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musings and opinions on cinema and beyond by Dustin Chang
A feed by Dustin Chang
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-22 18:37
Uncut Gems (2019) - Safdie I gotta admit, now I am in full Safdie Bros. team. It took me this long to see Uncut Gems but I am convinced that the Safdies will save American cinema. A total throwback to the good old days of New Hollywood, where gritty Nooo York movies ruled, Uncut Gems tells the few days of NY jewelry dealer Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). He is in deep shit since he owes money all over town via gambling problem. He has uncut opal rock the size of your fist coming in from the Ethiopean jew connection. He is expecting a big payday unless the goons gets to him first.
Tension filled, constantly moving camera and close ups resemble early Michael Mann and Sydney Lumet with films such as The Thief and Dog Day Afternoon (lensed here by Darius Kondji). Sandler is marvelous as da playa whose wheeling and dealing digs deeper into his grave by the minute, so are the supporting players that includes Lakieth Stanfield, Judd Hirsh, Eric Bogosian, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett.
Uncut Gems is real gem of a movie. Yes it is stressful and at the same time wickedly funny. Definitely one of the best American films I've seen recently.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-22 00:00
Raw (2016) - Ducournau Julia Ducournau's the rite of passage through cannibalism movie, Raw, is an icky and messy business. But with Garance Marillier's dedicated, feral performance as virginal Justine who has to find herself through series of trials, Ducournau makes her mark with her debut film that is unlike anything else. Sure it's not flawless, and the ending is a little bit conventional than I had hoped, but the ferocity and raw energy of the film is really something else.
Justine gets dropped off to a veterinary college by her dotting parents. Her older sister who is already attending the college is supposed to guide through her freshman years. Right away Justine is thrown into a over-the-top hazing rituals by class 'elders' (including her sister), starting by eating a raw kidney of a rabit - Justine is a vegetarian, or at least she thought. Move over UPenn, this college happens to be a hardest party school ever! You really don't want to take your cats to the graduate of this college. It's all bodily fluids and raging hormons everywhere. Justine discovers that she likes human flesh while getting a botched bikini wax from her sister - I don't wanna give anything away, but the scene's hilarious and terrifying at the same time.
Mixing not so subtle metaphors of cannibal and carnal, Ducournau charges ahead like a juggernaut, one gross incidents after another with the similar energy that is usually reserved for macho directors (Gaspar Nöe comes to mind). It's a remarkable achievement and I can't wait to watch her new film Titane.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-20 12:36
Short Vacation (2020) - Kwon, Seo 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.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-19 13:31
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:
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-17 17:00
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.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-14 17:00
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.
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.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-08 12:26
Super Mario Bros. (1993) - Jankel, Morton 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.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-04 13:32
La Collectionneuse (1967) - Rohmer
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.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-02 18:11
The Killing of Two Lovers (2021) - Machoian 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.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-06-01 17:13
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.
I hear you. Everything's okay with you and your family?
Yes, thank you. You know, I had Covid one year ago around this time.
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.
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.
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!
Permalink - Posted on 2021-05-29 15:07
Hotaru (2016) - Laboury Scientists find a perfect vessel to send out the proof of human existence and civilization to space in Martha, a young woman who possesses hyperthymesia, a super photographic memories of everything. "Down here, your gift is useless, So we're gonna show you the most beautiful things. You're gonna have more memories than everyone else. And then, you will sleep. You won't wake up. But you will carry the most precious memories from Earth." Bernard, an omniscient guide in Martha's journey informs us. So starts a beautiful 21 minute short film, Hotaru, by William Laboury.
Using computer generated images with the aide of google maps and relatively simple 3D animation techniques and intentionally pixelated images, Laboury manages to create a deeply affecting contemplation on memories and what makes us separate individuals. Martha starts to question her own existence and that of her surroundings as people she left on earth age and die. Only she can find Hotaru, a Japanese man she met in a forest on the eve of her rocket launch to validate her existence.
Hotaru is available on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/260920165.
Don't forget to check out how Laboury's team created the film's look: Behind the scene : https://williamlaboury.com/realisation-hotaru-1
Permalink - Posted on 2021-05-20 16:18
Multiplicity in Ceaseless Motion: Black Performativity in Chameleon Street and Suture
My research project is on Wendell Harris’s Chameleon Street and Scott McGehee & Brian Siegel’s Suture. Both films explore Black performativity in strikingly original ways, contrasting and challenging the typical notion of how African American lives are portrayed in American cinema. They examine how Black identity is viewed and practiced in the confines of the white hegemonic world and conclude that evasiveness and fluidity of blackness are very much a part of what constitutes performative Black identity.
Based on a real life story of William Douglas Street Jr., Chameleon Street is about an African American man who compulsively takes on different identities to satiate the needs of others as well as his. The film explores Black performativity in contemporary American society and how it deviates from many stereotypical, binary notions of blackness. I will make an argument that Chameleon Street demonstrates the constantly shifting Black identity based on performativity- rebellious and non-conforming, makes a truer Black identity.
The film starts with a prison counselling session with Street and a white psychiatrist. The psychiatrist asks what Street is going to do once he is released from prison. Street says no more impersonations. Then the psychiatrist tells him, matter of factly, that he does not believe him. Street retorts, “Would I lie?” The psychiatrist says that he doesn’t think Street is necessarily lying, but he is not in control of what he does or says that his behavior is complementary. Then he asks Street if he understands what he means by that. Street says no. The psychiatrist then explains that he intuits the needs of others and fills those needs. But at this point, Street’s attention is already elsewhere. After contrasting colors, jump cuts and indecipherable whisperings, Steet’s narration continues, “I think the air is sweet. I know not what I am. I am Chameleon Street.” From the beginning, Street flatly refuses to engage and reveal his true identity if there was one.
W.E.B. Du Bois, a prominent African American author and civil right activist, was the first scholar to invoke the notion of “double consciousness” when talking about Black lives in America. In his article “Strivings of the Negro People,” in 1897, he explained the predicament many African Americans face in post-Civil War American society:
…born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American World, - a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, - this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.
