Thursday, September 29, 2016

Youth and Optimism Through Female Gaze

American Honey (2016) - Arnold
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A modern day Wizard of Oz but Dorothy here is played with gusto by newcomer Sasha Lane. Her Star is a tough as a nail firecracker with a good head on her shoulders and a heart of gold. American Honey tell the rowdy group of traveling kids selling magazine subscriptions door to door. Only recognizable actors (I use the term loosely here) are Shia Labeouf and Riley Keough. But even they disappear into their respective roles as a slightly sexy older kid who show Star the ropes and young creepy, scary matriarch of the gang. The setting here is American south-midwest, but it isn't much different than Arnold's previous film Fish Tank, in terms of its theme- on the verge of womanhood, a girl from a poor family journeying through self-discovery. The hope Arnold portrays in those two films has less to do with its setting but with youth. This is what separates Arnold from other filmmakers. American Honey is being compared with Larry Clark's Kids. Yes there are plenty of graphic sex and violence. But whereas Clark's film unabashedly, proudly comes across as nothing but exploitation, Arnold's film shows real compassion toward its characters while not losing sight on the youthful passion. Arnold acknowledges physical, almost feral attractions that exist among people (even in adults in Red Road) but understands that she doesn't have to exploit it by showing boobies every other scene. For this reason, I think this film can be a great counterpart example to so-called 'male gaze' films by all these 'macho' directors.

Charging tirelessly through almost 3 hour running time, Arnold and co achieves something truly special here. It's a director's film through and through, not in any artificial David Fincher way. She even knows how to perfectly use actors like Labeouf who fits the role like a glove. She deserves every best director awards this year period.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Stranger than Fiction

The Lovers and the Despot (2016) - Canaan, Adam
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Truth is stranger than fiction. In 1978, famous South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife, actress Choi Eun-hee were kidnapped in Hong Kong by North Korean agents under order of Kim Jung-il, the future leader of North Korea. While they were held as captives, they made 7 movies in the hermit kingdom, until they made a daring escape in 1986 to Vienna. This bizarre and fantastic experiences that Shin and Choi went through reads like a crazy combination of a high-flying political thriller and a lurid tale from the dark underbelly of the movie business. And it's totally ripe for a movie adaptation that could easily be much more fascinating and entertaining than Ben Affleck's Argo.

Two British filmmakers, Robert Canaan and Ross Adam, have a go at it in documentary form. Their approach here is pretty straight forward, using tons of archival footage, movie clips from Shin's filmography, tastefully staged reenactments shot in the style of grainy super-8, and interviews with the full participation of survivors surrounding the story.

In the center of it all is director Shin. Once described as the 'Prince of the Korean cinema', Shin had a string of successes in the 50s and 60s with titles like A Flower in Hell, The Prince Yeonsan and Eunuch. Choi, his starlet, couldn't help but fall in love with the dashing movie director on set. They got married and had two children together. But because he was too much of an artist and not enough a realist and had no head for business, he fell into hard times after a couple of flops. Debtors sent gangsters to his office and house, ready to break his legs.

It was President Park Jung-hee (father of current South Korean President Park Gun-hae)'s strict miltary dictator regime which censored his films and eventually shut his film company down in the 70s. Choi and Shin split up when she found out that Shin had a secret family with a younger woman. He hit rock bottom. After his ex-wife's abduction, he went looking for her in Hong Kong but also disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Was he also kidnapped or did he willingly defect? The film only speculates, but chooses not to elaborate further. And Shin, who died of complications after a liver transplant in 2006, isn't here to defend himself.

On camera, Choi, now 89, comes across as an earnest, emotional person when remembering her harrowing (but also at times humorous) experience. She recounts her abduction clearly- She was chloroformed and taken by boat to the North. When she landed on the North Korean shore, she was welcomed by none other than the Kim Jung-il. He treated her like a VIP, all the while she was fearing for her life. Her preconceived notion of Kim, the heir apparent to the most feared regime in the world, was somewhat dulled by his self-degrading humor- "Are you surprised by my height? As short as a midget's turd, eh?" (He was 5'3" reportedly)

After 5 years of captivity and re-educationing, Shin and Choi were finally reunited. In an audiotape, we hear Kim Jung-il admitting the abduction of the two and mistreatment of Shin as all 'but-a-big-misunderstanding'. Shin tells her his several escape attempts and imprisonment. Soon they start planning an escape. But in the mean time, with unlimited support and resources provided by Kim, Shin excels as a movie director, resulting in 7 feature films for their captors.

The film touches upon many intriguing facts but none more so than a glimpse into the cult of Kim Jung-il. It is widely known that he was a movie buff- he was in charge of Ministry of Culture before he became the leader, overseeing every cinematic output of the communist country. Deeply unsatisfied by the lack of talents and typical lackluster sob stories the country's film industry was producing, he had ordered to kidnap South Korea's top talents - Shin and his muse Choi.

