Saturday, October 29, 2011

Don't Tell Your Dreams to Anybody

Bal (2010) - Kaplanoğlu
Remote mountain village in Turkey is perhaps the biggest star in Bal (Honey), Semih Kaplanoğlu's last installment of the trilogy that includes Egg and Milk. Sunlight and silhouette dominate. It tells a very simple story of Yusuf, an 8-year old boy. He worships his beekeeper father, has some difficulties in reading, hates milk.... It's a bad bee season. So his father goes out of town to find a better spot to plant a new beehive. A couple of days pass and the father doesn't come back and things become uneasy for him and his mother.

There are many small beautiful moments with Yusuf and his father. One breathtaking dreamlike sequence takes place indoors: it's a slow tracking shot following Yusuf through the house that strongly resembles the indoor farm sequence in Tarkovsky's Mirror. Overall, In mood and tone, Bal has more common with The Spirit of the Beehive. A beautiful film.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Love with the Ghost

Norwegian Wood (2010) - Tran
Nowegian Wood has been probably the most anticipated film for me since the announcement of its adaptation (3-4 years ago) of Haruki Murakami's heartbreaking book on the first love with the Vietnamese auteur Tran Anh Hung (Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo) at the helm. For those who've read the book, the film is a great companion piece: with picture perfect framing, fluid camera movement, light and weather sensitive anamorphic cinematography (by In the Mood for Love cinematographer Lee Ping Bin). Tran, known for his sensual imagery, makes every scene and nuance count, gets every periodical detail right.

As Naoko, the girl who's in love with the ghost, Rinko Kikuchi is a perfect match. Her always searching, wide eyes pierce right through your heart. Kenichi Matsuyama possesses Toru Watanabe's innate goodness and naivete but doesn't quite pull off the wise nonchalance of the usual Murakami protagonist.

2 hour runtime doesn't really do justice as the film breezes through. The film feels empty behind all the pretty pictures, not as affecting as the book. Not a huge letdown but can't help being disappointed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mad Love

L'Amour Braque (1985) - Zulawski
Inspired by Dostoevsky's The Idiot, the films tells the story of Léon (Francis Huster), an idiot just released from a mental hospital in Hungary. He befriends with the wild gang of bank robbers, headed by Micky (Tchéky Karyo) on the train to Paris. After getting back Micky's girl Mary (luminous young Sophie Marceau) from the other rival factions, they proceed to hunt down the powerful Venin brothers who wronged Mary's mother. Léon hopelessly falls for Mary and she does a see-sawing act between two men, driving everyone involved crazy.

L'Amour Braque is just an amazing movie experience. Zulawski's manic energy has no comparison. The film is hard to follow since its dialog is totally nonsensical. But one grandiose, emotionally and physically bare, violent scenes after another, you get into the groove of things. You get to feel the film first, as you try to digest what it all means. Chaos is methodology and it's an amazing feat. His examination of Love and animal instinct is embodied by Sophie Marceau. She eats up the screen. Karyo and Huster do their best, but the film definitely belongs to Marceau. You can't take your eyes off of her when she's on screen.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Marseille (2004) - Schanelec
Angela Schanelec's Marseille is an enigma. With daring shifts, jarring jump cuts and elliptical structure, the film begs for your full attention. It starts out with a young German woman, Sophie, arriving in Marseille. First one third of the film is with Sophie. She is sitting in a passenger's side of a car driven by a French woman (named Zelda, we learn later on) who is swapping her apartment with Sophie's. While in Marseille, Sophie doesn't do much. She photographs random streets, meets a man who rents her a car, gets insulted by a rude friend of the man. We don't get to really know her. She seems to be a nice young woman, if not somewhat plain and living an uneventful life. Then we are back in Germany. There are Ivan the photographer who Sophie may or may not be in love with, Hanna, a stage actress/the wife of Ivan and their young son. We get to know them, well not really. But we can tell Hanna is not really happy. Then there is a stage play where Hanna has a small part.