With Du Bois’s invocation of double consciousness and the longing for merging two souls into a better truer self as a framework, I will attempt to define performative Black identity in Chameleon Street.
Doug Street’s con: passing as professionals - a reporter, doctor and lawyer has its roots in racial passing in cinema, made famous by Imitations of Life, (1934 version, directed by John M. Stahl and 1959 version directed by Duglass Sirk) and as well as in literature, Passing. (written by Nella Larson) Racial passing occurs when a person of color or of multiracial ancestry who assimilated into white majority to escape the legal and social conventions of racial segregation and discrimination. Even though the tone of his skin is never discussed in the film, Wendell Harris, who directs and also plays Street is undoubtedly an African American man. The classic passing narrative is replete with the familiar and tragic melodies of passing as betrayal, blackness as self-denial, whiteness as comfort. Chameleon Street deviates from this classic passing and concentrates it on its ‘performance’ side of it. After all, passing is a performance that, like any other, requires an audience.
The real Doug Street whose life the film is based on is said to have made no more than $4,000 dollars from his shenanigans. So it wasn’t just the financial gain he was after. Street masquerading as a doctor, journalist, Ivy League school student and lawyer is, according to Michael Gillespie, an act of rebellion infiltrating the exclusive zone of elite professional castes kept out of the practical reach, and aspiration of most black men. Being as a raced passer, Street is compelled by a desire to be convincing, successful, and exceptional. Gillespie also states that Street exemplifies what Elaine Ginsberg describes as the dialectical nature of passing: “Passing is about identities: their creation or imposition, their adoption or rejection, their accompanying rewards or penalties. Passing is also about the boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing. Finally, passing is about specularity: the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen.”
In Passing, Irene, a childhood friend of Clare, the protagonist of the book who ‘race passes’ in white society, observes that it’s not only financial freedom that Clare strives for passing as white. It’s also “stepping always on the edge of danger,” that she revels in the nearness of getting caught. Gillespie notes that Street “thrives as a proficient quarreling with the power, privilege, and regulation of boundary crossing as Chameleon Street depicts the strategic opportunities generated by the discounting of the immanence of identity categories.” Combining this with borrowing Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performativity in her essay, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, where she states that gender is performative means that there can be no gender identity before the gendered acts, because the acts are continuously constituting the identity. Substituting gender with race, Chameleon Street gives a new perspective into the performative identity of African American entertainers since the beginning of the moving picture industry, going all the way back to mammy roles and slow-talking, lazy bum roles in often grotesquely negative stereotypes. When talking about Stepin Fechit, a vaudeville performer who made many ‘show stealing’ appearances in Hollywood films in the 1930s, known for his slurring speech and somnambulistic simpleton behavior, Miriam Petty asserts the phrase, ‘stealing the show,’ as informed by Frederick Douglass and Andrew Levine, and others, to indicate theft as an act of survival and protest. After the grossly racist misrepresentation of an African American male in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, many prominent African American scholars and thinkers at that time, called for the positive representations of Blacks in the uplift movement. The most prominent figure in uplift cinema and race films (films made by and for Black audiences), was Oscar Micheaux, who made more than 40 films in his career. But even his major film Body and Soul, which introduced young Paul Robeson (in a dual role, no less), to cinema, wasn’t immune to criticism over its representation of Black criminality. Micheaux argued that realism, not some false idyll, was the key to progress of the race. In her book Double Negative, Raquelle J. Gates argues that the power of the negative image rests in its ability to shift the dynamics in popular culture. The reverberations of negative texts function as tremors that irrevocably weaken the foundation on which their positive counterparts are constructed. Street went in and out of jail for his shenanigans, ranging from extortion, mail fraud, identity theft and impersonation. In the eyes of the law, he was nothing but a low level criminal. But it’s that negativity - the act of coning, stealing (identity), in the context of strategic essentialism, is to learn from it. A pun on Cathasian sense of being, Street famously says “I think, therefore I scam.” in his narration. Gillespie notes , “Mercurial, unstable, and improvisational, Street as intuitionist encounters the Cartesian ideal with a black consciousness devoted to self-evident truth as performative.” The statement shares an affinity with another subterranean utterance, “I am an invisible man.” Ralph Ellison’s novel, The Invisible Man, is about an unnamed black narrator experiencing racism and being an outcast through a tumultuous period of American history, and ends up a shaded trickster to adapt to white society at the cost of his own identity. It is the story of a black man in America who doesn’t need a disfigured face or one hidden behind bandages to be spurned and treated as less than a man. “That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact,” explains Ellison’s nameless narrator, “a matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” The color of his skin renders him unseen in the mind’s eye of the somnambulist whites who have been taught to categorize him as outside of importance, to discount not just his equality but his humanity. In it, the shape-shifting saboteur Reinhart, more of an idea than a real character, whom unnamed narrator is often mistaken for, is the perfect foil for Gillespie to illustrate the effects of Street’s performance:
Like Rinehart, Street embodies multiplicity in ceaseless motion, undermining every certitude, destabilizing every authority, concealing the ‘truth’ of his character by performing its proliferation in public. Thus the skilled racings or stagnings of race by Street as a black cipher of “myth and dash, being and non-being,” exceed allegiances or determinacy. Charmeleon Street executes Rinehartism in a cinematic key as it is crucially guided by an immaculate abandon and liquidity exemplified by Street’s exploits.
Far from not knowing what he is, Street knows exactly what he is doing in subsequent talk with the same psychiatrist in the later part of the film- conning white people. He lets whites believe in correctly analyzing this complex, exotic, “notorious negro”. He goes on to say that when he meets somebody, he knows in the first few minutes who they want him to be and he just cut the emotional cloth of his personality to fit the emotional clothing of whoever he is...conning. Raced functions as a term for Street’s modulating acts of identity as a measured motion or rhythm that is affectively attuned to place, race and being. This is because Chameleon Street insists on a shift from racial fidelity to identitarian disloyalty, racial passing to racial performativity. In other words, Chameleon Street as an enactment of film blackness demonstrates process rather than the idle cataloguing of lack or pathology.