Through the secret audiotape that Choi recorded, we hear Kim's giddy, accommodating voice that doesn't really go with the image of the secretive, all powerful dictator. When Choi and Shin sought an asylum in the US, those tapes were valuable to the CIA. It was the first time any Westerners heard the voice of Kim.

The Lovers and the Despot is filled to the brim with amusing, entertaining anecdotes. But it could've been even better, considering how fantastic its subjects are. With all that great intrigue related to the abductions, one could easily make several films out of it. The life story of Shin would make a fascinating biopic alone, for instance.

I wish the filmmakers asked Choi, Shin's lifelong partner who went through those troublesome, fantastic years with him, some pertinent questions regarding the real motives of his being in North Korea instead of softball questions. Yes, Kim Jung-il's statement on tape might prove that he was also abducted, but South Korean intelligence didn't buy it and Shin couldn't come back to South Korea until the 90s. It would have made a fantastic love story if Shin willingly went to North Korea to find his estranged but missing ex-wife and remarry her with Kim Jung-il's blessing.

The Lovers and the Despot opens in Theaters in NY, LA, DC, Boston & Philadelphia and On Demand on Friday, September 23.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Better Living Through Chemistry

To Have and Have Not (1944) - Hawks
Its WWII French Martinique in the Caribbean sea setting is pretty similar to Casablanca in Nothern Africa for cynical, overly neutral business owners - Rick, a bar owner, Harry/Steve, a captain of a fishing charter boat. They are both played by wry Humphrey Bogart who always ends up doing the right thing. But its war intrigue is just a basis for Bogart to do his thing. To Have and Have Not is more of a comedy than melancholic love story. With 19-year old scene chewing Lauren Bacall, called 'Slim' here, you have two Bogeys running around wisecracking all of the time. Exchanging crackling banters when not singing while drinking or smoking, comfortably wearing righteousness on their sleeves, the backstory-less dynamic duo is just too goddamn cool for everything around them. Yeah corrupt cops can shake me but I won't even blink, oh you want me to pick up this person for the French Nationalists on my boat under the nose of Vichy royalist cops? Sure, gimme some money. We get caught by patrol boat? Oh we just shoot at their searchlight and run. Oh the dude got shot and we don't have a doctor? I'll dig the bullet out of his shoulder no prob. Honey, fetch me my first aid kit. Oh let me hit on the poor wife of the man who got shot. Oh let me make fun of the wife by mimicking her because I am jealous. I mean it goes on and on like that. To Have and Have Not showcases exemplary chemistry between the two leads. It's a really deliciously fun movie.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Ultimate Giallo

Dressed to Kill (1980) - De Palma
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Dressed to Kill is nothing but one elaborate set piece to another, strung together with plenty of nudity and blood for your pleasure. Boobs, pubes and talk of erections for everyone to hear. De Palma has a technical craft that many Italian giallo directors lacked. In that sense, the film is an ultimate giallo. Is it as enjoyable as, Deep Red or Strip Nude for Your Killer? No. Even though De Palma possesses that perverse voyeuristic tendencies and technical know-how, it lacks sensuality. The film's endless optical trickery and parallel actions, time bending slow-mo scenes, high camera angles and dolly shots are way too showy. I get the feeling that De Palma is a great student of cinema and takes elements and techniques from others but remains only to be a great copycat, never an auteur, even more so than Tarantino. He lacks the beauty and grace some other visualist directors - Argento, Park Chan Wook, Refn possess. Dressed to Kill was enjoyable and I am willing to explore more from his filmography. Let's see if I change my mind on him.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Through the Looking Glass

Cameraperson (2016) - Johnson
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Kirsten Johnson's career as a cinematographer is a long and accomplished one in the documentary field.

She is responsible for images of countless documentaries by filmmakers such as Laura Poitras, Michael Moore, Kirby Dick and many more. Her work took her to many of the world's trouble spots: Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda.

With Cameraperson, she assembles the b-rolls from various films she worked on as an all visual self-portrait. What's amazing about the film is that she was able to see the beauty in the most horrendous conditions around the world and capture those moments on camera for everyone to see. The result is not only a portrayal of a committed professional but an intimate, moving memoir unlike any other documentaries I've seen.

It starts out in Foca, Kosovo, the focal point for mass extermination and mass rape of Muslim population by the Serb-military forces during the Balkan War in the 90s. Rolling hills, pretty wild flowers and traffic jamming sheep and sheep herders make an ideal picture of country life, covering up the violent, ugly past.

Johnson was there shooting I Came to Testify, a PBS documentary about the first International Tribunal of its kind to hand down a verdict that sexual violence against women during the war is a war crime. The footage finds Johnson focusing on a Muslim family who had been living there for generations and came back after the war. We see her being invited to the house and sharing their meals. It's all smiles and laughter. A real human contact.

