Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The 2nd Annual Sound + Vision Film Festival at FSLC

Sound + Vision Film Festival, a showcase of music documentaries from world over, celebrates its second outing at FSLC, here in NYC. This year's festival consists of eclectic mix of new films, retrospectives and musical performances and more. The lineup includes spotlights on subjects like a Japanese trance didgeridoo player, seminal atmospheric bands of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a Mexican acoustic duo who combine thrash metal and flamenco, and music created on 1980s video-game hardware.

Opening night selection is Beautiful Noise, a documentary on the rise of the influential 'wall-of-sound' scene that started with Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. The series concludes with Florian Habicht's Pulp, which follows iconic Brit band Pulp and the lead-up to their reunion and final show in their hometown of Sheffield.

Stop Making Sense, the seminal Talking Heads documentary directed by Jonathan Demme and Daniel Schmid's Tosca's Kiss, a delightful film about retirement house for opera singers get digital restoration treatment in their 30th anniversary.

The leading Malian Afro-pop musician Amkoullel, local indie-rock band Dragons of Zynth (D.O.Z.) and Glass Ghost with visuals by LYFE will be the live musical acts of this year.

Here are 4 films I got to sample. The festival runs from 7/31 - 8/6. For film and live performance tickets and more information, please visit FSLC website.

Beautiful Noise (dir. Eric Green) *Opening Night Film
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First heard about Beautiful Noise coming into being years ago as it was trying to raise money with kickstarter. So this is truly a passion project in the making. The documentary is a comprehensive look at what is known as 'shoe-gaze' music scene that had a big impact on many musicians working today. Eric Green charts the movement chronologically, but limits its scope to the British music scene, starting with 3 most influential groups - Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain. With their guitar heavy, impenetrable wall-of-sound and mumbly, dreamy vocals, they were serious musicians trying to create and experiment new sound with traditional rock guitar. Their sensuous, unpretentious, effortless mood pieces were embraced by people who tuned out the traditionally macho, aggressive rock music.

Billy Corgan, Trent Reznor and Robert Smith along with other musicians, producers and DJs look back and explain the magnitude of the movement which lasted only about ten years from the mid 80s to mid 90s, but heavily influenced and shaped modern music. The doc features Slowdive, Ride, Lush, Katherine Wheel and tons of others.

For me as a college student in the 90s, this doc is a nostalgic walk down the memory lane. But everything is cyclical. As the doc indicates, there is a huge resurgence of shoe-gazing in recent years. There is a huge pool of twenty somethings I know who listen to and regard MBV's Loveless as their favorite album. Glad to see these musicians getting their due in the spotlight.

Europe in 8 Bits (dir. Javier Polo)
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Repurposing old (well, 20 years old), obsolete technology into something new fits very well in to the DIY heavy, positive side of our consumerist society. Game Boy, that 8-bit simple, handheld game console is the starting point of the new, fascinating documentary Europe in 8 Bits. Many of the musically inclined people who grew up with the famous game console, who were curious enough to break it open and fuck with it, discovered the wonderful world of that high-pitched, droning 8-bit generated sound. Chip music movement was born. With the use of music program like nanoloop and LSDJ in the creative common environment, the scene grew exponentially since mid-2000 and spread all over the world. Then came live events where these chip musicians get together and play.

Described by some as friendly electro music, or Super Mario Bros on acid, the doc features many of the famous faces in the scene talking passionately about the scene. They do take their craft seriously: it's not only to do with the familiar sound of old games, but a melding of Kraftwerk, industrialization of their neighborhood, networking in free-information age and a little bit of rebellion against the 'new is always better' conformity.

Javier Polo inserts not only musicians' interviews but a real psychiatrist and sociologist to talk about the implication of the movement. Is it comprised by people who are suffering from the Peter Pan syndrome? Or is it a post-capitalist movement bent on tapping into the potential of what's seen as obsolete? Polo playfully pixelate the picture and incorporates animations into the documentary. The music is great fun and there are many awesome concert footage where chip musicians rock out with their many wired Game Boys as if they are musical instrument or turntables in front of adoring fans. Europe in 8 Bits is loads of fun.

Mateo (dir. Aaron Naar)
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Matt Stoneman, a middle aged white mariachi singer/songwriter with an angelic voice, living in LA is the subject of Aaron Naar's vibrant character study, Mateo. Music is Stoneman's true passion. Known as Mateo in mariachi circles, he performs at quinceañeras, weddings and funerals and on the streets of LA. Living in a filthy, cluttered one room apartment with most of his stuff locked away in storage, he saves all his money and pours all on to recording of his album in Cuba, where good musicians are plenty and cheap and women, beautiful.

