Sunday, August 31, 2014

Going Upstream

Night Moves (2013) - Reichardt
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I like where Kelly Reichardt's headed with each of her films. I appreciate her intimate knowledge of the surroundings in her films. Night Moves is a moody character study with exceptionally written script and impeccable acting by three principals (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard). It concerns 3 eco-terrorists in Oregon, planning to blow up a dam. Because it's killing salmons. As one of the characters says that we don't need to check on our facebook or use our iphone every goddamn minute. We don't need another dam to generate electricity. But the politics of these peoples are peripheral.

Reichardt shows that she is very much capable of doing a superb thriller - tension she creates from these characters paranoia and the act of going upstream to blow up the dam is extremely well realized. Everyone they encounter, every car passing by makes them extremely cautious. After all, the job is not a rewarding one. Those days of becoming a hero or martyr for the cause is over. In this day and age, activism as we all know, is mostly theoretical and isolated to taking small actions. These random acts of violence are carried out discreetly and unceremoniously by only few committed individuals who truly believe that they can shake the system and wake people up. You can't talk about your accomplishments, you have to keep a low profile, probably for the rest of your life.

The fallout begins after the act. There is a camper missing after the dam break. Dena (Fanning) is guilt stricken and having anxiety related illness and keeps contacting Harmon (Sarsgaard), even though three of them agreed to not to talk with each other after the job. Harmon tells Josh (Eisenberg) to calm her down. Josh, having doubts about what they have done himself ('there are 21 other dams, blowing up one won't make any difference') gets even more paranoid about the prospect of Dena yapping to the authorities.

I know that Reichardt is a smart enough director not to blurt out an obvious message or anything. But the third act, the confrontation of Josh and Dena really didn't work for me. I also know that Reichardt's not into violence against women, but the whole sequence is pretty awkward. Even though the whole film is subtle, one would draw a conclusion that the film is about 'violence begets violence', instead of taking it as a fascinating character study. Yes it is unnecessary to have 23 golf courses in the middle of the desert community. We live in an excessive culture for sure. Knowing all these place and people who inhabit these parts of the world- Eugene, Bend, Lake of the Woods, Ashland, activist scene, communes, organic farming, I can tell you without any doubt that Reichardt has no disrespect for their political beliefs or way of living. But she is not the master of capturing the act of violence and murder. This is where her minimalistic approach hits the wall. Maybe I'm too critical of this one scene but I can't help noticing it, as it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Poor Man's 8 1/2

Tournée (2010) - Amalric
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The art of burlesque is in the tease- expectation of the big reveal that would never arrive, earthly desires go unfulfilled. Indeed, it retains all the mysteries of life. It's a magic act. A mirage. With that, Mathieu Amalric, an esteemed French actor, directs a group of buxom non-actors in telling the life of a washed up producer and his wayward attempt at redemption. It's a scaled down, poor man's 8 1/2.

Joachim (Amalric) is a producer and manager of American burlesque performers touring the coastal towns of France. We don't know why they are there. We don't know what was promised by Joachim (perhaps a show in Paris?). Constantly on the move, the group does a show after another in these lonely, sleepy, all too familiar (gas stations, malls, hotels, chain grocery stores, etc) towns. We don't get to know any of these performers inner lives or anything. But they are all likable gals and fully formed, ahaha, characters. Joachim is a mess of a man, trying to make a comeback of sorts in show business that is just as hostile as when he left it. He is also a terrible father. He picks up his two adorable sons and takes them with him to the tour.

With a ridiculous mustache and unkempt hair, Amalric is great as a loser who is taking everyone around him on an aimless tour to the 'end of the world'. But Tournée avoids all the cliché associated with melodramas. There is no big reveal. There are no emotional breakdowns. But there are many small fleeting moments that suggest characters' past, their connections without elaboration. It's in Joachim's glance at Mimi (Miranda Colclasure)'s tattoo of the creature from The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it's in Joachim's two sons reactions when they were given stuff toys, it's in Julie Atlas Muz's shapely legs as she makes room in the train aisle, it's in the unbuttoned shirt of a lovely gas station attendant. With an air of improvisation, Tournée first entice you with some t & a action, but it's far wiser and classier fare than at first glance.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Children of War

The Notebook (2013) - Szász
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Loss of innocence and humanity during war times through the eyes of children has its shares of cinematic treatment over the years. Based on a prize winning novel of the same name, Hungarian director János Szász adds The Notebook/Le Grand Cahier to that list. It's a WWII drama that has a darker, much more sinister tone in reflecting human survival than, say, Steven Spielberg's JG Ballard adaptation, Empire of the Sun (1987), starring baby Christian Bale.

