Sunday, January 31, 2016

Subtle, Masterful Satire

La Ciénaga (2001) - Martel
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Compared to bombastic, unsubtle satires and social commentaries that we are used to, Lucrecia Martel puts some perspectives on how they should be done, masterfully in La Ciénaga (The Swamp). Taking place in the decaying manor in the jungle in one unbearably hot and sticky Summer in Argentina, the film illustrates the murky underbelly of bourgeoisie without delving into surrealism or making caricatures out of characters. Mecha (Graciela Borges) is seen sunbathing while drunk along with the rest of the inebriated grownups of the house by the pool side. After demanding ice cubes for her wine, she slowly rises in her stupor, tries to collect filthy wine glasses, drops them, falls on top of the shards. The rest of the family are not much better. The emasculated, husband keeps dying his hair and staining the sheets, the 15 year old Momi (Sofia Bertoloto) is obsessed with the pretty native housemaid Isabel (Andrea Lopez), the older daughter Vero (Leonora Balcarce) flirts with her ne're-do-well grown up brother José, who's living with a much older family friend, Mercedes in Buenos Aires, visiting after Mecha's fall and doesn't seem to have problem jumping in mother's bed for a cuddle. Young Joaquin lost one of his eyes while horsing around in the jungle with other boys.

Tali (Mecedes Moran), concerned cousin of Mecha shows up with her family (a grumbling husband, 3 girls and one boy who figure largely into the story later on), not only to check on her cousin but also use the pool for kids who are bored out of their minds. The said pool, neglected and not cleaned for years, is filthy, murky grey disease breeding ground. Isabel warns Momi not to go in there- she might catch something terrible. The contempt for native population is totally out in the open from Mecha down to Joaquin, casually calling them savages and accuse Isabel of constantly stealing towels. With TV always in the background, everyone, across the social strata, is drawn in by the news of appearance of Virgin Mary on top of a cement tower.

With amazing array of characters and richly contrasting social stratification not only in a familial but geographical and cultural, La Ciénaga is a complex examination of a society still steeped in colonial legacy and religion.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Can't Sleep? Drive to an Airport, See What Happens

Into the Night (1985) - Landis
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Average schulb Ed (Jeff Goldblum) has a bad case of insomnia. After finding out his wife is cheating on him, he aimlessly drives to LAX one night. There he rescues, Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a damsel in distress, and dove right into whole lotta trouble. Like many 80s movies, Into the Night boasts completely overblown plot so unnecessarily intricate and wordy yet mercilessly unexpositional- it's almost charming. It involves some Iranian imperial emeralds smuggling (up in Pfeiffer's tight butt) and Iranian Gestapos (including director John Landis doing Marx Bros routine as one in a quartet of bumbling idiot goons) and other interested parties. It also features David Bowie as a contract killer type, and flurry of other director cameo appearances - Roger Vadim, Paul Mazursky, Johnathan Demme, etc.

Whatever happened to Michelle Pfeiffer? She is so luminous in Into the Night. She looks mighty foxy in her little red leather jacket and tight jeans. The movie is much a do about nothing but has a goofy, screwball comedy charm in the backdrop of 80s excess.

OK Computer

Unfriended (2014) - Gabriadze
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Finally a legit horror movie for the internet age, commenting on cyber bullying and inanity of private teen lives in America. Forget about some serial killer stalking attractive teens in the woods. It is just as nightmarish for these kids whose sole communication system is taken over by some vengeful, omnipresent computer hack! You don't care for any of these attractive teens if they will each die a horrible death or not. So all the cryin and hollerin and emotional fireworks these kids display on their own corner of skype boxes are for naught. Levan Gabriadze fully takes advantage of lack of details in internet communication to amp up the tension and fuzzy up the logic and it works mostly. Unfriended has no chance of aging gracefully, but I bet they spent as much money on the whole movie as they did for a pair of Keanu's sunglasses in Matrix.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Life is but a waking dream

Cemetery of Splendour (2015) - Weerasethakul
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A former school-turned-hospital in Kon Kaen is the main setting for Cemetery of Splendour. A group of soldiers suffer from sleep disorder where they sleep most of the time, each hooked up to a glowing, color changing apparatus which gives you good dreams ("American soldiers used it in Afghanistan"). These giant glowing sticks stand out in a tropical setting like black monolith in 2001. But they are also pretty and give colorful glows, cinematically speaking. A middle aged local volunteer woman, Jen, takes care of a handsome soldier Itt who's suffering from the illness. They are played by Joe's regular, Jenjira Pongpas and Banlop Lomnoi. According to the young medium Keng (another Joe regular, Jarinpattra Rueangram), the ground the hospital is sitting on used to be a cemetery of ancient kings and they are harnessing the souls of these soldiers to fight for them when they are asleep.

