Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Whole Wide World

Short Vacation (2020) - Kwon, Seo Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.40.30 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.46.21 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.55.31 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.02.55 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.13.42 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.26.55 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.31.05 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.38.55 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 10.52.24 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 7.29.10 AM How do you capture the end of the world on a photograph - is the question that hangs over the heads of four middle school freshman girls in Short Vacation. It's the school's photography club and that is the summer break assignment. The teacher gives them disposable cameras, the ones that you have to crank up to advance to take each picture: the ones with no exposure control so everything comes out super grainy. "When I was young, we didn't have phones to take pictures," he explains.

Siyeon, a transfer student, just joined the club of three girls - Songhee, Yeonwoo and Sojung. The club's name is "Shine", because of the principal's bald head, they speculate.

They can't phathom the idea of the end of the world or how to capture it. Siyeon has an idea- Shinchang is a place at the end of the 1 train line. They should go there and take pictures. In their little minds, it's the end of the line, the semi-official boundary of the world they know. Beyond that is unknown. This sets out the road movie, Short Vacation: a movie full of wonders and possibilities. It's a rare glimps of what it's like to be 14 years old, feeling for the first time that the world is large and vast.

As the girls, playing themselves, endlessly chatter during the entire trip- getting lost in the rural area, finding an abandoned station, getting separated then finding each other again, losing a phone, phone batteries running out, being marooned and spending the night in an empty community center for old folks in heavy summer rain, we get to witness each girl's personality developing and their possible lifelong friendship forming. The film in its short running time, 114 minutes, captures so much natural greatness. It also makes us feel very nostalgic about the childhood, its endless possibilities and portentials and a sense of wonder. One of the best films I've seen this year.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Fluidity

The Seismic Form (2020) - Zwirchmayr

Text by Jean Baudrillard, Antoinette Zwirchmayr's short The Seismic Form visually examines the impermanance of life on earth in very elegant visuals, often juxtaposing human bodies with environments formed by seismic activity. It's beautiful. Some screen grabs: Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.15.42 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.15.51 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.16.02 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.16.55 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.17.06 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.17.18 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.17.29 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-19 at 9.17.38 AM

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Naughty Summer

Benjamin Voisin (left) and Félix Lefebvre (right) in François Ozon’s Summer of 85. Courtesy of Music Box Films. After delving into serious subjects recently with Frantz (WWII) and By the Grace of God (Catholic priests sexual abuse), François Ozon (Swimming Pool, Criminal Lovers, Sitcom) goes back to his roots and concocts a naughty and delicious Hitchcockian summer fling movie based on a 80s British YA novel Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers. 

With a sunny resort town on the French Riviera as a backdrop, Summer of 85 blasts off with the Cure's In Between Days and introduces our young protagonist, Alex (Félix Lefebvre), an angel faced 16 year old high school student on the verge of self discovery. Alex is accused of some grievous crime that might have caused the death of his friend David Gorman (Benjamin Volsin). 

As usual, in a true Ozonian fashion, the director throws in a red herring, leading us to believe that it's a murder mystery. The film slowly reveals what really happened that fateful summer in flashbacks as Alex narrates his side of the story within the story. 

In the flashback, Alex doesn't really know what to do with his life yet. He has a great potential as a writer, confirmed by his teacher. But he will need to decide soon, to either stay in school or get a job to start supporting his working class parents. His life is an open book and it a glorious summer. And everything changes when he meets charismatic David. Alex takes out his friend's sailboat to the ocean and soon runs into trouble when an unexpected thunderstorm capsizes the boat. David, who has a boat rental and souvenir shop on the shore shows up to rescue him. David swiftly instructs him what to do, and invites him into his house after they dock. And it turns out that David is not the only overly friendly person to complete strangers in the Gorman household. Madam Gorman (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) has no problem stripping Alex's wet clothes and ordering him to take a bath in her house, all the while calling him "my little bunny." 

A little bit older than Alex, David takes charge of their relationship and aggressively throws himself into young Alex's life. Soon they become inseparable. They go to movies, take rides in David's motorbike and hang out on the beach. Soon after the urging of Madam Gorman, Alex takes a part time job at David's shop, David presents Alex with a cool red & white bike helmet. Now they can ride together all the time! Alex feels their friendship is developing way too fast but can't deny his attraction to David. He also notices that David seems extremely friendly to any attractive young people in general and can't help feeling the fangs of jealousy. 