The film tells a story of young twin brothers (played by András and Lázló Gyémánt), singularly known only as bastards by their cruel grandmother who reluctantly takes the boys into her care in her rural farm. It was their parents' decision. They thought the kids would have a better chance in surviving the war there than staying in their opulent home in Budapest. They quickly learn that life at the farm is no picnic. They have to earn their meals and lodging. They also give up the hope that their loving mother will come back to fetch them soon. Completely cut off from the world and lacking any kind of adult supervision, the boys retreat into their own world full of strict rules and structures. Their only moral guide is the bible (the only book they have) and a blank notebook which they fill up with everything they experience.

After a Nazi camp moves in next to grandma's property, and witnessing people's suffering and cruelty, morality of the twins becomes warped, as they concentrate on 'punishing the wicked'. Armed with the grenades they found on a dead soldier in the woods, the boys train to be physically strong and cruel - they whip and punch each other until they bleed, kill bugs and small animals. In their minds, these are the things they have to do to survive.

They have occasional contacts with other people: a harelipped girl who teaches them how to steal, a Jew-hating blonde maiden whom they have their first sexual encounter with, a dirty priest whom they blackmail and a Nazi officer (played by always dependable Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen) who take interests on the twins who seem to finish each other's sentences and don't seem to be afraid of anything.

The most chilling moment in Spielberg's tearjerker Empire of the Sun comes after Jim gets released from the internment camp, telling the grownups that he can no longer remember his parents' faces. In The Notebook, the twins' parents come back (albeit separately), only to get the coldest, most unthinkable receptions from the boys who not only have lost their youth, but their humanity as well.

The young Gyémánt brothers, playing the leads are revelations here. Their disarming sweet smile can just as quickly be replaced by bone-chilling, evil stares. Their portrayals of young boys' scary descent into deeply-scarred-sociopaths-in-the-making is never melancholic but endlessly fascinating. The Notebook plays out like a grimmest of the Grimms' fairytale.

Imbued with elements from JG Ballard, Spirits of the Beehive, Lord of the Flies and even Dead Ringers, the film tells how the ultimate survival instincts kick into gear when faced with horrific, soul crushing nature of war.

Winner of Karlovy Vary Film Fest 2013, The Notebook opens in NY and LA on Aug 29th. National roll out will follow.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Visual Feast

The Strange Colors of Your Body's Tears (2013) Cattet, Forzani
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The dynamic visual stylist duo Hélèn Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer) offers here again, the most inventive and gorgeous visual feast ever put on screen. The Strange Colors concerns a man named Dan whose wife has disappeared, a suspicious cop named Vincentelli, a sexy woman named Laura and other tenants living in a gorgeous art nouveau apartment building adorned with Mucha style paintings, gilded colums and colorful stained glasses. There is a serial killer roaming around decapitating his victims or something. The apartment has secret passageways behind the walls and whatnot.

It's all about giallo inspired visuals and sound design. It's all leather, switchblades, the shape of the female genitalia, colors, voyeurism, texture.... The black and white stop motion sequence in the middle is to die for. Who cares if it doesn't make any sense? It's gorgeous!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Not Just Anybody

Le premier venu/Just Anybody (2008) - Doillon
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Just Anybody follows Camille (Clémentine Beaugrand), Costa (Gérald Thomassin) to a windswept small coastal town. They had some unpleasant sexual encounter and she wants him to apologize, sincerely. It's clear that they are from a very different background: she, an alluring Parisian and he, a trouble-prone street urchin. Costa has a daughter whom he hasn't seen over 3 years and an estranged wife in town. She wants him to see his daughter. She sees a decency in him that no one, not even he himself sees and sticks with him. Things get complicated when a cop and Costa's childhood friend, Cyril (Guillaume Saurrel) becomes intrigued and smitten by Camille, too.

All the characters actions don't seem premeditated, since they don't have definite plans and their motivations obscured. And for that, the film unfolds in unexpected, pleasantly surprising ways. Acting and script are superb. Things seem unruly and unfocused and you feel it's on the edge of devolving into a typical noirish amour-fou with assault and kidnapping (which happen in this). But Doillon takes you to a completely different place that is thoroughly absorbing and human. He allows each scene to play out, bumps and all, and refrain from cutting any corners on showing, developing these characters. Beaugrand is beguiling as a young woman who is 'tired of being loved and misunderstood' and wants to love. Thomassin, looking like a Dumont character with his scarred face and rough ways, shines as a volatile but decent man who is trying to work out his various issues. Just Anybody could be a slog with 2hrs + running time, but it is totally rewarding to stick with it until the end.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Head Trick

