Monday, July 26, 2021

High Life

High Sierra (1941) - Walsh *35mm at Film ForumHigh Sierra

Infamous bank robber Roy Earl (Humphrey Bogart) just got pardoned by the Governor. It was Big Mac, a crime boss in the West Coast who pulled some strings for his release to do another big stake heist in a fancy hotel up in the Sierra mountains. On his way up to a mountain lodge to meet the heist team, Earl helps out a farmer family who has a car trouble. There he is smittened by the farmer's granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie). When he gets to the lodge, he is embroiled in a lovers spat already in progress among two hot blooded young men- Red and Doc, and sassy Marie (Ida Lupino). Brats! Earl doesn't want to have any of it, tries to keep his distance and be professional. But Marie, seeing this tough wise guy smacking people around, develops feelings for him.

There are a couple of elements in High Sierra that are cringey - Earl hitting on 20 year old crippled Velma. And Algernon, a black caretaker of the lodge the heist team stays at, is a lazy, cross eyed Stepin Fetchit style racial stereotype.

What distinguishes High Sierra among other hard boiled noir is its spectacular setting. As Earl gets caught in the ever increasing trap that he dug himself in, High Sierra reaches its frenzy with high speed car chase up the rugged, picturesque Sierra mountains. It's raw and unsettling. He runs into the mountain, in his gangster suit with a rifle in his hand and we expect some Rambo: First Blood shit. But it's noir, not some white men action fantasy. Things will end very bad.

Bogey is Bogey, making a cold blooded killer seem cool and ordinary and making us root for him. Lupino is also great as sympathetic mole who doesn't have anyone in the world and clinging to Earl even though she knows the future is doomed.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

First Look 2020/21 at MoMI

After taking a Covid hiatus last year, MoMI (Museum of Moving Image)'s annual new film showcase First Look is back! Celebrating tenth year, First Look takes a peak at innovative new international cinema.

Opening Night is the NY premiere of Claire Simon’s The Grocer’s Son, the Mayor, the Village, and the World… and Closing Night is the NY premiere of Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo.

First Look 20/21 presents 22 features and more than two dozen mid-length and short works from around the world, plus its signature “Working on It” sessions, which focus on the creative process. The festival runs from July 22nd through August 1st.

A special kick-off event for First Look 20/21 takes place at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn on July 19, with a screening of October Country featuring the world premiere of a live score by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, co-presented with Rooftop Films.

The program comprises both documentary and narrative works, and live performances, with work hailing from countries including Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Georgia, Germany, India, Israel, Iran, Italy, Madagascar, Niger, Poland, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States. More than half of the films are directed by women.

Please click on MoMI website for tickets and more info.

Below are what I was able to sample:

The Grocer's Son, the Mayor, the Village and the World... - Claire Simon *Opening Night Film grocers-son Filmmaker Jean-Marie Barbe has a vision for his hometown, Lussas, a rural farming community in Ardeché region of southern France. He wants to build a publicly funded independent film complex and a website dedicated exclusively to documentary filmmaking. It will be called Documentary Village of Lussas. It will be the source of attraction for jobs for the younger generation and local economy. Claire Simon of a direct cinema tradition, documents the trials and tribulations of people in Lussas - including Barbe, his team, the mayor, and local farmers taking a huge leap of faith.

Simon draws the parallels between farming - as a local farmer describes it as a huge gamble every year, where everything has to go right, that those produces people take for granted are nothing but a miracle, and Barbe's endeavor which might or might not bear any fruit. That everyone passionate in what they are doing is looking at things for the long term - for future generations. The Grocer's Son, the Mayor, the Village and the World... is an intimate and absorbing documentary with a lot of heart.


Ridge - John Skoog Ridge Taking place in Swedish farmland, Ridge examines loneliness and isolation of some immigrant farmhands and rural youth, not through dialog but controlled, wide screen visuals. The story goes that a couple of strayed cows became wild after spending some time in the ridge before they were found and brought back. The film's formalist approach - camera always slowly tracking and dollying in, gives you the ominous feeling that every move is watched, either from above or eye level and its subjects looking back suggests mutual consent.

Mingling our unprecedented technology era where everyone is isolated in his own sphere of smartphones, Ridge seems to suggest to take a trip to ever shrinking nature and enjoy the wilderness while we can.


