Monday, March 25, 2013

Dark Obsession

Pola X (1999) - Carax
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As I revisit Pola X for the first time since it's theatrical release in 1999, I realize that my misgivings were solidly based on my expectations of it to be another Lovers on the Bridge. I downright hated it. Didn't even give it a chance to register. So now, years later, after Carax's triumphant return with Holy Motors, after talking to the somehow 'wisen up' artist, I gave it another go. Surprisingly, Pola X is not about self reflection or a bitter misunderstood genius as I initially thought it to be. It's about dark obsession, a love story that is quite similar to his earlier films, but just without whimsical romanticism. It's not the graphic sex scene (albeit tastefully done and very very dark) that differentiate Pola X as a more mature work. Even though it features some beautiful young actors - Guillaume Depardieu at his most dashing and a dangerous beauty, Katherina Golubeva among them, being young is never verbalized or beholden to. For once, it's not about the first love.

Pierre the title character (Depardieu), is a successful writer who is about to get married. He and Lucie are very much in love. Everything is sunny and golden and light. Enter Isabelle (Golubeva), a dark war refugee and claiming to be his half-sister. Pierre is gripped by her magnetism, shuns his wealthy life in the country and his domineering mother (of whom he calls sister, Catherine Deneuve), moves into industrial ghetto in Paris, headed by enigmatic Sharunas Bartas (looking like a Diehard villain here). Now he's seen the darker side of life, he realizes that his past writings are trivial fluff. Things get complicated when sickly Lucie decides to move in, just to get closer to Pierre. Short on money, he makes a disastrous TV appearance where he was supposed to talk about his previous book and gets accused of being an imposter. Then his new dark writings get icy receptions from the publisher. It's all downward spiral.

As the the film unfolds, I realize my penchant for tragedy. I DO LIKE SAD MOVIES! Shot by Carax regular Eric Gautier with some seriously underexposed cinematography, Pola X is a decidedly dark, brooding film. And I liked it a lot more the second time.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


La Captive du Désert (1990) - Depardon
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A white woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) is taken hostage by a caravan of AK-47 wielding soldiers and their families into the Saharan desert. We don't exactly learn what the situation is. There are slight indications of who she is through her belongings- photographs of her teaching African kids, that she is married and so on. For all we know, she is just a pawn in some geo-political war. Not quite ethnological study (although there are a lot of local inhabitants as extras featured), nor political thriller. The main draw here is the desert. Through photographer/documentarian Raymond Depardon's kin eye for composition, the desert turns on a harsher, gritty quality, rather than the mythic beauty usually associated with the Sahara. It is still very beautiful, especially when Bonnaire's character escapes, albeit briefly, after long monotonous routine, to the open, rocky desert. Depardon doesn't idealize or romanticize it. He just lets it play out. A beautiful film.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Dragon Slayer

Le Pont du Nord (1981) - Rivette
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Bulle and Pascale Ogier makes perhaps the cutest mother daughter team on screen ever! Rivette sets up two strangers Marie (Bulle) and a girl who calls herself Baptiste (Pascale) in Paris so they can roam all over town doing nonsensical things. It's part noir, part fairytale, part martial arts comedy. Never over the top nor hysterical, nonetheless I find Rivette's drollery charming and chuckle worthy. I can see why people compare Gondry's or Jonze's films to Rivette's. He definitely has his own style. But without any gadgetry or grand production design, Rivette maintains that precious weightlessness like a soap bubble master, never breaking a sweat while sustaining a giant bubble that only seems to grow in size forever.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Family: Far Away, So Close

Archipelago (2010) - Hogg
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In the beginning of the film, there is a hole in the big living room wall above the mantel where a picture frame used to hang. A hired cook notices it. It's a family vacation on a windy isle. It's Mum (Kate Pahy) and two grown up children Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and Edward (Tom Hiddleston). Dad is absent. He is only available on the phone. Cynthia is resentful about Mum and Ed's passivity on everything, including absence of Dad. Ed has been doing some kind of volunteer work in Africa, but he doesn't really know if he was making right decisions in life. Cynth is the type who'd send away a plate of food she deems not well done in restaurants. She frowns at Ed's sheepishness around the cook. These are all concerns of the privileged. There are muted emotional fireworks. But Joanna Hogg's austere direction and writing, the characters are all too human. Her astutely observed family dynamics and people around them ring true to me. We all have family members like Cynth. Ed's indecisiveness is not uncommon either (he is told so by a family friend and painter, wonderfully played by soft spoken, non-actor Christopher Baker). Acting is superb all around. It's a nice change of pace for me to dig into this somber family drama.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010) - Vasyukov, Herzog
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Herzog's narration is always music to my ears. The actual music for the film, not. It almost ruins otherwise a fine doc about the trappers living in a small village in the Taiga. It's not as vigorous or focused as the usual Herzog doc. Basically he edited down mountains of footage the Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov to a digestible length, spanning the whole year living in Siberia. Many villagers make their income hunting for little furry animals in winter. They have to prepare it all year around- setting traps, getting provisions, move equipment, etc. There are other stuff- fishing, canoe and ski making and some village festivities. But it's all about men's solitude- beautiful nature, trapping the same way your ancestors have been doing for hundreds of years, drinking hot tea after exhausting trek with your companion dog by your side. What more can you ask for in life?