Scott McGehee and Brian Siegel’s Suture is another prime example in examining class, Black identity & Black performativity in noir thriller setting.. In a clever word play, suture, in film terms, is an editing technique to make the audience forget the presence of the camera and situate them inside a film. In the film, the disfigured amnesiac protagonist, who survives a car bomb blast which was made like suicide in an attempt to evade a murder charge, goes through multiple reconstructive surgery on his face (hence the need for suture), only to look exactly the same as before, except for an eye patch. The main conceit of Suture is that the brothers Vincent and Clay, who are supposed to be similar in appearance (similar enough for one to plot the murder of the other and take over his brother’s identity), are played by one white (Michael Harris) and one black (Dennis Haysbert) actor. The filmmakers and audience are in on the joke, but not the people who inhabit the world within the film. They see two white men. Unlike Chameleon Street, here, the embodied black experience is artificially accentuated. The black body, played by the statuesque Haysbert, is highlighted in his otherwise all white environment. His visible invisibility is an obvious metaphor for Blackness. The amnesiac who only remembers his past only in flashes and symbolic dreams - a former life as a poor construction worker in the rural south. He ultimately recovers his memories when confronted with his doppelganger Vincent, who came back to finish the job of killing him. After the confrontation and ending up killing Vincent, he decides to renounce his past and choose to continue to live in his relatively newfound opulence and privilege in performative identity.
A psychiatrist, Dr. Yoshida (who is non-white, non-black therefore neutral) who narrates Suture, concludes that the amnesiac chose to erase the wrong past. That he will never be happy because he is a pretender. He won’t? What if the performances themselves are true identities? Although Suture is subservient to typical good/bad dichotomy at the end, the film demonstrates the performativity of the black body alone in the eyes of others.
The driving tenor of both Chameleon Street and Suture obviously considers the substance of blackness in ways not dependent on self dispossession because Street and Clay as film protagonists don’t exhibit any interest in the disavowal of blackness for the lure of whiteness. There is an underlying contempt for whitness in Street and Clay’s performative impulse and their sense of cool detachment in their performances. But both films highlight the black desire in attaining white privilege through performances. They distinctly amplify the way racial passing potentially displaces the relationship between inside and outside, truth and appearance, identity and identity politics.
As it is demonstrated in both Chameleon Street and Suture, the process of Black performativity defies and disrupts the society’s compulsive need for identity while refusing to be pinned down. For both films, Ellison’s concept, “To be invisible is to be seen, instantly and fascinatingly recognized as the unrecognizable, as the abject, as the absence of individual self-consciousness, as a transparent vessel of meanings wholly independent of any influence of the vessel itself.” is figuratively and literally presented. The last image of Chameleon Street is Street standing against the jail cell bars, back lit and his face obscured by cigarette smoke - like a smoke screen, remaining indisciperable and unknowable, only leaving trails of his shenanigans in his performative false identities. In Suture, Clay, free in the eyes of white society presented in the film, conceals his blackness with an invisible wink, willfully assuming that false identity as his own.
The act of performing multiple roles continuously in the white hegemonic society as an African American, is a series of delicate socio-political, cultural negotiation. It’s the process rather than the idle cataloguing of lack or pathology. It’s an act of defiance and survival.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “Strivings of the Negro People.” The Atlantic Monthly, August 1897 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1897/08/strivings-of-the-negro-people/305446/
Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519-31.
Field, Allison Nadia. Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2015.
Gates, Raquelle J. Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2018.
Gillespie, Michael Boyce. Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. DURHAM; LONDON: Duke University Press, 2016.
Hahn, Andrew. “Color-Blind in Black and White: How Suture Wants Us to Ignore Race.” Bright Lights Film Journal, July 2020 https://brightlightsfilm.com/color-blind-in-black-and-white-how-suture-wants-us-to-ignore-race/#.YKMiFpNKjUp
Petty. Miriam J. Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood. University of California Press, 2016. Rottenberg, Catherine. ""Passing": Race, Identification, and Desire." Criticism 45, no. 4 (2003): 435-52.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-05-02 15:18
Rocco e i suoi fratelli/Rocco and His Brothers (1960) - Visconti Epic melodrama about changing times and a family's disintegration told in Dostoevskian flair. It tells the 5 Parondi brothers, an impoverished farmers from the southern Italy moving to the bustling industrious city of Milan with their beloved, devoted matriarch of the family (Katrina Paxinou). Shot in crisp monochrome and on location, Rocco has the look and feel of Italian neorealist cinema. Vincente the oldest, has settled in and married a girl (Claudia Cardinale in one of her first roles) his mother doesn't really approve (her family mostly) and doesn't really want to deal with family matters, Simone (Renato Salvatori), is a brute who gets into boxing but falls victim to the lure of the city - drinking, whoring and gambling among other things, Rocco (Alain Delon) is a quiet spiritual one who'd do anything for the family, even if it means sacrificing his own happiness, Ciro (Max Catier) is the unsung narrator, realist of the film, assessing each of his elder brothers' flaws and tries to teach the youngest Luca that times-are-a-changing.
The bulk of the 3 hour runtime concerns Simone and Rocco's relationship with a local floozy Nadia (alluring Annie Girardot). After unsuccessful attempt with Vincent, she lures Simone in, then dumps him. She runs into Rocco who is finishing up his military service in Turin. His innocence and pious ways impresses her to changes her life around and they become a passionate lovers. Simone's boxing career is not going well due to his vices, and Rocco happens to be excelling at the sport. After Simone finds out about Rocco and Nadia, he tracks them down with his gang and beats up Rocco and rapes Nadia in front of him. In order not to disrupt the family, Rocco urges Nadia to go back to Simone and Nadia reluctantly agrees. And the tragedy ensues.