It takes time to understand what Schanelec is up to with the film. We see the play three times- the camera slowly pans and we get to see only the parts of the play at a time. Hanna comes in to the frame and exits in different intervals. Then there is Ivan taking photographs of random factory women in profile. Some of them are chattier than others. Again, we see and hear only the glimpse of their lives. Schanelec sketches out these moments. There are a lot that are not shown nor explained. Sophie decides to go back to Marseille, something bad happens as soon as she arrives and we don't get to see what happens of course.

There are people we see in the streets and wonder why they are in their particular states. Sometimes we imagine their back story. What we see in front of us is not the full picture and often deceptive. Obviously it is impossible to get to know someone in one hour and thirty minutes. Schanelec understands that. Marseille can be interpreted as a much ado about nothing and that Schanelec's approach is cold and detached. I find it certainly a challenging, yet quite invigorating movie watching experience.

High Tension

Amer (2009) - Cattet/Forzani
A grand homage to 70's Giallo, Amer strips away excessive gore, plot (which isn't saying much for the genre), and much of the dialog. What's left is mad style and amazing build up of sexual tensions. A total eye candy bordering experimental.

The world of Amer is always sizzling. It tells the three stages of life of Ana. It begins with Ana as a young girl, haunted by an old housekeeper who could be a witch. Then we jump to Ana as a sexy teen. Here, an ordinary walk to a local hair salon/grocery store with her sexually competitive mother becomes a heart pounding, sexually charged chase. The latter part concerns grown up Ana, where the limo ride becomes so tense, her dress rips at the seams. With Argento color palette and close-up/extreme close-up staccato edits, the film seduces you and never let you go. One of the rare cinematic treats in recent years.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dirty Backseat of a White VW

Our bicycle ride to Bainbridge Island was quite a trek. It was obvious for everyone to see that I wasn’t really a serious biker as I claimed to be. It was a typical Pacific Northwest Spring weather- overcast, cold and drizzly. I fell down twice and scraped my knee on the uneven roadside curb. I was with a bunch of other English as the Second Language (ESL) students. The head of the team was our athletic teacher, Ms. Susan. She had a reputation as a strict, no-nonsense teacher. She wasn’t the type who’d give you a passing grade if your English weren’t up to the standard. So she wasn’t loved among U.S. college bound students who are eager to get the certificate, the proof of their English proficiency. My English was definitely not good enough. I was in trouble.

You okay? My older Swiss classmate ran up to me with his bike. He pulled me up from the ground. The beat up bike I borrowed from a friend for the trip was lying in the muddy ditch. Ms. Susan passed by and looked at me with such disdain in her face, I felt I committed a grave crime. The extremely polite Swiss fellow traded his bicycle with mine, citing that my borrowed bike was too tall for me for everyone to hear.

It was a long ride back to Seattle. We were all exhausted. No one but Ms. Susan was still on the bike, huffing and puffing, her enormous thigh muscles bulging out, climbing up the Capitol Hill, which was ridiculously steep.

I arrived dead last of course at school as the sun was going down. Ms. Susan was waiting for me since the bicycle I was riding was one of four she personally brought in for her students for the trip. She smiled when she saw me and patted me on the back. You made it. She said, half-heartedly.

She needed some help putting 4 bikes in to her white VW Jetta- two in the trunk and two in the back seat. There were no covers for the white interior of the car. Does she expect me to shove in the muddy wet bicycles into her immaculately kept Rabbit? I didn’t care. I was completely spent and couldn’t think straight. As I was struggling to put the bikes inside, I heard a strange noise that of an animal, a choking puppy perhaps. A high-pitched short howl it was. Then I saw Ms. Susan’s face: her mouth agape with her hands covering it, with an expression that of horror and anger then resignation.

After a while, the scratching and moaning noise stopped. He didn’t know if he should feel relieved or worried. Then he noticed on the rear-view mirror the flashing blue and red lights. It was a police cruiser. He was getting pulled over.

He loved all animals. Ever since he was a child, he always surrounded himself with dogs, cats and all kinds of different birds. Being in a dog breeding business kept him close to what he loved the most: puppies. He couldn’t get enough of them. The little wet noses, warm tummies and wagging furry tails. He wasn’t professionally trained nor had a vet degree. Just an animal lover fell into the trade accidentally. His Korean purebred Jindo dog couple just had a litter and he was on the way to a buyer outside of town.

