Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Burgeoning, Frightening Female Sexuality: Bluebeard

Barbe bleue/Bluebeard (2009) - Breillat
review_bluebeard Catherine Breillat's retelling of French folklore Bluebeard: the 'curiosity killed the pussy(cat)' allegory, is at once minimalistic and inelegant in its presentation. After their father's untimely death, two unfortunate sisters get kicked out of the school which is run by unsympathetic nuns. Older sister, Anne, is a class conscious, bitter, button nosed pretty redhead and the younger, Marie-Catherine, is a clear eyed brunette (Lola Créton, prepubescent cross btwn Q'orianka Kilcher & Iréne Jacob). They end up at the party thrown by Bluebeard in the hopes of selecting his new bride. Ogre by reputation, seemingly harmless Bluebeard is rumored to have killed several of his previous wives. Marie-Catherine's combination of innocence and pride quality inspires Bluebeard to choose her.

The story within a story is read by two preteen sisters (apparently named after the Breillat sisters), in baby doll dresses to its deadly consequences. This self-referential sibling rivalry, depicting older one the prude and the younger, more adventurous- I hear the Breillats stopped talking to each other after Catherine's ultra offensive Fat Girl (also about two sisters).

I've never been a fan of Breillat's style. Her deliberate stage-ness, lack of subtlety & visual flare and stilted dialog always struck me as amateurish, but I guess she's been doing that for a long time now. Bluebeard has its Middle Ages gothic beauty moments, especially in the beginning. Here Breillat really restrains herself not to go over the top. Bluebeard story inspired many writers including Angela Carter. Depicting burgeoning (and sometimes frightening) female sexuality is definitely not new. Is Breillat up to the task? I say yes. Her brand of feminism is kinda growing on me.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Human Nature: Love Affair, or The Case of Missing Switchboard Operator

Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T./Love Affair, or The Case of The Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) - Makavejev
This tragedy set in Yugoslavia is another keen human observation without being judgmental by Dušan Makavejev (WR: Mysteries of Organism, Sweet Movie). It's a simple story: Izabela, a switchboard operator and Ahmed, a sanitation inspector fall in love. The film goes back and forth with Sexologist blabbing about repressed human sexual tendencies and a murder investigation. Makavejev's use of interviews and structural playfulness that his later films are known for, are already present here. Love Affair is peppered with many intimate beautiful moments featuring lovely Iza (Eva Ras) and studious Ahmed (Slobodan Aligrudic).

Maybe it's the attractive actors and its graceful b&w photography that I find Love affair much more appealing and resonant than his later works. To me, riding the tide of the sexual revolution aside, Makavejev remains to be one of the most sex obsessed filmmakers alongside Cronenberg.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Intergalactic Brotherhood: The Brother from Another Planet

The Brother from Another Planet (1984) - Sayles
No Donny, these men are nihilist, nothing to be afraid of...
A charming reflection of 80's NY- I didn't know that PRAY graffiti person was around even back then! A mute, nameless man (Sayles regular Joe Morton) from another planet arrives in Harlem. At the mercy of immigration worker he meets at a local bar, the mild mannered brother gets a lodging and a job fixing arcade games by putting his hand over obsolete objects (he has special healing powers). This episodic film has gentleness to it. Knick knacks of Harlem residents don't act stereotypically. The only cardboard characters are über aliens (young John Sayles and David Strathairn in tight fitting black attire) who are after our renegade slave. Morton and supporting cast are great. Sayles doesn't hit you over the head with the messages of inter-galactic fraternity and 'say-no-on-drugs'. It's a poignant, nice low-key comedy. This no budget sci-fi is a real gem.

