Thursday, May 29, 2014

Brezhnev and Reagan, Fuck Off!

We are the Best! (2013) - Moodysson
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Two 13-year old tomboys, Bobo and Klara listen to punk, hate their sports loving classmates and think their parents are super lame. After seeing some rude old geezers practicing yucky rock songs at a local youth center (thank goodness for socialist country), they spontaneously set out to form a punk band out of spite. But they don't know how to play any instrument and still want to maintain the time slots they signed up for so the old geezers won't get to play.

Then they see Hedvig, a blonde, christian good girl who has been playing classical guitar at the school talent show to unresponsive, downright rude audiences, year after year. Hedvig doesn't have any friends. Bobo and Klara decides to forcibly make her join the group. She is an awesome guitarist and teaches them how to play bass and drums. They cut Hedvig's hair off despite her mom's protest. But Hedvig comes around voluntarily. Despite her strict Christian upbringing, she likes being in a punk band. Together, they compose a song with catchy lyrics like "Hate the sport, hate the sport!", "Brezhnev and Reagan, fuck off!"

Now they need money for an electric guitar. But after begging for change on the street with some corny "my parents are drunks and we are starving," sob stories, they decide to spend the collected money on candies and ice cream instead.

Then there is the first crush. There is this punk band they like. More extroverted Klara calls them up and arrange a meeting. Elis, the lead singer of the band is very cute. Just like any other music band dynamics, they go through jealous fits and leadership conflicts and bring the group to the inevitable brink of breakup. All things come down to a chance to perform at some lame school gym concert in the suburbs. Would it be a total riot or total riot?

Lukas Moodysson, after plunging into hard-hitting downers like Lilya 4ever and A Hole in My Heart, goes back to what he knows and does the best - truthful, tender depiction of (pre)teen world. Just like his amazing debut, Fucking Åmål and based on a graphic novel Never Goodnight by his wife Coco, Moodysson showcases his penchant for naturalistic dialog and capturing the concerns of the world of pre-adolescent girls and the spirit of punk so acutely. It's the feel good movie of the year.

We Are the Best! opens May 30 in New York and LA. Visit Magnolia Pictures website for more information.

Impressionistic Tribute to Memories

Elena (2012) - Costa
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 It's a difficult job to create a documentary with a subject that is so close to its maker without coming across as a little too precious. Indeed, there are many moments in Elena that could be regarded as self-indulgent. But no one can deny that Elena is breathtakingly beautiful, one of a kind documentary.

Elena tells a story about 20 year old Brazilian actress who comes to New York to pursue her acting career. She leaves behind her younger sister Petra and mom. She falls into hard times. More than twenty years later, Petra, now an actress herself, a filmmaker and a dead ringer for her sister, traces her big sister's footsteps in NY, trying to reconstruct who Elena was and also to find herself along the way.

While watching the film, one can really feel the tough decisions the director had to make: should Elena be a straightforward chronicle of the young woman's life or should it be fleeting, abstract expression of preserving one's memories. Even with loads of home video footage, voice recordings and voice overs, Elena doesn't quite work as a fact based documentary. Instead, Costa aims for an impressionistic tribute to the memories of her sister whose absence made a great impact on her life. The combination is a mixed bag.

Costa keeps everything dream-like and fleeting. It's the poetic images - twirling bodies, sundresses flowing under water, green grass and cherry blossoms in the summer that takes the center stage. And the images are often breathtaking. It would've worked better as a short performance video art called, "Memories Dissolving into Water: a Tribute to My Sister Elena". I really hope Costa gets to make some more films, there is no denying that she is a bright new talent to keep an eye on.

Elena is distributed by Variance Films. It opens on Friday May 30 at IFC Center. Roll out to other cities will follow.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memories Eternal

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) - Singer
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This franchise, along with its Wolverine spinoffs, has been dragged out long enough, even though there are plenty more characters, subplots and parallel universes to cling on to until the end of days. Singer and co. decides to put a semi definite "." on the X-Men series with Days of Future Past. The plot: The world is destroyed by the war between humans and mutants. Only a few mutants remain, hounded by Sentinels- indestructible creatures borne out of shape shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence)'s DNA when she was captured after assassinating a military industrialist Trask (Peter Dinklage). The only hope is to go back in time and prevent Mystique from killing Trask. Kitty (Ellen Page), a mutant who possesses the power of "phasing", sends Wolverine, who has unlimited instant cell regeneration, therefore, only one who can withstand destructive long term phasing, to 1973 to stop Mystique. There he has to convince both young Prof. X (James McAvoy) and his rival young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to team up and stop the development of Sentinels. A lot is at stake here, folks.