Early on, Stoneman himself lets us in on the backstory- of how Matt, the white man from New Hampshire became Mateo: Stoneman spent some time in jail for robberies he committed. He learned Spanish and traditional Spanish songs from fellow inmates while he was incarcerated. Estranged from his parents and friendless, Stoneman is kind of a loner in LA, the city he hates. But he becomes alive and full of life in Cuba. Naar and his cinematographer Seth Cuddeback trail him everywhere - to his gigs, in his car, his friends and lovers houses, the recording studio, streets of Havana and even whore houses. The filmmaker and his subject are not afraid of showing everything. But at the same time, the doc doesn't tie everything up neatly for the audience. We know basic information - that he was in jail, that he hasn't been in communication with his family and his love of prostitutes. But Naar doesn't dig anything deeper than what we see on the screen. Hence, the subject retains mystery about who he really is. Stoneman, in many ways, is flawed man. There are discernible shadows of his dark past. Yet he is a compelling character: a great musician who wants to be loved but left alone at the same time. There are clues, but it's up to us to find out. His music, albeit a little too traditional, is imbued with deep feeling and beauty. His record becomes a hit in Japan. We cheer for him when he tours and performs in front of adoring Japanese fans. The film, for all its beauty and blemishes, is a deep exploration of a man whose inner life is just as intriguing as his accentuated whiteness in his not so white environment. A great one.

Brasslands (dir. Meerkat Media Collective)
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Brasslands treks 3 bands as they prepare for Balkan Brass Band Music Festival in a sleepy Serbian village called Guca. Tens of thousands of musicians and fans descend upon the village for the fest and transforms it into a large outdoor frat house party every year. There is an American band Zlatne Uste (incorrect Serbian which is supposed to be "Golden Lips"), a Serbian champ band lead by a 3rd generation master trumpeter Dejan Petrovic, and a Romani band from southern Serbia.

Balkan music, for me, is forever associated with Goran Bregovic's score for Emir Kusturica's films. Once you hear that tingling start of a trumpet, there comes a strong urge to take 10 vodka shots and start dancing on the desk. The music is infectious.

Constists of people from all works of life but united by their passion for Balkan music (they all have dayjobs they can't quit), Zlatne Uste as a music club, has been playing and practicing for more than 20 years. The band travels to Serbia to compete the first ever International Competition. They are pretty good, but others are godlike in their artistry. They are happy to be there and mingle with other Balkan music lovers. For others, it's the sense of national/ethnic pride that's at stake. Playing for weddings and parties for living, they want the glory of the championship and worldwide fame.

It's that love of the Balkan music that should've been the forefront of Brasslands. Unfortunately, there isn't enough music in this doc. The typical "sports movie" framing where there is the final battle at the end doesn't really work well here. I just want to see more bands displaying their artistry.

Monday, July 28, 2014

This Dream That One Calls Human Life...

The Dance of Reality (2013) - Jodorowsky
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Jodorowsky gives all with this self-reflexive masterpiece based on his childhood full of magic, dreams and melancholy. His father (played by his son, Brontis Jodorowsky, finally getting a hammy lead role he deserves), a Russian communist Jew transplant in Tocopillo, Chile, was a spartan atheist who was determined to make a man out of young, frail Alejandrito (Jeremias Herskovits). His buxom mother (Pamela Flores) who delivers all her lines in soprano was a believer and a saint. Jodorowsky runs wild with realizing his vision with the help of some unobtrusive CGI. You realize where his fantastic imagery and obsessions come from as you watch the film: circus folks, drag queens, sages, priests, vivrant colors, maimed limbs. But this time, they are not there for a mere shock value, but memorialized fondly as he reminisces them with great amplification. The film makes a big turn and we follow the father to Santiago as he tries to assassinate the military dictator Ibanez. He succeeds in earning the general's trust but fails at the opportunity as his hands are suddenly paralyzed. His odyssean journey back home is truly epochal.