Frank (2014) - Abrahamson
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Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) really wants to be a musician. He composes music in his head day in and day out during the commute, at work, on the streets, at home. After witnessing a suicide attempt of a man who happens to be a keyboardist in a band, Soronprfbs, he is scooped up as the replacement by the group's eccentric lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender). Jon is told that Frank never takes off that big papier mache on his head and nobody has seen his real face, not even Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her possibly the best role), the band's theremin player who worships him and detests Jon's presence. The group retreats to a remote mountain cabin to record their album. Frank is a musical genius and his methods are truly eccentric. They spend a long time to prepare themselves before recording the album. Jon even spends all of his 'nest egg' to provide the group's food and lodging. Everyone believes in Frank and what they are doing is great. Jon, in the meantime, with twitter and youtube, records his dealings in the band like crazy, accumulating a huge following on the internet. But when he announces that they are going to play SXSW Music Fest, everyone's extremely skeptical, except for Frank, who is sold on the idea of having their music listened by more people. So they go to Texas and everything falls apart. As everyone predicted (except for Frank), Jon turns out to be and unbeknownst to himself, a combination of Salieri and Yoko Ono.

So how to describe Frank the movie? Is it a take on eccentric musical genius, the downside of stardom, selling out, childhood trauma, jealousy, hollowness of hipster scene, desire to be loved? By the end, Frank is not about anything. Definitely not about music. But is it not funny? Tons. Fun to see Fassbender in papier mache? Oh yeah. It's a great, unique, silly comedy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Memories of the Future: Chris Marker Retro at BAM

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With theatrical release of the digitally restored 1997 film LEVEL 5, Brooklyn's own BAM Cinematek is hosting a rare retrospective of Chris Marker, one of the most singular voices in cinema history.

Marker passed on in 2012. But as a writer, photographer, visual essayist and multimedia artist, Marker leaves impressive body of work that spans more than a half a century. His uncategorizable cinematic oeuvre touched upon politics, technology, cinema, artists, time and memories. He was an acute observer of the past and present and cinema's own soothsayer.

The retro includes Sunless: one of my absolute favorites, La Jetée: a seminal time-travel Sci-fi classic, Bestiary Series: his short visual haikus on animals, Statues Also Die (with Alain Resnais) and Valparaiso (with Joris Ivens): his collaborative efforts, The Six Side of the Pentagon, Le Joli Mai and other politically themed time capsules, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenivich, Remembrance of Things to Come: biographical sketches, and a lot more.

Chris Marker Retrospective runs 8/15 - 8/28. For tickets and more information, please visit BAM Cinematek website.

Level Five (1997)
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The act of remembering has always been Chris Marker's theme. Using the then relatively-new technology called internet, the famed visual essayist equates information/misinformation with distorted history in the sci-fi mold. Yes, DOS era graphics are laughably outdated, but Marker's prediction is alarmingly accurate: masks (avatars), OWL, short for optional world link (a stand in for world wide web), skyping, internet anonymity, personal connection/disconnection....

Laura (Catherine Belkhodja), named after Otto Preminger's heroine by her internet correspondent, inherits the research on the largely forgotten Battle of Okinawa for creating a computer game. So day in and day out, in her pajamas, Laura sits at her computer table researching that fateful battle in a windowless, dark room, looking and addressing directly to the camera.

Marker also inserts interviews with Oshima Nagisa , author/scholar Tokitsu Kenji, the survivors and war/tour footage of Okinawa. As Oshima says in the interview, Okinawa was sacrificed in the hopes of saving the mainland. The battle was already a foregone conclusion. The civilians were ordered to kill themselves ahead of the battle, to avoid being captured by evil enemies. As a result 130,000 civilians died on that island. They killed their loved ones and killed themselves. Japanese commanders were banking on the resolve of civilians deterring the enemies. Instead, atom bombs were dropped on the mainland two months later.

Marker's contemplation on people imbued with the new technology (William Gibson style) and the history falling into oblivion is not always successful. But it is a potent film with a long lasting implication on the matter.

Digitally restored, Level Five has a week-long theatrical release August 15-21, running concurrently with the retrospective.

Statues Also Die (1953)
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In this short docu-essay commissioned by Présence Africane journal, the filmmakers examine African art and its commercialization by way of colonialism. Marker, who handled the camera, shoots African statues and masks like they are human beings, not museum pieces on a mantel, since they are not represented in museums like Louvre.

Resnais and Marker make a case that a statue loses its meaning when it ends up on text books or taken completely out of context (mass produced or becomes an ashtray). That's how they die. Their utilitarian and cultural applications aside, African art doesn't get no respect as art.

I don't know if the footage of the Harlem Globetrotters is meant to be cynical or genuine adoration of athletic prowess, but the filmmakers cover the ugly side-effects of colonialism -- Disney-fying Africa. It is remarkable considering it was made in 1953, way before many African nations' independence from its European colonizers or American Civil Rights movement. No wonder it was banned from the French public until 1963.

In its entirety:

Sunless (1983)
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Sublime. Marker's musings on impermanence of human existence and memories narrated by a female narrator are both poetic and thoughtful. The 80's Japan takes the center stage as an alien world where a thousand years of time criss-crossing in every street corner, Kilgore Trout style.

