Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Colossal Youth (2006) - Costa
colossal youth
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For two and a half hours, we follow Ventura, an eldery resident of Lisbon's slum known as Fontainhas, as he visits his various 'children' and have lengthy conversations with them. Costa concludes his trilogy with this tall, erect man in a dark suit and white shirt in almost every frame. This DV shot film is remarkably beautiful. As with his other two in the trilogy, the film is an immersive experience: with its quiet protagonists and deliverately slow, leasurely pacing, you get to 'live in' with these souls in their darkness, listening to their stories. Costa's docufilms are nothing like I've experienced before and Colossal Youth, with its poetry, is the most beautiful of them all.

In Vanda's Room Review

Ossos Review


La Captive (2000) - Akerman
la captive
Akerman's parable about jealousy, possessiveness is that of simplicity- an obsessive love story devoid of pettiness and emotional outbursts. Instead, she prefers carefully composed shots and operatic narrative to illustrate a tragedy born out of controlling jealousy in man-woman relationship. Simon (Stanislas Merhar) first seen perving over the images of Ariane (Sylvie Testud) having a good time at the beach with her friends. Then we find out that he already has her living in his grand mansion where he and his grandma reside. Ariane is passive and defenseless- "If you like," or "As you wish." are her most common answers to Simon's incessant demands. He trails Ariane's whereabouts whenever she leaves the house and imagines wild lesbian escapades she may or may not be up to. There is a funny scene- convinced that Ariane is having a lesbo relationship, Simon visits a lesbian couple and thoroughly asks them about the nature of their relationship. After accusing her of lying, he declares the end of the relationship and of course it is for her benefit. She obliges, saying even though it would hurt her, "as you wish". For her in relationship, there should be some mysteries remain in your partner. For him, it's the opposite. Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead is a perfect fit to the stormy finale to this moody, intriguing piece of filmmaking.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Trumping Masculinity

The Loneliest Planet (2011) - Loktev
loneliest planet
Julia Loktev's breakdown of masculinity is very interesting. A young, engaged American couple, played by non-Americans (Gael Garcia Bernal and Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg) are trekking breathtaking Georgian outdoors with a enigmatic local guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). The couple are playful, and very much in love until one act of cowardice changes the foundation of their relationship. Loktev slowly builds up to a turning point mid-way. Everything is stripped down. Nothing is stereotypical. There is no emotional breakdown, just a lot of brooding and self reevaluating. Bernal underplays his usual hunky masculinity and internalizes his thought process silently and it's a site to see. Deeply uncomfortable yet fascinating, The Loneliest Planet is an Antonioni-esque film where dissection of masculinity is at its sharpest.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Aftermath: Julia Loktev Interview

It's been six years since we heard from Julia Loktev after her minimalist, downright Bressonian suicide bomber film, Day Night Day Night. Her new film The Loneliest Planet, shot in the Caucasus mountains in Georgia, is just as enigmatic and elliptical as her first one, if not more. In person, Loktev appears to be fiercely intelligent and thoughtful. But just like her films, I had a very hard time pinning her down on what the film is all about.

It's been a while since your last film Day Night Day Night, why the gap?

What a rude question to ask a filmmaker?! (laughs)

Oh I didn't mean to be rude...

I was just talking to someone about how we were supposed to shoot the film one year earlier. We had to delay it for a year because it took a while to get the money together. It's amazing how long it takes to get everything done. I wish I could make a film a year. In this day and age, I think that's very hard to accomplish. In this case we had most of the budget, we needed about twenty five percent of it. And the story takes place in the mountains, so there is a very short window to shoot from the month of May through September. After that, it's all snow and they are closed for business. We were going to shoot the previous summer and had an investor who came in and said, "We will give you the last 25 percent of the money, if you could move the location to China. So we were going to move to China even though the script was originally set in Georgia. Then they pulled the plug two weeks before the shoot, and we had to wait another year. Luckily, by that time I had Gael (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Hani (Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg) cast and they both stuck with the project and came back after a year to do it.

That's pretty awesome. How long did it take you to write the script?

That's a hard thing to measure because you know, it takes a while to come up with the initial idea and there is a germination period before you flesh out what you want to say. I never understand people asking "what version of the script are you on?" because I keep on writing everyday even on the set. And I'm constantly editing while I am writing it, it's much more of a fluid process for me.

You said it was conceived with Georgia in mind and the film is stunning to look at. Why Georgia?

I was born in Russia (technically in Soviet Union) when Georgia was part of the USSR. It's where I can still get around speaking Russian even though it is a different country with their culture and language. That's where my mother used to go for hikes when she was a university student. So there was this kind of family connection to the mountains even though I went to Georgia for the first time for a film festival a few years back.

Was it very hard to shoot in the mountains?

It was the hardest thing I've ever done. Yes, it was incredibly difficult. Not because we were shooting in Georgia. Georgians are actually amazingly easy to work with and made everything very easy for us, we really couldn't have done it without them. We had a small international crew and some of them were made up of Georgian mountaineers. It was run like an expedition, so in terms of organization, it was fantastic. But what made difficult was the sun because I had a very specific visual in mind. Most of the time the sun was too harsh to shoot. We had very short windows to shoot with a particular direction in mind and it really, completely limited how we shot. Perhaps limited is not the right word. The sun was definitely an obstruction and a challenge.