Days of Future Past in its seriousness, invalidates the first 3 X-Men movies since its timeline doesn't match with the existence of Sentinels. It's more of a continuation of X-Men: First Class with Fassbender's showy Magneto in the center with Wolverine thrown in. The mood is grim and no one smiles. Wolverine has skeletal blades instead of metal in his paws. Prof. X is struggling with spine damage and lost his way. Magneto is still scheming to end humanity. Someone's got to save prez! In the mean time, Sentinels are picking up mutants like daisies - they get crushed in graphic detail - they burst in to flames, bodies explode, heads crushed, etc.

What's left is that Wolverine remains the most tragic character in superhero franchise. He is the sole witness to all the destruction and death of the loved ones and when it's all fixed, it's only he who remembers all for eternity.

Fresh Off the Boat

The Immigrant (2013) - Gray
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I like this. The storyline is so old fashioned and melodramatic, but its sincerity is undeniably noble. Darius Khondji's cinematography is faithful to the other period piece look - copper colored and silhouette-y. I don't know what they did to the film shot footage, but it's way too sharp, it looks like digital. I'd prefer it if it was a little grainier and grittier.

It's clear that Gray doesn't really care about the setting, the plot, boobies and other characters much. They are all indistinguishable but it's all about Bruno, Ewa and to some extent Emil (Jeremy Renner). Not them even. But it all culminates to the end confession of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a gentle pimp in 1920s New York to down and out fresh off the boat Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard). He is in love with the woman he corrupted, and he can't barely look at her in the eye: his head tilted to the side, squinting in the grey light. Gray quietly lenses Phoenix's face from the side in medium shot, never a close up. For that scene, this sappy 2 hour period piece is totally worth watching. It doesn't even matter if the actors are too old for their respective roles. It's an 'adult movie'. Two Lovers is next.

Jagged Rock Between Us

L'Avventura (1960) - Antonioni
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I don't know. The ills of modern society making people unable to connect with one another has been done better since. The first part with the island and the woman disappearing is truly arresting. The rest though, is way too glacially paced for my taste. Also cinematically, I prefer Antonioni's color pictures more than b&w ones. They drive home the contrast between humans and its surroundings better. I gotta watch La Notte.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Not So Sweet Revenge

Blue Ruin (2013) - Saulnier
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An assured southern gothic revenge movie from Jeremy Saulnier (Murder Party). Two southern families have a blood feud to settle. Schlubby, wide eyed Dwight (Macon Blair) has been waiting for the release of Wade, who served time for killing his parents, so he could kill him. Dwight is not really a seasoned killer and he realizes that the feud has to end somewhere.

Blue Ruin is amazingly suspenseful without showing much or characters saying much. Macon Blair gives an amazing performance as an ordinary man put in a delicate position. Great film.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Hungarian Nights

Sinbad (1971) - Huszárik
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Shots of burning embers, budding flowers, lock of hair, frozen leaves take residences in Sinbad, Hungarian filmmaker Zoltan Huszárik's take on Arabian Nights via Gyula Krúdy, stars Zoltán Latinovitz as the aging womanizer Sinbad. This fragmented, lyrical film jumps time, place and seasons to reflect Sinbad's mind state as he reminisces his conquests and contemplates his life. It's a playful feast for the eyes.

Hard Times Series Premiere

My friend Tahir Jetter's new webseries is going up tomorrow, May 21st, 8pm. Tahir is a super talented writer/director whose short, Close, got into Sundance back in 2011. I've been watching him struggling, putting a lot of time, effort and money to this project and was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the series. Unlike most of the things that are out there on the web, Hard Times is a very well polished, fresh, humorous look at twenty something life in a global recession era. Here is a trailer, take a look:

Make sure to tune in for Hard Times ep.1:

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pinoccio Doesn't Lie

Pin (1988) - Stern
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Really creepy movie about a medical dummy taking over one's life, psycho style. Dr. Linden has a medical dummy sitting in his office and whenever his well behaved button nosed children - Leon and Ursula drop in, he would use his ventriloquist skillz to have them believe in Pin talking to them. This would go on for a while and Leon especially takes into believing that Pin is a real living being and talks to him. He still can't figure out why Pin refuse to speak to him while his father is not around. One day, Leon is traumatized after witnessing one of his father's nurses gets down and dirty, using Pin. Ursula, uninhibited and adventurous, starts having sex at an early age and becomes pregnant. With Pin and Leon's ratting out to their father, she gets an abortion at 15 (by her father naturally). Then their parents die in a car crash with Pin in the back seat.