They become 'more than friends'. Their romance scenes are tender and not overtly graphic. "What happens behind closed doors, stays behind closed doors." Alex narrates. 

The rest of the film involves a supposed grave desecration and cross-dressing and Rod Stewart's rendition of Sailing. And they are all glorious. 

Playing with the idea of innocence/deviance and eroticism has been an Ozon specialty. Summer of 85 nostalgically invokes the innocent times before the AIDS crisis and harkening back to his more salacious, hormone overloaded earlier works that he is best known for. The film is an erotically charged period piece, filled with pastel colors and 80s pop songs. It’s a deliciously seductive summer fun movie. 

Summer of 85 will be showing in 35mm in select theaters including the Angelika Film Center and the Village East in New York. It starts theatrical run on 6/18. Please visit Music Box Films for theater rollouts and dates.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Blu-ray Review: Digitally Restored in 4K, Stanley Kwan's Masterpiece CENTER STAGE is a Beauty to Behold

center-stage_cover 

With the news of China's Censorship Board broadening its reach to Hong Kong's film industry (some dubbed as the end of Hong Kong cinema as we know it), here comes Center Stage, regarded as one of the best films Hong Kong cinema ever produced, featuring superstar Maggie Cheung and directed by HK New Waver Stanley Kwan. Digitally restored in 4K, the film is now out in North America for the first time from Film Movement Classics.

Center Stage concerns the life of Shanghainese silent film starlet Ruan Lingyu who starred in ten films between 1930-1935. Working with Lianhua - a thriving studio in the golden era of Shanghainese silent cinema known for making politically progressive films, Ruan played various tragic heroines. She was known for her trademark facial expression of "looking up at the heavens with a forlorn wordlessness." Hounded relentlessly by the tabloids for her affairs with two married men, Ruan took her own life at age 24.

Rather than making a straight forward biopic, Stanley Kwan opts for digging deep into telling a story about a complicated woman who lived in a time in a country at the beginning of modernization and political and social upheaval, using footage from the few surviving films from that era (most of Ruan's films didn't survive), interviews with people who knew Ruan, reenactments, and on-screen candid discussions with actors about the characters they are portraying.

In the center of it all is Maggie Cheung, in the zenith of her beauty and career as an actress, portraying Ruan Lingyu, the tragic heroine both on and off stage with utmost sensitivity and nuance, all captured luminously by veteran Hong Kong cinematographer Poon Hang Seng (Peking Opera Blues, A Chinese Ghost Story, Heroic Trio, Kung Fu Hustle).

Aliza Ma, program director of Metrograph, in a 16-page essay that accompanies the Blu-ray, gives a very thorough back story to Ruan Lingyu's tragic death by examining the social and historical context in what it was like being a woman and an actress in Shanghai in the 30s. She also lays out the climate of Hong Kong cinema and the freedom filmmakers were endowed with, thanks to Lianhua studio's relocation to Hong Kong as well as many artistic luminaries before the war and the subsequent Japanese Occupation.

The new Blu-ray is loaded with exclusive extras, including all-new interview with director Stanley Kwan.

Bonus Features:

  • New Introduction by Stanley Kwan 
  • Interview with Stanley Kwan 
  • Interview with Hong Kong cinema expert Paul Fonoroff (Blu-ray only) 
  • 16-page booklet with a new essay by Aliza Ma, Head of Programming at Metrograph


Center Stage is a breathtakingly gorgeous film and lives up to its reputation as one of the most revered masterpieces of the Hong Kong cinema. Gone are the heavily tinged teal from the previous releases- warm and saturated colors and soft smokey palette dominate the screen. The digitally restored film is now available on Film Movement website

 

Center Stage1 Center Stage2 Center Stage3 Center Stage4 Center Stage5 Center Stage6 Center Stage7 Center Stage8

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Extinction, Evolution or Devolution

Super Mario Bros. (1993) - Jankel, Morton Screen Shot 2021-06-07 at 8.31.06 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-07 at 8.31.27 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-07 at 8.33.45 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-07 at 8.44.13 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-07 at 8.51.02 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-07 at 8.59.20 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-07 at 9.33.31 AM Since I am not a gamer and didn't spend my childhood in the 90s, perhaps not a good judge of the faithfulness of this movie adaptation based on a famous Nintendo game. But what I can say is that for big budget children's movies go, Super Mario Bros., directed by commercial/MV directors couple Annabell Jankel and Rocky Morton, is bonkers for Hollywood standards.