It's all Alan Delon show though. His youthful beauty and unending saintliness is the point of the movie. As he shivers in the muddy riverbank, tears rolling down his face, you get to feel his soul being crushed over and over. His unconsolable wailing when he finds out that Simone killed Nadia, is one of the most harrowing scenes in any film. Then the life goes on, he needs to tour as a boxer to earn money for the family, beating strangers to a pulp even though he doesn't like that side of himself, dreaming of going back to the south one day.
Beautiful and novelistic, Rocco and His Brothers is one of the greatest Italian neorealist films I've ever seen.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-04-26 12:23
Suture (1993) - McGehee & Siegel Suture cleverly toys with the racial identity - both physical, psychological and performative but with a black actor playing a white man to the blind eyes of everyone in the movie, it becomes all that of physical & psychological. The slick noir tells a deception of a patricidal rich white man Vincent Towers (Michael Harris) who finds a perfect patsy in his long lost brother Clay (Dennis Haysbert) who happens to share striking resemblence(!!) to take the blame on their father's death. Feigning a sudden business trip, Vincent leaves Clay in charge with his opulent mansion and swaps their ID, then blows up his car with Clay in it with a remote. But Clay survives with his memories wiped clean and mangled face. People around him not seeing the color of his skin and assumes that he is Vincent, nurses him back to health with an extensive reconstructive plastic surgery.
Eugenics, white priviledge, interracial romance and many other stereotypical racial stereotypes are examined and explored within the confines of a noir genre setup. "How do we know who we are?" asks the psychoanalyst who narrates the film in the beginning. After Clay remembers his past and chooses to stay with the assumed identity, the narrator concludes with "Clay chose to errase the wrong past," did he though? There is nothing wrong with the desire to live in opulence and priviledge instead of in poverty. But Suture equals denying one's own past means losing one's soul. With brave casting, Suture seems to examine hefty subjects if it's only on the surface level. It is on us audiences to contemplate the rest.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-04-13 02:25
Los Conductos (2020) - Restrepo Guillermo Restrepo's enigmatic first feature packs a lot in one hour and ten minutes running time. We are introduced to a young bearded man (Luis Felipe Lozano) who shoots his way out of an empty warehouse where he has been living, steals a motorbike and rides into the night. The economy of shots here are astounding - Thrown flashlights, sound of a motor of a bike running then crashing (without ever showing an attack or crashing), an extended leash of a dog and a barking (but without a dog). It's all simple shots and gestures and some sound thrown that suggest narrative. It tells you all you need to know though. The voice over comes in around 11 minutes after the credits. The young man is apparently running from an underground cult - a collective of people on the margins united by their hate of the society. Its leader, only known as 'father', has disappointed him. He saw something in the leader he can't forgive (it might have to do with being a pedophily clown). The timeline isn't very clear as we see the young man getting fired from a silkscreen T-shirt factory for drug use then breaking into a warehouse space in the middle part of the movie. Are we seeing the flashback? The voice over tells the story of abandoned kids he once saw on TV. The young man and his friend named 'Revenge' takes the role of the kids and have a joyride in the mostly empty city which is directly underneath Medellin (as suggested by empty highways, tunnels) the second largest city in Colombia. Laiden with metaphors and parables, Los Conductos is ultimately commenting on cyclical nature of violence and its culture in Colombia: it takes a jab at the early military government indoctrination, the rampant waste of industrial and capitalist productions and the lost generation they created. It's Restrepo's ingenuity of creating something complex out of so little that is admirable here. With Arthur Gillette's appropriately pounding score, Los Conductos is a daring, dazzling cinematic exercise that is once again proving the future of cinema is in Latin America.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-03-31 16:00
This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (2020) - Mosese Mantoa (Marytwala Mhlongo) lost all her family members over the years and now she is a recipient of her son's dead body. He died in an accident, presumably while working nearby mining field. Since she has no will to live anymore, she starts preparing for her death. She puts on a dress her husband gifted her long ago, lays down in her bed for death to come and take her away.
But the death doesn't come. She tries to hire a local man to dig her grave for him. He refuses – it’s a bad omen for digging a grave for someone who is still living. She will need to do it herself. In the mean time, her village is under the threat of a dam being built nearby. All villagers will need to relocate because of their valley will be flooded. It means their ancestral burial ground will be flooded as well. As Mantoa objects to the dam project, pleading with the villagers about the importance of having their land, she unwillingly becomes a leader of a movement.
Mosotho filmmaker and visual artist Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese's This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection is a stunning film that defies easy categorization. Gorgeously shot in full frame by Pierre de Villiers with captivating score by Berlin based electronic composer Miyashita Yu, the film is a highly visual, aural experience that charts new frontier in its cinematic language. Only comparison I can think of is the work of Pedro Costa in its painterly, static framing and its visual poetry.
Steeped in Lesotho's natural beauty and its culture and history, the narrative moves languidly forward as our grief stricken, life beaten heroine picks herself up and fight against the village chief and the catholic priest who are resigned to give up the land, their heritage and dignity in the name of progress. Her refusal to relocate and her passionate speech about protecting their land and ancestral burial ground where all their families and ancestors are buried, the villagers finally come to her aide. They start cleaning up the cemetery and pressure the village leaders to reconsider.
The company which is behind the dam construction, uses scare tactics and violence to oppress the villagers. As their celebration turns into tragedy, the villagers are forced to relocate. It is again Mantoa, who has nothing else to lose, making the last stand.
It's Marytwala Mhlongo's weathered old face that speaks thousand words here. Her dignified stand in her forever black mourning dress stands out like a sore thumb in the frame mostly populated by giant Lesotho sky. Nature, however beautiful, doesn't let you forget that human are insignificant in Mosese's expressive framing. There are so many memorable scenes but Mantoa dancing in her best dress dancing with the dead - shot in close handheld camera, and women in black choir singing at Mantoa’s son’s funeral, stand out for me.