Things get weirder. Leon is obsessed with Pin and wants to have him around. Ursula, now a library clerk, is creeped out by it, but for love she has for her brother, keeps on living in the house with Leon and Pin. When Ursula shows an interest in hunky Stan, overprotective and puritanical Leon starts scheming with Pin to off Stan just like he offed aunt Dorothy.

Pin is one of the creepest 80s horror movies I've seen. I mean, wow. Creepy.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Best Coming Out of the Closet Moment

Fucking Åmål/Show Me Love (1998) - Moodysson
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So this is where it all started eh? For some reason I always thought this Swedish coming of age tale involved fucking some guy named Amal. Not so. Åmål is a small Swedish town where the film takes place. It's like, "I live in this small ass town where everyone's so fucking boring. Man, fucking Åmål!" kind of thing. Shot on grainy 16mm, Fucking Åmål tells a sweet teen lesbian love story.

Agnes is a lonely girl with no friends. But she is crushing heavily on a blonde bombshell bad girl, Elin. Tired of all the wrong attentions she gets everyday, Elin is easily irritable and gets into physical fights with her older sister Jessica all the time. It's Agnes's 16th birthday and her parents wants her to invite people for the party. Her clueless parents even cooks up the storm for it. Only person who shows up is a girl on a wheelchair whom Agnes hates. Elin decides on a whim to show up at the party late, because the other party is filled with immature, gross jocks. On a dare, drunken Elin kisses Agnes and takes off. But even with bad behavior and popular girl persona, deep down Elin is a good girl who feels bad for what she's done. She comes back and they try to hitchhike to Stockholm where things must be much more fun. They end up making out in a back seat of a car that belongs to a creepy old stranger who stops to pick them up.

There is rumor going around that Agnes is a lesbian. Elin has to keep a distance from Agnes and pretend to like the boy who's been stalking her just to keep up the appearance. After another sucky experience with the mindless, boring boys, Elin realizes that she is also in love with Agnes who seems to be a lot more intelligent and interesting. Fucking Åmål is a sweet, acutely observed, intimately portrayed teen movie with a great heart. It features best coming out of the closet moment in movie history.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Familial Comedy from Uruguay

Tanta Agua (2013) - Guevara, Jorge
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Alberto (Néstor Guzzini), a schlubby divocé takes his two unenthused children, Lucia (Málu Chouza) and Federico (Joaquín Castiglioni) on a road trip from Montevideo to a famed hot spring. The problem is, when they get there, the pool is closed because of an electric storm. Then the kids are surprised to find out that the motel room they are staying at doesn't even have a TV. But dad is determined to have some quality time with the kids. Not even torrential downpour won't stop his plans. But much to Al's annoyance, kids only want to eat what their mom packed for them and play with kids their own age. Al's idea of easy-peasy-lemon-squeazy vacation becomes difficult-difficult-lemon-difficult.

As the focus of the film moves from Al to Lu, Tanta Agua becomes a sort of an adolescent summer fling story. A sullen preteen with braces, Lu embodies a normal girl of her age who is not yet rebellious but not so keen on taking trips with her parent. She is discovering boys and cigarette. She befriends with another vacationing girl Suzanna and starts flirting with a hunky boy with a bike. But she soon finds out that the boy is using her to get closer to prettier Suzanna. After the boy asks her to come to the local disco and bring her pretty friend along, Lu lies to Al and ditches her friend so she can go to the disco alone.

Uruguayan directors Ana Guevara and Letitia Jorge acutely observes the normal modern family dynamics. The devil is in the details- Al secretly dumps mom's sandwiches while the kids are sleeping, Lu finds string of condoms in Al's suitcase, Lu's wearing her best friend's flaming high tops.

Tanta Agua is a light, gentle comedy that speaks universal language. But it's not Little Miss Sunshine. There are no big revelations here- no one acts out in frenzy or learns life altering lessons. It just has subtly drawn characters who are real and have normal problems. The film is a fine tuned familial comedy full of awkward moments but also great deal of tenderness.

