Saturday, July 30, 2022

Family Road Trip

Hit the Road (2021) - Panahi Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road Hit the Road A family, mom (Pantea Panahiha), dad (Hasan Majuni), older son (Amin Simia), younger son (Rayan Sarlak) and sick dog are on the road in a borrowed SUV, in a picturesque Iranian countryside. Yet this is not a joyous family vacation. Something is up. Mom is overly paranoid thinking that they are being followed. Dad with one leg in a cast changes the phone's SIM card every so often. They do so while dealing with their hyperactive 8 year-old son who is just a bundle of energy and joy. The older son, whose been driving, rarely says a word. He is moody as he chastizes his doddering mom that he is not a child anymore.

It turns out that they are going to the border to see the older son off, as he is entangled in something the Iranian State deemed as unlawful. And the parents have been telling the younger son that his brother is going abroad to get married - a not-so-convincing lie that might be adding to his hyperactive state. On their journey, they meet people, talk to each other and share some magical moments together.

Panah Panahi, the son a famed Iranian filmmaker and democracy activist, Jafar Panahi, who was just sentensed 6 years in jail for criticizing the theocratic Iranian regime, makes a beautiful film here in the tradition of 'moving pictures', that usually take place in a car, of Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us) and his dad (This is Not a Film, Taxi) that emphasizes time passing and fleeting human life on earth. Hit the Road boasts perhaps the most memorable child acting in recent memory- by Sarlak as an adorable rascal. His joyful presence peaks out over the overall somber tone of the film that hangs like low lying clouds. His joy is infectious. It also features gorgeous rural Iranian vistas, humor, magical realism (relating to 2001: Space Odyssey) and poetry. It's a short, life affirming film that lingers long after watching.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Representation and Survival

Nope (2022) - Peele Nope With his third feature, adroitly titled genre mashup, Nope, Jordan Peele is fast becoming the new original voice in American cinema dominated by sequels and franchises. And using the power of cinema - visual (under)represenation in more ways than one, he incapsulates historical, institutional injustices. It also counters the industry which preaches the most liberal tendencies, but seldom practices, especially in casting. With wit and humor, Peele is obliterating the notion that a message film, a Black message film to be precise, has to be always literal. The 90's Spike Lees of the world don't have the same appeal to the tik tok, BLM generation of now.

The Haywoods owns a California horse ranch, which has been supplying horses for Hollywood productions and commercial shoots for decades. After the old Otis Haywood (Keith David) dies in a freak accident (hit by random debris raining down from the sky - happens to be an old Indian Head penny), the less sociable Jr, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) reluctantly takes over the business with his small time LA schmoozer sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). It would be hard to give up and sell all the beautiful horses and move on. There is a pride involved as a black owned business which is woven into the birth of cinema - the unnamed black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge's short moving picture of Man Riding a Horse in the early days of cinema was a fictional Haywood, an ancestor to OJ and Emerald.

There is another thread that Peele starts the movie with: Gordy's Home, a cheesy 90s sitcom featuring a chimp named Gordy. Things went horribly wrong when Gordy went on a killing spree on set and young Asian American co-star Ricky 'Jupe' Park (Steven Yeun) was spared. It was the friendly gesture, a fist bump, that saved the young Ricky. Now Ricky runs a UFO themed Western show near the Haywood ranch which supplies it with horses.

After some weird happenings - electronics, phones and power cutting on and off randomly around their ranch, OJ and Emerald suspect that there is an alien entity hiding in the static cloud nearby mountain range. They enroll the help of a nerdy CCTV installer, Angel (Brandon Perea) and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott) who's armed with a handcranked camera (to be immune to electrical storms), to record the Alien sighting and go 'Oprah' with it.

