Archive for June 2009

NYAFF Festival Dispatch #1: Films from the Other Side of the Universe

June 29, 2009

Subway Cinema‘s New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center is one of three festivals in New York City I attend every single year, because this curatorial collective consistently find the wildest, most interesting contemporary Asian cinema you’ve never seen before. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been seeing.

clone01

The Clone Returns Home

THE CLONE RETURNS HOME (Japan, 2008)

The Japanese space program, already hurting for resources and budget, faces the demise of a veteran astronaut in a minor space station repair operation. Vowing to prevent similar tragic, public occurrences in the future, the space program asks astronaut Kohei Takahara to consent to a cloning/memory recording process in the off-chance of a repeat tragedy.

When Kohei dies on an outer hull space walk, the clone policy is activated — and the moral question of the film comes into focus. One of the reasons Kohei had been uncomfortable about cloning policy stemmed from the childhood death of his own twin brother. When Kohei (the Second) is restored to life, with the body and memories of the original, his consciousness tangles up in these memories of the past — memories he had spent a lifetime repressing — and he is unable to progress internally through his past memories to reach his clone-template’s own present. Most painfully, he is unable to recognize his emotionally shattered wife. While the cloning facility successfully modeled the astronaut’s body and memory, what of the astronaut’s consciousness and soul?

This film was a Sundance Film Festival darling this year, and was one of the strongest films I have seen at NYAFF so far. While thematically (at times aesthetically) the film echoes Solaris, Lem’s excellent novel as well as Tarkovsky’s feature (playing at the Walter Reade in early July), I’d caution the viewer from thinking too much about Tarkovsky or Kubrick when catching Kanji Nakajima film. The film establishes its own rhythm and breath separate from its predecessors. Still, Michael Atkinson’s write-up about Solaris/Clone at Criterion.com is worth a look.

Written By

Written By

WRITTEN BY (Hong Kong, 2009)

As a huge fan of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai ‘s Mad Detective (2007) from NYAFF ’08, I highly anticipated catching the international premiere of Wai Ka-Fai’s idiosyncratic, emotionally devastating Written By at NYAFF ’09.

A tragic car wreck ends the life of the father (the inimitable Lau Ching-wan), blinds daughter Melody, and leaves mother/wife and son injured and inconsolable. Some years later, facing the unlikelihood that her mother will ever again be happy, daughter Melody comes up with a plan: she will write a novel. In this work of fantasy, the father will survive the car wreck, though blind, while the rest of the family instead dies.

But given that this is a Wai Ka-Fai film, it is not enough to stop there. In her novel, her father attempts to console himself for his loss by writing a novel. In this novel-within-a-novel, it will be possible for his wife to return as a ghost, the son to be reborn as a puppy, and the daughter to apprentice herself to Meng Po (figure from Chinese realm of the dead) to make this wizardry possible. But a second tragedy reverberates across the structure of both novels. As the film spirals deeper and deeper through its impact, director Wai Ka-Fai creates a remarkably mature and challenging portrait of the limits of our success to assuage experiences of deep loss through our fictions.

Dream

Dream

DREAM (Korea, 2008)

When I heard the English title of Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk‘s (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, 2003) latest film, I felt a twinge of concern: given the eccentric, elliptical quality to his previous narratives, what wildness was in store for me this time? With Samaritan Girl (2004) and The Isle (2000), Kim switches narrative strategies midstream, dropping central POV characters and dollying back to the critical distance of parable just when I  hope to learn more about character’s internal lives. (As much as I protest at the time, Kim’s decision tends to connect with me by the time I make it back to the subway.)

While the atmospheric landscapes and striking images are there as ever, the narrative at the heart of Dream is atypically coherent, even pitch-able high concept: When Jin (Joe Odagiri, Plastic City) dreams, a woman he has never met before, sleepwalker Ran (Lee Na-Young), acts out his dreams, with a crucial qualification: When Jin dreams of catching up to his ex-girlfriend who broke his heart, Ran acts out his fantasy by stumbling back to the horrible man she ran away from and seducing him.

As with all of Kim’s films, this film has a deeply serious metaphysical and moral inquiry at its heart — are we responsible for our dreams, what effects do our dreams have upon other people? And spending time with Jin and Ran, complementary opposites struggling to keep each other from sleeping at the same time, I come to a similar conclusion to the dream shaman: she  advices them to fall love with each other instead of resolving their issues with their exes. Ah, but it is a Kim Ki-duk film, so easy solutions are unlikely to do the trick here.