Tanta Agua garnered top prizes at Miami International Film Fest last year, played as part of Latin Beat 2013 and will be available on DVD and VOD on May 13 in North America by Film Movement. Please visit Film Movement website for more information.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


The Double (2013) - Ayoade
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Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is as plain as his namesake. For 7 years, he's been working as a low level data entry clerk at a firm. He is so unnoticeable, even people at work still don't recognize him and demand to see his ID every single time he enters the building. Simon is in love with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), equally shy, lonely co-worker, but he is too introverted to even speak with her. Instead, he spies on her through a telescope at night, since they live in nondescript, highrise buildings across from each other and collects her discarded scribbles and drawings from her garbage. One day, a new employee, James Simon (Eisenberg again) arrives at the firm. He is a dead ringer for Simon: he even wears the same clothes. But he is polar opposite in every way- a suave, funny, extrovert everyone takes immediate liking to. Soon the double smooth talk Simon to cover for his ineptitude at work. No one will notice if we switch places from time to time, he says. Slowly, James takes over Simon's life, even Hannah.

Based on Dostoevsky's vision of bureaucratic nightmare combined with underdog love story , The Double, British funnyman Ayoade's film is an often hilarious dark comedy. The look of the film is a total retro 80s dystopian movies: big, ominous machines, air ducts, a creepy, creaky elevator, grey, muted colors and populated by pruny, white haired old people. Ayoade, a sort of renaissance man of the British comedy excels here with his absurd humor and classic, lo-fi effects - sound and production design instead of CGI. Eisenberg is perfect for lonely, nebbish frontman who goes mad and Wasikowska is adorable in her doily dress. Many of Ayoade cohorts from Submarine make appearances here too. Falling somewhere between Brazil and Hudsucker Proxy, Ayoade's The Double is a fresh air to turgid mainstream comedies.

Dostoevsky is Funny: Richard Ayoade Interview

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Writer, actor, director, gameshow host and author, British Comedian Richard Ayoade is some sort of a renaissance man. His directorial film debut, Submarine, a rare teen romance from British Isle in years, delighted audiences with its wry humor and tender depiction of youth. His new film, The Double, based on Dostoevsky's novella is wildly different both in themes and style and great leap forward in filmmaking. In person, Ayoade is reserved and soft spoken but one can sense his fierce intelligence underneath wild curly hair and behind those silly black rimmed glasses.

Even though you write a lot of contents for many of the projects you are involved in, those two films you've made - Submarine and now The Double, are based on someone else's writing. I wonder how you choose what films to make.

Well, in the case of Submarine, I've been doing music videos for Warp (Records) Films. They just optioned the book (written by Joe Dunthorn) and they wanted me to look at it. With that, I always loved the teen genre which didn't exist in England for a long time. I was obsessed with Dawson's Creek, the first, Kevin Williams season. After that, I had some issues with it. And I love The Graduate and that kind of coming of age movies. Then I read Joe's book, and I was happy to do that film. Around the same time is when I met Avi (Korine, brother of Hamony) and I read his script (for The Double) when he came by Alcove who produced this. They worked with Hamony Korine (Trash Humpers) and met Avi through doing that. Again I just really liked the script. I guess that's the only script I've read that I really have gone for. And we ended up writing together later. Especially on this, it was really enjoyable working, co-writing together with Avi. With Submarine I wrote on my own, even though Joe was a resource who I can speak to. The Double was great because Avi is such a good writer and I like him so much personally. I do like working with people.

You wouldn't think Dostoevsky as a funny writer…

Many would think that but he is. Notes from Underground is really funny I think. The Double is funny. There is sense that his writing is very weighty, serious and important. He is those things because he has this amazing psychological depth that goes very deep. He tackles very deep sort of relationships in people in extremes. But he manages also to prick people's vanity and pomposity in a way that is very funny. Yeah, it's his name that sounds serious. If he was called Maury.... (I crack up) You'd think he's funny. Tony Maury.

Did you grow up in London?

I was born in London. But I grow up in this town near Ipswich, outside London, very small--

I'm just trying to figure out because your sensibility and humor is very different. So I'm wondering how your growing up in a small town shaped your sensibility. Can you tell me your childhood a bit?

Hmm. I am an only child. I had a very fortunate childhood. Ehm, no real dramatic incidents of any kind really…. But I read quite a lot and was quite solitary. Yeah I always liked reading. My dad fixed television for living, so because of that I was really weary of watching too much television. I didn't watch to much TV until I was quite older. I was always interested in writing, but I didn't watch a lot of films, I wasn't really one of those people.

Are there any specific influences that attribute to your sense of humor?

I don't know. I can only sort of say things I really like, but influences... it's hard to say. I like Woody Allen and Richard Pryor who are relatively, unassailably great people. There are million people I like… Peter Cook, and stuff that Chris Morris did, like Day Today, Coogan and Alan Partridge and Iannucci and that whole set of people are very important for people of my age I think. Chris Morris is really big for me and John Oliver because we really love Morris's stuff.

How was directing Morris in The Double?

