Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Eighties Paris

The Passengers of the Night/ Les passagers de la nuit (2022) - Hers Screen Shot 2023-05-26 at 8.22.52 AM Screen Shot 2023-05-26 at 10.15.12 AM Screen Shot 2023-05-26 at 10.39.21 AM Screen Shot 2023-05-26 at 11.31.08 AM If you are like me, who's very sensitive to noise and think modern films have become too loud, both in theaters and at home, then you might find Mikhaël Hers films to your liking. In one corner of Paris, he's been making finely tuned, melancholic urban tales of delicate human connections since the mid 2000s. And with Amanda in 2018 and now, The Passengers of the Night, he is turning his attention to the subject of family- some surrogate, some not, and away from his usual group of 20 or 30 something protagonists. It's not a question of this change is good or bad, just different. With The Passengers, his usual theme of death and grief are gone, yet the sadness and melancholy still remain. Also it takes place in Paris in the 80s, marking it his first period film.

Hers's quiet, singular filmmaking seems to attract big stars also. It features Charlotte Gainsbourg in a great role as a divorced single mother, who is discovering herself for the first time. Emmanuelle Béart, the once French megastar of 80s and 90s, also makes a welcome appearance, giving a confident, nuanced performance as a late night disc jockey. There is also a relative newcomer, Noée Abita as a beautiful drifter. Hers's regular, Thibault Vinçon, is there as a love interest as well.

The film opens with the night of the 1981 presidential election where François Mitterrand and his Socialist party won big. There's an electricity in the air and everyone's celebrating in the streets. The title, The Passengers of the Night, is the name of a late night radio show where insomniacs and lonely souls tune in, to hear the host Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart) and talk to her on air. Her voice and wisdom are comfort to thousands of listeners. One such fan is a recent divorcée Elizabeth (Gainsbourg). She and her two growing high school age children Judith and Mathias live in a penthouse apartment with windows overlooking Paris. But since her husband left, she needs to find a job pronto. It's a scary time for Elizabeth, as she never held a job before. It is alluded that her husband left, because she had a brest cancer and went through a mastectomy. Lacking any employable skills and failing badly at menial office jobs, she writes a passionate letter to Vanda, and lands her a job at Vanda's radio station as a switch operator. Her job is to filter the listeners' calls, then connect them to Vanda on air. She and the team hit it off. Her daughter Judith is a firebrand and very into progressive politics, but her young son, Mathias is struggling in school and is rather directionless.

One night, a young drifter and a listener of the show named Talula (Noée Abita) shows up at the station. It turns out she doesn't have anywhere else to go. Elizabeth ends up bringing her to her flat and letting her stay in her spare room in the attic. Soon Mathias falls hard for the stunning drifter. They go to the movies, an activity that Talula says she does a lot because the movie theater is good place to go when the weather turns cold. There are hints of young people's passions and interests forming, foreshadowing their future path. But when Mathias gets too close, Talula leaves.

It's 1988, working at a library during the day, Elizabeth finds a new love in a younger man (Vinçon), Judith has moved out and Mathias now works at a local pool. One day, Elizabeth and Mathias find Talula passed out near their apartment. She has become a junkie. Same as before, they help her from the goodness of their hearts. Talula struggles with her addiction while Elizabeth and Mathias prepares to move out of the fancy apartment they've been calling home.

Hers has perhaps the gentlest touch of all French directors working today. Shot dreamily hazy with the mix of film and digital images, The Passengers combines the director's penchant for good music - the 80s in this case: Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, The Pale Fountains, Television, Low, and also pays tribute to 80's romantic cinema shot in the streets of Paris - Eric Rohmer's Full Moon in Paris, Jacques Rivette's Le pont du nord, and one of my early favorites during my formative years, Eric Rochant's The World without Pity.

No one dies or anything drastic happens in The Passengers of the Night, but as usual, Hers observes life's ups and downs and connections people make along the way. Gainsbourg is luminous as Elizabeth, giving a fine-tuned performance as a middle-aged woman finding herself in a changing world. Watching this film reminded me very much of Hou Hsiao Hsien's Tokyo set Ozu tribute, Cafe Lumiere in terms of its tone and place.

Thursday, June 22, 2023


How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2022) - Goldhaber how-to-blow-up-a-pipeline-film We really did a terrible job safeguarding our environment. We are way passed the point of no return for major ecological disasters and this is going to be our legacy to our youth. And they obviously have reasons to be pissed off at us, the government, the world. Every time I talk with anyone younger than 30, their number one concern, without hesitation, is the environment.

