess at the bar that he frequents on his day off. He interacts with them, not in many words, but with warmth and smiles. Yakusho, nearing his 70s, showing his age and experience in his bad-liver eyes, doesn't have to explain much. He's seen things and experienced things. And that's enough.

There's a certainly a backstory on Hirayama that is left unexplored, rather wisely by Wenders and co-writer Takuma Takasaki. Cleaning toilet is the lowest job one can think of. But it's just a job. If it's a self punishment, we do not get to know. But I think he is past all that. He's just an old man, living his quiet life all by himself happily. It's the repetition of his daily routine, and being happy to know that there is another day that he can see the sunrise, swaying leaves, listen to Lou Reed and Patti Smith and drink a canned coffee.

Shot on full frame and with simple but elegant layered black and white images and interior lighting that reminds you of Robbie Müller days, Perfect Days is a beautifully framed film.

There's a very zen-like quality in Perfect Days. Is that Wenders converting the Buddhism late in life? There's a scene where two grown men, one dying of cancer, playing shadow tag, like little children. Perfect Days is a guiless movie that makes you think about enjoying simple things in life. Forget about the complicated life you are leading in a complicated world for a second. Play childish games once in a while and enjoy the moment.

The film opens on 2/7 at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Square.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Oracle of Cinema

Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) - Farocki Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 11.40.12 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 1.24.14 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 10.33.11 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 10.45.56 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 1.24.44 PM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 11.01.56 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 10.31.23 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 10.32.07 AM Screen Shot 2024-01-28 at 11.40.25 AM We first see the giant wave making machines at work in Hamburg. Scientists are trying to find the pattern in ocean waves however impossible of a task it is. Harun Farocki then connects that with the age of enlightenment and human technology. Enlightenment in German is Aufklärung which also means reconnaissance, in military terms, it's also flight reconnaissance. Photography was used for evaluators to evaluate the scale of the buildings without fear of falling to their death when measuring buildings. Photography is also used to verify the right targets in World War 2 during air raids.

Farocki rightly questions the acuities of 'seeing is believing' with the example of why Auswitz was never bombed by the Allied despite two escapees testimonials of atrocities there. It didn't look like a munitions factory and therefore not a priority. It was two Pentagon officials in 1977 who admitted that they were examining these aerial photos and clearly seeing crematorium and air vents and lines to the gas chambers.

Images of the World and the Inscription of War predicts our current world - drone warfare, surveillance state, deepfake and misinformation wars in astonishing detail without ever mentioning internet or AI. A photographer from the occupying forces in Algeria took photos of Algerian women without their veils and published the photo book in 1960. At one point, a voice of a woman who has been narrating the film in absolute objectivity until then, asks, "How can a face of a human being be described with certainty, so that it can be recognized by everyone, by a machine?"

Both nazi's and concentration camp survivors took detailed records in numbers - one the evidence of genocide, the other, coded evidence for preservation and uprising.

Farocki, as a film essayist, shared many of the same traits as Godard and Alexander Kluge, but he was more direct and succinct than the other two. His ability in provoking the audience to think for themselves while guiding slightly with big ideas had no equal. With wars in Ukraine and Gaza in the internet age, the misinformation wars are raging like never before and I can't help noticing how prescient Farocki's film is.