By that stage I've known him for a while. It was just great! He is so unique! You are just so excited to start it. And that's a really nice feeling. All these great actors, you just want to get going on them and see what they are going to do.
I love him so much as a performer and he doesn't perform very often. So it was great to see him and Jesse. Also great to see how much Jesse enjoyed him. Because Jesse isn't a big consumer of media.

So I've heard.

It was so fun to see Jesse trying so hard not to laugh, and to see Jesse encountering all these different people like Tim Key and Chris O'Dowd… that kind of hysteria was good for us because Jesse was kind of punch drunk among these people who were saying all these awful things but very funny at the same time.

So most of the cast is comprised of the actors who were in Submarine, except Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska who are big stars now. Was it any different directing them (Eisenberg and Wasikowska)?

I wouldn't say there is. I think it really comes down to individual personality. In many ways, they are less defensive. There are some actors who don't think they haven't had too much success in their careers that they could be defensive and that can be inhibiting. But no, I mean, they are incredibly brilliant to work with and there is no difference at all. I mean, I think it was the only film where an actor asked not to have a trailer because he was never in it. You know, we are in an industrial park in the middle of nowhere, one hour outside London at night. This was no fancy place.

It's interesting to see how stylistically different the movie is from Submarine. A lot of night scenes, confined spaces, moody and atmospheric. How was the shooting this one different for you and your DP Nik Wilson?

Submarine was very quick. Just on a basic level we could do a number of setups a day. The Double, everything was lit, so it went slower. But that provided for us to rehearse a lot during the day between setups. It just felt what's appropriate for the material, really. That was the way to go.

I mean, I've always thought Woody Allen as a visual director, as well as… you know. Just think of the great variety of style from Stardust Memories or Husbands and Wives to Zelig, you know, any number of films with extremely different style. I think he receives literally little to no recognition as a visual stylist even with his incredible ability. Each one is goes with what its material suggests. An approach like that - rough approach in Husbands and Wives, I feel is completely appropriate. There is a slightly more stately feel in, say, Sweet and Lowdown…. So he is a director, if you try to think of a style, you go maybe long takes, possibly? But then again we don't remember about Stardust Memories because of jump cuts or Zelig because of long takes. I don't know what his hallmark style is.

That's very true.

But it always feels like him and his voice, but it comes from what the story is about and how to best support it. I'd like to be like that and go where a story suggests.

I read it in one of your interviews that in everything you do, you approach it as a newcomer, because of different circumstances and different environment you are in.

I think so. Also because whenever you feel you can rely on something working out and it never does. But if you risk something without fully knowing how to do it, it often ends up turning out best. So I think it just practically always is-- the situation never seems to repeat itself, you are always in different spots- different places, different actors. Even with the same actors you've got different roles and different set of problems. So it always is. I think filmmaking is one of those things that uniquely feels difficult to learn that much from each time. I think if you were maybe John Ford, making number of films you might have that kind of authority but if you make something every few years, I don't think you will get that kind of mastery. I mean how many films John Ford did before the Searchers? 50 or 60...?

So maybe in twenty, thirty years you will have a…

Two more films. (we laugh)

The look of the film is very 80s retro sci-fi feel to it. Very reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Is it something you came up with?

It's a combination of things. The idea of it in the script was kind of modern metropolis which was full of people teaming, which I felt oddly, have been done by a quite number of films whether it was King Vidor's The Crowd or Modern Times or The Apartment, you know, those small-man-in-a-big-city movies. I wanted it more feel like a quite decrepit, unpopulated city, that is sort of alternate universe, more like, Edward Munch town where everyone's old and there aren't very many people. I guess as soon as there is kind of antiquated bureaucracy that became Gilliam's calling card or seems to be, although I view him as somebody much more satirical or rather Fellini-esque. Probably my favorite film of his is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Brazil is not what I'm really conversing with. I've seen it as a teenager and haven't seen it since. To us, for the theme's sake, I was thinking more of In the Mood for Love, more to do with lonely places, lonely corners of office space or more like Aki Kaurismaki or Eraserhead even.

OK, something more to do with confined space.

Yes, there is not a lot of bustle. That was more kind of feeling that…again, that feeling was suggested by the book. There is something funny of it being described as Kafkaesque. Because linearity of time is on Dostoevsky's side. (laughs) HE DID DO IT FIRST. It's this quite similar thing that he came up with in the middle of the nineteenth century where this kind of office bound clerk in a strange kind office where you don't quite know what they do and the doppelgänger. It all comes from the book.

I guess I have to read the book now.

Yeah the book's great.

I know you are busy but is there any project you are working on that we have to be aware about?