The movie concerns an alternate universe where dinosaurs are not extinct from the Asteroid hitting the earth some 66 million years ago. In this universe, people who inhabit there are evolved from reptiles. The earth is a vast desert except for uh, Mushroom Kingdom (New York City Doppelganger). The resources is running out and King Koopa (Dennis Hopper), wants to merge the two universes with the help of princess Daisy (Samantha Marthis) who possesses a necklace made out of a fragment from the asteroid. Then he wants to devolve our population to apes with his mobile devolving machines with his reptilian army.

This set up manifests the most cyber-punk dystopian production design since Blade Runner. Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) are hapless plumbers from Brooklyn who get somehow thrown into the situation to save the world from King Koopa. It spouts some snappy dialog, environmental and animal rights messages, among others.

The aesthetic is kitchy and bright, but definitely not Nickelodeon. With commmited performances from Hoskins, Leguizamo, Hopper and Fiona Shaw, as Koopa's evil henchwoman, Super Mario Bros. is an entertaining, twisty game adaptation worthy of its cult status.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Voluntary Game

La Collectionneuse (1967) - Rohmer


 

Screen Shot 2021-06-04 at 8.01.44 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-04 at 7.56.34 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-04 at 8.00.08 AM Screen Shot 2021-06-03 at 11.22.25 PM Adrien (Patrick Bachau)'s love interest is going to London. He doesn't want to. His friend Rodolph is letting him stay in his villa in sunny French Riviera. His plan is to go there and do nothing, except for selling a Chinese antique vace to a collector who can help him set up his art gallery. Easy-peasey. Even though Adrien wants to be alone, his painter friend Daniel is also there at the villa. But he is harmless and tolerable for the most part. Enter Haydée (Haydée Politoff), a young woman with a bobbed hair and round face, whom Adrien saw the glimpse of before when he accidentally entered a room at one of Rodolph's parties. She was having sex with someone.

Haydée's routine at the villa is to be picked up in the morning and coming home at dawn with a different man every time. Even though he says he is not interested in her, she intrigues Adrien. So starts La Collectionneuse, a mutual game where an older man plays with a younger woman to sleep with him. It's not really about who is having an upper hand or the assumed roles people play. It's not some sinister mindgame or manipulation. Adrien and Daniel name her a collector, of men. Even she doesn't think about it that way. Even the Adrien's self-centered narration rings hollow to what's actually occuring on screen. Haydée is her own woman. She's not that easy to figure out. Largely dependent on Haydée Politoff's charm, the film is light and airy, like those water dropplets on Haydée's skin evaporating under the summer sun.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Ugly Masculinity

The Killing of Two Lovers (2021) - Machoian Screen Shot 2021-06-02 at 11.49.18 AM There is nothing more ugly than the desplay of toxic masculinity on or offscreen. Robert Machoian's The Killing of Two Lovers zeroes in on David (Clayne Crawford) as he thinks of killing his etranged high school sweetheart wife and her lover while they sleep in bed. Yes David and Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), married with 4 kids in rural Utah, are separated and David has moved in with his ailing dad for the time being while they figure out their situation. Boys are too young to know what's happening, but their teen daughter is deeply unhappy. Machoian places us in David's head who can't really think about anything else but getting back together with Nikki even though they can't really communicate with each other without every conversation ending in a shouting match.

Letting-out-of-steam sequences - punching the exercise dummy (Body Opponent Dummy) until his knuckles bleed and taking BOB out to the field to use as a target practice tells everything about David's mindset and it's ugly. Him serenading a song about their breakup and hopes for getting back together during a date night is both pathetic and pitiful. At the end, his toxic masculinity is undone by another toxic masculinity. And Nikki choosing over lesser toxic of the two is... well, less than desirable outcome and says a lot more about her than needed.

It doesn't really matter that the movie was shot in full frame with painterly gaze. I don't care about the long takes or effective extreme close up photography, because the theme of the film is so cliché, uninteresting and undeserving. If Machoian's job was commenting on the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity in America, it's fine. But that doesn't have to be a movie- because we live with it in our daily lives.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Interview: Form Follows Function: Christian Petzold on Undine

Christian Petzold

It is always a delight to listen to Christian Petzold, German director of such films as Barbara, Phoenix and Transit, because he is a master storyteller. I could listen to him for hours on end as he enthusiastically talks about his filmmaking process.

