Sunday, August 29, 2021

Man in the Mirror

Candyman (2021) - DaCosta Candyman Nia DaCosta's Candyman pays a great deal of tribute to Bernard Rose's 1992 cult classic and builds upon it for the BLM era with much more agency. She and co-writer/producer Jordan Peele acknowledge the progresses the African Americans have made in the US over decades but also remind us that we still live in a white society and it is important not to forget the past.

The original Candyman was based on a short story by Clive Barker, taking place in East London housing projects. It was brilliantly transposed to Cabrini Green, a real urban housing project in Chicago and based on real-life urban legend mixed with America's racial history. As a horror film, Candyman’s violence and carnage were brutal and gruesome that only Barker could dream of. Some of the film's detractors pointed out that its gothic interracial love story only amplified the stereotypical black male and blond white female trope. But it was the 90s and the class/racial inequalities were addressed only in a skindeep level.

The new Candyman starts with an affluent couple Brianna (Teyonah Parris) and Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Marteen II) in Chicago. They just moved in to a luxury glass skyscraper apartment in downtown. Brianna is an ambitious social climber in the art scene and Anthony, a promising artist. But Anthony is in a rut, unable to get an inspiration for a new piece and the deadline for upcoming group exhibition is approaching. By chance, he hears about Cabrini Green, a projects complex that his luxury building and many others around it have gentrified out of its existence. Then he hears about the legend of Candyman. He is also stung by a bee on his hand while taking pictures in the remnants of Cabrini Green. And the wound is not healing but spreading throughout the half of his body.

Anthony's new art - a bathroom mirror and gruesome paintings inside it with the instructions to summon Candyman, doesn't make a splash at first. But curiosity of white audience in a dare keeps body count rise and so does his viability in the art market.

Writing is sharp and current. One can detect Peele's clever Gen X cultural references throughout. Dacosta and Peele do things right in first introducing Candyman as a creepy man in a yellow jacket with a hook as a hand who gave away candies with razorblades inside them in the 70s, not the original Candyman played by charismatic Tony Todd, suggesting that Candyman is actually Candymen throughout America's ugly racial history, going back before the emancipation. And the film suggests the brutalization and demonization of Black males, from Emmett Till to George Floyd and beyond continues to this day. It was also very telling that the film starts with the logos of the company reversed, like in the mirror. What Anthony is seeing in the mirror is not an affluent and successful African American male today, but a man with his hands cut off with a hook shoved in its place, stung and burned alive centuries ago.

Candyman is a great film and emblemizes the saying that there is no black horror because black history is already a horror.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Japan Cuts 2021 Hybrid Edition Preview

After last year's all online edition, Japan Cuts, North America's largest showcase for new Japanese films, has chosen to go for a combination of online and in-person screenings (at Japan Society, NYC) for their 15th edition, taking place 8/20 - 9/2. The festival is divided in Feature Slate, Next Generation, Classics, Documentary Focus, Experimental Spotlight, Shorts Showcase, Narrative Shorts and Experimental Shorts, totaling 38 films.

The 15th Edition of Japan Cuts kicks off with the U.S. Premiere of Matsumoto Soushi's charming Sci-fi and samurai tinged celebration of cinema, It's a Summer Film! For centerpiece presentation, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Venice Film Festival winner, Wife of a Spy. Other highlights are an in-person screening of the late Obayashi Nobuhiko's 3 hour swan song Labyrinth of Cinema, 2K restored version of the cult classic, Hiruko the Goblin and Miike Takashi's The Great Yokai War: Guardians.

Without further a do, here are 5 films I was able to sample:

It's a Summer Film! It's a Summer Film It's a bubbly love letter to cinema with gaggle of high school girls. It stars Japanese idol singer Ito Marika (former Nogizaka 46 member) as a high schooler, Barefoot, who is obsessed with chanbara films and a Katsu Shintaro (Zatoichi) enthusiast. She is in a school film club but disillusioned by the films they produce - directed by and starring her rival popular girl Karin and her entourage. Barefoot decides to make her own samurai film to counter Karin's saccharine rom-com at the year end screening. With her best friends - Kendo champ Blue Hawaii and sci-fi nerd Kickboard and a rag-tag film crew, Barefoot embarks on a harrowing journey of indie filmmaking.

Even though she prefers brusk hero than a pretty boy type, Barefoot can't stop falling for her main actor Rintaro, a handsome time-traveling stranger she chose as her main actor in her film titled, "Samurai Spring." You see, in the future, there is no such thing as movie theaters, movies are only 5 seconds long and the traditional notion of cinema is non-existing. She needs to save the future of cinema! It's a Summer Film! is a cute, airy comedy geared towards Stranger Things crowd.

Wife of a Spy *Centerpiece Film Wife of a Spy Satoko (Aoi Yu), an unassuming young housewife of a wealthy merchant suspects that her husband is involved in something dangerous. The year is 1940. The place is Kobe. And Japan is slowly hurtling toward authoritarian nightmare before the World War II. Kurosawa Kiyoshi directs this period thriller off the script written by Yamaguchi Ryusuke and his writing partner Nohara Tadashi (Happy Hour, Asako I & II) .