— Matthew Griffin

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Decisions to Be Made, Developments to Come: Beeswax and The Glass House at BAMcinemaFEST

June 26, 2009

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There’s a  haziness to Beewswax, Andrew Bujalski’s third and most recent feature, which appeared in this year’s BAMcinemaFEST and had its North American premiere at SXSW in March. But haziness and languor are the pervasive feelings in Bujalski’s distinctively diminutive on-screen universe, a place that schleps awkwardness and twenty-something listlessness toward an unusual level of palbability. Like director Hamid Rahmanian’s The Glass House, also included alongside the nearly twenty features selected for this year’s festival, Beeswax is a film about young people in limbo, about decision-making when the idea of having to make decisions carries with it all kinds of unwanted anxieties and implications.

Unlike Bujalski’s film, however, the people of The Glass House are all young women – most of them from broken homes, some of them runaways – enrolled in an experimental Iranian rehabilitation center that encourages, rather than disciplines, their creativity. Moving between the stories and situation of a handful of these girls, following them through their homes and streets in working-class Tehran, Rahmanian’s documentary is a refreshingly non-partisan portrait of inner lives desperately trying to develop under pressure.

Compare again to Bujalski’s film, which feels ardently partisan, hopelessly romantic in its endearing evocations of Texas hipsters under duress. Twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren (Tilly and Maggie Hatcher) bemoan their professional and sexual relationships, their career misgivings, their friendships and their family obligations while mutual friend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky) uses his expertise as an aspiring lawyer to help Lauren, his love interest, escape a legal fiasco instigated by her business partner. The Hatcher sisters are expectantly charismatic personalities; Bujalski – a filmmaker whose naive fetishization of the quirks and mannerisms of generation raised on late Eighties pop cultural residue helps to secure his spot in the leagues of Swanbergian mumblecore – would have nothing less.

However, charisma is what keeps mumblecore away from the honesty and relevance of more provocative – and ultimtely more serious- films about men and women navigating the contestory zones of young adulthood (think of Nanni Moretti’s Ecce Bombo, for example). The Glass House is, perhaps, an appropriate counterpoint to Bujalski, a film more alert to the nuance and features of a group of young people in need of guidance. And yet, Bujalski’s voice has matured since the days of Funny Ha Ha, he’s become more assured and comfortable behind the camera (unlike his previous two films, he’s nowhere to be found in front of the camera this time). He shares with Rahmanian an interest in the shifts and shuffles of personal lives, and the tensions they leave behind.

-Ricky D’Ambrose

BAM CinemaFest Review: Beeswax

June 26, 2009

Sprawling yet restrained, Andrew Bujaski’s new film Beeswax is either his best film yet or significantly underdeveloped.

The decision as to which you might believe rests in your own prejudices and the way you view cinema.

For instance, a valid question might be to ask yourself whether you are a fan of the “mumblecore” movement and the challenge to conventional cinema it provides.

“Mumblecore”, for those of you who don’t know it, is a new American independent-cinema among a group of largely white, 30-something filmmakers who believe that movies do not have to be about world-changing events, but rather the intricacies of one relationship or one moment in a life.

A good way of illustrating might be to compare a movie like Transformers II, full of robots, explosions and Bad Boys II references, to a movie like Mutual Appreciation, about a couple of people who think about cheating together, but ultimately decide not to and instead talk it out and do a little dance.

The contrast is rather stark and Mr. Bujalski (who also made Mutual Appreciation) is considered the break-out artist, if not the godfather, of the genre.

So when Andrew Bujalski announces that his new film will be a “legal thriller”, as an audience we collecting wink and wince, trying to figure out how that will work.

And, as a “legal thriller”, I can certainly tell you that Beeswax does not work.

The movie follows a pair of identical twins, Jeannie and Lauren (played by real-life twins,Tilly and Maggie Hatcher), who eke out an existence an Austin, Texas, living in the same house. Lauren is a free-spirit, but also unrooted, who dumps her boyfriend because she feels that she’s only half-in the relationship (“And why is that a problem?” Her rightly-dumped boyfriend asks). Jeannie, her sister, is more responsible handling the day-to-day operations of a thrift-store she co-owns called Storyville, along with the emotional demands of an air-headed new shop clerk (Kay O’Connor). Jeannie’s part of the story adds the “legal thriller” aspect–her irresponsible partner is considering a lawsuit–and also a twist of reality: even though Jeannie and Lauren are “identical”, Jeannie is confined to a wheelchair for reasons never explained.

It is here that another element of the “mumblecore” genre is played with: the relationship between character and performer, fiction and reality. The cast is mostly made up of friends and former actors for Mr. Bujalski. Jeannie’s love interest, a law student who tries to comfort her about the details of the lawsuit that may-or-may-not be coming her way, is played by Alex Karpovsky, a filmmaker who Mr. Bujalski reportedly cast because he “liked his movies”. When Mr. Bujalski was asked about his choice to work with non-professional actors at the Q+A for the film, he said “that my films wouldn’t work without them.”