I'm not saying that this so called ecoterrorism is new. There were Green Peace saboteurs before our generation; we had ELF (Earth Liberation Front) and have seen our friend Daniel McGowan off to jail for arson of the lumber company. But How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a renewed warcry from a generation that went through so much in so little time in the last two decades where everything seems to be accelerating toward the what seems to be now inevitable oblivion. The gig economy is not providing them any security or benefits (as the film touches on the subject). Forget about the culture wars or 'voting matters' slogan, in our mainstream discourse. They don't give two shits about any of those. The world will soon be totally uninhabitable, definitely in their lifetime. This is existential threat of today. It's the topic that they lose sleep over.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an angry propaganda disguised as an eco-thriller. With complex flashbacks structure, the film tells a group of conscientious young people deeply dissatisfied with the state of the world. Their definition of 'doing good for the world' is not volunteering at some soup kitchen. Incrementalism is not the solution. They'd rather move toward the path of a direct sabotage. All the paticipants of the deeds of the film title are personally affected, in one way or another, by the environmental destruction near where they live; their family member died because they live close to a chemical plant, get cancer because harmful air and water they breath and drink, get kicked out of their lands by developers, their land ceased by gov for digging oil wells, etc. They find each other online and by mutuals to form a group, like, in a heist movie. Daniel Goldhaber along with his writing partner producer Jordan Sjol (Cam) and Ariela Barer (who plays Xochitl in the film) writes a lean but urgent and angry script, devoid of sentimentality.

Xochitl (Barer) who lost her family to illness due to living near the chemical plant, comes back to Southern California after dropping out of college, disillusioned by non-urgent state of college protest scene. She reconnects with her best friend Theo (Sasha Lane) is dying of leukemia from the harmful chemicals, and her girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson). She also hooks up with a like minded college friend, Shawn (Marcus Scribner), who agrees with her that the act of sabotage - violent actions of property damage (but without any loss of life), are necessary to shock the system. They contact a reclusive, angry young man Michael (Forrest Goodluck), living in a reservation, who posts 'how to' videos of homemade bombs on the internet. They also recruits Dwayne (Jake Weary), a family man, who lost their family plot in Western Texas to imminent domain for digging oil rigs. Then their is a druggy Seattle couple who may or may not be informants for the FBI. With these young characters, the film shows what unites them, across cultural and racial divide, is the anger that fuels their desire for direct action beyond protests, petitions or boycotts. The shrewd

They find their targets in Western Texas - one underground pipeline and the other above. The coordinated attacks will paralize the supply of the oil getting distributed across the state lines and cause economical damages to the company. A major disruption will be the goal.

The matter of fact presentation of bomb making and careful planning are the meat of the film. How to Blow Up a Pipeline plays out like a great little thriller. Their meticulous plan hit a snag when the rope holding the heavy barrel containing the bomb breaks, but despite the setback, they carry out the attack. The twist at the end is well earned as well. How to Blow Up the Pipeline is a compelling film. It is a justifiably angry film for the generation out of time and out of options.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Six Love

Smog en tu corazon (2022) - Seles Screen Shot 2023-06-17 at 10.00.38 AM Lucia Seles's wry comedy about a Tennis club and its employees and their romance may sound like a premise of a TV sit-com, but its presentation is nothing but. The editing style of Smog is truly innovative. With cutting between parallel actions, long sequences, jump cuts and repetitions, the film is jarring at first until you settle into its own rhythm, as we get invested on the characters. Most of them are neurotic mess: the owner of the place is Manuel, who is affable enough but still wants to present himself as a boss, Lujan, an employee with a penchant for classical music and her precious 16 CD collections precariously stacked on her tiny desk, Javier, a nervous accountant who likes to gather the team around and announce his incongruous findings about the world, Sergio, Manuel's childhood buddy who just came from San Juan to help the business out and Martha, a former player who is hired to give lessons and very sensitive about being called other than 'tennis player'.

As their daily activities play out with their silly and amusing anecdotes and stories, we find everyone is in love with someone else and the feelings are not reciprocal at all and no one is brave enough to come right out and say what they feel. In many ways, Smog en tu corazon is like a Shakespearean screwball comedy or Chekhovian chamber piece that takes place in a rundown small tennis club in Spain. It also reminds me of the sprawling yarn that has been coming out of Argentina in recent years- La Flor and Trenque Lauquen. It's good trend to have these little small films with no budget sprouting up.