I've written a book that is going to come out which is like a fiction book but in non-fiction form. It's about film but like a kind of funny book.

What is it called?

Well, that's under negotiation. we are not sure what to call it yet. There are few titles kicking. Part of it will definitely be something like Ayoade on Ayoade like Kieslowski on Kieslowski, but it's going to be a funny book.

It will be released on VOD and theatrically on Friday, May 9 in New York (and LA) at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. A national rollout will follow.

Queen of the Damned

Queen Margot 4K Restoration Director's Cut (1994/2013) - Chéreau
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Famed French stage and film director Patrice Chéreau (Intimacy, Gabrielle, Those Who Loved Me Can Take the Train) passed away last October. Now Queen Margot, Chéreau's most commercially successful film, gets a 4K restoration treatment on its 20th anniversary and comes back to theaters, thanks to Cohen Film Collection. This timely release is a rare opportunity to experience what many consider as the most radical redefining act in the period costume drama genre ever, in 4K digital glory. Queen Margot 4K Director's Cut receives a theatrical run here in New York, May 9 - 15 at Film Forum.

Based on Alexandre Dumas's novel, Queen Margot tells a bloody chapter in French history when a war between Catholics and Protestants was raging. The main players in this tumultuous time are weakly Catholic King Charles IX, his domineering mother Catherine of Medici, her other two cunniving sons, their sister Margot, her reluctant husband Henry of Navarre, the leader of Protestants, and La Môle, Margot's Protestant lover.

In the guise of truce, venomous Catherine arranges the marriage between Henry and Margot and invites Henry's cohorts into Paris. Then she masterminds the St. Batholomew's Massacre which turns Paris streets into an open tomb of 6,000 dead bodies of Protestants overnight.

Queen Margot is not your grandma's costume drama. It's a bloody, violent, sweaty, dirty epic with a lot of nudity and sex. While Chéreau and co-writer Danièle Thompson stay true to most of Dumas's writing, it's the dizzing, bravura filmmaking that takes a center stage. The visceral massacre scenes with all its arterial sprays and loose limbs don't really have an equal in cinema to this day when it comes to sheer scope.

The cast is also ridiculous here. Actors assembled for the film were a who's who of 90s French cinema: Isabelle Adjani (at the peek of her beauty) plays Margot, Jean-Hugues Anglade provides an unhinged performance as the tragic king, Daniel Auteuil plays righteous Henry of Navarre, Virna Lisi won the Cannes Best Actress Award for her icy performance as Catherine of Medici, Pascal Greggory dons grungy hair and a goatee (a dead ringer for Chris Cornell of Soundgarden era) as a dashing mama's boy Anjou, Vincent Perez as hunky La Môle, the star-crossed lover of Margot and baby Asia Argento as a sexy sacrificial lamb, the duchess of Sauve.

Pathé restored Queen Margot under the supervision of Chéreau and editor François Gedigier in 2013. The task was entrusted to the Eclair Group laboratories for the image and L.E. Diapason for the sound. The version that is shown today is based on the Director's Cut released on French DVD in 2007. Several additional editing tweaks, desired by Chéreau, further enrich this new version.

Here are excerpts from the press release on 4K restoration:

The image restoration was conducted in 4K resolution based on the original 35mm negative. Although slightly damaged, the negative retained a beautiful photographic quality, especially when it comes to the shadows and the chiaroscuros of the interiors, as well as the dawns and the dusks of the exteriors. The 4K resolution enabled us to recover all the information from the 35mm film and bring back all the finesse and contours of Philippe Rousselot's photography to the screen.

Color grading, still under Patrice Chéreau's supervision, required three weeks of work. Queen Margot's sound mixing did evolve from version to version, with the music namely taking an ever growing importance. Today's version is based on the music that appears in the 2007 Director's Cut, converted into a format adapted to digital projection. The powerful dynamics of the original soundtrack were painstakingly preserved.

I haven't seen the film since its original, theatrical version in 1994. Seeing the unblemished, crisp images without cigarette burns is almost unnerving. The film was amazingly shot by master cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Henry & June, A River Runs Through It, Big Fish, Sherlock Holmes) to begin with. This kind of cinematic quality - depth of colors and contrast, in my humble opinion, is still achievable only by shooting on 35mm. The film is beautifully preserved through the 4K transfer.

After 20 years, Queen Margot still remains to be a ridiculous film in many ways - ridiculous in its scope, ridiculous in its over-the-top romanticism, ridiculous in its depiction of sex and violence with ridiculously gorgeous cinematography and ridiculously attractive actors. Watching this film on the big screen is a chance you don't want to miss!