If Woody Allen used humor to exorcise his childhood and Jewishness, Jodorowsky does with surrealism and weird freakishness. His sensibility comes from being a forever persecuted stranger commie Jew without a homeland. In this dream we called life, Jodorowsky is dreaming us, us playing part as audience. Who's dreaming Jodorowsky the filmmaker? Cinephiles of course. The Dance of Reality is his much softer, lyrical contemplation of life. One of the year's best.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Goodbye Again (1961) - Litvak
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Melodrama of highest order! 40 year old Paula (Ingrid Bergman) is an interior designer in Paris. She and playboy Roger (Yves Montand) has a non committal relationship that's been going on for 5 years. Enter one of her clients' 25 year old son, Philip (Tony Perkins). He falls in love with Paula and starts stalking her. While Roger is sleeping around on 'business trips', Paula finally gives in to Philip's persistence. Roger gets jealous and wants her back. Torn between a charming womanizer and a lovesick puppy, Paula can't make up her mind.

Anatole Litvak's melodrama puts the focus squarely on a middle aged woman as she succumbs to ageism and societal pressure. Roger even says himself that what he's doing is 'normal', insinuating what she's doing is not. Paula is left with making bad choices. Bergman is still luminous and Montand, suave but it's Perkins again who steals the show. There is a certain child-like vulnerability in him with a hint of cynicism and cruelty. It's in his dark eyes. Here, he remains sweet and lovelorn and falls victim to the seemingly impossible love. There should be a thesis written about Perkins and older women.

Hilarious trailer narrated by Pepe Le Pew:

Friday, July 18, 2014

Greek Tragedy

Phaedra (1962) - Dassin
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Phaedra is a retelling of a classical Greek tragedy of a woman falling in love with her stepson, set in modern day Greece. Phaedra (Melina Mercoury) is a wife of a ship building magnate Thanos (Raf Vallon). She is put on a task by Thanos to bring back his art student son Alexis (Anthony Perkins) from London to join them in Greece for the Summer. Before she leaves, her long time family nanny warns her of her dream where two men were fighting over her. Phaedra is intrigued by the carefree young man who introduces an Aston Martin in the car shop windo as his 'gal'. While walking on London Bridge, in a stunt act to convince him, Phaedra throws her huge diamond ring over the bridge. They start a fiery affair after reuniting with Thanos in Paris, en route to Greece. Sensing that the affair is not going to end well, Phaedra begs Alexis not to come to Greece. He obliges while heartbroken and angry. But as fate would have it, Thanos, oblivious of what's going on, chastises Phaedra for not bringing back his son- the rightful heir of his empire and recalls him to Greece. Overjoyed yet guilt stricken, Phaedra has to content with shame, guilt, jealousy and burning desire while Alexis struggles to be free from all.

Dassin deftly directs this handsome, high melodrama. His wife and muse Melina Mercoury is marvelous as a tragic heroine with her striking features and Eartha Kitt purrs. Perkins has never been as charming and handsome as here. Loved it. I gotta check out some more Dassin.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Storytelling Experiment

The Ugly One (2013) - Baudelaire
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In this experiment, Baudelaire visualizes a story told, narrated by Masao Adachi, Japanese filmmaker/National Red Army terrorist. The Ugly One tells a Marienbad-esque tale of Michel and Lili, Lebanese guerrilla fighters and their chance meeting where they remember meeting each other but can't recall their memories. Something happened to their daughter. Was it a botched kidnapping and a car bomb plot? Adachi's personal experience and memories bleeds into the filmmaking. Against modern day Lebanon backdrop (and many bombed out locations), actors who play the roles acknowledge that they are improvising with given materials on camera at times. There are heated arguments amongst characters about the region's complicated political landscape. The current politics are reflected in the conversations as well. But like in Grandrieux's Masao Adachi elegy, It Maybe That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, Adachi, after all these years, remains a romantic at heart. Memories, regrets play a big part in The Ugly One. Here, Baudelaire makes an interesting and beautiful film from someone's old memories, but also succeeds in making the film being completely relevant in the world of today.

*I have only a couple of films left from Art of the Real series. As I said before, this series has been a treasure trove for me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Jungle Fever

Green Mansions (1959) - Ferrer
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I was browsing Tony Perkins's filmography on imdb and boy, he was such a dashing ladies' man. Too bad Psycho became such a career defining film for him. Green Mansions is a ridiculous adventure story in Amazon jungle shot in cinemascope. It stars Perkins as a privileged white boy, Abel, in Caracas who became a victim of a revolution there. He flees to the jungle and mingles in with a tribe of natives (chief and his son played by Sessue Hayakawa and always dependable ethnic man, Henry Silva) by proving his bravery (standing in one place and talking until collapsing)? He needs to find gold there, to take revenge on those revolutionaries who wronged his family or something. There is a forest nearby that is forbidden to enter by the tribesmen because there is a forest witch who lives there. She killed the chief's first son when he went in to the forest to hunt. The witch turns out to be animal loving Rima (Audrey Hepburn, playing the perfect, but sexless nymphet). For Abel, it's a love at first sight. He wants to get her out of the jungle. Rima's guardian/grandpa (Lee J Cobb) holds a dark secret and the bloodthirsty tribesmen in pursuit, and the jungle itself as adversary, the two lovebirds must make it or break it!