Jen and Itt talk when he's awake. They talk about Jen's American husband whom she met on the internet, Itt's desire to leave the army and set up a Taiwanese style mooncake shop, etc. There are the usual, unsubtle yet natural eroticism and scenes of other ordinary bodily functions in Cemetery that you've seen in Joe's other films. They very naturally fit in to the gentle rhythm of the film. If the recent political unrest of the country is addressed in any way in Cemetery, it's regarded, blended within the universe Joe creates - the collective coma of the soldiers, unexplained digging of earth, some hushed government conspiracy theories uttered by characters. But the film feels more personal- like all his films, the film takes place in Isan province, Northwest of Thailand where the director grew up. And like his other films, Cemetery is infused with his memories of the place and myths and legends he grew up with.

'Life is but a waking dream' is much more pronounced in this film than any other weerasethakul films. But he also acknowledges a certain melancholy in resisting to let go earthly desires. Not as boisterous (for Weerasethakul standards) as Uncle Boonmee, but just as touching and beautiful, Cemetery of Splendour doesn't disappoint.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Crystal World (2013) - Borg
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Taking cues from Laughton's Night of the Hunter and JG Ballard, Pia Borg creates breathtakingly beautiful short, combining the iconic underwater death scene from the said movie and stop motion sequences. Plays part of First Look at MoMI.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Popularity is a slutty little cousin of prestige

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) - Iñárritu
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A movie as a spectacle, Birdman is a virtuosic experience - technically brilliant and much more sophisticated than action hero franchises it makes fun of. But at the same time, the whole premise is as light as a feather, its comments on Hollywood and its narcissistic actors are emotionally and intellectually hollow. As much as I love Michael Keaton, who commands most of the screen time, his Keatonness is buried deep in meta-ness of the film premise and so never gets to shine. It's as if he is going through the routine of a hamster in a cage, just like the film's universe - one block radius möbius strip trip from and to an unnamed Manhattan theater in the Theater District near Times Square.

Ed Norton gets to play the more interesting part as Mike, a Brando-esque nihilistic actor who comes in to the troupe the day before the theater opens for the preview. Yet he is not written as a one dimensional character, so as other characters. There is much humanity to be found in characters and everyone's terrific acting-wise, from Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan to even Zach Galifianakis. But there is not enough time to explore them all. Birdman wants to be many things- it wants to be a Robert Altman film (Raymond Carver connection too obvious?), but only half-heartedly. It never succeeds as those it aims for. It's a fun film that never stops. But it's not a great film.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Back from the Dead

The Revenant (2015) - Iñárritu
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In the tradition of ambitious, bravura, excessive filmmaking, Alejandro G. Iñárritu goes there with The Revenant and achieves Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo worthy greatness. It's an unsentimental, relentlessly brutal, macho filmmaking that will undoubtedly turn a lot of viewers off. But I loved it. It concerns fur trapper/guide Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) leading a cavalry of men in felt business to safety through the snowy and hostile western territory in 1800s. Because Glass has a half-breed, teenage Pawnee Indian son named Hawk and the group reeling after a vicious large scale Indian attack, the tension rises among the crew, especially from Fitzerald (Tom Hardy) an unsavory character who'd fuck over anyone standing in his way and his share of the profit. After the horrendous bear attack that leaves Glass almost dead, the captain of the cavalry (Domhnal Gleeson) orders (with the promise of large rewards) Fitzerald and young Bridger (Will Poulter) to care for Glass and Hawk and give Glass a proper Christian burial when the time comes, and leaves them behind to catch up later.

For the next two hours, The Revenant becomes a harrowing tale of survival and a revenge story. It's an amazing feat for DiCaprio, finally shedding all remnants of youth for the first time in my eyes, crawls the snowy earth, then dove right into the freezing roiling water, eats raw meat and fish, trek and climb the snowy Rockies with his bare hands. He is a live-action Wiley Coyote - he gets mauled, buried alive, almost drowned, thrown off the cliff, and so on and so on. He even uses a dead horse as a shelter, Empire Strikes Back style. Tom Hardy is perfect as a villain with his shifty gaze and mumbling.