Smog en tu corazon is most notable in its editing. It's not tethered to having an extra meaning or used as some sort of signifier; it presents a different cinematic language and rhythm. And I am surprised at myself how easily I get sucked in to these lives and completely forget about the formalist presentation. Enjoyed it immensely.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Look Around, The World is Burning!

Afire (2023) - Petzold Afire As the Canadian wildfire rages on and its smoke, carried on by the wind, covers the entire US Eastern coastline in thick orange hazardous air last week, Christian Petzold's new film, Afire, playing in this year's Tribeca Film Fest and coming out in US theaters in July, is such a prescient film about the world we live in now. You think Petzold shifts gears and concocts a seemingly a lighthearted summer fling story during covid? No. Quite the contrary. His previous films, Phoenix, Transit and Undine are laced with potent German history and reflecting on 21 century living. But at a glance, Afire doesn't seem too concerned about the German history, but it's still very much steeped in Petzold's usual themes: guilt, shame, forgetfulness and loneliness. And the Baltic sea set Afire is very much about the present- the world on the brink of ecological catastrophy. Afire is distinctly a Petzold's version of a 'summer movie'.

We are introduced to Leon (Thomas Schubert) and Felix (Langston Uibel), unlikely friends going to the Baltic seaside where Felix's mom has a summer house. The car breaks down and they have to walk the rest of the way. It is apparent that Leon is the designated pessimist of the two; too serious for his own good kind of a guy. Once they get to the house, they find that it is already occupied by Nadja (Paula Beer). They learn that Nadja is a family friend and now they will need to share the house during their stay. Leon is doubly disgruntled because he needs peace and quiet to finish his second novel, incongruously titled, Club Sandwich, but Nadja's nightly activity with a local lifeguard Devid (Enno Trebs) is just too loud.

After meeting the other occupants a couple of days later, Leon keeps being a major A-hole and a party pooper every chance he gets; whenever asked to come to swim and join them, he coldly tells Nadja, "Work doesn't allow it." a phrase that he instantly regrets saying right after, which fills him with much self-loathing. He just can't help it. His arrogance and superiority complex always get the better of himself, while struggling with writing his 'masterpiece'. But, when alone, he bounces the rubber ball off the house wall and falls asleep on the patio in front of the house that he claimed as his workspace.

To Leon's surprise, there's a budding romance between Felix and Devid. It's more like Leon is too obsessed with his own little world, he hardly notices anything else around him. It's like a forest fire that is raging in the distant which lights up the part of the sky red every night. It won't reach us, they tell themselves.

Nadja gives Leon every chance to open up, but his stupid pride keeps walling off her friendly gestures. At one of those of her attempts, he reluctantly agrees for her to read his manuscript. She reads it in one sitting one afternoon, as he nervously walks back and forth from distance. She returns it to him, "It's bad and you know it too." What does she know? She is just a seasonal ice-cream seller at a nearby town. He bitterly tells himself.

When Leon's agent, Helmut (Matthias Brant) comes into town to go over his manuscript and decides to stay for dinner which Nadja provides, it is revealed that Nadja is a literary scholar doing her Ph.D. She recites Heinrich Heine's poem Asra, about an Arab tribe, who perish when they love. Felix, who's in love with Devid now, so moved by the poem, asks her to recite it again. Foreshadowing what's to come.

There's a striking scene, where the ashes of the nearby forest fire descending upon the group. It's a surreal moment - mixture of beauty and imminent danger. It's one of the showstopper in Petzold's cinematic world. Helmut collapses at the same moment and must be taken to the hospital. Fire is fast approaching, and Leon witness firsthand the destructive power of all consuming fire.

Afire is very much a Petzold's version of a summer film like that of Eric Rohmer's (which he says he watched a lot before conceiving Afire, during the covid lockdown) and other French summer fling films but with stinging message. Instead of summer love, we get Leon, our anti-hero completely blindsided by his self-centered world view and misses out on life. And even ecological disasters at his doorstep can't make him see what's in front of him.

The film tells a lot about the self-absorbed world in the face of climate change and global catastrophe unfolding. You might ask, 'Leon can't be that thick headed. How is he a friend with good natured, younger, optimistic Felix?' 'There's no chemistry between Leon and Nadja, how can he declare his love for her?' and so on. Afire is also about creative process and self-reflection. And it's beautifully, deliciously constructed by the master storyteller. It's as if Petzold saying get out of your head once in a while and look around you because if you don't, it might be already too late.