Monday, March 18, 2013

ND/NF Preview 2013

So here is the sneak preview of this year's New Directors New Films. The series is usually a good indication of what's to come in the film world. There are 25 films represented this year and the line-up is pretty strong and diverse. With these 8 films I was able to see below, I am happy to report that cinematic output is still healthy and alive all over the world. Please make sure to check out Blue Caprice, The Act of Killing and Upstream Color upon their future release date if you can't make it to ND/NF 2013. The series runs from March 20 through March 31, at Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

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BLUE CAPRICE | Alexandre Moors

Amid renewed conviction for gun control in this country after the Connecticut shooting, Blue Caprice timely revisits the Beltway Sniper case, which happened more than a decade ago. The terrifying, indiscriminate killing spree perpetrated by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo left indelible mark in American Psyche, already battered by 9/11 and the Invasion of Iraq. This slim, understated thriller is an impressive debut of Alexandre Moors, a New York based filmmaker. Even though it’s carefully orchestrated - from brooding cinematography and score to deliberately muted act of violence, the film still manages to leave enough breathing room for the audience to connect the dots for themselves. And the acting is superb: Isaiah Washington is mesmerizing as a former army man progressively disgruntled-at-the-unfair-world, and Tequan Richmond is a revelation here as an impressionable 16-year old who desperately wants a father figure. Blue Caprice doesn't give you any satisfying answers. It just accurately reflects on the complicated world we are living in.

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Li Luo freely interprets from the Ming Dynasty classic literature The Way to the West (chapters from 9 to 11). Emperor Visits the Hell is a straight-faced farce that is barest of the bare-bone filmmaking. The setting is transformed into modern day China and all the frumpy actors look and talk like regular people. The story goes like this: The Dragon King upsets the heavens when he bets against the heaven's will. Despite the emperor's intervention, the Dragon King is executed (off screen). Now the ghosts (in no disguises or special effects) including the Dragon King are haunting the emperor, so he has to visit the underworld and pay off each ghost to stop bothering him. Emperor Visits the Hell is loose, playful movie that is reminiscent of the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the recent Miguel Gomes’s winsome film, Tabu.


Batko (Ruscen Vidinliev) is a compulsive liar and masturbator since young age, no wonder he was recruited by the Bulgarian secret police to spy on the rogue elements in college- so starts this slick, sexy Bulgarian political satire. It has a lot of ins and outs and many laughs. But The Color of Chameleon comes across as too clever for its own good most of the time.

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THE ACT OF KILLING | Joshua Oppenheimer

Crazy. The Act of Killing stars former paramilitary gangsters in Indonesia (preman they are called, from English words free man), who carried out killing estimated one million people accused of being Communists in the years 1965-66. It's quite unfathomable by the Western standards: killers are roaming proudly, telling people their grand, detailed stories, even on TV talk shows. It's the winners who write history. For losers, there isn't anyone left to voice their oppositions- as one of the gang members proudly claims, "because we exterminated them all". 

Director Joshua Oppenheimer asks one such gangster, the lean, flamboyant Anwar Congo if he can reenact killings in front of the camera. Without any irony or shame, Anwar goes along with it in detail with his fat sidekick compatriot Herman in tow. But as Anwar goes through garish movie-making business (complete with dancing girls and waterfalls and John Barry's 'Born Free' playing in the background), his conscience starts to catch up with him. He admits having nightmares of haunting ghosts of the people he killed. 
The Act of Killing might be the most powerful and cathartic documentary I've ever seen. It's no wonder Herzog and Errol Morris got involved in executive producing it. The credit sequence of The Act of Killing is still riddled with 'Anonymous' from co-director down: the political situation in Indonesia is still too dangerous for many people who are involved. It’s certainly one of the year's best films. DO NOT MISS THIS FILM.
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European cinema is very much alive. Daniel Hoesl, a member of A European Film Conspiracy directs a film borne out of casting process without a script and the result is an intriguing, slim film about being free of materialistic world. There is no soldier name Jeannette, only Fanni (Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg), a lightly sketched character who might be a leader of a movement in the making. I'd love to know more about this EFC.

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UPSTREAM COLOR | Shane Carruth

Intricately designed and immaculately executed, Upstream Color is an impressive, seductive film that draws you right in from the first frame. It involves brain washing through some earthy pharmatropix that is reminiscence of early Cronenberg (but non of his cheekiness) and Walden without any socio-political implications. But is there anything more than its slick pictures, hypnotic pacing and decidedly opaque narrative? Only you can decide for yourself and it’s definitely worth the trip.