While Godard tries to cram a lot of the same ideas in his films but never manages successfully to fully articulate them, Marker does it so effortlessly here. Beautiful and wise beyond anything I've seen or read.

The Koumiko Mystery (1967)
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It's Koumiko, a twenty-something Japanese beauty who fast derails Marker's coverage of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He can't take the camera away from her angular, very traditional Japanese face. The film consists of some narration by the filmmaker, newscasters and Koumiko herself as she answers Marker's barrage of questions honestly with that typical Japanese modesty, but always with a hint of mystery.
The film is an anthropological travelogue, documenting post-war Japanese psyche in the shadow of the greatest economic miracle the world has ever seen. Koumiko, an apolitical woman whose ancient face betrays modern sensibilities as she talks about her life and men is at once traditional and contemporary.

As the title suggests, Marker knows the seductive power of something hidden. You can't possibly find out about someone in 46 minutes, let alone a whole country. He knows this. But the film is a lyrical, beautiful ode to that first glimpse, peeling off that first layer. Beautifully shot and edited, I long to see this film on the big screen.

Koumiko marks the beginning of Marker's fascination with Japan, the setting of many of his later films. It also introduces cats, a constantly recurring motif in his work.

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (2001)
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Made for French TV, Cinema de notre temps, Marker faithfully records the last days of the Russian master, Andrei Tarkovsky, who died in a Paris hospital in 1986, soon after completing his last film, The Sacrifice. With footage from Tarkovsky's other films, Marker assembles an intimate and revealing documentary about the Russian master's philosophy, techniques and intersection of his life and art.

One Day in the Life... is a top rate analysis of Tarkovsky's mastery and contains many precious glimpses of the master at work, especially in filming bravura ending of Sacrifice where continuous long shot of burning house and Alexander (played by Ingmar Bergman regular Erland Josephson) running left and right. On camera, captured by Marker, unlike the solemnity of the scene, Tarkovsky is joyful and energetic, dictating every inch of action and camera movement to actors and Sven Nykvist (master DP, also a Bergman cohort). This is a great doc on one of the greatest filmmakers ever lived.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Burning Down the House

Offret/The Sacrifice (1986) - Tarkovsky
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It's Alexander (Ingmar Bergman regular Erland Josephson)'s birthday. He and his young son plants a leaveless, twisty tree. He tells the son that even the ordinary actions, done them time and time again, brings a change in the world. Not a religious man, Alexander argues with a local postman and Nietzsche quoting Otto (Allan Edwall of Fanny och Alexander). As the day wears on, dinner is getting set up for his birthday at his house by the ocean attended by his wife, teenage daughter, son, his doctor friend and the wife's lover, Otto and two servant girls. But just before dinner, they are startled by sonic jet flying over and distant booms. It's the end of days. Nowhere in Europe is safe, stay at home, the radio announcer says in a grim voice.

Alxander, gripped with fear for all humanity, prays to god that he will give up anything to save the mankind. Otto sneaks in and tells Alexander that he has to lie with Maria, a sullen, saintly foreign servant, in order to save the world. He does so on her levitating bed.

The Russian master's last film is a beautiful religious parable. Dreamlike, meditative, all encompassing work. The uninterrupted climax scene of Alexander burning down the house is perhaps the master's finest technical feat and a true cinematic tour-de-force. And it's a hopeful one. It ends with the young son watering the tree as Maria looks on.

Shot by the great Sven Nykvist (yet another Bergman cohort), The Sacrifice is a fitting finale for illustrious filmmaker who wanted to elevate film's status to other art form, that of painting and music.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Diluted Vision of Dystopia

Zero Theorem (2013) - Gilliam
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Gilliam is at it again, with diminishing results each time. This time, in his candy colored dystopia, it is Qohen (Christophe Waltz), an antisocial number cruncher in a google-like mega coporation. He longs to work at home because he is waiting for that faithful phone call which will tell him what to do with his life. Otherwise, life is all for nothing. We are all going to be sucked up into the black hole. The prez of the company grants his wishes and assigns him to solve zero theorem, a herculean task to prove that everything sums up to nothing. Qohen falls for tantric telepathy specialist Bainsley (scrumptious Mélanie Thierry) who turns out to be a hired sex toy by the coporation. But she develops a feeling for our hero. You know where it's going.

His morsels of visual ideas, controlled chaos are all there and they are fun at times, but they alone can't really sustain a 2 hour movie. This is watered down version of Brazil. The tragedy of a common man is only in the periphery of Gilliam's lackluster vision, so there is nothing at stake. This futile endeavor has cameos by David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton and Ben Whishaw.
Zero Theorem opens nationwide on 9/14.