There was a rainy scene in the film though.

We did manage to get one rainy day scene. We planned it and waited for it and got it done. Most of the time we couldn't find a cloud in the sky. We wanted to get a nice overcast look but no luck. There was a heat wave and we had to wait for the sun to go behind the mountain so we could get some relief.

How big of a crew did you have?

About a dozen on set. It had to be very small and mobile because we had to hike into a lot of our locations. We came back all thinner and healthier. (laugh)

I find it interesting to see non-American actors (Bernal and Furstenberg) playing an American couple. Same with Day Night Day night, where young suicide bomber (Louisa Williams) is of unknown ethnicity. Do they share the theme of anonymity?

I wouldn't say it's anonymous. But they are not caricatures. They are not a blonde haired, blue eyed couple from Wisconsin and I wanted to make a point of that. Look at us here sitting and talking. Where are you from?

You are from Korea and I'm from Russia. To me that's the world that surrounds me- many people I know are from somewhere else and to me that's very natural.

What happens in the middle of the film, I have to say, I never have seen such a subtle and sharp criticism of masculinity anywhere.

I don't know if it's a criticism of masculinity or desire for masculinity.

I've seen some other films that deal with the same theme, Bruno Dumont's "29 Palms" and possibly Claire Denis' "White Material" in which emasculating circumstances bring about the violence and destruction. Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal)'s action in the film baffles himself.

That's a very... reductive way to look at it. But it's incredibly hard to be a man now for sure. (laughs) Yes. In our culture it is incredibly difficult. As a woman I have a lot of flexibility: I can be strong, I can be vulnerable. I can kind of choose how I want to play that. And we are telling guys to be sensitive. I do like sensitive men. But there are times part of me wants a man to be a man with a capital M. That's always kind of confusing to me, about myself.

There is something vulnerable and boyishness about his behavior, like hiding behind his mom...

I don't really equate vulnerability and boyishness.


No, cowardice will fall in any case. I mean we all have a case when we feel vulnerable. All the way from our childhood to old age, there are moments that challenge who you are and catch you off guard, that aren't planned for and wherein you fail. And then what do you do? It's always the aftermath, that's the question. I wouldn't call it cowardice. It's quite natural. Then, would it be more forgivable if it was a woman in his shoes? Most people would say that I wouldn't have a movie if it was like that. That's so screwy now, I mean, all this talk about challenging gender roles, we always come back to that fact. It could've been man and man or woman and woman. But we are veering off from the subject...

Well, the character's played by Gael, who obviously brings in certain masculinity and that's why that scene is so surprising.

Yeah, I think it's very important but it's not someone big. You would expect this to be built into their character but what he does something that is very out of character. That was the reason I cast Gael. Because he always seems like he knows what he's doing.

How did it come about casting Gael and Hani?

Obviously they were committed to the project even though it was delayed. I think they were both attracted to the central question in the script. They tried to find a way into those characters and tried to unpack all those very complicated yet very simple and primal emotions. The way they worked together was incredibly important to me. How they clicked from the very first day they met. They had a very good chemistry together. On the first day, they looked like a believable couple and they brought things out from each other. And also how they fit with the guide (Bidzina Gujabidze). I think the chemistry among them is what made the film work.

There is something very Antonioni about this film. How does the location factor into the couple's relationship?

I think it is like music. It colors the tone and feel of the film. The landscape completely affects the emotions and I don't mean in a straightforward way necessarily. I didn't want to have an emotionally difficult story in a difficult landscape. Like a desert for example. I actually like the idea that it is set in a soft and lush landscape. It becomes more and more beautiful as their relationships get more and more strained. It's a beautiful place. I've traveled a lot and went up a lot of mountains. But it really is an astonishing looking place and I've never been any place like that before.

Are there any contemporary filmmakers you find affinity with?

I don't know if I can say I find affinity with any particular directors. There are certainly directors I like. And I like a lot of different directors- from Claire Denis to Park Chan-wook. But I tend to be attracted to the movies that deal with image and sound more strongly than just talking.

The last half of the film is pretty much dialog-less, except for Bidzina's long monologue at the end. How did you approach that with the actors?

It's all about their inability to talk about this thing- it should be talked about but it can't be talked about. What on earth can they possibly say afterward? How do they negotiate the space between them and try to find the way toward each other? They have no idea what to say and don't have any space to talk either because they are not alone. There is the guide present the whole time. So they try to show it with their body language and so on. I think they did a tremendous job.

Is there anything you are working on right now?

Not enough I want to talk about. (laughs) It's always easier to talk about it afterward. And I don't want to jinx it.

Both of your films are really fascinating. And I'm hoping you come out with more films, because I'm really interested in what you are after.

Well thank you. I hope so too.