Jumping back and forth from place to place and in time, Cameraperson plays out like someone's non-linear memories on screen, highlighting the brightest, most vivid moments. With the wealth of footage, we are introduced to the glimpses of beauty: the idyllic pastoral countryside in Kosovo, a baby being delivered in seriously underequipped, crowded maternity ward in Nigeria, a makeshift roadside picnic in Afghanistan, the beautiful girls walking by in the streets of Liberia...all under the shadows of violent past/present and imminent danger.

It's not difficult to guess where Johnson stands politically with all those topically charged documentaries she worked on. But as a visual artist, she doesn't have to be the loud, rhetorical voice, like the directors in those pointy films. Without relying on narrations, she quietly observes everything through the viewfinder of the camera and she manages to personally engage with her subjects.

Perhaps the most touching segments are home video footage of Johnson's family. We see her family, her twins (a boy and a girl) and her father. It also shows her mother's deterioration due to Alzheimer's.

Memories shape who we are as individuals. With that context in mind, Cameraperson becomes one individual's noble attempt to capture those unforgettable moments in her life and forever memorialize them. And I find her attempt here extremely moving.

Johnson goes back to Foca after five years, to the same area and visit the same family. She tells the townspeople why she came to the place the first time: to document unspeakable evil that took place. But long after that production wrapped, it was the beauty, warmth and kindness of that family that made an indelible mark in her life, so she had to come back. She shares the footage she shot five years ago with the family.

Things we see and feel, encounters and connections with others shape who we are. One could write a book, one could sing a song about it. This film is a deeply personal documentation of how Kirsten Johnson's experience as a filmmaker shaped her the person she is. And because she is a seasoned cinematographer, we all benefit from seeing how it unfolds on the screen. Deeply moving and contemplative, Cameraperson is a hands down one of the best documentaries I've seen this year.

Cameraperson opens in New York September 9 and in Los Angeles September 23.

Monday, September 5, 2016

'More Human Than Human' is Our Moto

Morgan (2016) - Scott
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Lee (Kate Mara), a risk management personnel sent by the corporate to assess the recent incident in the lab where Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), the latest test-tube babe who grew up in the lab supported by caring scientists, violently attacked one of the carers (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lee finds everyone to be too soft and sentimental about the potential killing machine growing in their midst. After Morgan attacks a psychiatrist during psych eval, everything goes to hell and carnage ensues and it's up to Lee to track 'it' down and terminate it.

I had no expectations whatsoever going in and didn't even know what it's about. I've heard that Ridley Scott's son is also a filmmaker and he is making some Sci-fi movie. Morgan, as far as man-made killing machine in the shape of a little girl movies are concerned, is a quite a modest yet highly effective effort. Interesting choice of actors all around - Michelle Yeoh, Paul Giamatti, Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kate Mara and the girl from The Witch in a title role, a subhuman being borne out of a tube in the remote supersecret lab in the woods. Everything is confined to the lab and the surrounding beautiful woods.

It's no secret that Scott Sr.'s Blade Runner influenced generations of Sci-fi films and Morgan's no exception. The moral quandaries are there about being human and whatnot. But Luke Scott has a better sense to make everything succinct and precise. There is no discernible fat in his artistry from set design to dialog. Morgan is a tough, fast moving little package that is hugely entertaining. Kate Mara also shines as a tough fast moving little package. I liked it.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

J & B and Giallo

From: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key  photo 032dbdba-4be9-438e-9bc1-e5f8edc1b8aa_zpshnrg4m5s.png

Have been watching a lot of Giallo films lately. Giallo is a Italian film genre that was popular in the late 60s - 70s. Giallo simply means yellow in Italian. It derived from popular pulpy crime novels with yellow jacket, hence the genre title. Gialli are mainly slasher films with some supernatural, crime elements with sexy heroines usually appearing in nude. Directors who were known for their craft in making delicious combination of thriller and softcore porn are Sergio Martino, Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi and to some extent Dario Argento. Fetching Edwige Fenech became a big starlet of the genre and appeared in many gialli.

Killer eyelashes: the eyes of Edwige Fenech
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As I was going through many well known Giallo films, I couldn't help notice recurring motifs. It seems that J&B, a blended scotch whiskey by Justerini & Brooks Liquour and Wine company based in England is the go-to beverage in these slashers, loved by killers and victims alike. So I was compelled to compile these J&B shots from the Gialli I've seen so far. And as I delve deeply into more Giallo, I am hoping to prove that this is not an isolated phenom.

From: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) - Martino J&B meter 2/5
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All the Colors of the Dark (1972) - Martino J&B meter 1/5
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Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975) - Bianchi J&B meter 5/5
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Torso (1973) - Martino J&B meter 2/5
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Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) - Bava J&B meter 2/5
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