And indeed, Beeswax does feel like a better movie for its bristly performances. The pacing, while not glacial, seems like the pacing of life in a small subsection of Austin, Texas. In other words, it rings true. However, for all of the unhurried veracity of the film, it might also lead some viewers to wonder: “Well, why did I pay 12 dollars for this?” By the end of Beeswax, not much has changed. In fact, Mr. Bujalski explicitly points out how little has changed with how similar the situations of the characters is at the beginning of the movie is to its end. He is a filmmaker who seems not to believe in telling stories beyond the personal, the simple, the everyday, and the leaves the judgment of value to you.

In the end the satirical element of a “legal thriller” falls flat and feels snide if you view the film that way, or snarky. But one need not.

Beeswax is a film without bees or wax or beeswax. It’s a film that puts you in the figurative meaning of it’s title, “personal business”, the personal business of its characters for a short 100 minutes, before leaving you to your own judgments and life.

For Mr. Bujalski, that’s your beeswax, not his.

-Nicholas Feitel

Human Rights Watch Interview: Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine of Good Fortune

June 24, 2009
Director Van Soest

Co-director Van Soest

An incendiary look at the difficulties that foreign aid has unintentionally exacerbated in some Africa’s most impoverished regions, Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine’s Good Fortune, which screens tonight at The Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, traces the effects of a UN sponsored initiative to renovate one of the world’s largest slums, Nairobi’s Kibera. As this fascinating and infuriating doc illustrates, Kenyans in both the slums of Nairobi and the wet farmlands of the countries Western provinces are struggling with well meaning but poorly conceived and paternalist encroachment from the west.Van Soest, a fulbright scholar who studied in Kenya in 2004 at the Center for International Development and Public Health before embarking on this documentary, hopes that the film can “challenge people to think about things in a broader context.”

Van Soest bemoans the “top down approach” of most international aid organizations, claiming that a “bottom up, grassroots approach”  that focuses on incremental change at the local level is best suited to solving Sub-Saharan Africa’s myriad problems. Talking about the ways in which major aid organizations view their work, Van Soest sees a “development philosophy spoken of as a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Africa in a number of publications, the idea that you can go in there with a tremendous amount of money and change things very quickly, I don’t think its a healthy way to promote social change in general,” he said. “In the five years that I’ve spent traveling to Kenya, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of change, and I think that things are changing and in fact I think we’re trying to impose change at much too fast of a rate.”

The film intercuts the struggle of one Kibera based midwife to keep her business afloat amidst the slum’s infrastructural changes with that of a family farm that is threatened by a multi-national’s plan to build a mechanized rice farm, one which could conceivably produce enough rice to help alleviate hunger in that part of the country, but not without flooding the lands of nearby independent growers. As Levine points out, in both situations “The west needs to be involving the communities in every step that we’re claiming to help. It’s the difference between going in with our own ideas of how to help as opposed to asking, ‘how can we assist, how can we move forward?”

-Brandon Harris

Good Fortune, which premiered at SilverDocs last month, will screen at Lincoln Center tonight at 6:30, with a Q&A with the filmmakers.

Musical Madness at the Film Society this 4th of July weekend!

June 24, 2009

Singin’ in the Rain · Grease · Top Hat · The King and I · Rocky Horror · Purple Rain · Viva Las Vegas · Cabaret · Ziegfeld Follies · Purple Rain · Meet Me In Saint Louis · Oliver · Swing Time · The Gang’s All Here ·  Love Me or Leave Me · Pal Joey ·  On the Town · Tommy

Wall-to-wall musicals will screen during one exuberant weekend at the Film Society. Here are a few favorite moments to help whet your appetite for the singing and dancing. And remember, you can still enter for your chance to win passes to this musical extravaganza. Just share your favorite musical memory by next Tuesday and you could win!

BAMCinemaFest Review: Humpday

June 23, 2009

humpdaytrailer

“Would you consider this film a ‘bromance’?” The question was posed at the Q+A for Humpday (which played during the BAMCinemaFEST) to both the director, Lynn Shelton and the film’s mercurial star, Joshua Leonard.

Mr. Leonard grabbed the microphone. “I think so,” he said. “I think this is the ultimate bromance. We’re cutting to the chase here about what all these moves are about, which is:  I kinda want to fuck you.”

Which is an interesting comment and way to view the film.