Singa Pura (Lion City): Saint Jack

Saint Jack (1979) - Bogdanovich
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Shot entirely on location in multi-culti Singapore in the 70's and starring sweaty Ben Gazzara, this Roger Corman production is a leisurely paced character study. Jack (Gazzara), an expat from Buffalo manages a big whorehouse and knows the streets and the streets know him. He's an affable fellow. But there is a danger around the corner as it comes with the territory. One day, a rival gang shows up, fronted by a knife wielding midget Chinaman forcefully offering him a heap of Swedish porn. They end up ransacking his handsome peaceful whore villa and tattooing dirty Chinese words on his forearms. But Jack is not an easy person to be fazed. He meets his match in a suave g-man (Bogdanovich) who offers him a job (running a brothel for GIs).

Robbie Müller (DP of Dead Man, Repo Man, Paris Texas)'s spacious photography with long takes and slow pans, Saint Jack feels like a distant cousin to Altman's the Long Goodbye. Gazzara fits like a glove in a slightly fed up wiseguy in Southeast Asia role with his smarmy charm. Bogdanovich is a natural storyteller. If you want to know where the names Buffalo, Singapore originated from or what the Thai massage involves, watch this film.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Baltic Consciousness: Sügisball

Sügisball (2007) - Õunpuu
Through Veiko Õunpuu's lenses, Estonia seems to be a fitting new setting for films about alienation of the modern society. His miserablist drama is filled with ugly buildings, construction sites. But it is also speckled with absurd humor and shot exquisitely. Most of characters are vulnerable so they resort to hurting people who are close to them. Only stable person is a gigolo doorman Theo(Taavi Eelmaa) who keeps a log of his conquests. But he ultimately finds himself a victim of the class differences. Õunpuu proves himself to be a romantic here though. At the core, his sensibilities have more in common with the privileged. His hopeless romanticism is stretched farther in his more experimental The Temptations of St. Tony. Both of which I find somewhat naive.

Ghosts of the Chinese Past: Ghost Town

Ghost Town (2009) - Zhao
Filmmaker Zhao Dayong's 3 hour doc on mountainous town of Zhiziluo, Yunnan Province(near Myanmar border) is a big, shapeless slice of life of its inhabitants. The change is coming slowly but surely to the sleepy mountain town. It's all quietly observed. There are many extremely gorgeous scenes including sun drenched, smoke filled(because of their wood burning cauldrons in the middle of every household) interiors with dirt floors and a night time exorcism scene with gaggle of firecracker wielding children. I understand Zhao had to slim down nearly 6 years worth of footage, but the film is still 1 1/2 hour too long. He definitely needed a ruthless editor or two. For starters, he could've easily lopped off most of animals lounging on the street scenes. A good documentary but I liked Up the Yangtze better on Changing China doc.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rembrandt's Nightwatch

Nightwatching (2007), Rembrandt's J'accuse (2008) - Greenaway
Nightwatch, Rembrandt's infamous painting depicting the Dutch Militia and the story behind it, is the subject for another visual feast by Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Belly of an Architect, Prospero's Books).

First, just like any Greenaway film, I had a hard time getting into this. With slow tracking wide shots and people bantering constantly, the experience is not unlike passing through a crowded museum and overhearing a snippets of people's conversations. Watching it on my 19" TV doesn't help either.

But Nightwatching is different. Sure it doesn't catch fire until Rembrandt unveils the infamous painting commissioned by the Amsterdam Militia that ultimately dooms his career. But it's a fascinating one. I was fully invested in the story and all the goings on behind that painting. A great art history lesson light show.

A companion piece to his Nightwatching, Prof Greenaway makes a compelling case of the visual art illiteracy in our text heavy world. The essayistic film breaks down the painting Nightwatch in 34 clues as the filmmaker explains Rembrandt's intention of accusing the Dutch Militia of a murder. With Greenaway's head floating around narrating the whole time could be seen as powerpoint presentation gone mad but it settles down after a while as the forensic investigation unfolds. Things are acted out as interviews with actors in characters and it intercuts with scenes from Nightwatching. Really fascinating stuff. How come they don't teach this in art history classes?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