Emmanuel Lubezki's only natural lit cinematography doesn't really chart anything new here, but the look and feel of The Revenant is polar opposite from Malick's The New World. And I am very glad that I decided to see the film in theaters. There are some blissfully beautiful shots in Glass's flashbacks/dreams of his dead Indian wife floating over him, but most of the time, the film is all dirt, mud, snot, wet felt and blood. And in its own way, it's spectacularly beautiful.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Topography of Flesh

Meurtrière (2015) - Grandrieux
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The second part of what Grandrieux conceived as trilogy (starting with White Epilepsy in 2012 and planned Unrest), Meurtrière/Murderess is another mesmerizing vertical mobile phone shot experiment. Your eyes gradually recognize human form in criminally underexposed images- the curvatures, concaves, female sex as they move in slow-mo. Distorted, muffled sound crawls to accompany tangle of naked bodies.

It's Caravaggio meets Munch meets Bacon. Slowwww cross-fades add another dimension to it, creating layers of flesh and movement on top of each other. The vertical canvas Grandrieux paints with these trained dancers as they gyrate, falling on top of one another, their light and dark skins contrast and accompany in graceful slow motion is quite intoxicating. Even though it is supposed to evoke or be about "anxiety", watching Meurtrière with all the lights off and plugged in is a beautiful, hypnotic experience.

Meurtrière plays part of First Look 2016 at Museum of Moving Image on 1/24. It is preceded by two shorts, Jet Lag and Lenz Elegy. Please visit MoMI website for more information.

Infidelity is an Equal Opportunity Offender

In the Shadow of Women (2015) - Garrel
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Philip Garrel, known for making films about deeply self-reflexive romantic entanglements since the late 60s, is at it again with In the Shadows of Women. Infidelity, art, improvisation, one-take scenes, shot in monochrome on film & natural settings have been Garrel's MO and although his new film certainly encompasses all those elements, it seems much more concise and less ambiguous and melancholic than his other films, thanks to its script.

What's different here is his emphasis on looking love and romance from female perspective. Famed screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie, Tin Drum, Every Man for Himself, Birth) joined in with Garrel's regular writing partners - Caroline Deruas and Arlette Langman to write a script that represents the female point of view, as the title suggests. The result is another slight yet delicious, nuanced psychological drama.

Pierre (Stanislas Merhar of many Chantal Akerman films) and Manon (Clotilde Courau) are middle aged, poor documenatary filmmaker couple- Pierre directing and Manon Assisting. Manon has been completely devoted to her husband's artistic endeavor and believes in his talent. He is working on a documentary about resistance fighters during WW2, interviewing survivors who may or may not be real heros. The matter of fact narration reiterate the fact that Manon is living in her husband's shadows. Pierre is an introspective, thoughtful man but who can be totally aloof and blind on other life matters, especially when it comes to Manon's needs. He starts an affair with Elisabeth (Lena Paugam),an attractive intern at a film archive. And things get a bit complicated when Elisabeth starts spying on the couple and discovers that Manon is being unfaithful to Pierre as well. Pierre, justifying his infidelity to himself as 'male archetype thing to do', can't accept the fact that his wife's cheating on him.

There is nothing remarkable about In the Shadows of Women's premise. But it is interesting to see Garrel not using his hunky son (Louis Garrel) and other attractive young actresses to portray lovers in distress but enlisting older actors to play same romantic predicaments, illustrating that no matter what your age is, love and romance can make fool of yourself. And except the presence of cell phones, the film could easily be taking place in the 60s.

Merhar, who hasn't aged a bit in the last 20 years and still possesses naiveté and thoughtfulness in his eyes, is perfect for the role of Pierre. He assumes the difficult role of a man who is confused when his masculinity he took for granted and his idea of women's roles in society has turned upside down. Courau is beguiling as a frustrated wife of an underachiever looking for happiness in her life. Paugam's unassuming beauty and intelligence suit the role of Elisabeth very well and in tune with Garrel heroines. Even though the film centers around Pierre, In the Shadow of Women ultimately belongs to Cortilde, as she realizes the folly of 'men', thanks to a very well balanced script.

In the Shadow of Women might not be Garrel's best film, but it's good to see him quietly charting new territories in his ever so small, highly out of fashion, romantic entanglement oeuvre and I applaud him for it.

In the Shadow of Women opens theatrically on 1/15 in New York, other cities will follow. Please visit Distrib Films website for more info

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Forever Romantic

Jealousy (2013) - Garrel
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It starts with a break up. Louis (Louis Garrel) leaves his wife and their young daughter for another woman Claudia (Anna Mouglalis). Louis and Claudia are both struggling actors. He thinks moody Claudia is the one that he truly loves and reject all the other advances that are put on him. He is committed. But she isn't happy and their poverty is crushing her spirit. Holed up in their small attic apartment and without a job, Claudia secretly looks for a better man who can provide for her.