Sir, your right tail light is out. The patrolman said grimly from behind his shades. Oh yeah? He replied while handing over his driver’s license and registration. There was a light thunk in the back of his well worn VW white Jetta. They both were startled.
What was that? The patrolman asked. It’s just-
The patrolman removed his shades. Can you open the trunk for me please?
It was a site to behold. Six puppies were laid inside the trunk- some of them bubbling in their mouth, pink tongues hanging out, twitchy paws. The stench hit their faces like a brick. There was a puppy with a torn up electrical wires in its mouth on one side. It apparently tore a hole on the side of the trunk in desperation and chewed off the tail light wires.
What the hell is this?! The patrolman exclaimed.

He had to explain the situation. In the end, the patrolman cited him a ticket for broken tail light but did not arrest him under one condition: Puppies would sit in the back seat like some foreign dignitaries.

It was a dangerous ride to the buyer’s house. Puppies made mess in the back seat. They were everywhere, yapping and running around being puppies.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Thing Revisited

The Thing (2011) - van Heijningen Jr.
Danish filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s interpretation of what happened to the Norwegian camp prior to the iconic 1982 Carpenter thriller The Thing, is a noble attempt that comes up short. It lacks Carpenters trademark slowburn, building up suspense. The original is full of characters and class tensions, these Scandinavians just confirm their stereotypes, that they are human lettuces. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is thrown in the mix as a smart American Paleontologist, Kate, to give this prequel a slight break the otherwise sausage fest. There is a little bit of reverse power dynamic when Kate screams "OPEN YOUR MOUTH!" to all the burly bearded Nords to check their fillings to see if they were human or not (the thing can't duplicate anything that is not organic material). The pacing too fast, effects too CG and interpretation too literal, this thing works as a so-so horror and a novelty item but that's as far as it goes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bombay Beach: Alma Har'el Interview

PhotobucketA little history on Bombay Beach first:

The desolate and surreal Salton Sea in California stands as a formidable metaphor for the broken American Dream. The largest lake in California, it was created when the Colorado River flooded the windswept desert, carrying the river's entire volume into the Salton Sink over a period of Approximately two years. A dam was built and water filled the basin- the Salton Sea was born. As the height of American optimism in the 1950s, the Salton Sea fueled a recreation boom, and the inland desert sea became an inviting vacation destination. Today, after series of floods, the lack of water outflow, and the high salinity that has killed off the fish, Bombay Beach is little more than a shanty ghost town in the poorest county of California. The broken-down signs from the '50s and the sunken, ghostly Marina are still there to remind the community of the dream that once was the Salton Sea- and is now a pool of dead fish in the middle of the desert.

Known for her music videos for Beirut (Postcards from Italy, Elephant Gun), Bombay Beach is the first feature by the Isreali-born director Alma Har'el.

How did this unique movie come about?

I wanted to make a documentary with dance sequences in it. I am very interested in dances and movements in films. Sometimes people express themselves better without words. I'm also interested in people who are not professional dancers expressing themselves that way.

Why Bombay Beach? How did you end up there?

It all started with when I was doing location scouting for the music video, 'Concubine' by Beirut. Whenever I do music videos for Zach (Condon) and Beirut, I feel certain responsibilities to portray their music truthfully because I love their music. Their music is a constant inspiration to me.

I met Mike (Parrish) who's in the movie on the beach playing with other kids. So I asked him if he wanted to be in the music video and he said yes. Then his parents came and we talked. There was an immediate connection. So I asked them if I could comeback and visit their house and shoot there. After the music video came out, I showed it to the Parrish family and they loved it. They were touched by how they were portrayed in the video. So I moved in and lived with them for three, four months, documenting their lives.

Yes, I was going to ask you about the organic nature of this film. Everything seems so natural and spontaneous.