2010 Rendez-vous with French Cinema Preview: March 11-21

If anything, this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema proves to be pretty standard fare- two things French Cinema is best known for: an obsessive love story and coming-of-age drama top the program's hodge-podge of 8 films I've seen. Other than three standouts I've posted previously, here are the skinnies on the others:

The Thorn in the Heart (2009) - Gondry
The Thorn in My Heart
Rather than heavy handed, emotionally exhausting, exploitative dysfunctional-family genre doc approach that are synonymous with any Amerindie doc nowadays, Thorn in the Heart plays out like a gentle Gondry family album. Gondry pulls no hard punches at his silver haired school teacher aunt Suzette and the relationship with her emotionally scarred, troublesome middle-aged son Jean-Yves as Gondry chronicles many schools she'd worked for in different small towns over 30 years. It should've been called Aunt Suzette I love you, then again, that wouldn't have been dramatic enough.

OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus (2009) - Hazanavicius
This France's answer to tongue-in-cheek, 007 spy spoof franchise's second installment is true to its source- split screen, candy colored, painstaking recreation of the swinging 60s, hot babes. A smarmy, sexist, racist, anti-semite, homophobe secret agent Hubert de la Bath/OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) needs to buy back the list of collaborators from a Nazi officer (Rüdiger Vogler) who is living large in Rio. There he meets his match in beautiful Dolores (Louise Monot), a Mossad agent who is after the Nazi.

Since it's French, 117 never gets belly laughs, only occasional uncomfortable smiles. I mean, Holocaust jokes get old really fast.

Non ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser/Making Plans for Lena (2009) - Honoré
Making Plans for Lena
Christof Honoré paints a difficult picture of being a single mom and I'm not talking about Baby Boom. Chiara Mastroianni is nothing short of a revelation as a discombobulated mom of two, dealing with well meaning but nosy parents, sibling rivalry and her estranged husband whom she can't ever get over. Her portrayal of Lena, the not so perfect woman, is as honest and revealing as anyone can get. The original title is from a fable Lena's son tells her- about a headstrong woman who can't find a suiter who could keep up with her dancing. When the devil matches her stamina, her father intervenes, hence the title. English title is also an apt one, as her parents try to help her out (but not obsessively). Superb supporting cast include- Marie-Christine Barrault as mom, Marina Foïs as her bitchy sister, Jean-Marc Barr as her estranged husband and Louis Garrel as a hunky younger love interest. One of my favorites from the series.

Le Hérisson/Hedgehog (2009) - Achache
Based on a best selling book The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the film tells a story about a frumpy middle aged concierge of a upperclass Paris apartment and a precocious young girl, Paloma, who decides that she would kill herself on her 13th birthday (she can't stand her bourgeois family). Josianne Balasko is great as the main character Renée as the lowly character who leads a double life- in one she acts the stereotypical concierge, in the other she is a cultured bookworm. It's the other life that only a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, rich, refined old Japanese gentleman and Paloma notice. Their friendship slowly opens up stone faced Renée and change Paloma's outlook on life.

As I was reading the book, I was wondering about how the diary-like monologues would translate, Achache does a good job at rather economical filmmaking- movie within a movie, Ozu references and some Japanese sumi-e inspired animation sequences. A tear-jerker.

Welcome (2009) - Lioret
Calais, the town on the other side of English Channel is full of illegal refugees from the Middle East. Police monitors if its citizens are violating the law by helping foreigners. A passive swimming coach (Vincent Lindon) at a local pool with marital problems gives lessons to a 17 year old Iraqi refugee who is staying at the detention center. Little does he know that the kid is planning on swimming across the channel to England to reunite with his girlfriend. Lindon with his basset hound looks brings out sympathy from me like no other. Deeply moving.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Adieu, Cold War: Farewell

L'affaire Farewell (2009) - Carion
Anyone old enough to remember the end of the Cold War, has fond memories of the Berlin wall coming down, epitomized by Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech. Farewell tells the little known fact of where it all began. It wasn't by the cowboy president or Mitterrand. It began with a lowly Soviet lieutenant named Gregoriev who risked everything to hand over all the Russian top secrets to the West. Out of patriotism, he had a foresight of shaking up the corrupt and stale gorvernment to the new era. He wanted another revolution for the next generation. Christian Carion (Joyeux Nöel) has created an espionage thriller with a human touch.