Delicately balanced and beautifully put together, Garrel's slight, 77 minute effort is very much akin to old black and white romance of French New Wave of the 60s. There are hardly any coverages, most scenes are shot on a single take and life-like. Garrel, a forever romantic, has never moved on like his contemporaries but has faithfully stuck in his brand of self reflexive filmmaking with his trusty actors who are all very on point.Louis Garrel reminds you of more handsome Jean-Pierre Leaud, sexy, I-just-smoked-10,000-cigarettes Mouglalis is great as a man-eater (yet not a caricature) and Olga Milshtein as Charlotte, Louis's daughter firmly anchors Jealousy in real-life realm. It's a delicious stuff.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Get Your New Year's Cinephilia on with MoMI's First Look 2016

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Starting this Friday and running for three consecutive weekends (1/8-1/24), in their beautiful state of the art theater in Queens, Astoria, the Museum of Moving Image's First Look Film Festival is fast becoming a new New York institution for many film aficionados. Selecting its roster from cinema's most cutting edge filmmakers, the 5th edition of First Look opens with the US premiere of Alexandr Sokurov's new film Francofonia.

Switching gears a bit this year with guest programmers such as Jean-Pierre Rehm of FIDMarseille, and Aliza Ma of Metrograph and Mónica Savirón, along with chief curator David Schwartz, this year's eclectic roster is heavy on the experimental/avant-garde/documentary.

It includes renowned experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs' new films in 3D, Canadian video artist Dominic Gagnon's youtube culled Inuit epic Of the North, artist Margaret Honda's 70mm silent film Spectrum Reverse Spectrum, short films of Austrian visual artist Björn Kämmerer and Philippe Grandrieux's new film, Meurtrière (his continued exploration of bodies which started with White Epilepsy).

Then there are behind-the-scenes documentaries from Léa Rinaldi (This is What It Is- about Los Aldeanos, the most popular hip-hop group in Cuba, Traveling at Night with Jim Jarmusch and Behind Jim Jarmusch), a documentary on João Bérnard da Costa, a director of the Portuguese Film Museum in conjunction with Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar.

Here is how chief curator David Schwartz describes this year's edition in the press release:

This year's edition is a true cinephile's feast, filled with works that reflect on the medium itself, that urge us to reconsider our intimate connection to the ways that we experience cinema. as always, the films in First Look cannot be easily defined. They are artisan works, expressing distinct personal visions, with a strong emphasis this year on avant-garde cinema. To engage in the new possibilties of an art form is also to engage with the past, and this edition of First Look contains an ongoing dialogue with film history, with a selection of older works in dialogue withthe many premieres.

Twitch's own Christopher Bourne will be reporting on some of these selections in a short while, so keep a look out.

First Run Film Festival 2016 runs 1/8 to 1/24 at Museum of Moving Image. Please visit MoMI website for further information and showtimes.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Night Hunting

Hunter (2015) - Barley
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It's inspirational. A short film shot entirely on iphone by artist Scott Barley. The pitch dark night time photography barely sketches out the outlines of the scapes and objects. Barley's on par with Grandrieux to chart the unknown visual sensory territory here. Sound is just as immersive - the constant running of mountain stream. Barley then blends his images with computer generated aurora to top it off at the end. marvelous stuff.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Uncomfortably Intimate, Bafflingly Beautiful

Field Niggas (2015) - Allah
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Kalik Allah has been photographing people in East Harlem (Lex & 125st) for years with his analog 35mm camera. Field Niggas is an extension of his practice with a small DSLR (shot in half the normal speed). The power of his arresting images is in his subject looking back at you straight in the eye. The experience of their lingering glance is bafflingly beautiful and uncomfortably intimate. I haven't felt like that probably since Robert Bergman photo exhibit in 2009. Accompanying wild tracks of its many subjects conversing with Allah give necessary context to the images presented. Obviously, Allah being a brother from the neighborhood gives him advantage to take these intimate photos at night in East Harlem. And the young photographer is not shy about his involvement in the process. He is seen and heard throughout the film.

Shot in the shadow of Robert Gardener incident during the Summer of 2014, the tension on the streets is reflected in the film as well. Police presence is everywhere and Allah includes them in his universe too. These young officers might be voiceless and distant in the film, but that doesn't stop Allah from getting in their faces and share his photo albums with them.

With the evocative title and constant presence of old chain gang songs, Allah draws parallels to the present inner-city life - poverty, drugs (it seems the drug of the choice at the moment is K2, the synthetic cannabis) & single motherhood. Field Niggas is a great snapshot of the nitty gritty present of the street people. But Allah seems incapable of staying away from beauty- time and time again he revisits pretty faces lit only by the dim street lights.

Please visit Khalik's Tumblr