Transnistra - Anna Eborn Transnistra Between Moldova and Ukraine, a long strip along the Dniester river, sits unrecognized breakaway state of Transnistria, where people seem to be carrying on the Soviet tradition and lifestyle. Anna Eborn, a Swedish born filmmaker follows a group of 16 year olds, consists of 5 horny boys and one girl, Tanya, from the hot days of summer to blistering winter in the rural setting as they swim in the lake, hang out in brick and mortar abandoned army barracks and tend to farm animals.

The 16mm shot documentary is intimate portrayal of friendship and love among the restless youth. Their fits of jealousy, envy, hate, euphoria as well as their hopes and dreams are all captured in sun-kissed imagery. It's a small pond story that is completely relatable and universal. Their fugu state of teen years where nothing is stable reflecting its status of their country is an apt one.


Some Kind of Intimacy - Toby Bull Intimacy As we grow older, it is inevitable to experience the death of our loved ones more and more. There might be differences in how we grieve, but the pain, and the heartache remain the same. And it is sometimes difficult to talk about how you feel. Toby Bull achieves some kind of intimacy or the fraternity of orphanhood in less than 6 minutes with his wonderful short film Some Kind of Intimacy. Through a simple phone conversation, while observing a flock of sheep trampling his parents grave in the rain, we get to contemplate our fleeting existence within the context of nature. Humor helps to dull the pain, so is shared collective melancholy.


Il mio corpo - Michele Pannetta Il Mio Corpo Sun drenched Sicily is both home for Oscar and Stanley - Oscar and his brother Roberto collects scrap metals on the side of the road under the watchful eye of their sometimes abusive father. Stanley, an African refugee, after getting a 2-year visa, stayed in Sicily and trying to eke out a living doing menial work for a local priest while helping his fellow refugee friend get his visa.

We see their daily routine simultaneously, slowly revealing what their lives are like. Il mio corpo is not unlike Gianfranco Rossi's Fire at Sea, another documentary that deals with the state of refugee crisis in the southern European country close to the African continent. But the film is much more subtle and poetic. We feel for these youngsters as they struggle in their own way, licking the bottom of the barrel in the late stages of global capitalism. Their brief, wordless encounters at the end gives hope that there's unspoken fraternity and cooperation in humanity in an ugly world.


Zinder - Aicha Macky Zinder Zinder is a city in Niger. It's known for violent youth gangs and delinquents. Director Aicha Macky is from there. And she gets an unprecedented access to the inhabitants of Kara Kara, the city's most dangerous slum. She interviews former members of palais, the youth gangs, and examine how poverty and unemployment perpetuate the unending macho culture. It starts with a jarring swastika adorned flag with 'Hitler' written on it: it's the flag of the bodybuilder's club calling themselves Hitler. They think Hitler is the name of an invincible warrior in America. Siniya Boy, the leader of the club, a former palais, is trying to build a security firm filled with fellow former gang members and friends who are currently in jail. Second chance in Kara Kara is hard to come by and the people of the slum are trying to help each other.

There is Bawo, a former gang member who is a pedicab driver. He confesses he had done some very bad things when he was young. NGO changed his outlook on things and now he is trying to help people in the city's red light district. Then there is Ramesses, a gas smuggler who overcame the stigma of being a hermaphrodite, trying to survive in Kara Kara just like everyone else.

Macky captures all these incredible stories in a seldom seen part of the world. It shows the survival and resilience of the human spirit. One of the most eye opening documentary I've seen in a while.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Searcher

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain (2021) - Neville roadrunner Anthony Bourdain's death 3 years ago, by an apparent suicide, shocked many lives he touched around the world and left his fans asking why. Why would a well loved and respected celebrity chef, award-winning author, TV journeyman kill himself so suddenly? Documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Won't You be My Neighbor) attempts to give us some insights with Roadrunner, a comprehensive documentary that includes many interviews from Bourdain's family, friends and colleagues.