Gregoriev makes a contact with a skeptical French engineer Pierre (Guillaume Canet) stationed in Moscow to deliver the materials to the West. Pierre soon gets the spy bug and starts concealing his activities from his worried wife (luminous Alexandra Maria Lara, who is underused here). It takes a little while for the cynical Western intelligence community to realize what Gregoriev's true intentions since he doesn't want any monetary compensation- he only wants a Sony Walkman and Queen tapes in return. Emir Kusturica, the famed Balkan director (of Underground, Time of the Gypsies) and actor in his own right, plays Gregoriev, the man who wants to change the world for his decadent, Western music listening teenage son. With his grizzled lion face, Kusturica oozes charisma in every scene.

The tensions rise when their covers are blown and Pierre and his frightened family is forced to drive from Moscow to Finland & USSR border with angry Russians on their trail. The bad guys are the US and French Intelligence who treat people like pawn in a chess game. There are funny repeated scenes of Reagan (Fred Ward) watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, marveling at its two angles POV structure. Willem Dafoe also shows up as CIA director Feeney, but they are just cardboard characters.

Carion has a real knack for an old fashioned, by-the-book storytelling but it's his attention to little details with human touch, whether it's Gregoriev having an affair with a sexy, uptight comrade or his teenage son strutting in the forest lip-synching to Freddie Mercury, that makes this a better-than-average thriller.

Monday, March 8, 2010

MoMA's Dirty Little Secret and William Kentridge

It's not mentioned anywhere on their website, but it really exists! Thanks to our good artist friend Josh McPhee letting us in on the secret, Nic and I were able to get Artist Passes this weekend at MoMA (Museum of Modern Arts) for $25, which is good for a year. What this means is that you don't have to pay a whopping $20 admission every time you visit there, which has been the deciding factor for many of us not to visit the coveted institution. On top of that, you can get in for any of the film showing at MoMA theaters for a buck fifty instead shelling out $10 per ticket.

Ok, it's about time you ask, the "what do you have to do to prove you are a working artist?" question. There are some guidelines- in general you have to be an artist who exhibited your work in the last two years...blabbity blah. Nic printed out her recent exhibition at Brooklyn Historical Society from their website. But me, as you know, I'm no real artist. I was fully prepared to make a spectacle if they rejected me. Whatever the outcome, I was going to write about the experience either way. All I did was to print out the first page of my website and some of my movie reviews at Twitch.

After waiting in a long line with gaggle of tourists at the information desk, we were lead away by a nice gentleman to the other side of the museum (at the MoMA Theater entrance side). At the administration desk, there we were to fill out the application form and prove our Artist-ness. I handed in my "proof", fully expecting a big, ugly confrontation. But an intern (presumably, don't get me wrong, I love interns. They are the backbone of any art museum) who processed our application was very nice and gave out our passes, hassle free. The deal is so good, I had to let y'all know.

It was a madhouse on Saturday. Tim Burton show was sold out which we had little interest in the first place anyway, but the South African artist, William Kentridge exhibit was really great. Always loved his expressive charcoal drawings with a hint of blue of the state of pre/post Apartheid South Africa. Not only his drawings, there were number of his animations on display, including his diorama projection of the Magic Flute. Here are some of the images:

Some links to his animations:
Sobriety, Obesity and Getting Old
weighing...and Wanting