Nope is actually very much like a Spike Lee joint, packed to the brim with ideas and messages, but in a simple, breatheable, cinematic symbolist way. It has little to do with character development or backstory or the classic structure. Things go haywire with unexpected twists and turns. Its references range from Roy Rogers, Close Encounters, Phenomena, 90s TV sitcoms, reality TV, tabloids, even to Akira, not to mention all the other clever pop culture references. It speaks volumes about the notions of the untamed west, nostalgia, colonization, captivity and spectacle. And the gaze: one of the many brilliant moments comes in when OJ understands not to look at the predator in the eye, like many traffic stops POC faces everyday. Loved the unconventional design of the entity as well as hilarious use of the air balloon modeled on Steven Yeun as a weapon. There are many more details I am forgetting to mention here. Engaging, playful and original, Nope is one of the best films of 2022.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Old Love Never Goes Away

Both Sides of the Blade (2022) - Denis Both Sides of the Blade Shot during the pandemic, with her frequent collaborators, Claire Denis's moody chamber piece, Both Sides of the Blade, might be seen too wordy and conventional for the die-hard Denis acolytes who prefer her blissful visual filmmaking with colors and textures. But rest easy, because the film is nothing but. It contains enough visual/aural power and beauty, combined with blistering performances by Juliette Binoche and Vicent Lindon. It's a damn near masterpiece in my book.

Sara (Juliette Binoche) is a radio DJ, wading through the news the world in turmoil in between playing music. With people wearing masks in public places and on the streets places the film firmly in the now. She is with Jean (Vincent Lindon), a former rugby player and an ex-con, trying to rebuild his life. They are very much in love. They have a history together and that history involves François (Grégoire Colin), Sara's former lover, who resurfaces in their lives, shattering their relatively tranquil existence.

It is implied that something went down, Jean took the rap and went to jail and François disappeared. Sara chose Jean, stuck with him and supporting him financially while he is trying to get his life on track. He has a teenage son with his ex, whom he left for Sara and a doddering mom (played by Bulle Ogier) who has the custody of his son.

The mere mention of François brings back a tidal wave of emotions in Sara. Jean politely asks her if it's okay for her to see him and François work together again in a sport recruiting service venture. She, hoping to get a glimpse of her former lover and reignite their passion, says, "do what you think is best for you." It's the physical reaction of Sara that's telling. She trembles in private, thinking of her former love. Even mentioning his name takes her breath away.

While Jean constantly is absent to deal with his troubled son and with business, Sara and François slowly reconnect. She resists the temptation at first. Jean accuses of her cheating on him and they have emotionally charged arguments. This is not going to end well.

Colin, who has been playing objects of desires in Denis's films over the years, is appropriately charismatic. His sharp features may have dulled over the years, but his intense stares still holds enormous power and mystery. Does he really want Sara back? Or is he there to destroy Sara and Jean's happy lives as revenge?

Co-written by Christine Angot (Let the Sunshine In), Both Sides of the Blade treads somewhere Denis has not explored before, a domestic chamber piece mainly taking place indoors. It's a boiling teakettle that never spills over unlike the kitchen fire that is Bastards, nor nice cup of tea that is Friday Nights (both with Lindon, by the way). Angot seems to be the anchor for Denis to put her feet firmly on the ground, giving Claire Denis films more realistic depiction of life, before the esteemed director again goes off to do a bigger, higher concept, English language productions like High Life and Stars at Noon. But by no means Both Sides is lesser Denis. Both Binoche and Lindon are on top of their games. Strong, mature yet vulnerable - regular people buckling under the pressure of so called modern life, which seems to be going crazier by the minute. Stuart Staples (of the Tindersticks)'s moody score permeates every scene and keep the tensions high and Eric Gautier's tight lensing adds to the emotional state of these tragic characters embroiled in love triangle.

It's also great to see all the familiar Denis collaborators' faces in bit parts - Lola Creton (Bastards) turns up as a wordless girlfriend of François who shoots dirty looks at Binoche, Alice Houri (Nette and Boni) as a kindhearted bureaucrat and Mati Diop (35 Shots of Rum) as a family friend of Jean's mom.

Both Sides of the Blades might be the few happier results (at least for cinephiles) the Covid-19 pandemic has produced and I am glad for it.

Both Sides of the Blade opens in theaters on 7/8 via IFC Films.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Same Passion

Fire of Love (2022) - Dosa Fire of Love Facing volcanos and their sudden eruptions can cause anyone into a deep existential crisis – is anything in life ever stable? What is human existence compared to the awesome power and magnitude of these cataclysimic natural events?