The Loneliest Planet opens Oct. 26 in New York and Los Angeles and will be available on VOD Oct. 30.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

I Live on an Island Called Cinema: Leos Carax Interview

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Leos Carax, once the wunderkind of French cinema, the heir apparent to the French New Wave, has made only five feature films in his almost 30 year career. He is roaring back to the scene with his fantastical new film Holy Motors. His third feature, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, made some 20 years ago, happens to be my favorite film of all time, so my anticipation for the interview was extremely high, to say the least. I knew the interview wouldn't be easy, considering his bad boy status and reclusive persona. I had to prepare for it: no easy questions such as, the casting of Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes, and nothing too gossipy about his tumultuous love affair with Juliette Binoche and Yekaterina (Katya) Golubeva (with whom he had a daughter and to whom the film is dedicated). It would've been ideal to have Carax all to myself and be a total fanboy. But I had to share the honor of interviewing this elusive director with three other journalists.

Deeply reflective of his rocky career, Carax turns out to be an ethereal sage of some sort. He almost inaudibly, almost incoherently, rambled on. It was all kinds of wonderful. As he often paused for a long time, searching for the right words and connections to describe his thoughts, I could see the glimpse of a gifted artist who's been fighting against his own demons rather than against the world. I just hope this new found artistic freedom and (hopefully) flexibility in funding with the success of Holy Motors will help his future endeavors.

[The interview was originally set up for Carax and one of the stars from the film, the Brit pop icon Kylie Minogue, but because of scheduling conflict, Miss Minogue couldn't make it. Many thanks to my journalist compatriots: Steve Erickson and Hillary Weston.]
You've directed Denis Lavant over the course of three decades now, how has your process of working with him evolved over the years?

We don't talk much. I didn't know Denis in real life and we lived about 500 meters apart in Paris, we had mutual friends and went out to dinners together, and so on. But I was lucky. It was almost miraculous that I found him for my first feature (Boy Meets Girl). I was looking for this boy (Carax's alter ego Alex) for a long time. We had to postpone the project looking for him. But I haven't used him in his full physical capacity. The film was quite static. So in my second feature (Mauvais Sang), I finally got to use his physical talent. Then the third film (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) came along ... then, we didn't work together for 16 years until we made Tokyo!

A few years ago. I discovered that he became a much better actor since then. Because at the time (of my Alex trilogy), he was great, but limited. Even ten years ago we couldn't have made Holy Motors together. He could have played parts of it, I think, like the motion capture scene. But I don't think he could've pulled off a scene with a father and daughter or of him in a deathbed. I knew this much going in -- that the film would be shot in Paris with little money and it will be shot on digital and it would be with Denis and I would not watch dailies. Then I thought the two or three scenes I mentioned wouldn't be good. Still, I thought, "OK, let's try it." So I was very surprised with the results. I don't think now there is any role that he can't play.

Was there any initial scene that sparked to make this film?


I'd rather you said you had sort of an image of a theater full of people and you didn't know if they were sleeping or dead ...

I'm not a writer so I don't write script from A to Z. With every film, I have two, three images and feelings, then I try to edit this feelings and images together. There was obviously the limousine, which has been attracting me that I saw first in America and since then .... My neighborhood I live in Paris is a Chinese neighborhood and they use limousines for their wedding .... This I find strange because I find them morbid, more like coffins. But I was very intrigued by them. I thought they were great vehicles for today's fiction. They are like a virtual world. They want to be seen but you can't see inside them. People feel very protected inside. They play a role -- you don't buy them, you rent them, like a rented life. They are like avatars themselves. They are also very cinematic.

And I had this image of an old beggar, which is in the second scene of the film. I pass these gypsy beggars all the time. They are out there every day. They dress the same and their back completely bent. I thought, "how can anyone [be] more alone then them," "what life is left of them?" And so on. Then I was thinking about making a documentary about one of those women and me. We build this bridge between us and I'll try to relate to her and probably have to go to her home country to understand her story.... Then my fear was, if I start making this documentary, there will be no end and I might have to devote myself to this documentary forever. Even in fiction I have a hard time with the ending, how do you end a documentary? So I went completely opposite way. This woman would be played by an actor and I would play my words into his mouth. I guess I associated this role-playing limousine idea with this and put them together.

The last time I saw you was at the Q&A session of the TOKYO! screening here in New York. And you mentioned not getting any funding for any of your projects. You mentioned making HOLY MOTORS cheap and fast. And it's very different from the films you've done. It seems much more energetic and freer than anything you've done. Did the lack of funding play a big role in it being so different?

This movie was born out of rage, rage of not being able to make other projects, so it was imagined very fast. I think the whole idea came about in two weeks. If it seems stronger and freer, it's because it was put together very quickly I think. It was only in a few weeks the idea was conceived. It took us about a year to find the money. But it was shot very fast right after that.

Watching HOLY MOTORS, I couldn't help noticing your ambivalence toward cinema. If someone would've walked up to you and asked, "Should I devote my life to the movies?" what would you tell them?

Devotion is such a strong word. It's really a miracle that cinema exists. It has to be invented. No other art is an invention. In cinema, it needs machines. In French, it's "motor! (equivalent of camera roll!)" before director calls it. "Action!" I was around 16 years old when I discovered this island called cinema where I can see life and death from another perspective, from many different angles. I think every young person should be interested in that island. It's a beautiful place. I haven't made that many films so I don't really consider myself a filmmaker. It's really arrogant for me to say this but I do believe that I live on that island. It's worth living there.