As I became a New Yorker in the late 90s, I witnessed Anthony Bourdain's rise to fame: a head chef of now closed Midtown East French bistro Les Halles (my late father-in-law’s favorite restaurant) to a best selling author to an acclaimed cable TV show host. He embodied that quintessential New York cool - edgy, charismatic, foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking and cultured. It was his effortlessly cool persona that a lot of us wanted to emulate. Reading his Kitchen Confidential, a close-up account of behind the scenes activities in New York's restaurant industry, written in breathlessly sardonic humor and frankness, taught me a thing or two to live by- such as, never order seafood on Mondays, never order your steak well-done and so on. We witnessed his evolution over the years as not only a mere chef and travel guide, but a cultural and political ambassador with great empathy and appreciation for different cultures and people, through his subsequent cable shows - A Cook's Tour on Food Network, No Reservations on Travel Channel and Parts Unknown on CNN. He instinctively understood food as a universal language and a great conversation starter.

Bourdain, being on TV for almost 20 years, traveling became his day-to-day life and the TV crew his family. It's the wealth of footage, both what's in his shows and what's left out, Neville uses to the fullest, to paint an overarching picture of a complicated man. The film chronicles from his early days: at the Culinary Institute of America, Les Halles, talk show appearances after Kitchen Confidential’s success, a life long partnership with a TV producer couple (Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins, both of whom interviewed extensively) who produced his shows, to his many relationships over the years and his shifting worldview. Multiple directors and crewmembers he worked with over the years have many stories to tell. So does many of his famous chef friends - David Chang, Éric Ripert and David Choe among them.

Despite his cocky persona on screen, Bourdain respected and embraced different culture and its people. He knew how to read the room and not come across as arrogant American abroad. There were many memorable Bourdain episodes that are some of the best that TV can offer. The episode in Beirut, in Vietnam with President Barak Obama, in Sichuan with a renouned French chef Éric Ripert, in Hong Kong with WKW cinematograher Chris Doyle are some of my favorites. It was his straightforward approach that won many of his idols friendship- Éric Ripert, musicians John Lurie and Iggy Pop. And they talk about their encounter and friendship. His love for cinema was on display as he referenced many of his favorite films in the show- notably, Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Wong Kar-Wai films.

There was a shift in tone in his shows after being in the middle of regional conflict in Beirut in 2006; he and his crew got marrooned in a hotel room and watched the bombings in horror. The document of their experience and reaction was nominated for an Emmy. His show became something more than about food for foodies. His worldview became more embittered as the result of that experience. Later on in his CNN days, he got to explore more in troubled destinations and the implications of him going there that pushed the bounderies of what food travel show could achieve.

As the documentary goes along, the narrative emerges: a boy who never got over his romantic notion of life and a man continually searching for something different. Bourdain was married to his high school sweetheart Nancy Pukoski for twenty years. Then he had a daughter with his second wife Ottavia Busia (right after Beirut episode).

But constant traveling put a strain on his newfound family life. Then closer to his end, he fell madly in love with a volatile actress Asia Argento who later was embroiled in #MeToo movement and had to face her own very public scandal. As a self-acknowledged former drug addict, he exchanged traveling to exotic and dangerous places as its substitute for drugs. But when he's been to every corner of the globe and not finding what he was looking for, he needed another substitute. He may have found his fix, in dark and damaged Argento. The documentary paints the picture of a disillusioned man who couldn't reconcile the romantic notion of life and harsh, ugly realities.

In telling interviews, where many of them break down in tears, it seems Bourdain was in a dark place in his later days. He apparently told David Chang that he would never be a good dad. Chang, fighting back the tears, admits that Bourdain was obviously projecting, but the words from his friend hurt him nonetheless.

Always stoic and private Ripert, who found Bourdain's body when they were doing an episode in France, is understandably tightlipped about the circumstances and what Bourdain told him beforehand.

There were people who are instinctively attracted to darkness. The heart of darkness might have been always with Bourdain. His sudden suicide put a spotlight on mental health and the importance of suicide prevention.

Bourdain touched many lives around the globe. His legacy is reflected in so many people who mourned his death- not only fans and friends, but many low wage restaurant workers he championed as the real heroes, many small restaurant start-ups owned by people of color in the States.

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Boudain attempts to give us some much needed closures. And it succeeds in some ways. But the wounds his death left in us who loved him will not heal any time soon.

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Boudain opens in theaters Friday 7/16. Please visit Focus Features' website for more info.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Straight Talker

Malcolm X (1992) - Lee *35mm screening at MoMA 7/2/21 Malcolm X Revisiting after its initial release, I can safely say that Spike Lee's Malcolm X towers over other American biopics in its scale and artistry. The only other American epic biopic that comes close in its greatness is Warren Beatty's Reds. Watching Malcolm X, you can really feel that Lee really gave his all. And Denzel Washington's embodyment of the reformed preacher of Islam has no equal in terms of acting. Tracing from his childhood in Nebraska and tragic death of his father and his mother's ill fate to a small time hustler and a pimp to finding god in prison and becoming one of the most controversial political figures in American history, Malcolm X is a true epic and American story that resonates today as much as the film's release almost thirty years ago.