This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection signals the arrival of a major new voice in international cinema, one who is gifting us a unique cinematic language rooted in his tradition and culture. One of the year’s best.
Sundance winner This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection opens April 2, in virtual cinemas nationwide.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-03-16 14:20
Breaking Glass (1980) - Gibson There has been a number of 'rise and fall of a rock star' movies, but nothing quite got my mojo going as Breaking Glass has. It stars Hazel O'Connor as Kate, a talented musician struggling in the dreary music landscape still dominated by disco - it's the end of disco era and the rise of New Wave, the year is 1980. Her music is just the right combination of punk and new wave, the look, the staccato singing style, energetic beats - it's extremely catchy and very awesome over all. O'Connor wrote and sings all the songs that are in the film.
Danny (Phil Daniels who played pretty much the same character in Quadrophenia a year before), a music promoter trying to find a talent in the grimy clubs and pubs in London, finds Kate and sees great potential. After sweet-talking her to be her manager even though she doesn't believe in either manager or record deal, he forces her to hold auditions for her new band in her flat. Soon the cool band, Breaking Glass is assembled, including a quiet, hearing aid wearing junkie Saxophone player Ken (a semi-young Jonathan Price) who hits off with Kate musically.
Kate gets inspirations from the grungy, politically volatile Thatcher area streets. Breaking Glass has to fight off rowdy pub crowd and neo-Nazis while performing. Breaking Glass hits the road and gathers some new fans. A sort of romance blooms between Danny and Kate also. And all of sudden, the music industry execs who didn't give Danny any minds before flock in to sign a record deal with Breaking Glass. And they slowly interfere with the band's business and push Danny out. Danny calls it quits in the heat of argument in the tour bus and hops off. The success gets to the heads of some band members and Kate starts taking drugs just to go on stage.
Again, the best part of the film is O'Connor's music. Her energetic presence and musical talent is undeniable. It is pretty obvious where Ridley Scott got his inspiration for Pris in Blade Runner. All the music acts, the new wave looks, the story are all so very engaging. I can't believe I haven't come across this film before. Along with Quadrophenia, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, Streets of Fire, The Commitments, Velvet Goldmine, Breaking Glass becomes one of my favorite rock films ever.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-03-14 15:35
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2020) - Horvát Beautiful and esteemed neurosurgeon Márta (Natasa Stork) comes back to Budapest after twenty years abroad living and working in the US, because she fell in love with a fellow Hungarian doctor János (Viktor Bódo) at a medical conference. They made a lover's pact - they will meet each other at the Liberty Bridge in a month's time. But he never shows up. And when confronted at his work place, János denies that they ever even met. But instead of going back to New Jersey where she works and lives, she decides to stay put and take a job at the same local hospital where he has an office. Márta even rents a dumpy apartment with the view of the bridge.
Director Lili Horvát cleverly sets up Preparations... as a seductive mindtrip which is yet grounded in logic (or illogic) - Márta calmly questions herself if she made up the encounter just because she wanted love to happen so badly for whatever reason, in ongoing therapy sessions - and this means she is abandoning her life in the States, best friends and all. She is there for a long term to find out.
The delicious juxtaposition of being a brilliant neurosurgeon where she can diagnose and eliminate illness of the brain which affects both body & mind and letting the whim of her own heart set the course for the unknown is ahem, what's at the heart of the film.
Stork's performance as a highly intelligent and confident woman losing her grip on reality, not because of a man but rather, the idea of a man, is totally absorbing. Her always stoic façade and curt demeanor don't reveal an inch of her inner life. But it's her bare apartment - a mattress on the floor, her lack of interests in furniture that hints at her person. Camera loves Stork though, often with extreme close ups in different angles, Horvát suggests Travis Bickle like fracture in her psyche.
Arresting visuals and unhurried cat-and-mouse situations, Preparations... seduced me visually like no other film in recent years. Watching the movie reminded me of the feeling I got from watching Kieslowski films, long ago. It would've been lovely to see the film on the big screen.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-03-11 17:00
The Inheritance (2020) - Asili A Philly native artist/filmmaker Ephraim Asili's experimental whatsit The Inheritance draws from his days as a member of West Philadelphia Black radical collective, where a group of like-minded young African American activists, artists lived and shared their thoughts and ideas in a communal setting. The idea was heavily indebted to MOVE, a black liberation group founded by John Africa and his followers who preached importance self-sufficiency and living in harmony within nature.
A loose narrative concerns Julian (Eric Lockley) and Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), childhood friends who move in together when Julian inherits his late grandmother's multi-story house in Philadelphia. The grandma also left myriads of black cultural artifacts: books, magazines, and records - most of them from the black liberation era. They decide to take in roommates - philosophers, educators, artists, and activists and open the place up to the neighborhood as a communal space/library.
The film's staccato, but unhurried episodic structure gives way for Asili to interject with many archival footage: Shirley Chisholm's Presidential campaign, MOVE's standoff with police in 1978 and the police bombing of MOVE compound that took 11 lives in 1985. It also features black liberation luminaries such as Mike Africa Jr and Debbie Africa and renown poets, Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker who appear on screen as guests in Asili's narrative universe.
The Inheritance's freewheeling form owes great deal to Godard, right down to the brightly colored walls, editing and the constant, exaggerated noise of a 16mm camera rolling. Asili doesn't try to hide his influence by putting a giant poster of La Chinoise as a centerpiece on the living room wall. His intention was to make a hip-hop/reggae version of Godard's agitprop classic.
The film is heady with many memorable quotes from black liberation era thinkers and writers, often provided by giant black boards located on the wall and Julian, Gwen and others repeating many of the quotes in dramatic fashion, looking straight at the camera. But in Asili's hands, The Inheritance doesn't feel like a dogmatic film. There are many funny moments as the residents of the 'house of Ubuntu' have to deal with any communal living, following such strict rules as 'no shoes inside the house', 'don't eat someone else's food in the fridge without asking' and so on. Rather, this airy fusion of filmed experiment gives opportunity to its unsuspecting viewers the window to unseen/under seen, unheard/under heard pieces of American history that give them the proper context to understanding the current political climate - the continuing police brutality against black community, the BLM movement and the white supremacists storming of the Capitol building.