Wife of a Spy involves atrocities committed by the occupying Japanese army in Manchuria, experimenting biological weapons on civilian population. It's a very straight forward wartime intrigue with a stellar performance by Aoi as an innocent woman who has her blind devotion to her husband tested and gets embroiled in an international espionage. The film might not feel like a usual KK film, but a solid one nonetheless.

Wonderful Paradise Wonderful Paradise Moving is never easy and letting go even more difficult. It's a moving day for the Sasayas from their large opulent house, because dad had some gambling debts and bad investments. While packing and being nostalgic about mementos strewn about the house, disaffected Akane, the daughter of the family, unwittingly tweets that there will be a party in the empty house with their address. So starts Yamamoto Masaki's madcap comedy Wonderful Paradise. There will be several dead bodies, a gay wedding, a funeral, The Thing inspired coffee bean monster, moving statues with laser beam shooting eyes, strippers, a choreographed dance number, traditional singing, ghosts, synchronized sex scenes, rebirths, a kid turning into a tree branch, a makeshift drug lab, a yakuza gambling den.... By the end of it, Sasayas learned something about life and themselves and finally let things go. Life is one big party.

Mari and Mari Mari and Mari Mari and Mari plays out like a Murakami Haruki novel. Norio (Maehara Kou) is a mild mannered 30-something working at a small casting agency. He is very much in love with Mari (Nao), his long time live-in girlfriend. Their almost nauseating lovey-dovey behavior is an easy target for both ridicule and envy of his co-workers. They even have a corny song of their own that they hum to each other. Then one day, Mari disappears and replaced by childlike girl (Amano Hana), also named Mari. This new Mari doesn't remember where she came from. She is just materialized in his apartment. Norio looks for his old Mari everywhere to no avail. He demands the new Mari to leave but she always returns.

In a very subtle manner, when it comes down to it, director Yamanishi Tatsuya seems to suggest that it's not a particular person but rather the idea of a person in a certain mould that you fall in love with.

As the new Mari sticks around, Norio begins to accept her as his girlfriend. They sing the same song, make fun of each other's silly habits. It's an intriguing film by first time director writer Yamanishi.

The Blue Danube The Blue Danube Ikeda Akira's droll anti-war film The Blue Danube starts with Tsuyuki (Maehara Kou) waking up at the sound of a marching band. As he reports to the army barracks for 9 to 5 shifts, wasting his life away shooting at invisible enemies across the river without a question like a clockwork. "Do as you are told without question" rules this town and everyone follows its rigid army style way of living. No one remembers how long the town has been at war with its neighboring town and the reason for the conflict. They just assume that the town across the river is horrible and its people are savages.

Things change after the new young recruit soldier starts questioning the ongoing conflict. Meantime, Tsuyuki is transferred to join the marching band after its trumpeter suddenly dies.

With intentionally stilted acting and droll delivery of the actors, repetitions and absurd deadpan humor, Ikeda pokes fun of Kafkaesque bureaucracy combined with blind trust in inept authorities and fear tactics instilled in people's mind in the war time. The Blue Danube highlights the meaninglessness of war.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Inability to Change Minds

The Viewing Booth (2020) - Alexandrowicz Screen Shot 2021-08-10 at 8.25.09 AM 
Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's documentary Viewing Booth tells the harsh reality and ultimate failure of so-called activist filmmaking in the belief that images can change minds of those who matter the most. And it's sobering realization.

Alexandrowicz invited 7 American University students for his 'viewing booth' sessions: a studio room with monitors showing 40 published online video clips of the Occupied Territories in Palestine - a half of them from B'Tzelem - a Human Rights organization based in Israel and the other half from pro/conservative Isreali groups (such as videos put out by IDF). The subjects are asked to freely play any clips they choose to watch- they can pause at any moment and rewatch them and provide live commentaries while watching them. He films these sessions and the subjects' reactions and their comments. Enter Maia Levy, a pro-Israeli student from American Jewish household. The film turns out Alexandrowicz focusing on her because it's people like her that the filmmaker wants to reach with his films, not anti-occupation crowd or activist types (not preaching to the choir, so to speak). It's her predisposition of seeing the images - the real footages shot by Palestinian citizens in the Occupied Territories which can be seen by anyone online, that interests him.

Maia is an inquisitive young woman who thinks of herself as objective observer of the conflict, a Jew living in America. But watching those short clips of unedited footage of everyday horrors in the Occupied Territories - an announced nightly raid of masked, heavily armed Israeli soldiers going into Palestinian household, waking up sleeping children and photographing them and its aftermath - children breaking down in fear, or a settler harassing Palestine women and children in cages, calling them unspeakable names, or Israeli teens throwing rocks at a Palestinian woman videotaping them and soldiers just standing by in the background, not responding to the cries for help, etc, although she sympathizes with the oppressed, she is quick to find many faults in what she is presented with: without proper contexts, these clips are manipulative or worse yet, staged to make Israel look bad. Because of her upbringing or background of whatever, she is predisposed to question what she sees and distrust whatever is deemed by anti-Israel.