In addition to New York screening, Cohen Media Group is rolling out the film in LA on May 16 at Laemmle Music Hall.

Friday, May 2, 2014

New York African Film Festival Reflects Ever Evolving Continent

In its 21st Edition, New York African Film Festival is a month long celebration of the continent's best of the best with staggering 40+ films slated in its lineup. They will be showing in three different cultural venues throughout the city. The festival presents a unique selection of contemporary and classic African films, running the gamut from features, shorts, and documentaries to animation and experimental films.

At Film Society of Lincoln Center, in celebration of the centenary of Nigeria's independence, the series kicks off with Nollywood dark comedy Confusion Na Wa by Kenneth Gyang. Centerpiece film is the much-anticipated Half of a Yellow Sun, directed and adapted by Biyi Bandele and starring Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Anika Noni Rose. The sweeping 1986 epic Sarraounia is selected as the closing night film.

The series runs May 7 - 13 at FSLC, moves to Harlem's Maysles Cinema May 15 - 18, then ends up at Brooklyn Music Academy (BAM) May 23 - 26. For tickets and more information, please visit African Film Festival Inc.'s website.

Here are 5 great films I had a privilege to preview for the festival:

Grigris (dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad)
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Despite his deformed right leg, Soulemane (Soulemane Démé), known as Grigris, kills on the dance floor every night. But petty cash he garners on the dance floor is not enough to subsist a living when his stepfahter gets hospitalized and can't work as a neighbor's jack of all trades. Short on cash for medical bills, Grigris gets entangled with oil smuggling operation, headed by shady, ruthless businessman Moussa (Cyril Guei). He also develops a relationship with Mimi (anaïs Monory), a cute prostitute who frequents the disco, after developing photos for her modeling career. Things go bad when Grigris crosses Moussa to cover the medical bills. He and Mimi have to flee the city and settle in with Mimi's relatives in the countryside.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Grigris is bustling with energy. The colors and sound of the capitol of Chad, N'Djamena - the people, livestock, disco and nightlife have a look and feel of any medium sized metropolis. Démé, in his first acting role, possesses immense physical presence and quiet intensity, as a good man down on his luck, trying to get by in a dog eat dog world. The plot seem predictable at first but it takes an unexpected turn which sets apart Grigris from other urban noir type films.

Grigris is a winner of Technical Achievement Award at the last year's Cannes. Film Movement has picked it up and is releasing it on VOD on May 30.

Aya of Yop City (dir. Maguerite Abouet, Clément Obrerie, Ivory Coast)
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Maguerite Abouet and Clément Obrerie's popular graphic novel series Aya of Yop City becomes an animated feature. This semi-biographical story is based on Abouet growing up in the booming 70s in Yopougon, Ivory Coast. Beautifully drawn with colorful characters, Yop City reflects the issues of Ivorians in that era - women's rights, infidelity, family and community. Abouet doesn't let the French colonial past and its influence on Ivorians slide either - girls still swoon over suave rich men from Paris.

Just like Percepolis before it, we get to experience growing up in another country far away from us through Aya and her friends and realize that their trials and tribulations are not that different than ours. The film is funny and immensely likeable and relatable.

Partly because it's based on one of the series of books, nothing really gets resolved and nothing is ever clear cut in Aya of Yop City, just like in real life.

Mugabe: Villain or Hero? (dir. Roy Agyemang, Zimbabwe)
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What starts out as a simple pursuit of scoring an interview with Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president of struggling African nation under crippling economic sanctions by the West, becomes a full blown, 3-year chronicle of a nation still reeling from colonialism.

Mugabe, yet another figure vilified by the West as a gross human rights violator and a ruthless dictator is seen from a different perspective by British based filmmaker of Ghanaian descent, Roy Agyemang, whose idea of post-colonial pan-Africanism has been indoctrinated by his parents at an early age, wants to find out the truth about the man himself.

Agyemang arrives in the southern African nation where things are dire, 2007- its inflation so high, the country became the first nation to print a trillion currency bank note. The breakfast cost 5 million Zimbabwean currency and three months later, it cost 356 million. The doc gives a detailed yet digestible history of the country's colonial past. Formerly known as the republic of Rhodesia, Zimbabwe was the last British colony in Africa to gain independence. Mugabe, a guerrilla fighter for independence became its president in 1980, agreeing not to touch land owned by white farmers for ten years with Thatcher's gov, in the Lanchaster Agreement. When Tony Blair's Labor Party came into power, it annulled the agreement and stopped paying for the land owned by the whites. Mugabe, a man of principal and staunch nationalist, began forcibly taking back the lands. The violence ensued and outraged British government and rest of the West started demonizing Mugabe and imposing sanctions on his people.