Sunday, March 7, 2010

18 again: Les Regrets

Les Regrets (2009) - Kahn
An introverted Parisian architect Mathieu goes back to a small town where he grew up, to tend to his dying mother in her final days. There he spots his old fling Maya on the street. So begins this wish fulfillment, a-second-chance-at-what-could've-been story. Even though they've grown up and have separate lives- Mathieu married to an architect partner and Maya to a brutish local farmer, they've been keeping the memories of their first great love and heartbreaks. This time, they can't take their hands off of each other. So they carry on with their affairs under the noses of their semi-suspecting spouses. Yvan Attal, (My Wife is an Actress, Les Patriots) is great as mild mannered Mathieu who gets blinded by his rekindled love. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (It's Easier for a Camel, Nennet et Boni), plays indecisive Maya. With her tiny raspy voice and big, deep fawn eyes, Tedeschi could bring out madness in any man.

Cedric Kahn (Red Lights) doesn't patronize his characters, compared to Todd Field's Little Children which is filled with cynicism and its characters' actions are borne out of boredom in white suburbia. In Les Regrets, surely they act like teenagers in heat - Mathieu brings out a frightened little girl in Maya and she encourages his boyish machismo. But even with Mathieu's full-blown obsession and erratic behavior, and Maya's indecisiveness, they are painfully aware of their surroundings and can't shake off the weight of their responsibilities. They are endearing, sympathetic human beings.

With measured and effective Philip Glass's score and Nina Simone's Sinnerman bookending the film, this contemplation on regrets (in which most great literature/art is based upon) gets high marks from me.

Restless: Le Bel Âge

Le Bel Âge (2009) - Perreau
The film starts with a teenage girl Claire sneaking into the huge decrepit mansion owned by her grandfather, Maurice, at night after partying with some friends. In the morning, Maurice comes into Claire's room and she hides under the bed. Later, Claire picks up an envelope with money in it from the mantle downstairs. As the film progresses, we learn this delicate dance between the young and the old who don't know how to communicate with each other, has been going on for a while.

Claire, a sullen 18 year-old school dropout and would-be swimming champ, is just like any other teenager- unsure of herself and restless. She hangs out with her group of friends who mean little to her, not because she enjoys it, but that's what's expected of teenagers: boyfriend, sex and general mischief.

She meets an old fashioned bookish boy who works for a local casino as a security personnel. He reads Conrad and has elaborate fantasies about traveling. He constantly pushes her to travel with him, but for Claire, he's sometimes just too square.

Perreau makes a point in the beginning of the film with one repeated scene from Claire and Maurice's points of views that it is about two people. But for Maurice, who's nearing the end, life for him is nothing but full of regrets. As the title suggests (same as Pat Bennatar's 1986 song), the film is an ode to that short, precarious time in life when one is teetering on the verge of adulthood and full of potential. Wonderfully played by baby faced Pauline Etienne, Claire is a smart teen who embodies that volatile period perfectly with her wide piercing eyes that both express vulnerability and determination. Her life is an open book full of possibilities.

Legendary actor Michel Piccoli (Le Mépris, Belle du Jour, La belle Noiseuse) is wonderful as a cranky, aging former resistance fighter, who had to make some tough choices under the German occupation. It's his memories that would enable Claire to go off on a journey of her own.

Beautifully shot by Céline Bozon in a foggy, rural, seaside town , Le Bel Âge is a somber examination of youth well done.