Do you feel any kinship with other directors of your generation?

No. But I'm not looking for any. I started very young. I was a shy young man of 17 when I first came to Paris. I didn't know anyone. I was kind of a bluff -- I didn't study film, I've never been on a film set before, so when I was asking money for film, I was bluffing. I was proud of being alone. So I paid the price for this pride. It gave me strength but also it made me very isolated in the industry. I can't say it's good or bad but that's my story. I happened to be a director (sometimes) and happened to be born in France. But I don't really see myself as part of a certain generation in French cinema.

We are living in a virtual world. There are people living their lives without any real human connections. With the main character going in and out of the situations without any consequences, is that something you wanted to address in Holy Motors?

Yeah.... Actions, the notion of experience is what I was after.... I am interested in virtual reality. But it's something I don't want to impose upon someone, neither I want it being imposed upon me. The film is not against anything. It's about just a fighting for survival. I think we lack in courage. Not only as filmmakers but us as human beings. I think courage should be taught in school. [Everyone laughs.] Whether it's civics, politics, poetry, even physical... if we lose courage nothing is possible.

Did it take you a lot of courage to do this film? It's very personal, like your other films. It's always about Alex, your alter ego played by Denis Lavant. I saw your daughter's name in the credit. And that father and daughter scene, which was very poignant (and mean too). How close was that scene to the relationship with your daughter?

I wouldn't say there is any courage in my filmmaking business. I do what I can. It happens that Denis and I are about the same age. Although I don't know him well but I know he has three daughters. I have one, who appears in the beginning of the film. She's 8 years old. So, you use your fears and all the questions marks in to your film. You know the father and daughter relationship can be one of the most beautiful relationships, but at the same time it's also the basis for many horror stories. I mean a father can be a monster, very easily. That's my fear, being a monster. But it's got nothing do do with my actual relationship with my daughter, I hope.

What I admire about this film is that you have a rich understanding of the cinema's past. All the different genres that are considered dead -- musical, monster films, etc. -- are used and made in a such a new way. I was wondering what your relationship is like with the classic cinema?

What's strange is that I discovered the film at the same time as I started making films. It doesn't really happened that way for most of the people. Usually one comes first and the other later. It just happened to me that way. I watched a lot of films from 16-24. A lot of silent films, Hollywood films of course and the New Wave. But I stopped watching films after my second film. I thought I paid my dues for my love of the cinema and I needed to go my own way. People see lots of references in the film but I don't. I just live on this island called cinema. I just want it to be seen as it was imagined, not with some cinephile's hat on. Hopefully, this film is a success showing the experience of human life today and not come across as some new cinematic language invented. Cinema permits you to see things, like ghosts. And so, I don't care much about cinema's history.

Holy Motors garnered accolades in various film festivals this year and opens on Wednesday, Oct. 17 in New York City.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dignified Death

Amour (2012) - Haneke
Getting old is an ugly business and seldom a subject for cinema. I can't think of anyone more fitting than Michael Haneke to tackle this uncinematic, almost taboo subject. Amour is a somber and completely unsentimental depiction of a slow, agonizing death of a loved one. An old Parisian couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) an Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are first seen at a piano concert among the audience. They are retired music teachers, attending one of their successful pupils' piano recitals. They start as audiences then quickly become our subjects.

A stroke leaves Anne half paralyzed and wheelchair bound and her health steadily declines. Before Anne loses her marbles, the couple serenely talks about their imminent future. She doesn't wish to go back to the hospital ever again. Georges obliges. As her conditions worsen, devoted Georges takes care of his wife 24/7, despite emotional protests from their daughter (Isabelle Huppert). Dying is a grisly, undignified, degrading affair where no one is to blame. Georges is old enough to know this. But the question is this: how much can you take the suffering of your loved one?

 Just like Haneke's other films, Amour is not a film to be enjoyed. Watching it makes you uncomfortable and sad- much sadder than his other films even. It's very straightforward and direct. Shot economically and with no visual flares by Darius Khondji (in their second collaboration), its cinematography takes a backseat to immense performances by the two principals. Riva gives, hands down, the best performance of the year. In her graceful face, you see the remnants of that beauty from Hiroshima Mon Amour- it makes the whole experience all the more devastating. Trintignant too is amazing. There is no music to guide us emotionally, even though they are pianists. It starts and ends in silence. In typical Haneke fashion, watching Amour, you don't get overly emotional, rather, you feel numb. It certainly deserves all the recent accolades.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Resurrection of Alex Oscar

Holy Motors (2012) - Carax
I'm pretty sure I won't see anything more audacious this year than Leos Carax's self reflexive, funny, goofy and touching ode to cinema. Holy Motors follows Alex the performer (Carax's alter ego played by Denis Lavant) as he goes through 9 different lives in one night. The film makes full use of Lavant's acrobatic skills- especially in 'the motion capture' segment that highlights the actor's physical agility and pays a tribute (on a treadmill) to his own film, Mauvais Sang. It also features some of the most bizarre casting choices- aside from Lavant, Michel Piccoli, Edith Scob, it also stars Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. Carax retraces his steps onto the Pont-neuf even, ever so slightly: after 20 years, old lovers Jean (Minogue) and Alex meet at empty Le Samaritaine department store overlooking the famed bridge which was the setting for Carax's magnum opus (and my personal favorite) Lovers on the Bridge (1991).