The documentary observes the bitter 2008 presidential election, where Mugabe battles the West friendly Morgan Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai won the majority of votes but did not meet the 50 percent threshold. Frustrated, Tsvangirai contested the results, accused the Mugabe government of rampant intimidation and election tampering. He then withdrew from the runoff in protest and fearing for his life, took refuge in the Netherlands embassy. Later on, mediated by then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, Mugabe and Tsvangarai sign a historical power sharing agreement for better future for Zimbabwe.

Sure, Agyemang is a full time convert by the end of the film, swept up by Mugabe's affability and infectious pan-Africanism. But the film is not exactly a whitewash- he questions Mugabe regime's extreme secrecy and illustrates ensuing violence just after the country gained independence in 1980 in series of well researched clips. He is also critical of the Western hypocrisy wherein Mugabe was once the toast of town- knighted by the Queen, nominated for Nobel Peace prize, the shining example of post colonial Africa, then turns on a dime and makes him the African Hitler.

The film's structured like Roger and Me, where a filmmaker never gets to interview its high and mighty subject one on one. But by the time the interview actually happens after three years, we are comfortably acquainted with the subject and history, it feels like an afterthought.

The film is a must see for understanding the state of Africa now. After years of 'economical terrorism' by way of IMF & World Bank perpetrated by the West, resource rich Africa seems finally finding its footing with self-determination for better future.

Afronauts (dir. Frances Bodomo, Zambia)
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Talented new director Frances Bodomo's beautiful short, Afronauts, is not some dreamed up story of a first African astronaut. It is based on the true story of Zambia's attempted space program which actually took place in 1968.

Peppered with magic realism, Bodomo's poetic interpretation of the historical event is cinema's myth-making at its finest.

Kwaku Ananse (dir. Akosua Adoma Owusu, Ghana)
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A fashionable young woman with an American accent comes back to Ghana to attend her father's funeral. She has an ambivalent feeling about this home coming. He had another wife and a child in Ghana. During the ceremonious funeral with a spider shaped coffin, she walks off and into the forest as if in trance. There she finds all the wisdom that her father gathered over the years.

Putting the popular West African traditional folklore of the not-so-wise spiderman (you heard right, spiderman) within a contemporary setting, director/writer Owusu creates a dreamlike netherworld full of beauty and transcendence.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Hey Little Sister What Have You Done?

Ida (2013) - Pawlikowski
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Sister Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an war orphan who is about to take a vow. The Mother Superior tells her that her only known relative, aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) finally contacted her and Anna is to leave the convent and stay with Wanda before committing herself to God.

Chain smoking and boozy, aunt Wanda is kind of a mess- a guilt ridden Jewess war survivor, she became a judge hell bent on revenge. She tells Anna that her name actual name is Ida Lebenstein, a daughter of a Jewish couple who perished in the war.

Together they take a trip to find out what happened to Ida's parents. They confront a Polish farmer who might or might not have killed Ida's family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. During the trip, Ida also attracts attentions from a young jazz saxophone player who is playing at the hotel they are staying in.

Picturesque full frame photography and great use of negative space, Ida is a breathtakingly gorgeous film (shot by Lukascz Zal). Every frame is a work of art. Doesn't hurt that luminous first-timer Trzebuchowska is in almost every frame. Also there are no wasted moments - clocking at mere 80 minutes, the film is a remarkably lean experience.

The family tragedy befallen under Nazi occupation isn't the main draw here. While Wanda seems to carry around the weight of the war past, Ida literally buries the hatchet. The film is rather a loving character study of a young woman who represents a clean break from the past. Clear eyed, reserved Ida is at once naive enough not to realize her dimples have enormous effects on the opposite sex and wise beyond her years to know what she wants.

Further tragedy strikes and Ida comes back to Łódź. Alone in the apartment left for her, she thinks about exploring the world that she never lived. With beautiful black and white imagery accompanied by John Coltrane tunes, Pawlikowski's Poland in 60s is as irresistible to us as is to our little Sister. This little vacillation or the test that she sets herself in, provides one of the loveliest movie sequence in history, accentuated by Trzebuchowska's unassuming beauty.

Ida is one of those quiet, artfully crafted little masterpieces that goes unnoticed in dead of Spring movie season. I haven't seen anything this year that is more lovelier than this. Don't miss seeing this film in theaters.

Ida opens May 2 in New York and LA. National roll out will follow. For more information please visit Music Box Films website