It is safe to say that Shane Carruth is a real renaissance man: he wrote, directed, co-edited, starred in and composed for Upstream Color. He is distributing it himself as well. 

Stories_We_Tell_Sarah_Polley.jpegSTORIES WE TELL | Sarah Polley

On her third outing as a director, Sarah Polley continues her close examination of human relationships: this time, her own family. It's not a Rashomon-ish tale as they market it to be. Through candid interviews of her extended family and friends, home movie footages and reenactments shot on Super-8, Canadian actor/director Polley tells her family secret that her mother, Diane, took to her grave: who was Polley's biological father? The documentary deconstructs the marriage of her loving but severely mismatched parents (her mother an extreme extrovert and her father the opposite). After Diane's untimely death (cancer), it was always a family dinner table joke how little Sarah didn't look like her father or her siblings. Polley keeps most of the melodrama at bay and gives the film a lot of warmth and humor. It's a lovely documentary if not a little too ordinary. But I guess that's the point.

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L'INTERVALLO/ THE INTERVAL | Leonardo di Costanzo

Salvatore (Alessio Gallo) is a chubby 17-year old kid who sells lemon ice in the neighborhood. He somehow gets called in by a local gang. His mission is to keep an eye on a spirited, 15-year old girl, Veronica (Francesca Riso), in an abandoned old building compound. She did something wrong and is being imprisoned against her will and is waiting for her fate which will be decided by a local honcho that night. So begins a simple, lovely, one-day-in-the-lives-of, coming-of-age story deeply rooted in the neo-realist filmmaking. Without any music or gimmickry, Leonardo di Costanzo quietly observes two young leads. Gallo and Riso are great- at first putting on air and stand off-ish, then recoiling back to their normal kid selves. The Interval is a beautiful, subtle, touching film.

For the full lineup and tickets, please visit

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fever Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) - Reinhardt, Dieterle

In pictures:
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Couldn't help checking this out based on the film stills I saw despite my disinterest in musical and the bard's comedies. This big Hollywood production is visually impressive - expressive lighting, dual exposure, wire work, lots of sparkles. Cagney and Rooney have never been more annoying. Perhaps it's the granddaddy of all "It's all been a dream"tale.

The Hill

Restrepo (2010) - Hetherington, Junger
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I consciously blocked out the onslaught of Iraq & Afgan war movies ever since that war began more than a decade ago. I was opposed to any military actions and it was too soon and too much for me to stomach. Restrepo follows a US battalion stationed in the most dangerous area in Afganistan, Korengal Valley, 2007. No ideology, no messages, no judgment, just young soldiers doing their job which happens to be taking over a hill, build a post (called Restrepo, named for their fallen comrade) there to get a better view and hold that position amid intense firefight and angry villagers day and night. It's a riveting stuff. Soldiers are no older than students I deal with every day. They are under insane amount of pressure and stress. They see their friends being shot and killed. Hetherington and Junger are there right beside them. If not anything, they are as much adrenalin junkies as the soldiers are. At one point one asks one of the soldiers about the rush that's much greater than bungee jumping or being on crack, what happens when they go back to civilian life? They don't know. They can't sleep at night, thinking about their dead friends. No sleeping pill helps. The epilogue says the US troops began withdrawing from the valley in 2009. Restrepo doesn't have to be preachy. It shows the follies of war naturally.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Home at the End of the World

É na Terra não é na Lua/It's the Earth Not the Moon (2011) - TochaImage
At the onset, Gonçalo Tocha states his intentions, that he will film everything and everybody, go everywhere and anywhere and will not miss a thing while on Corvo, the smallest island (pop. 440) in the Azores archipelago, the farthest tip of Europe in the middle of the Atlantic. For the next three hours, this doc plays out a gentle, warm, intimate visual diary in 14 chapters. Clouds pass by, rough sea, people's faces and their stories, losing the old way of life, etc.

Corvo, however isolated it looks from a distance, is not dissimilar to any small European town- a school, city municipality, airport, landfill, elections, cars, slaughter house etc. Holding a shot no more than 2-3 minutes, Tocha's fleeting sketches of the island and the lack of the usual eccentrics are quite anti-climactic compared to Herzog's bombastic documentaries, although they both deal with mysticism of a particular place, searching for truth and all that. It isn't quite like travel shows like Globe Trekker or anthropological study either. Tocha quietly takes all in and provides a slight, gentle voiceover in conversation with his only other crew, Didio Pestana, his sound man. It's Not the Earth is like a warm blanket, a fine mist that clings to your skin, or a bowl of hot chicken and noodle soup on a cold day. It's all very comfortable, even though it takes place at the end of the world, cut off by enormous and powerful sea. I can watch this all day long.