Nothing was really planned. They let their guards down since I was hanging out with them all the time. I'd call Ceejay and ask him if I could shoot something with him and he would say, "I'm doing nothing, come on over," or "I'm going to town, you wanna come along?" Everything was very natural. But at the same time, I could go to places in their lives where there were fantasies and dreams and dance and music. So it was a combination of those things. It's that shift between reality and fantasy that we ourselves experience everyday and every minute of our lives that I find interesting.

There are so many documentaries out there that are exploitative of their subjects. But this one doesn't feel that way at all.

I know some people think that this film is exploitative. My only intention was to be with these people and create something beautiful together. And I kept all the potentially harmful stuff to them out of the film. I didn't want to show anything against their will. And I'm very glad that they loved the film.

That's great. They saw the film!

Oh, of course! They were with me at Tribeca Film Festival. Pamela and Benny came out to New York for the premiere. It was their first time out of Bombay Beach and coming to New York. It was all new experience for them. It's so crazy that we meet some people in the out of nowhere and be together in New York and everything. I showed the film to Red and Ceejay and they were very happy too.

I keep in touch with everyone from the film. Benny is off the medications now and doing a lot better. Ceejay has gotten a full football scholarship and living in Minnesota now. Red is still alive and kicking, still selling cigarettes, drinking whiskey and hanging out with all his lady friends. He is now installing solar panels on his trailer so he can get free electricity.

When the DVD comes out there are going to be three little shorts for each characters about where they are now. In it you will see them watching the film and they will tell you what they think about it.

How much footage did you end up with at the end of the shoot?

Gosh, about one hundred sixty hours. I had to cut out two beautiful dance sequences. One is with Pamela dancing alone in a warehouse with her voice over, reading her letter to her husband who's in jail. Beirut did the music for that sequence. It's probably my favorite dance sequence. It just didn't fit the movie because I didn't want to move away too far from Benny, since he is the one I focused on. But you will see it on DVD.

So the movie ends and the credits roll and I don't see a crew list. You pretty much did everything by yourself!?

I had a small HD camera and wireless microphones. That's about it. That's how I could get all the intimate shots.

It's one of the most intimate documentaries I've ever seen. And it's also beautifully shot too.

I go down there every other week. After the movie came out, I took some of my friends and asked them if the place was as beautiful as they imagined. They all say it's more beautiful. Granted I shot many of the scenes at sunset, there is something really magical about that place. You just have to go there to see it for yourself.

Your husband (Boaz Yakin, director of Fresh, Price of Rubies, Remember the Titans) is also a filmmaker and serves here as a producer. But I don't see the resemblance in your filmmaking.

That's why we get along so well. (laughs) There is no competition between us, no confusion of who's who, because we are so different. But we always learn from each other and compliment each other.

So you just meet people and you inspire them and they inspire you, is that how it works in your filmmaking?

Pretty much. I love to be around creative people. That's the most important thing to me.

Winner of Best Feature Documentary at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, Bombay Beach opens this Friday, October 14th at the IFC Center (in LA Oct. 21st). Following its theatrical release, the film will have a VOD and itunes release via Focus World on November 1st.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

I Missed Your Heart

Hanna (2011) - Wright
Saoirse Ronan is Hanna, a girl trained to survive by her dad Eric (Eric Bana). She only knows the world from the books her dad reads to her in their hut in the arctic circle. Dad tells her when she's ready, she can flick the switch box- some type of GPS device, anytime, to face the world. Kate Blanchet is Marrisa, a cold CIA agent in their trail. Hanna is a modern day Brothers Grimm tale completed with an abandoned amusement park ending. More than anything, Hanna is a tautly designed film: from amazingly choreographed fight scenes to teenage girl bff innuendos to sun drenched photography to the perfectly in tune soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers, there is no room for fat at all. On top of that, Blanchet chews up the scene in her best in recent years as a woman who chose not to be a mother (this sounds cheesy but it ain't).