The first time I’ve seen the footage of mesmeric volcanic eruptions with unnaturally glowing bright red lava, captured by The Kraffts, Katia and Maurice, the famed volcanologist couple, was in Werner Herzog’s Fireball. Using long lenses with a 16mm camera, the Kraffts captured some of the most awe-inspiring, iconic volcanic eruptions ever recorded on film. Through that Herzog’s film, I learned that they lost their lives in 1991 when they were on the path of a deadly pyroclastic flow after the eruption of Mt. Unzen near Nagasaki, Japan.

Filmmaker Sara Dosa (The Seer and the Unseen), sifting through tons of film and TV footage, photos and books the volcanologist couple left behind, crafts a poignant narrative about two people who lived and died together doing what they loved. Fire of Love starts with the last known footage of Katia and Maurice together, at the foot of Mt. Unzen, the day before their death. Then it retraces back to how they met in Alsace region in Strasbourg, France.

Growing up in post-WWII with all the aftermath of destruction, both Katia and Maurice leaned toward nature early on, visiting volcanos of Italy –the Mts. Etna and Stromboli respectively. Both were drawn to volcanos and its awesome power. After their first meeting in 1966 and attending anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of 1968, they decided to dedicate their lives to studying volcanos, “because we were disappointed with humanity. And since a volcano is greater than man, we felt this is what we need. Something beyond human understanding.” Maurice was the wanderer with his film camera, trying to capture everything and Katia, sharing the same passion, trying not to lose sight of him. Not that they had a deathwish, both preferred intense and short life rather than long and monotonous one.

So, they married in 1970 and the Geologist/Geochemist volcanologist couple was formed. They traveled everywhere volcanic eruptions were about to happen through the network of fellow scientists and ran straight to the calderas to study and archive, with Maurice’s trusty Arri SR 16mm camera and Katia’s still cameras. For them, studying volcanos is the science of observation. The closer you get, the more you see. And the images they captured were out of this world. And we see plenty of jaw-dropping images in Fire of Love, all culled from the Krafft archive- hundreds of film rolls. Their ‘freelance’ profession took them to Italy, Congo, Iceland, Indonesia, Washington State, Colombia, Japan… to all continents except Antarctica.

Since most of the footage was shot on film without accompanying sound recorder, Dosa and her team do a fantastic job in sound design – explosions, bubbling lava, lava flows, rocks falling, gaseous rolling clouds. And lyrical stop-motion animation illustrates the couple’s early encounters as well as many cataclysmic eruptions throughout human history.

The film is narrated by filmmaker/artist Miranda July, who came onboard after seeing Dosa’s first cut and deeply moved by what she saw: their passion, curiosity, and sense of awe toward nature- all things she as an artist could relate to. Her voice quivers at times as she is choked with emotions. July’s vulnerable delivery adds greatly to the love story narrative.

Volcanic eruptions were everything for them: as Katia describes as ‘feeling of being nothing’ in front of them. To keep chasing volcanos to the far sides of the world, they had to keep making appearances on TV, write books and give interviews and lectures. They definitely took advantage of being the only volcanologist couple in the world in their matching Jacques Cousteau-style red beanies.

The relatively safe ‘red’ volcanos that gave them otherworldly images of lava spewing and flowing gave way to studying more dangerous and unpredictable ‘grey’ volcanos in their later years, which ultimately killed them.

They knew the danger of these unpredictable, deadly eruptions. It was Nevado del Ruiz eruptions in Colombia in 1985 that killed estimated 25,000 that the Kraffts questioned their purpose in life. And they worked hard to create a warning system for evacuations which they are in place across the world now.

It is hard to find someone to spend our lives with, let alone to find one who shares the same passion. Armed with explosive materials accompanied by lyrical collages, Dosa accentuates the story of two lovers who shared the same passion and lived and died together. Fire of Love is an ultimate love story for the ages, presented in a spectacular manner. See it on big screen. Fire of Love is distributed by NatGeo, opens in theaters in NY and LA and national rollout to follow.