Forbidden Fruit: Püha Tõnu kiusamine/The Temptation of St. Tony

Püha Tõnu kiusamine/The Temptation of St. Tony (2009) - Õunpuu
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The film's first 2/3 is strong, filled with Roy Andersson-like wiry absurd humor with amazing black and white cinematography in a decaying, cold, barren world that is Estonia . Tony (Taavi Eelma) is a bird's-nest haired, mild mannered manager at a factory. He has good intentions and a good heart. But he constantly gets shit on by both his boss and workers alike. He is a typical middle man with the soul of a common merchant. With his defenselessness and a dorky appearance, Tony sticks out like a sore thumb wherever he goes. It is a dog eat dog world. Õunpuu delivers that message with bravado. This Kafkaesque tale is definitely a satire a la Buñuel. The fun is in the surrealistic visuals (from Tarkovsky to Lynch) and absurdist humor (including staging of the miserablest play Uncle Vanya). After Tony falls for a beautiful daughter of a factory worker he just fired, things take a drastic turn and he ends up in a grand, decadent club called Das Goldenes Zeitalter (The Golden Age). There Denis Lavant with his lizard like face makes an appearance as Count Dionysus Korzybski, the Chaplin-esque master of the ceremony, looking not unlike one of the grotesque creatures depicted in many paintings of The Temptation of St. Anthony. The film goes totally absurdistan from there- a chainsaw, running in snowy landscapes with only leather thongs on, ice skating link and cannibalism. But even with its (literally) messy ending, The Temptation is an experience to be had.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The End is Nigh: Les Derniers Jours du Monde

Les Dernier Jours du Monde (2009) - Larrieu
The world is coming to an end. There are warning sirens, rain of ashes, bomb/missile attacks, news of nuclear explosions in Iran, Moscow and the US shooting down any trans-Atlantic planes. Bodies pile up on the streets, caused by viruses, diseases and just total mayhem.

Robinson (Mathieu Amalric) is having a sort of mid-life crisis in the middle of all the chaos. He fell in love with an exotic girl Laetitia (androgynous Omahyra Mota, a Dominican fashion model) while staying in picturesque seaside town of Biarritz. As this chaotic film even more unravels with flashbacks, we get to learn how the tumultuous relationship has been as they travel from Spain, Taiwan, Canada to Paris. On the way to find Lae in a long winded road trip through Pamplona to finally emptied out Paris, Robinson gets plenty of sex and some more. I mean, at this point it's pretty useless to describe his arduous Homeric pornographic journey filled with beautiful landscapes and people in bio-hazard suits.

This is a film equivalent of buying a Porche to cure your midlife crisis. It's all hoity-toity excess with exotic locales and fine wine and opera. And you can never tell if this is all tongue-in-cheek (it got some laughs from the audience here and there). Even though it's super silly, I have to say I was entertained by it. Les Derniers Jours du Monde feels like a bastard child of Wim Wenders's somewhat somber and spiritual Globe trotting sci-fiUntil the End of the World and Bertrand Blier's sardonic and playful romp Merci la Vie. Amalric is great fun to watch. He carries this crazy chaos of a film and manages it from spiraling out of control and keeps our attention on the screen with his wide eyes and cynical grin that say "the hell I do?"

Monday, March 1, 2010

Personal Hell : I Come with the Rain

I Come with the Rain (2008) - Tran
Josh Hartnett plays Kline, a PI who is sent to a small island in the Philippines to find Shitao (Takuya Kimura), the son of the unseen pharmaceutical company head millionaire (god?). He soon finds that Shitao's presumed dead and another lead send him to Hong Kong. Apparently he is not the only one trying to locate Shitao. A ruthless gangster Dongpo (Korean superstar, Lee Byung-hun) loses his drug addled girlfrend (Tran Nu Yên-Khê, the director's muse again, making an appearance. This time as Mary Magdalene?) to Shitao who happens to have power to heal tortured souls and in turn gets bloody stigmata.

The film cuts back and forth with Kline's past where he was too invested in capturing the serial killer (Elias Koteas) who makes Bacon inspired sculpture out of his victims.

All the heavy handed visual references to the crucifixion doesn't really go well with the super slick style and incessant Radiohead soundtrack. The film's attempt at showing spirituality fails miserably and comes across as a freak show. One can see why this is not getting released even 2 years after its completion. Tran Anh Hung (Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo)'s interpretation of the New Testament doesn't quite gel together despite all the international cast and sumptuous cinematography. Too bad, I was expecting great things. Hopefully he will have a better luck adapting Norwegian Wood.