In its rather conventional movie ending, Asili closes his narrative part of the movie on a positive note. But we all know that there's more work to be done. The Inheritance is an ode to black resistance and fitting cinematic experiment for the BLM era.
The Inheritance opens virtually on 3/12. Please visit Grasshopper film website for more info.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-03-11 14:00
Quo vadis, Aida? (2020) - Zbanic Jasmila Zbanic's Quo vadis, Aida? puts its protagonist, Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a middle-aged schoolteacher working as an English translator for the UN peacekeeping troops, in a very difficult position. The place is Srebrenica, Bosnia, the year is 1995 and the film is based on a true story. The Serbian troops incursion is imminent. Like in all wars, people have to make difficult choices to survive. The kicker of the film is that this life and death situation it depicts has actually taken place merely 26 years ago.
Considering estimated 100,000 people killed, and 1.3 million displaced in The Bosnian War, I have to say right off the bat that the outcome in Quo vadis, Aida? is not a positive one. But it says a lot about how horrific the war actually was. And however well meaning the international interventions were, they were not at all prepared when faced with humanitarian crises.
The setting and the story is pretty specific. Srebrenica is a town of 30,000 people, consists of mostly Muslim population. The shelling by the Serbian tanks has started. The Dutch UN troops confined to their camp just outside the town are completely impotent since the entire UN command in Europe seems to be on vacation. So their ultimatum to the Serbian troops to halt or face the air strikes become empty threats. The snide Serbian commander knows its predicament and uses it to his advantage. Aida, working as a translator for the UN Command unit, sees that they are making promises to the townspeople they can't keep. The air strike never materializes. Once Srebrenica is taken by Serbian army, all of town's folks seek refugee in the UN compound. And the UN troops are not set up to deal with the unfolding humanitarian crisis - shortage of supplies, food, water, fuel and even toilets. All they can do is provide shelters for about 4,000-5,000 people on the concrete floor and the rest camping out just outside the barbed-wire fences.
Aida, using her connections with the Dutch, brings her husband and two sons into the compound. Her husband who is a learned man, will act as one of the civilian leaders to negotiate the terms with the two faced Serbian general.
Things get dire as the Serbians dictate the terms of "moving refugees out of harms way" by buses. Women get separated from their men, but no one knows if the buses are headed to where they were supposed to be headed. Some of the UN soldiers witness men being rounded up and executed. And some young women are dragged off by Serbian army.
Quo vadis, Aida? is all about one woman's mission to save her family at all costs. It's her survival mode taking over and working overtime in a dire, life and death circumstances. It also is a searing indictment of war and the West's naiveté and hubris as to believe in their moral superiority but complete impotence when it comes to decision-making and action. Compellingly and deftly written and directed by Zbanic, the film moves along breathlessly to its tragic end.
It ends with Aida going back to Srebrenica to resume her teaching after some time has passed. The life is back to normal. Everyone is supposed to be friends and neighbors again. The film questions if this so-called peace is acceptable, if you recognize a parent in the audience at the school talent show is the same person who is responsible for the death of thousands people, including your family. Can you ever forgive him? The film tries to make you understand the post-war Bosnian society, its fragile peace, its not so distant past and trauma and wounds not healed. Quo Vadis, Aida? is a powerful, harrowing film with a stellar performance by Jana Djuricic in the title role. Highly recommended.
Quo vadis, Aida is playing now at virtual cinemas across the US and will be available on digital and on demand on 3/15
Permalink - Posted on 2021-03-03 17:00
It's Spring in New York. It means it's time for Rendez-vous with French Cinema, the festival showcasing the best of what contemporary French cinema can offer. But this year, with all virtual presentations due to the Covid-19 crisis, the festival is going beyond New York audience. So any lovers of French cinema in the US will have access to all the films presenting!
The 18 film line up includes Sebastian Lifshitz's affecting Little Girl - the first Documentary to open the festival, François Ozon's queer romance nostalgia piece Summer of 85, Nicole Garcia's sexy noir Lovers and Quentin Dupieux's idiosyncratic comedy Mandibles starring Adèle Excharpoulos. Rendez-vous with French Cinema runs 3/4-3/14. Please click on the Film at Lincoln Center link for tickets and information.
Without further a do, here are 6 films I was able to sample:
Little Girl - Lifshitz *Opening Night Film Sébastien Lifshitz, director of such queer art films as Come Undone and Wild Side, directs Little Girl, a poignant documentary on gender dysphoria- a feeling of distress that occur in people whose gender identity differs from the sex they are born with. The film concerns Sasha, a second grader who is having a hard time being accepted in school and the world as she was born as a boy but feels strongly about being a girl. It's a good thing she has a a very supportive family - parents and three siblings. First it's her mom who feels responsible because she wanted a girl when she was pregnant with Sasha as doctors assure her that her child's condition has got nothing to do with her wishes. The prejudices Sasha faces in school, by her principal and teachers make the little girl cry. She is also prejudiced in her ballet class as she is not treated as a girl. And it is heart wrenching to see the child cry in pain.
Lindon, 18 year old daughter of French cinema staple Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain, makes a directorial debut and also plays the main role of a 16 year old high schooler in this delicately observed, sensitive love story, not predicated by its initial a school girl and an old man set up. It is refreshing to see love and mutual understanding not playing out in flesh but in choreographed dances and movements while not losing true to being a teenage girl crushing on the idea of a man, love and life.Summer of 85 - Ozon François Ozon is back in his old naughty self and I welcome it. In its pure Ozon set up, a young man retracing his steps in police custody, we are led to believe that the film is about a murder mystery. Alex (Félix Lafebvre) experiences near drowning after his stolen boat capsizes at sea and rescued by David (Benjamin Voisin). They strike up a friendship. David, slightly older, takes the lead in the relationship, taking Alex on his motor bike to dangerous adventures. He is everything Alex wants in a best friend and more.