Holy Motors marks a comeback of a major French auteur (his last feature was Pola X in 1999). It was very disconcerting to see him all broken up and bitter at a Q&A session for an omnibus film, Tokyo!, in which his contribution Merde was definitely the highlight of the three. He was having a hard time financing any of his projects. He talked about his desire to use his character Merde (Lavant)- a flower eating, deformed creature living in the Tokyo sewer, again in some other occasions and I'm glad he gets to do that in this film. Holy Motors is a product of a frustrated artist finding ways to express himself under difficult financial circumstances. Its disjointed, episodic narrative reflects that. It's vastly different from his earlier work but just as mesmerizing nonetheless. And how can anyone get tired of watching Denis Lavant on screen? He is in top form in this.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lived In

Our Beloved Month of August/Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto (2008) - Gomes
our beloved month of august
Because of financial problems, a film crew is stuck in a small Portuguese mountain town, Arganil, without any actors. Director Miguel Gomes uses the woes to his advantage and concocts a charming doc/narrative fusion. It's the way he goes about it that seems so right- with two and a half hours running time, he slowly builds the relationship between the townspeople and the audience. There are scenes of normal folks talking about the movie production that is taking place in their town. They are discussing their acting abilities. There is not a shred of Altmanesque irony in them. Everything, from the religious procession to various travelling music groups to the towns old bridge, has a role to play. The original story which director had is some cliché summer fling story. But it becomes much more poignant because of the films first 2/3rds. There is fluidity to Gomes's filmmaking that is gentle yet furiously inventive. It's a great film.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Haptic Cinema

Leviathan (2012) - Castaing-Taylor & Paravel
It's dark. First, you hear the eerie clanking of metal and waves: sound of something heavy, something industrial getting pulled out of the bubbling sea. It's all abstract: saturated colors- iridescent blue, yellow, red and green all mixed in. It takes some time to realize that we are on a giant commercial fishing boat, and the crew are detangling an enormous chain that is connected to the fishing net. It's a tedious and also dangerous process by the looks of it. The whole scene reminds me of late Godard films where he manipulates his video image into an abstraction. This is just the beginning of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's jaw dropping second feature, Leviathan.

The images, shot entirely on tiny GoPro cameras, are startling and breathtakingly beautiful. For its tiny size, weight and durability, GoPro is widely used in extreme sports videography. Here, the filmmakers jerry rig and hand-hold them in various places on the ship. Thanks to no depth of field and limited exposure range, the image that this camera captures- dark and ominous, is unlike anything you've seen in a feature film before. There are many scenes that are just mindblowing: In one scene, the camera, mounted in front of the mast, plunges into roiling water, bobs up, down, up, over and over again, contrasting the sea and the sky in a spectacular manner. Amazing sound design by Ernst Karel adds to this visceral sensory experience.

The film, at times, becomes nauseating, considering many of the scenes are hand-held and seeing massive amount of dead fish with their bulging eyes and innards spilling out of their mouth swishing across the frame in blood. Even though there are some humans appearing in the frame, everything in Leviathan appears distant and abstract. It's the cruel nature seen and heard unapologetically and without much filter.

Leviathan is categorized as a documentary, but it is only considered as one in a sense that it's non-narrative. As I was watching it at the press screening, the only comparable movie experience I could think of was watching the films of French filmmaker/visual artist Philippe Grandrieux- especially Un Lac. Described by some critics as the haptic cinema, Grandrieux's work is regarded as the cinema of the senses before the intellect. That human brain processes many types of information that are not formed into thoughts before experienced and embodied. Leviathan needs to be seen on the big screen to get the full impact. It's an enthralling theater going experience from beginning to end.

True story: as I was standing in line to attend the press screening for the film, I noticed a little wild salt-pepper haired Frenchman with dark glasses in front of me. Could he be Philippe Grandrieux? I thought to myself. Grandrieux turned out to be a good friend of the filmmakers, as he joined the Q & A session after the screening, defending the filmmakers from a barrage of asinine questions like "What's the meaning of this film?"

Leviathan screens on Oct. 13, 6pm. For tickets, please go to NYFF website.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Playful Elegy

Tabu (2012) - Gomes
Playful in its formality, Miguel Gomes's Tabu is a thing of a wonder and best kind of ode to cinema. Shot on full frame B&W, Tabu jumps from colonial past to modern day Lisbon and jumps back to a mystical setting in a sleepy colonial town at the foot of Tabu mountain. At once gentle and dreamlike,Tabu concerns Pilar, a good natured middle aged lady, her senile neighbor Aurora and her African maid Santa in modern day Lisbon.

At her deathbed, Aurora calls for her long lost love Ventura and Pilar is on the mission to find him. This sets up the sprawling romance back in colonial Africa where story of young Aurora and Ventura's illicit love affair takes place. The old Ventura narrates the whole affair and the whole thing is without dialog. Gomes's playing on colonialist past and its taboo (talking about it) contrasting with the make-believe nature of the African part of the film is just brilliant. Tragic yet uplifting, daring in it's minimal aesthetics, Tabu isn't anything like I've seen out there. Loved it.