Sets and locations are pretty impressive. The credits indicate that they shot part of the film in Colombia, Venezuela and Guiana and it was one of the first cinemascope films. It also has wealth of set painting and campy effects. But I have to say it's pretty great.

Tony Perkins sings:

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sex, Lies and Audiotape

Suitcase of Love and Shame (2013) - Gillooly
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Sound can achieve greater things than moving pictures. Oftentimes I feel there is something crass about visual storytelling that leaves just too little to your imagination. In Suitcase of Love and Shame, Boston based filmmaker Jane Gillooly achieves something miraculous with the suitcase full of reel-to-reel audiotapes she found on ebay. With minimalistic accompanying visuals, Gillooly charts an intimate correspondences of two lovers. Tom and Jeanine, who lived in the Midwest in 1965. I guess a portable tape recorder was a brand new technology. I don't really know because I don't watch Mad Men. These lovebirds - Tom a married man (a pet doctor?) and Jeanine a widow, exchanged these audio letters instead of written ones. Their conversations are salacious and downright naughty. Tom, sounding like a cross between Sam Shepherd and Chet Baker with that unmistakable Midwest twang and Jeanine, a sweet natured all American mousy missus, exchange I love yous and delicious morsels of woos and coos. They sometimes record it together in their sinful hotel bedrooms.

What is ultimately a third rate, x-rated extra marital love affair with a predictably sad ending, Gillooly elevates it with slight visuals and some suggestive photos that real couple took during their meetings. Suitcase of Love and Shame enables our deep tendency toward voyeurism that Hitchcock could've only dreamed of achieving.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Japan Cuts 2014 Preview

JAPAN CUTS, a contemporary Japanese film festival provided by the venerable Japan Society, celebrates its 8th year here in NY. I got the first tastes of some of the most exciting new Japanese cinema to tell you about. After reading this, y'all mosey over to my friends at for complete coverage of Japan Cuts or visit Japan Society. Japan Cuts 2014 runs 7/10 - 7/20.

Neko Samurai
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A cute cat and a grumpy samurai...I mean, really? Japan, what took you so long?! Neko Samurai stars a mean faced ronin, Kyutaro (Kitamura Kazuki of The Raid 2, Man from Reno, Japan's Tragedy and the recipient of the Cut Above Awards at this year's Japan Cuts), looking for work in Edo. In the mean time, he ekes out a meager living making umbrellas. He is a fine swordsman but its his face that intimidates his enemies most. He is approached by a dog loving clan to assassinate a cat living in the house of a rivaling clan. The arranged marriage of two cats between the cat loving clan and shogun's will surely wipe out the dog loving clan! Kyutaro declines the job at first, but after seeing a large sum of rewards, he can't refuse. But once he sees the white cat, Tamanojoh, his heart melts. So he fakes the assassination and hides the cat in his boarding house with disastrous results - umbrellas ripped to shreds, cat pee on his bedspread...

Based on a TV series of the same name, Neko Samurai relies on its deadpan humor and of course, the adorableness of the white cat. Kitamura does a great job sustaining a straight face throughout the whole thing. Put down your swords and just look at that adorable cat's face. You will feel your murderous rage slipping away from your body. -- Dustin Chang

Japan Cuts 2014 celebrates Kitamura's career with candid introductions and Q&As for Man from Reno, Killers and Neko Samurai followed by the Japan CATS Party!

The Passion
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Frances-ko (Iwasa Mayuko) grew up in a convent. Since she is a virgin, she wants very much to have sexual experiences before she goes back to the convent when she gets old. But she doesn't really know the way of things in the world. Even though she works at a modeling agency, she has no idea how to talk to men. She asks men bluntly, "When our eyes met, did you think about having sex with me?" The answer is always no.

One day while praying, the answer comes down from below. It's a man faced tumor (hilarious Furutachi Kanji) that is attached to her vagina. He taunts her everyday, telling her how worthless she is as a woman. Now jobless, collecting garbage on the street (to be useful in some way, in her words), Frances-ko, just like anything in her life, accepts the trash talking tumor on her vagina with her typical nonchalance. She names the growth Mr. Koga and so begins an unusual symbiotic relationship between a woman and a tumor. Will Frances-ko finally find happiness?