Taking on a British YA novel Dance on My Grave from the 80s, Summer of 85 invokes the innocent times before the AIDS crisis and harkening back to his more salacious, hormone overloaded earlier works that he is known for. Summer of 85' is a delicious, erotically charged period piece filled with colors and pop songs and a top tier Ozon.Lovers - Garcia
Some years have passed, and Lisa is married to a Swiss businessman Léo (Benoit Magmiel) who travels all over the world for his corporate insurance jobs. When they are vacationing in a fancy Indian Ocean resort, Lisa and Simon (now working as a tour guide) reunite by chance and rekindle their first love and passion. After they return to snowy Geneva, they continue to see each other under the nose of Léo. Things go wrong, as they always do.
Strength of Lovers is in its casting. Two attractive leads, Niney and Martin both possess fatalistic beauty and fit the roles of ill fated lovers like gloves. Also Niney's fawny figure and face are steep contrasts to aging bear actors (Magmiel and Grégoire Colin, who plays Simon's brother, both aging and becoming more and more like Gerard Depardieu everyday). Considering Magmiel and Colin were once young and angular heartthrobs, I wonder what's going to happen to Niney ten years from now.Mandibles - Dupieux
The case of mistaken identity, babes on a Summer vacation, a school of red herrings/mcguffins plague this film. Think of Mandibles as a lazier French Big Lebowski where things amount to nothing but a chuckle.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-02-25 15:00
Un film dramatique (2019) - Baudelaire
Éric Baudelaire, a French visual artist, filmmaker (Letters to Max, Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images), was commissioned to do a project with the newly constructed Dora Maar middle school in the suburb of Paris, spent 4 years working with middle school kids as they recorded themselves their daily lives. The result is not only a refreshing slices of life documentary on close to two dozen sixth grade students as they grow up in front of our eyes, but also a incisive contemplation on the nature of filmmaking itself.
Baudelaire, with Social Science academic background, previously made documentaries regarding a daughter of Japanese Red Army founder and also Adachi Masao, a radical militant leftist Japanese New Wave director, as they collaborated on turning the camera not on subject but toward landscapes in which the subject has lived, trying to put into practice Adachi’s Landscape Theory. With Un Film Dramatique, he puts the cameras in the hands of its subjects. And the result is surprisingly touching examination and revealing reflection of a multicultural society.
Dora Maar is a public school, situated in a not so affluent but a racially and culturally mixed neighborhood. It's a microcosm of modern multicultural, pluralist France represented in one classroom. Students are from diverse backgrounds and many of them are descendants of immigrant families and everyone has his/her own little story to tell. But it's those discussions in classroom are extremely revealing and insightful.
In diverse subject from religion, identity to politics, these little runts prove to be much more astute and knowledgeable about the world around them. The filming started amidst the series of terrorist attacks by Islamic terrorists that hit France. As Marine Le Pen, the head of the ultra nationalist, right wing party the National Rally, was running a presidential election, their discussion turns to racism and how the immigrants are being scapegoated and prejudiced against by Le Pen's rhetoric, that they see her as blatant racist. As these fascinating, no holds-barred in-class discussions show that they are like sponges, absorbing everything they see and hear and fully aware of their surroundings.
They learn about each other by seeing their home footage as they travel to their parents home country, be it Romania or French overseas region of Réunion in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Living in a media saturated age, these kids are much more savvy recording themselves but also extremely conscious about their screen presence. Baudelaire chooses to show not only their most revealing moments but also them being kids, as they fumble around and make mistakes.
The title Un Film Dramatique comes from the kids’ discussion about the film they are making. Is it a documentary? But the sound needs synchronization via slating and ambient sound also needs to be added. In their minds, a documentary is truth being recorded, so no manipulation. There are stories, in the film they are making, there's drama, hence dramatique. The film is refreshing documentation of the lives of middle school students reflecting on changing French society as well as a boundary breaking, playful cinematic experiment.
Un Film Dramatique opens 2/26 virtually. Please visit Cinema Guild for playdates in venues.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-02-11 14:00
Michael Gillespie, African American film scholar, says in his book, Film Blackness, "Black filmmakers are burdened with the rope chain of 'reality' in ways white people simply aren't." I think this can apply to any POC filmmakers in America making films about their stories. How do you go on about making a film about certain ethnic experience? Do you make it to appeal to the general public audience who are mostly white? And how do we perceive it as, from audience perspective? Speaking as an immigrant Korean-American male, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari touches upon a lot of issues that Korean-American males struggle with. But in the grand scheme of things, the film operates as a micro-level family drama in and of itself, which is as personal as it gets, largely devoid of the usual immigrant struggle against the odds in America. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing and am glad Minari is not a dignity porn that most films about non-white immigrants almost always turn out to be. But if you are expecting Steven Yeun’s character being a recipient of racial slurs and persecution in the rural Arkansas and overcoming odds to achieve that elusive American Dream, this film will surprise you in a good way.
Minari tells the story of the Yi family. Jacob (Steven Yeun) is seen excitedly introducing a large trailer house in the middle of an empty field. Monica (Han Yeri), tries to hide her disappointment in front of their children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan Kim). It’s the 80s and the setting is rural Arkansas. Jacob moved his family from California in search of a fertile plot of land where he dreams of owning a vegetable farm. According to the locals, we later find out, the former owner of the land blew his brains out when his crops failed. But Jacob can’t be deterred. His stubbornness is the cause of the young couples countless argument. Monica, accustomed to living in the city, misses human interactions and community. Their job at the local chicken processing plant where they work as chicken sexers (they determine if the chicks are male or female and separate them), isn’t ideal and not that different from their life in California.
