Thursday, March 17, 2016

Wounded Heart, Haunting Memories

Les trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse/My Golden Days (2015) - Desplechin
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Paul Dedalus, a character last seen in Arnaud Desplechin's playful romantic comedy, Comment je me suis disputé... (Ma vie sexualle), reemerges to guide us through intensely vivid, intimate memories of his life as a young man. Trois Souvenirs has very little in common other than some names of the characters and the time frame. It is also interesting to note that it's not quite an autobiographical film since Desplechin, now in his mid 50s, is making film about people slightly younger than his age (in 1989, he was 29 years old not 19). But in its melancholic tone and sense of regret, and 10 films after since his debut in 1991, the film has the feel of aging artist searching for a defining moment(s) in his youth. And it's a beauty to behold.

The film's unwieldiness and varying tone settles after 1/3rd way in and it becomes a heartbreaking, long drawn love affair of Paul and Esther(mainly played by newcomers Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet). Desplechin knows how first love affects people- how it makes people certain way for the rest of their lives. We see Dedalus as a kid who was traumatized by an overbearing, crazy mother who commits suicide, as a teen who resolutely gets involved in pseudo political espionage act to help a total stranger escape from dire situations in the former Communist Russia on a school trip there --the episode that catapulted now grown up Paul (Mathieu Amalric) to revisit his past, and as a chain smoking, competent petit-intellectual whose life gets rattled by a long beautiful/torturous relationship with a beautiful girl, Esther (Roy-Lecollinet).

All the characters, even the minor ones, are so well drawn and beautifully acted by Desplechin's young cast. Utterly believable and charming in its sincerity, Trois Souvenirs puts any bombastic films looking back at one's life to shame. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part is Paul, now grown up anthropologist, getting a letter from Kovalki, one of his childhood friends who slept with Esther in his absence, asking for her address. Months later, he then runs into him at a concert, now a married man, Kovalki asks him about the letter. Now supposedly all grown up, yet still keeping all the bottled up feelings for those heartbreaks and memories, Paul blows up on his old friend and his wife. Childish and self-centered one might say. But Desplechin knows all too well that it's our abilities to remember that makes us human. Easily one of the best films I've seen this year so far.

DIY Mission to Mars

A Space Program (2015) - Neistat
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The moon landing conspiracy theories have been around -- and a constant subject for documentaries and narrative films -- since Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon in 1969.

The story goes that Stanley Kubrick was hired by NASA to fake it because they didn't have resources or technology and were on tight deadline from the commander in chief. It was the Cold War era and the space race was on full swing. There are at least a couple of movies that are already out about this very subject this year alone: Antoine Bardou Jacquet's Moonwalkers and Matt Johnson's Operation Avalanche.

In keeping with this tradition, A Space Program, directed by Van Neistat (HBO's The Neistat Brothers), documents Tom Sachs' 2012 interactive installation show Space Program 2.0: MARS in 33,000 square feet Park Avenue Armory in New York. Sachs, a sculptor known for his ironic take on brand name products via DIY means, set out to do a massive scale interactive show about a staged space mission to Mars with all the materials built from scratch.

Audiences were invited to experience a TV-studio-like fake retro Mars landing in all seriousness. The result was an entertaining spectacle of make-belief and a performance art on stage that successfully faked the NASA Control Room dramatics. Neistat, who with his brother Casey started his career making fun of Apple's lack of a battery replacement policy in a short video, is a good choice to chronicle Sachs' highly idiosyncratic endeavor.

The documentary covers the installation show in painstaking detail. Think of A Space Program as a DIY version (everything was built with plywood, tape and epoxy glue) of a Mars landing movie co-directed by Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry and you get the picture, perhaps slightly less whimsical. On stage, we see how things are laid out: a makeshift Control Room, working replica of life size Moon/Mars Lander, and surface of Mars all right next to each other.

The elaborate Control Room set up is quite impressive: multiple old style tube monitors with handwritten signs, switchboard and speakers manned by men (including Sachs) in white half-sleeve button down shirts, horn rimmed glasses and black ties. Many of them don big mustache and seizelessly smoke cigarettes. Everything is captured by DIY TV studio cameras and small handheld, wired DIY video cameras, from astronauts going into the lander (using the rickety ladders to climb up and into) to the launch of the historical Mars landing.

Glued to the grainy video feed on the big screen, they eat their McDonald's dinner. Our lovely astronauts are steel metal worker Sam (Sam Rataranat) and Carpenter Mary (Mary Eannarino). After the Wes Anderson style character introductions with their funny code names, brief bios and catchy visuals, the narrators put an emphasis on the mission's real mission: Putting the first woman on Mars.

Throughout the mission, we are informed with helpful hand drawn and physical instructions on the complicated inner-workings of tybek space suit, ingenuous compartmental system of Mars Lander interior, a shelf full of space-food (rows of whiskey bottles) and a graphic demonstration on how to use a space toilet.

A big globe is a stand-in for the mother earth. A giant unevenly shaped red ball is Mars. They simply fake the space travel with the combination of stock footage, pulling the small makeshift camera on a string and toy rockets on a wire with hand drawn, LED lit background.

As if these cool technical specifications and all the handmade gadgets aren't enough, we have Lt. Sam and Commander Mary's team dynamics battling for our attention. After their successful launch into space, they are seen tending to their lesbian tendencies rather than their astronaut duties. Once they get to Mars, tempers fly and blame games begin when the mission doesn't go as they planned (getting samples of Mars soil in search of intelligent life).

Our astronauts finally get the samples after digging through the Mars surface (the hardwood floor) with a hack saw and circular saw and send it back to earth in dramatic fashion while their oxygen running critically low. The entire Control Room team watches their mission on the big monitor, completely gripped. And live audiences watch them from their bleecher seat and we watch the whole thing on screen. Would they make it? This is a nail-biting, edge of your seat stuff!

A Space Program's charm largely depends on Sachs' ingenuous designs, his attention to details and playfulness- from life size Mars Landers to plywood constructed, red painted Mars rocks to fake seriousness of his crew. His ironic take on name branding, this time the NASA logo, is seen everywhere- the space suit, the Lander, tumblers on the desks and many more. Neistat's snappy visual style is a good match for Sachs' idiosyncratic creations. The film isgreat fun.

A Space Program opens on March 18 at Metrograph in New York and April 7 at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. Zeitgeist Films is releasing the film. Please visit their website for more roll out dates and other information.