Friday, June 9, 2023


Music (2023) - Schanelec Screen Shot 2023-06-09 at 1.39.38 PM Screen Shot 2023-06-09 at 8.55.54 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-09 at 9.07.47 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-09 at 10.59.02 AMScreen Shot 2023-06-09 at 10.34.16 AMScreen Shot 2023-06-09 at 10.40.36 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-09 at 11.08.05 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-09 at 1.45.29 PM Screen Shot 2023-06-09 at 1.20.43 PM Screen Shot 2023-06-09 at 1.22.29 PM Angela Schanelec's new, nearly silent film, simply titled Music, is supposedly 'freely' based on the Greek Myth of Oedipus. It might be the most enigmatic offering from the esteemed German director. But its depiction of melancholy and fragility of human life is nevertheless so beautiful and timeless, I can't help tearing up by the end.

As always with Schanelec's films, there are striking images and a ghost of a narrative thread with lots of gaps that you will need to fill in yourself. Time is elastic in Music; in one scene you see an infant being found and adopted, the next we see Jon (Aliocha Schneider) accidentally killing someone (his father?) and going to prison. There's a prison guard Iro (French actress Agathe Bonitzer) who attends to his swollen feet (like Oedipus by his unsuspecting mother/lover), and gives him the list of classical composers to listen to. Then he's out of the prison, and they are expecting a baby. But fate would have it, tragedy follows Jon as his past catches up with him. He is a musician now, living in Berlin with his grown up daughter. He sings melancholic songs in falsetto on stages. And also, he is going blind.

Static framing and stoic acting that Schanelec cultivated over the years are all present here. Pivotal, life-altering actions happen mostly off frame. It's almost dialog free. And it doesn't really matter if Jon looks the same after many years, if not decades.

Schanelec told me once that she usually maps out an idea for a project from one or two images. This time, she takes a cue from a Greek theater. And images in Music are indeed striking. The windswept rocky Greek terrain against stunningly blue Aegean sea and sky in the first half invokes both the timelessness of nature and our impermanence in it. The static, staged scenes featuring groups of young people - street gang, wistful prison inmates, bystanders in uniformed kitchen staff strongly remind you of the world of Aki Kaurismaki. And of course, music flows where dialog would have been with the help of Canadian musician Doug Tielli in his high-pitched voice (a cross between Sigur Rós and Nick Drake). His songs not only serve as a Greek Chorus chronicling Jon's melancholy, but also as testaments to the beauty of music, transcending this fleeting dream we call human existence.

The long tracking shot that ends the film, filmed from the other side of the river embankment as the characters walk and sing in the beautiful summer day has the feeling of an eternity. It's an achingly beautiful film.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Storm Front

Typhoon Club (1985) - Sômai Screen Shot 2023-06-07 at 8.37.57 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-07 at 8.52.50 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-07 at 8.55.24 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-07 at 9.26.13 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-07 at 9.54.17 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-07 at 10.12.03 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-07 at 10.14.36 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-07 at 10.44.03 AM Screen Shot 2023-06-07 at 10.21.22 AM Junior high school years are confusing times. It's on the edge of the adulthood- full of excitment and hopes yet extremely scary. Typhoon Club is an anti-coming-of-age movie. The film tracks a group of junior high students during a typhoon. They are just ordinary disaffected youths. They all have their flaws and issues. But why would anyone want to grow up if all the adults around them are stewing in their messy lives or absent altogether?

Two baseball players, Ken and Mikami are besties. Ken has issues at home and has trouble expressing himself to the girls - things always comes out wrong and he gets violent. Studious Mikami is feeling existential angst. Rie (baby Youki Kudoh), is anxious about losing Mikami after graduation and being stuck in small town and getting old. She runs away from home, where she shares with her invisible parents, to Tokyo on the eve of the tempest. The rest of them get marrooned in school after getting locked up unbeknownst the grownups. All the bottled up fear, angst, desire explodes with the torrential downpour, as they get to spend the night. All the inhibitions are gone, the wet, torn clothes fly off in the gym as they dance in the tune of Japanese rock, then out into the muddy fields.

Breakfast Club it ain't. There's no highlighting their individual quirks. They instinctly understand each other and forgive one another. Mikami screams on the phone to his unhelpful drunken teacher, "I will never be like you!" In the meantime, Rie's Homerian journey home during the typhoon continues. She gets picked up by a college students while shopping in Harajuku. He invites her to his apartment. It's not as exciting as she thought. After changing back to her school uniform, she decides to come back home.

Typhoon Club predates all the 90s and 2000s Japanese teen angst films. Somai really had a great eye for small details and intricacies of human relations. It's one of the best Japanese films ever made.