Never seen Joe Wright's films before (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) but he is a very gifted director. The 'perfectly engineered soldier' theme is nothing new, but Wright is less concerned about that. Hanna is a beautifully crafted, smart, funny film that floats above its genre conventions. I just wish I went and saw it in the theater. One of the best films this year for sure.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fleeting Moments

In the City of Sylvia (2007) - Guerín
A young man, new in town, sits at an outdoor cafe, looking at all the women around him. Thank god he is just sketching them on his pad. He doesn't seem to possess a camera dangling from his wrist shooting low angle whatever. Then he starts following a beautiful red herring (Pilar López de Ayala) through the streets. There is hardly any dialog in the film. Music of the various street musicians and street noises become its soundtrack.

Life is an accumulation of fleeting moments, missed opportunities. Guerín emphasizes those wonderful moments and makes almost a thriller out of it. It's done very delicately and carefully, still its beauty constantly threatening to sabotage the whole immersing-into-movie experience.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Coney Island Baby

Little Fugitive (1953) - Ashley/Engel/Orkin
I could've gone crazy with the screengrabs on Little Fugitive. But I controlled myself. This simple, 16mm shot, entirely overdubbed movie is the original ode to Coney Island before the Warriors or other Coney Island themed movies. Truffaut cited the film as the inspiration for the French New Wave (he was talking more about 400 Blows, obviously).

Joey, an eight year old neighborhood kid gets tricked into believing he shot and killed his older brother, runs away to Coney Island and spends a whole day riding various amusement park rides, hanging out on the boardwalk falls asleep on the beach. It's simple as heck but extraordinarily beautiful. The film's look reminds me of Robert Frank photos .

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Perfect Storm

Take Shelter (2011) - Nichols
As far as a-neurotic-man-going-crazy, predicting-end-of-days movies are concerned, there are only two possible outcomes - either he remains crazy and the sun comes up tomorrow, or "he was right all along". For the sake of those who haven't seen this movie, I'm not gonna get into that. What's worthwhile is seeing Michael Shannon slowly but surely going nuts. As he demonstrated previously- bug, My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done? among others, he is good at that sort of thing.

Curtis is a normal family man in Ohio. He has a beautiful wife, Sam (Jessica Chastain of Tree of Life- being typecast as a perfect mid-western housewife) and a button nosed but deaf daughter. He works at a construction firm. Lately he's been having nightmares- massive thunder and lightening storms, oily rain, birds dropping from the sky, people acting weird... Like a proud male he is, he hides his irrational fears from his wife but slowly and surely prepares for a storm shelter and seeking head doctors without telling her. His erratic behavior gets him fired from his job and alienate from his friends and community and even from his wife. I'm glad Jeff Nichols didn't take Jesus route and downplayed the environmental factor. He is more interested in the visceral, immediate reaction of Curtis rather than contemplation as to what it all means. It's Nichols who showcased Shannon's talent in his debut, Shotgun Stories. This is definitely a Michael Shannon show. He is fantastic as always, embodying a skulking everyman with his stoicism and macho pride. So is Chastain, as a reprehensive at first, then strong willed, compassionate wife. Take Shelter could've been twenty minutes shorter. The pacing really drags.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Ossos (1997) - Costa
There are two big questions I asked myself: What is cinema for? What's the truthful representation?, after watching Pedro Costa's Ossos, the first part of the so-called 'The Fontainhas Trilogy' and the only one shot on 35mm. From what I've read about him and Fontainhas so far, Costa was in transition from making films the typical way - big crew, money, equipment... the whole circus, to barebone, to get something more real, substantial, obscure yet concrete. In Ossos, characters barely talk even though there are constant chatters, noises of the city slum around them. Their hunched stature, sad eyes, small gait tell you as much information as in-dept urban safari documentaries. There are no big melodramas or triumphs in this part of the town in Lisbon. Of course, they have emotions, just like anybody else. They are just harder to detect. If anything, Ossos is an impression of a place deeply rooted in its people. The premise of the film resembles L'enfant by Belgian neo-realists Dardennes: young parents, a new born baby. But Costa's drama doesn't arise from two pitted people or the baby baiting. His scope is wider and his aim higher, reflecting these people's resilience, their refusal to die. It's a beautiful film. And I'm still working on the answers to the questions.