"I want my movie to start with a big explosion..."

Ginger & Rosa (2012) - Potter
Director Sally Potter (Orlando, Tango Lesson)'s new film starts with stock footage of an atomic blast. A great way to open a film if it was an Ed Wood B-picture. But it's not. It's the story of BFFs Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert, daughter of Aussie director Jane Campion) both born in 1945, going through their lives in 60s London where everyone lives under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. It's also the time of the nuclear family. Rosa's father split early on. Ginger's ultra liberal dad, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), can't seem to keep his pants zipped, causing heartaches for mom (Mad Men's Christina Hendricks) and not providing any emotional support for the increasingly confused Ginger.

These feisty teenagers do everything together. Rosa usually leads Ginger to their little vices - staying up late, smoking, drinking, making out with the boys, etc. Shot by Robbie Ryan (Wuthering Heights, Red Road), these shenanigans are all blissful close-ups and sun flares and the camera obviously adores the two young leads: ethereal redhead Ginger and pouty vamp brunette Rosa.

Things get a little hairy when the atheist, pacifist, autonomy of mind-and-body preaching Roland takes a shine on Rosa, leaving Ginger jealous and very confused. She tries to take solace in the company of adults- her two fairy godfathers Mark 1 (Tim Spall) and Mark 2 (Oliver Platt) and Bella (unrecognizable Annette Benning). But you can see the emotional waterworks coming from miles away with tearful confrontations and a lot of finger-pointing.

Potter gets the 60s setting right and the largely non-British cast does a great job, especially newcomer Englert, who exudes a certain charisma and confidence. I understand Potter's desire not to make anyone antagonistic in Ginger & Rosa, but Roland is an irrevocably contemptible, immoral man. Just because of that, the film suffers greatly in the second half. Too bad, because it could've been a great film about finding one's identity in the time of imminent destruction. Instead, it gets bogged down in high melodrama and never recovers.

Ginger & Rosa premiered at this year's TIFF and plays NYFF on October 9 and 10. For more information and tickets, please visit NYFF 2012 website. It will open theatrically in the UK and Ireland on October 19.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Social Experiment

Something in the Air (2012) - Assayas
something in the air
At the outset, Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air is a biographical nostalgia piece about growing up in the aftermath of the May '68 events in France. But what it really is, is a social experiment in which 18-19 year olds, most of them first-time actors, reenact the youth of perhaps the most volatile time in contemporaneous French society, when the revolution seemed palpable.

As it was revealed in my interview with Mia Hansen-Løve (director of Goodbye First Love and the current wife of Assayas) early this year that Assayas has a real knack for connecting with and getting great performances out of young actors (Hansen-Løve herself was in Assayas's Late August, Early September when she was 17 and swears that the experience changed her life).

The French title (Après mai) refers to the student uprising and General Strike of May 1968. Something in the Air starts with a group of high school students' violent confrontation with baton wielding, teargas shooting cops on motorcycles. The scene is too energetic and immediate to be nostalgic. Set in 1971, this semi-autobiographical, ensemble piece about a group of friends in tumultuous times when everything seemed possible, is at once personal and sprawling. After vandalizing their school with revolutionary banners and graffiti, they end up injuring one of the security guards and are told to lay low during the summer. Puppy eyed, mild mannered aspiring painter Gilles (newcomer Clément Métayer), who just broke up with his ethereal poetess girlfriend (Carole Combes), hitches a ride with the Leftist filmmakers, along with a devout of the cause, Christine (Lola Créton of Bluebeard and Goodbye First Love) and artistically inclined Alain (Félix Armand) to Italy.

I don't pretend to be an expert in French history; I only have vague memories of that time period of France from textbooks and films. Assayas got all the political jargon and lingo down, as everyone was into politics at the time. If you think today's left is fractured and sectarian, France in the 70s would make your head spin: there was the French Communist Party, CGT (French Trade Union Federation), Trotskyites, Leninists, Le Secour Rouge, the Maoists, VLR (Vive la revolution), FLJ (Front de Liberation des Jeunes), and the list goes on.
Our Gilles is in the thick of all these political activities, but, at the same time, independent minded. He reads a newly published book criticizing (first of its kind) Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, despite the disapproval of many upper classmen. He also finds his own voice through art -- first painting then filmmaking -- while maintaining his counter culture attitude and general skepticism of the world. Assayas's energetic camera also turns to many of the sunny Tuscany locations, as many of his young protagonists pour out their youthful enthusiasm in art, love and politics. There is no voice over or flash forward. Assayas, born in 1955, who was of age back then, never once steps in to remind us that this is all in the past. No, this is not a nostalgia piece.