His new film Undine is his take on the fantasy genre - about a water creature which takes a human form and takes revenge on humans when her love is not reciprocated. Melding this fantasy with the tumultuous history of the city of Berlin, Petzold concocts another beautifully written and gorgeously realized film that is at once seductive and thought provoking.

Even though we were conducting our interview over a Zoom session due to Covid, his enthusiasm and exquisite storytelling abilities were not diminished in any way. Below is the result of our conversation that took place in May.

Undine hits theaters and VOD platforms via IFC Films on 6/4.


Where are you now at the moment?

I am in Brooklyn. Are you in Berlin?

Yes. Berlin in the chilly spring afternoon. Waiting for the summer, waiting for the end of the pandemic.



Yeah, I was wondering. I heard that it's still pretty bad in Berlin and in Germany in general.



No, I think the peek is behind us. I hope that the cinemas will open in coming weeks. I can't stand looking at my TV set anymore. I miss going to movie theaters and the loneliness of being in the big crowd.



hear you. Everything's okay with you and your family?



Yes, thank you. You know, I had Covid one year ago around this time.

Oh no!

It was not too serious, but for a full week, I had to stay in bed. I changed my whole plans for the future and put my dystopia script away. It was based on this book that I have bought the rights to, but I'm not interested in dystopia anymore. I don't want to see walking dead in a desert world. I really can’t say I want to do that anymore.

During my time in bed, I read many books including many novellas of Chekov and saw many films. My distributor in France sent me the Eric Rohmer box set as a gift. I said, my god, I haven’t seen Rohmer since back in the school days! What is it called, La Collectioneuse! I was impressed how well it holds up. It’s been such a long time. We had a teacher at the film academy who told us that we have to make movies, so 20, 30 years from now people will know how we had kissed, how we had touched, how we had walked through the streets and how our social life was. I was so impressed by Rohmer’s films so I started writing a new story and I am now finished with the script. It's about a group of young people, in the summer at the Baltic sea, surrounded by forests and the forest are burning and their desire and their hearts are also burning, and the fire in the end is out of control. So this is what I wrote during Covid and I’d love to make it. Paula Beer will play the main female role. But I have to wait for the next summer because it's a summer story and I need the sun. I need a world where we can touch each other without being tested!



Christian, I love to see your summer movie. That sounds amazing! I watched Undine last year at the New York film festival. It's such a beautiful film and it's visually really stunning. I really, really enjoyed it. And I'm glad it's coming out in theaters. 

You always dealt with genre cinema to tell your stories - you’ve done noir, horror, pollcier, sci-fi even, with your last film Transit. Now you are taking on the fantasy genre. It’s really interesting to see you melding it with the history of Berlin. And I'm just wondering how that came about, in terms of the story.



Yeah. You know, I grew up in, near the river Rhine in west Germany and this part of Germany it's filled with myths and songs and old tales. And when I was 20, I leave for Berlin for school. West Berlin was a big laboratory of politics, acting, theater and all that. But you know, this is a very modern city without tales, without myths, without songs, it doesn't have anything. The only myth we have is Adolf Hitler. Maybe it’s an oversimplification but the point is it's a very modern city. And the people in Berlin, they know so much about tales and myths because they are people like me, coming from other parts of the world, because it's a city where people are connected with their stories and with their backgrounds and so on.

The place I was born (West German city of Haan) was between two rivers and also Berlin is a city of the two rivers, Havel and Spree. Yeah. But these rivers are very boring: they are small and very narrow. Nobody's really interested in these and there are no songs. I grew up in this part of Germany between, the river Rhine and the Wupper. The Rhine is a very, very big river. And it's filled with songs about myths and sirens. And also it's that river where you, as a child, would be standing in front of, and you are thinking about going away- to take a boat and go to the sea and perhaps go to America, for instance. We have that sentimental-journey feeling associated with the river Rhine. The Wupper, there are no boats on the water because it's a wild river. And there's a saying in German, “geh über die Wupper”/to go over the Wupper means you know, this is the river Styx, the river of death. Someone's going over the Wupper means he's going into the land of the dead.


So we have the Rhine, which means you are going far away and the Wupper you're going into the end of your life. I'm thinking that living between those two rivers also had something to do with cinema. There's a cinema, which says to you it’s a road movie. And there's also a breaking through a wall, to go over border, to go into another life or could be the death, could be a bank robbery, with a head shot at the end. And so, I thought about my rivers from my youth and my work on Undine started.