Malcolm X was a straight shooter. He had an uncanny ability to speak clearly about inequality stemming from 400 years of "White Devilery". The Nation of Islam gave him the paths to self-respect - and he preached it to fellow black brothers and sisters. He spoke the truth without mincing his words. This made him many enemies. As his notoriety grew, he was made enemies of the Nation of Islam itself.

The power of X's speeches delievered with such finesse by Washington is the main draw here. His firey Black Nationalist rhetoric might have been too harsh in criticizing the powers that be, but you can't ignore the stings of truth in his words- there is no one scarier than a principled man.

Another highlight is Malcolm X's pilgrimage to Mecca sequences. Visually sumptuous and emotionally impactful, X's spiritual journey and awakening of international brotherhood is captured beautifully and culminates to the interior of Great Mosque in Mecca where Malcolm sits and prays.

Lee's team's craftmanship is at their best here- shot transitions are extremely inventive and Ernest Dickerson's accompanying cinematography and tonal changes as the film goes along - from glitzy, dreamy look in the beginning to more somber and controlled after X found god, has never been better since or previously in any other Lee films. Terence Blanchard's score is subdued and doesn't try to fight with the visuals. Along with Washington's monumental performance, supporting characters, from Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz, Al Freeman Jr as Elijah Mohammad, Albert Hall as Baines to Delroy Lindo as Archie are all fantastic.

You don't feel its 3 hour running time. Malcolm X is a solid narrative film that captures your attention, I think, ESPECIALLY today in the BLM era. I didn't remember this. But the film starts with the infamous video of Rodney King beating which led to the LA Riots the same year as the film's release. It is truly sad that after 30 years, nothing much has changed and systematic racism is still very much predominent discourse in America. Malcolm X should be a required viewing for everyone, along with Raoul Peck's HBO mini series Exterminate All the Brutes in understanding systematic racism in this country.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Socio-politi-cultural Layers and Beyond

Krabi, 2562 (2019) - Rivers, Suwichakornpong Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 10.55.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 10.59.18 AM Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 11.01.17 AM Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 11.02.08 AM Screen Shot 2021-07-01 at 11.03.36 AM The filmmakers Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong met at the Thailand Bienniale and decided to work together on a project: specifically on Krabi, a touristy Southwestern town. And no Doubt, the collaboration between two of the most adventurous contemporary filmmakers produces a multi-layered and intoxicating work that is a part travelogue, part ethnological study, part Antonioni-esque mystery, part contemplation on artificiality of cinema and part Spatial-temporal musing on human existence.

Krabi concerns a nameless woman (Siraphan Wattanajinda), tall and slender with the central Thai dialect who comes in to the touristy beach town. She looks like she is in 'pictures'. She is location scouting for a movie, or she is doing market research, or she is tracing steps to her parents honeymoon where she is conceived.(?) She hires a local tour guide who also dubs as a film crew for a commercial shoot. The mystery woman visits the famous fertility shrine located on the beach, takes a kayak ride into one of the numerous dark water caves along the shoreline, then visits a shuttered movie theater, now a home of hundreds of flying starlings and warn out B-movie posters. Then she disappears. The interviews with the tour guide and the movie theater manager and various others confirm this incident.

Collision and blurred line between the artificial and the real - the actors playing their parts mixed in with the locals, cinema as both business and nostalgia, neanderthals both reanacted and parodied, first world and third world, the symbiotic relationship of tourists and locals in popular tourist destination are all presented, in layers upon layers and they are delicious. Rivers and Suwichakornpong are less interested who is exploiting who, but the delicate dance that is human existence between real and imagined world both in physical and spiritual sense. Injected are the hint of Thailand's militant history, as the woman rides with gaggle of school children in the back of the truck in city proper with the sound of military marching, reminiscent of her masterpiece By the Time It Gets Dark, grounding the film from more surreal elements usually associated with Rivers work. Krabi, 2562 is one of the most exciting cinematic endeavor I've encountered in recent memory.