The film's hopefulness and youthful energy is quite infectious. In addition to the aforementioned great young actors (Metáyer, Combes, Créton and Armand), newcomers India Manuez and Hugo Conzelmann shine as Leslie, a free spirited American girl, and as Jean-Pierre, a dignified, honorable fellow student activist. One can't help but compare youth in the film with today's largely disaffected, docile young people. What happened to that passion, awareness and dedication? This is where Assayas's genius kicks in. He uses actual teenagers of today to play the part of youth of his generation! It's a social experiment on a smaller scale. None of the characters seem out of their element. His even handed attention to each character brings out a well-balanced, strong ensemble piece that is both relatable and affectionate without ever being coy or stereotypical. The more I think about the film, the more I like it. It is one of the best films I've seen at this year's New York Film Festival.

(Something in the Air screens on Oct. 5 6 p.m., Oct. 8 12 p.m. and Oct. 12 6:30 p.m. at Film Society of Lincoln Center. For tickets, please go to NYFF 2012 website.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Andrea Arnold Interview

With only three feature films under her belt, Andrea Arnold has already established herself as one of the most prominent British film directors currently working today. Her brooding, sensual, class-conscious dramas, Red Road and Fish Tank, were well received by cinephiles world wide. But I wasn't really ready for her thrilling adaptation of Emily Brontë's gothic novel Wuthering Heights. It's an enrapturing experience to watch, especially on the big screen.

After making the festival rounds, it is finally getting a release in New York this weekend with further cities to follow. Even though jetlagged, Arnold was very friendly and chatty in discussing her breathtakingly beautiful re-conceptualization of the classic.  

You were known as a writer/director prior to Wuthering Heights. I was surprised that your next film after Fish Tank was an adaptation and also a costume drama. Why adaptation? How did it come about?

I often wonder why too. (laughs) It was a strange journey in a way. I was writing something else on my own and out of the blue I got an email from my agent if I was interested in doing Wuthering Heights. I knew it was in the works with a different director attached. I was quite jealous thinking, 'oh, I wish I could get my hands on that!' So I immediately stopped what I was doing and asked about the project a little bit more. Then I went on a journey, I just couldn't put it down. I couldn't stop. It was as if something possessed me. It wouldn't let me go. My first thought was of Heathcliff: In the book, Heathcliff turns out to be quite a dark character and that he had a really abused childhood. And I remember thinking, yes, his story needs to be told. But it was a difficult journey. I knew at some level it was a stupid thing to do because it is such a famous book, and I was joining something that had already been in production with two directors and actors attached, [it] had history and momentum and there was a script. There were producers who had been involved developing it and wanted to take [it] on quite fast. In hindsight, I don't want to join something in the middle of it ever again. But I couldn't put it down, worrying about Heathcliff and telling his story.

Was it a fast process? How long did it take you to do the project?

I think it took longer than they expected to. I wanted to get things right from script to everything. I remember when I first had a meeting with producers and they asked me about the crew and I hadn't even looked at the script properly. And I remember thinking, 'oh, this is a bit quick'. I remember feeling a bit alarmed by that. So there was this constant push to do it fast and there was a constant pull back from me trying to do the way I wanted to do it. And at the same time you try to do it right by everyone else. So you get into a muddle. It was tough actually and I wouldn't want to repeat that really.

So when I have an image in my mind, I can't just leave it alone and that's what happened. I always have an image that keeps me on track when I'm passionate about something. My image for this (which was never realized in the film), was on the moor in the twilight when the sky is blurring the land and in the middle of that is this large animal, you don't exactly know what kind of animal until you come closer and realize it's a man with rabbits on his back: that was my image of Heathcliff. That was the image! And every time I lost my way I would remember this and it would keep me going. But when it came to film that scene, we had ten minutes to film it and there was bright sunshine with blue skies and we didn't have very many rabbits to cover Solomon (Solomon Glave, who plays young Heathcliff)'s back. The string broke on the rabbits, so they kept falling off and we didn't have time to wove them back up to get a wide shot. The moor was not the moor I imagined that day. The shot came out completely different. But it's in the film.

I love it though. It's all hand-held, we see the back of Heathcliff with rabbits.

It was completely different than how I imagined. But you know the essence of it is in the film. But that's filmmaking for you.

Obviously the second half of the book is omitted from your film. How did you decide where to stop?

Yeah somebody asked me if there was anything that I missed out from the book that I feel sorry about, I say the whole second half (laughs). Partly it was because I joined something that was already going. But I actually believe that it's good to be instinctive. The filmmaking is such a deliberate process, especially [since] there is a lot of money and people involved. I do like when things are moving fast, that can bring about some interesting, instinctive decisions. And I always felt that the second half of the book was too complicated. I never intended to make a 'faithful' adaptation anyway. I just wanted to capture the essence of what Emily was going for. The kind of film I like to make is where I can explore details. For that, the book was just too much to deal with. I do love the second half of the book. It comes a full circle with Heathcliff's death and as a book it's fantastic. I don't like Heathcliff wandering by himself on the moor. That's sad. I'd rather he died. So I wasn't happy about leaving it out. But I couldn't see a way to include that in unless I had a resource and the right circumstances to do a ten-hour film. (laughs)

About casting black actors as Heathcliff...


I mean it's about time, I thought. We are not living in the time of Laurence Olivier...Where they put cocoa powder on his face. (we both laugh)

I know that the movie came out in the UK last year. I was wondering how it was received with a black Heathcliff.