That’s amazing! Also, there are a lot of talks about architecture in the movie and how Berlin was built in such a way. And there is obviously a division of the east and west. Paula Beer’s lecture monologue was very interesting. What struck me was when she says, “form follows function.” Can you tell me about that?



That's a very good question, because Paula loved the sentence. I think she loved the sentence more than when she says, “If you leave me, I will have to kill you.” I think of Berlin as a raped city architecturally. Every 3 years someone is coming with new architecture plans. The concept is making money with very cheap buildings with retro style buildings and no form follows function. The idea is totally out. They just want to make money.  

Right.

Before you have a fascist architecture. That was a form following function. Now it’s for tourism. Nothing can grow here. There's no organic life here. But Berlin has always tried to defend itself. So we have these idealist and we have the defenders. I'm so disappointed because in 1989, Berlin had the chance: we had a whole city being united, which was now in the hands of the government, it was not a private property. It was our property. We could’ve made something beautiful. In five, six years, they sold it to people who are only interested in making money. And so Berlin is now raped by money, by the banks in the US. I must say that. 

And so this, someone like Undine who's been living here for centuries, with all these changes, she is like a sad witness of our changing times. So this was our idea.

I remember when we were shooting the (guide tour) scenes and Paula was very very anxious, I must say. It was a bit of a stage fright she had, because it was 18 pages of monologue in the script. I told her that all the extras in that architectural model room were intellectuals: I don't hire dumb extras for an hour. They were university students and professors. So she had to give a very convincing presentation and I liked this as a director, capturing her nervousness. 

The situation in that scene is that the city we are living in, we don't even know so much about it. But now at that moment, we understand what’s happening: it’s the Humbolt Forum. It's a museum in the form of a castle. And Paula is in there surrounded by intellectuals stating that form follows function. I am also commenting on the state of cinema: we haven't got this form follows function anymore. It’s a little disappointing.

Interesting. 

I have to say that the Paula and Franz (Rogowski) have amazing chemistry together. I enjoyed them immensely in Transit before, but there is really something to them in Undine. I’d like to know how it was working with them.

Yeah. I had the idea for Undine during filming Transit because of these two actors. I've never seen a couple like this before. Neither have the German stage theater education. They never worked for the stage as an actor in their careers. They are quite different in their movement and speech, there is certain innocence about them in that way that I like. Interesting thing is they both are dancers. Franz is a professional dancer. He is from a dance background. 

My experience in Transit, when we did rehearsals in the morning, the first two or three hours, they didn’t talk about their lines or talked with me about the script or psychology of the characters. For example when they enter the hotel room, they walk around and touch things - windows, bed and they danced around. It was more like Pina Bausch: their concerns were more like, what is the distance and when can we touch each other? For me it was a fantastic experience working with these two very physical actors. It was more like two young actors dancing their lines.

So when I was thinking about making Undine, I couldn’t think of anyone else but those two for the part. So when three of us were doing rehearsals, especially in the apartment scene, it was like the same rehearsals in Transit: Who is in the terrace? Who is going out of the terrace? Who is going to the window? It was more like they were swing dancing!

So the first six or seven days of shooting, we filmed scenes without any dialogue. This is in their bodies. It’s the movement of their bodies that tells the story - how she puts her head on his shoulder. I always had a feeling that their movements were as if they were filmed underwater.

Forgive me saying this: not that your previous films are not visually beautiful, but I find Undine absolutely gorgeous. Especially underwater sequences with the Big Günter, the catfish and everything. Did you have those scenes in mind when you were writing the script?

I have never done storyboards before. I do rehearsals and make the storyboard afterward. But for those underwater scenes, I needed to do storyboards. It was like doing a graphic novel. All the things I drew for the movie, they were from other films: The catfish comes in like the scene from Jaws where they go under water to investigate the broken ship and find the decapitated head coming out of the hole. I wanted to have the catfish appear like that. Or the scene from 20,000 Miles Under the Sea and Creature from Black Lagoon by Jack Arnold, where the creature almost touches the legs of the girl…. Underwater scenes in cinema are like a liquid memory room. You don’t invent new things but the images are lodged in your subconsciousness. That’s why I like them so much.

It’s really beautifully done.

I think my time is up but I wanted to tell you that the ‘Staying Alive’ scene was hilarious as well as very romantic.

They really use it in Germany. It is in the lessons for the lifeguards. My producers were begging me not to use it because it’s Bee Gees and it was in another movie, the rights to it cost 17,000 dollars. But I had to have it in the film. It was just too good!