Based on a prize winning novel of the same by Himeno Kaoruki, The Passion is a very funny and surprisingly tender film anchored by Iwasa's great performance as a naive woman who accepts the world as it comes to her.

Greatful Dead
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Touching upon ills of the society, Uchida Eiji's Greatful Dead is a dark comedy (emphasis on dark). Nami (Takiuchi Kumi), an attention starved girl grows up to be a sociopath who spies on people she calls 'solitarians' - unfortunate souls who (nearly) went mad out of loneliness. She finally finds her match in Shiomi (Sasano Takashi), a cranky elderly man and former TV star, living alone after his wife's death. She relishes obsessively on his every move through her binoculars. Things get up close and personal when Shiomi is approached by a comely Korean Christian volunteer Su-yong (Kkot-bi Kim from Breathless) who turns him into a life-affirming, bible quoting Christian. Nami can't stand losing her favorite solitarian and takes a drastic measure to reclaim her prized possession. Things turn violent, very very violent.

Uchida sets up Nami's story nicely and wins over our sympathy early on, thanks to Takiuchi Kumi's physical performance and deadly smile, only to turn it upside down later on. The growing number of shut ins and elderly people is a real problem and Uchida is not afraid of pursuing the touchy subject to extreme. It's a sickly entertaining film.

Hello! Junichi
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Ishii Katsuhito, the man behind Taste Of Tea and Funky Forest, makes an unabashedly children's movie, starring the scrumptious Mitsushima Hikari (Love Exposure, Sawako Decides) as a chain smoking, unorthodox teacher in training at an Elementary School.

The film features trials and tribulations of a shy and awkward 3rd grader, Junichi and his ragtag group of friends. This is the time when borrowing an animal-shaped eraser from a girl you have a crush on is as much a big deal as, I don't know, being a goalie at a World Cup shootout.

The only "Ishii-ness" comes from the dance sequence performed by Ishii regular Gashuin Tatsuya, playing once again, the weird grandfather. Extremely good natured and optimistic, Hello! Junichi is a movie for kids starring kids. If you enjoy listening to high-pitched shrills of 9 year old munchkins for 90 minutes, this movie is for you.

Direct Cinema

Alone (2013) - Wang
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No wonder Wang Bing is regarded as the best documentarian in the world and perhaps the most important Chinese director working today. Alone, a shorter version of his 2 1/2 hr film Three Sisters, hits all the right notes on what I love about observational documentary and Wang's is as real and direct as it gets. Alone shows three sisters, age 10, 6 and 4, living in a remote highland in Yunan Province. They live like orphans. Their mother long gone, father works in another city and seldom visits them. They mooch off of their aunt and work, especially the oldest, Yin- tending various farm herds, vegetable gardens, building fire, cooking and dish washing, laundry. She also takes care of rambunctious younger siblings all by herself.

Father comes in, bringing new shoes and clothes and takes two young ones with him to the city. Yin stays with her grandfather, attends Elementary school. All this time, she never complains. There are shots of her alone, being the oldest, lonely 10 year old in the world. Then there are glimpses of her that shows that she still is a child, like when she plays with a clear plastic sheet as a toy. Their abject poverty is not the main draw here. Rather, it's their innocence and resilience. So much beauty in display in Alone. There is beauty in the girl's faces, in hearth, in the mountains, in Yin's loneliness, in steam rising from the rice bowl, in tattered rain boots, in Yin's cursing, in every frame of Alone.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


Manakamana (2013) - Spray, Velez
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Havard Sensory Ethnography Lab, responsible for Sweetgrass and Leviathan, strikes again with Pacho Velez and Stephanie Spray's Manakamana, a film that leaves you in a metaphysical haze. The temple of the Goddess Manakamana is a coveted Hindu pilgrimage site that can be reached by 8 1/2 minutes of jarring cable car ride. With the film camera firmly placed in the center seat of the cable car, it records pilgrims' ascension/descension uncut. It's a totally unique experience: some pilgrims talk during the ride and some don't. As they admire the lush green forest below, the cable car moves in breakneck speed. The subjects are mostly stationary, perfectly framed by the car's window but the background keeps moving, giving it an otherworldly quality, contrasting with their chit-chats which are decidedly earthbound. The film's so simple in its concept yet so profound. Thoroughly absorbing, but my favorite ride is two old Indian ladies eating ice cream bars, laughing all the way down.

Ever since I missed it at NYFF last year, and again at Art of the Real series, for me, this film has been the most anticipated and it didn't disappoint!