I can only go by Q&As (where people are always nice) I did, because I don't read reviews or anything. And people always ask me about that. There must be a big debate about that on some Brontë webpage, I'm sure. It's always mixed.

I think having a black man playing that role was the right choice. I mean, he is describe as a foreigner in the book. It's very topical for this day and age.

I wanted to ask you about your process with non-actors in this film. I remember you describing the process in Fish Tank in a Q&A session a couple years back. You said you were holding back parts of the script from actors until just before the shoot, and encouraged them to improvise. Did you do that with Wuthering Heights?

Well, it's a famous book everyone knows. Everyone knows what happens at the end. So I didn't really do that too much in this. Obviously with Solomon and Shannon (Shannon Beer, young Cathy) I did that a bit because they are new and I didn't want to overwhelm them too much. We couldn't afford to shoot it in chronological order anyway. So no, not really on this one.

The look of the film, my god, it's so gorgeous.

Probably too gorgeous actually.

Too gorgeous?

If the style sticks out that much, you failed a bit actually. That's what I think. (Dustin laughs) I always think that if one of the disciplines sticks out, I failed to bring all the elements together. But I think there is no music and much of the dialog taken out, it relies on the images even more and sticks out more. But I can't really tell if it's sticking out the right way or wrong way.

It's stunning. For me, definitely the right way. I mean it takes place on the moor where everything is elemental. It has rain, wind, mud, blood, sweat and tears. It has to be cinematic. I first saw it on a smaller screen, then I saw it on the big screen.

Yeah, it has to be seen on the big screen.

That's what I mean! The emotional impact is much stronger when you see it on the big screen.

I wonder how your collaboration process with your DP Robbie Ryan went. I mean, he will be known for this film (he won various cinematography awards for Wuthering Heights). There are some absurd amount of hand-held scenes.

He loves to run around. He gets a little depressed when he can't run around. Yes, we've done four films together now. We have a shorthand: he pretty much knows what I want. We did a lot of tests with different stocks and we talked about what we try to achieve. The moment I worked with him, I immediately felt in tune with him in terms of aesthetics from the very first film together.

So will you always choose shooting full frame (4:3 ratio) from now on?

I've done it twice now (starting with Fish Tank). I didn't think about shooting this in 4:3. But we did some tests and we projected on the screen. You know 35mm in raw form is 4:3 and it looks so beautiful. It's great for portrait. It's very respectful for one person, like in Polaroids. I also like that you are not cropping anything. You are using the whole negative. So you get all that information. It feels more honest. It is quite hard to frame a two shot. But because I'm always telling the story from one person's point of view, I think it works. Also, it gets more sky. If you go this way (pointing to the sides), you get more green shooting on the moor. With full frame you get a different version of landscape. For me it takes away nothing. I think it adds more.

Was there any inspiration for the look of Wuthering Heights?

I showed Robbie some Todd Hido photos. I love his pictures, especially the ones through the glass. We did some of it for the film but didn't keep it in too much. I always like the shot of a person looking in from outside and vice versa. For some reason there are a lot of scenes like that in the script and that's why I thought of Hido's photographs. Back then, the glasses were pretty thick and they obscured the image and gave sort of water color feeling- things blurred into each other or [were] hard to see. For some reason that was very important to me. So I encouraged that sort of look.

It must've been tough shooting on the moor.

Yeah really. I think everyone on the crew said it was the hardest thing they've ever done. But they were a really great crew. Without their perseverance and their determination I don't know how I would've gotten it done really. The mud was really deep and it got deeper and deeper as more people trudged along in it. And we couldn't take vehicles so we had to carry all the camera equipment. So if we wanted a wide shot, we had to walk with the heavy camera boxes on our heads. That was very physical. And we had a lot of heavy layers of clothes and big boots because it was always cold and wet. And if you are unlucky, you get boxes with all the lenses in, which was really heavy. Nobody wanted to get that one. (laughs) and you always want to be fair and take what's handed to you. I remember it was the last week of shooting, I think. I was climbing up the hill with a heavy camera box on my head. I was really tired. And my knees gave in and I collapsed, with the box still on my head. I started to cry because I couldn't get back up. I pulled down my hat so no one would see me cry. When I finally got to the top of the hill I saw Rachel (Rachel Clark), Robbie's Camera Assistant, also crying with a camera box on her head (we both laugh). I mean, we were physically exhausted. It was mud everywhere, so we didn't have any place to sit and rest, really. And I don't know why they built the house up there. Because when it rained, all the water came gushing in to the house. And there were all these dead round moles from the ground washed up everywhere. They were so fat gauging on all the earthworms, I imagine. God, it was a tough, tough shoot.

So when we saw the film for the first time projected on the screen, we said, "damn it, that doesn't look nearly as bad as it was. How can I make you feel as bad as it was? You sit there for an hour and a half while we were out there ten hours a day?

Oh, it's beautiful (we both laugh). It's a great story. Do you plan to do another period piece?

No. I don't think I'll ever do it again. It was an experiment and an adventure and in some ways quite liberating for me to do something completely different.

Wuthering Heights opens in New York on Oct. 5 with a national roll-out to follow. For more information, please visit the Oscilloscope website.

My Wuthering Heights Review