It is also telling that Maia says that she is influenced by TV shows like Netflix's Fauda and reality shows that everything is already fabricated and you can't always trust these 'real' footage's authenticity. Is she telling the truth or is it a justification for her predisposed condition? but in equal footing, she also doesn't like what IDF puts out - Palestinian kids coming up to Israeli soldiers and hugging them and the soldiers giving them food. She thinks that's corny and detrimental to portraying Israel as being good.

The filmmaker asks her again to come in after 6 months of their first session. Because obviously she is the emblem of the target audience and why he is in the profession in the first place - to change their belief system with his films. She is educated, smart, curious enough to seek out those clips by B'Tzelem even though many of them will be uncomfortable and depressing to watch. It's very much like some of my so-called liberal minded friends watching Fox News to see 'what the other side is like, so I will know how to defend myself'.

Alexandrowicz thinks these things aloud to understand clearly where the divide lies - particularly for me as an outside observer, seeing these clips immediately makes me think, "wow, this is their everyday reality," rather than "this looks staged." Obviously, those activists films, documentaries like 5 Broken Cameras by Guy Davidi & Emad Burnat isn't going to change my mind because I'm already with the anti-occupation crowd. But The Viewing Booth concludes with the sobering realization that there is a limit to what images, let alone films, can change someone's engrained belief system, even if it's not fictional film but filmed reality. The intermediary of the mere 'lens' between Maia and the reality already puts a divide that she will not cross. The Viewing Booth is a sobering film that bruises the ego of any self-congratulatory, circle jerky liberal documentarians who genuinely think they can change the world. Sorry, you can't reach the ones who matter the most.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Master Puppet and Barnacles

Annette (2021) - Carax annette It is hard for me to write this review of Annette, a new film from Leos Carax, because he is the director of my favorite film of all time - Les amants du Pont-Neuf. I've been following Carax's tumultuous filmmaking career and was very glad that he came roaring back with much praised Holy Motors, a vibrant vignettes he made over a long period of time (because of lack of financing) with his muse Denis Lavant (as his alter ego Alex). The expectations were high after the success of Holy Motors. The boy genius seemed to be back. Annette, a big budgeted musical, co-written and arranged by musical group Sparks, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, is quite possibly the worst thing I've seen this year, if not in any years. It's not because of its ludicrous premise - a singing baby of the title namesake is played by a CG puppet or Driver's overacting, it's because doesn't contain an ounce of Carax's often bold and brilliant signature cinematic moments that take your breath away.

Carax begin Annette with self-reference, just like in Holy Motors. He is the creator, starting his project in the beginning either on stage or in a control booth of an audio studio. His daughter, Nastya, a doppelganger for her mom, Katherina Golubeva, stands by his side, looking on in the cast, singing. The first song "So May We Start," spills out of the studio as the actors continue to sing on what seems to be the Santa Monica Blvd. Annette tells a relationship between a cynical standup comic Henry McHenry (Driver) and an opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard). They soon have a daughter Annette, played mostly by what seems to be baby made out of wood with wooden joint and disproportionately large head, like in Manga drawings. While Ann's career is going well, Henry's dark humor and aggressive antics are getting no fans anymore. He is getting jealous of his famous wife and neglecting his daddy duties. All the while, the tabloid press is hounding the family's every move.

In order to save their marriage, the couple takes a boat trip in the sea with baby Annette in tow. During a storm, in a fit of rage, Henry throws Ann overboard. Alone and washed out, Henry has to make an income for baby Annette. He notices that Annette sings to a certain tune. Now he has an idea for touring with a singing baby with the help of the orchestra conductor (Simon Helberg), who was secretly in love with Ann. Ludicrous. I know.

It was fun to do a guesswork in Holy Motors as how much of it is self referential - Carax's tumultous relationship with Juliette Binoche and monumental failure of Pont-Neuf, because his life was so grand, and operatic and most of all, so romantic. The fundamental flaw of Annette, in my opinion, is it's not based on a lovestory but everything else - career, professional jealousy, parenthood, tabloids and financial security which by comparison, seem ugly and opposite of fantasy and in turn, cinema. No matter how much or loud they sing "We Love Each Other So Much," in Annette, all we see is them falling out of love, not in love.

Love is gone. Cynicism has taken over, therefore, nothing is believable and nothing matters. Everything else is a joke. Once that rare filmmaker who could capture being in love like no other became a cynic and the magic is gone. Driver is no Lavant. He is an ogre of a cynical kind. He belongs in a comedy. Cotillard with her barnacle shoulders, belongs to "Something to Tide You Over" episode in Creepshow.

I did like the on deck of the boat during sea storm scene where buckets of waters are thrown over the actors in rear projection storm. But that can't save Annette from its turgid, uninspiring premise. The spark is gone.