Jacob’s idea is to grow Korean vegetables and sell them to Korean restaurants to nearby Korean enclaves in Dallas and other big cities. But there are some problems he didn’t account for, such as the water shortage in his plot, and unpredictable weather, such as tornados. He’s also quick to dismiss any helps that come along the way, like water dowsing or friendly suggestions from a good-natured farmhand Paul (Will Patton), as hillbilly nonsense. Jacob’s desire to prove himself and his needs to provide for his family overshadow any of his shortcomings. Because of this mindset, he has no choice but trudge forward.
Things get better when Monica’s mom (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from Korea to live with them and take care of children. Her presence gives a much needed moral boost and emotional support Monica needed but to the kids, she is nothing like what a grandma is supposed to be. She is loud, vulgar and generally a bad influence. She also smells funny and force-feeds smelly medicine she brought from Korea (David has a heart condition).
It’s grandma and David’s tit-a-tat that gives Minari most of its laughs. David’s experiences seem very authentic if not a little extreme – like peeing in grandma’s drinks. Even though David sees her as an adversary at first, they bond as time goes along.
Steven Yeun, an unlikely Korean-American movie star who started his career not playing a typical Asian character is almost on the backward career trajectory here, playing perhaps his meatiest role to date. Yeun, whose angular face and light complexion suits a cosmopolitan city dweller rather than a rural, working-class everyman profile, goes against typecasting and does a great job playing Ajussi (a middle-aged Korean man). He got the mannerisms, boorish stubbornness, stern disciplinarian and dismissing of others in a typical Korean father figure down pat (except for drinking, perhaps).
Veteran Korean TV and film actress, Youn Yuh-jung shines as eccentric grandma who says the most inappropriate things in front of people just to embarrass her grandchildren. She also provides the pivotal moment of catharsis for the Yi family.
Will Patton, a veteran character actor who worked with Chung in his film Abigail Harm, lends his support, playing a hick farmhand and a Jesus freak, giving perhaps the most touching, humanistic performance of the year.
Drawing from his childhood memories, writer director Lee Isaac Chung's Minari is not so much as an heart-warming, uplifting immigrant story that A24 is aggressively trying to sell it as, in this award season - the press screener comes with a lengthy introductions by a CA congresswoman and a newly elected CA senator, both second generation immigrants no less, but a personal story about a family and their struggles within themselves, not as much with the outside force.
Minari is a small, very personal film that is not made to appeal to general (white) audiences. Having the film mostly in Korean and American cast only in the periphery are some of the bold choices director Chung makes. He understands that more personal storytelling from life experience comes across as the most universal, even it risks alienating general audiences which might come across as impersonal and distant.
Then again, it’s a typical American story, reminding us that this country is a land of immigrants. The second generation immigrant director also understands that memories are selective and unique to each individual. Playing with the idea of typical and atypical immigrant family and roles, he defies that ‘burdened with rope chain of reality’ with the film. After the success of Parasite, and the popularity of Korean culture and Steven Yeun, Minari has a lot going for it. The success of Minari will define how far we came as a society that a POC filmmaker doesn’t necessarily need to adhere to appeal to general white audiences anymore.
Minari opens 2/12 in select theaters and available on VOD.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-02-10 19:40
Deep Cover (1992) - Duke As far as the 90s hood films go, Bill Duke's Deep Cover cuts pretty deep. Maybe I shouldn't group the film with hood films, which in turn are message films, usually dealing with in and out of 'community'. But that's for another review. Deep Cover is a cold hard noir. I guess we can group it with Rage in Harlem (also directed by Duke, based on Harlem noir writer Chester Himes), One False Move and Glass Shield, all release around the same time.
Deep Cover poses itself as an interesting case study in black film noir. African American film scholar Michael Gillespie makes an interesting observation about noir, a genre film that grew out of post-war white angst as it rose from surrealism and existentialism coupled with hard-boiled literature. This world, filled with vice, moral ambiguity and misogyny. What takes place in there is the criminal undertaking of abject whites with the racial undertones of invisible black bodies. What black film noir does is casting a light on black people.
Stevens/Hull (Lawrence Fishburne) a Cincinnati cop with daddy issues, is recruited to go undercover to bring down a drug kingpin in LA, when he coolly gave the just right answer when a white federal agent Carver (Charles Martin Smith)'s asks a loaded question, "How can you tell between a black man and a nigger?" "Only a nigger would even consider answering that question." From the get-go, Deep Cover delves into Fishburne's conflicted character as a cop with 'all the personality traits of a criminal'. Once on the streets of LA, he quickly establishes himself in the drug dealing business. He befriends with a drug dealing defense attorney Jason (Jeff Goldblum) who has a fetishistic attachment for African American and indulges himself in the seedy world of Latino run drug-dealing business. An LA cop Taft (Clarence Williams III) is on their trail. Taft is a bible thumping father figure.
Even though there is a rapport between Hull and Jason, the tight script doesn't allow their bromance to the level of interracial duo in buddy cop movies. It's strictly business for Jason and for Hull, it's sheer necessity. In order to stop the flow of drugs coming in to the black neighborhood, Hull will need to not only deal, but also kill (with Carver's blessings) not to blow his cover. After taking down the expected targets of the police investigation, Hull goes for the top man of the drug organization, Guzman, a Latin American diplomat with ties to the high level US politicians - after all, this is the man is responsible for funneling drugs into the neighborhood of LA. But Carver pulls the plug on the operation. It's done. The State Department is taking over. Guzman can't be touched. The Man used Hull and screwed him.
Jason, blinded by his ambition as a big time drug kingpin, suggests pitching his synthetic drug idea to Guzman for the funding. So the trap is set at a harbor at night. With Taft on his trail and Jason not suspecting Hull to be a cop, and Hull still doing what's right even though his job is over converge.
Deep Cover is an interesting, above average noir with a black protagonist. Duke and co uses a genre to shed a light on the complex African American experiences.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-02-02 14:55