Taken on its own, Humpday is certainly an impressive indie comedy. Its jokes and largely improvised feel sticking it somewhere between the films of Judd Apatow and the television antics of a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Unlike those works however, Humpday differs because, while it does rely on its characters uncomfortableness around homosexuality for laughs, it’s also somewhat painfully sincere in its exploration of those impulses.

The plot is fairly simple, fairly ridiculous: complacent goodnik Ben (Mark Duplass) has settled down to a life of comfort and compromise in suburban Seattle. He has a pretty, real-looking wife (Alycia Delmore) and the couple are trying hard to conceive, talking about “ovulation windows” and carefully-planned copulation. Into this realm of domesticity comes Andrew (Joshua Leonard), Ben’s one time best-friend, a young man described nicely by Ben as “not as Kerouac as he’d like to be.” With his blond-beard and free-wheelin’ attitude, Andrew suggests an alternate path for Ben, the logical-end point for one’s hippie-days of college. As a Dionysian evening (literally, for a laugh) spurs a hipster bet that “it would be really arty to see two straight guys have sex,” the two verge into discomfort as the bet is followed through and also, pleasantly for us, some awkward hilarity.

Again, taken by itself this would be enough to call the film a winning, light comedy and leave it at that. But Humpday is just as interesting for what it’s not as what it is. It is, yes, a sort of “bromance,” but it is simultaneously less crude and more heart-felt than the canny I Love You, Man which skirted issues of how the characters played by Paul Rudd and Jason Siegel might actually feel about each other, in favor of gay jokes and Andy Samberg. On the other end of the spectrum, the film isn’t exactly the same as the “mumblecore” movies that Mr. Duplass (a noted filmmaker himself) engages in. While it might appear to be such, and it shares some of the same loosely scripted feel as those films, Humpday is actually a pretty tight movie, rigorously structured with a beginning, middle and end and issues and explorations that are actually pretty marked, unlike the subtlety of for instance another film playing in  the BAMCinemaFest, Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax.

What we get instead, is a little of the best of the both worlds: the crass nearly non-stop humor of an Apatow film, along with the lighter home-brew touch of some of the “mumblecore” filmmakers. How much this is to do with Ms. Shelton’s direction is unclear. Mr. Duplass and Mr. Leonard, both independent spirits, certainly had much to do with the writing and direction of this film. But perhaps the lens of auteurship is not the best way to look at Humpday, which is probably what the characters would tell you as well: regardless of who did what, isn’t it just more important that we screwed around and had a good time?

I’d be inclined to agree.

-Nicholas Feitel

BAMCinemaFest Review: Big Fan

June 22, 2009

This past year, one of the films I was looking forward to the most was Jody Hill’s Observe and Report.

Mr. Hill, along with his muse, the comic-actor Danny McBride, had had a meteoric rise, starting with the little-seen but influential indie-comedy The Foot Fist Way, going all the way up to the hit HBO series Eastbound and Down.

His newest film, Observe and Report, was billed as the exact sort of edgy, black comedy that he made his name with; a dark, dark humorous-update of Taxi Driver complete with mall cops, bimbos and parking-lot-flashers.

While this was a brilliant idea though, as Taxi Driver is exactly the sort of earnest movie that is rife for parody, Hill couldn’t pull it off and the movie was too grotesque in its darkness and also not dark enough in its light moments to really be effectively comedic. Instead, it alienated most everyone, including audiences.

bigfan11

It is out of this disappointment that I am glad to say someone has succeeded where Jody Hill has failed: Robert Siegel with his new film, Big Fan.

Big Fan, which had its premiere at Sundance before coming to BAM, follows another pathetic loser, only this time, instead of a mall cop, we get a ticket-taker at a parking lot. This is a man who lives to play not on the football field he so admires, but on the field of late-night call-in sports-radio, where his back-and-forth heckling reaches epic levels against a deplorable villain who goes only by the moniker “Philadelphia Phil”.

Our hero–if he can be called that–is played by Patton Oswalt, one of the few actual actors in the film and this is one place that Mr. Siegel goes dangerously right. Mr. Siegel, whose last script was The Wrestler, seems to have culled the best of Darren Aronofsky impulses from that movie and added it to his own sensibilities. Just as The Wrestler was informed by the backrooms of semi-pro wrestlers, Big Fan could not exist without the real people of Staten Island, mostly non-actors, whose houses the film was shot in.

As a result, the location feels real, as do the characters. Even when the film veers into the parodic, for instance in a gleeful scene mocking TV spots for ambulance-chasing lawyers, it feels true, because, hey, it’s Staten Island and it’s not so hard to believe. Everyone around Mr. Oswalt’s schlub seems to be living it up in such McMansion-mediocrity that his choice to live in a different sort of fantasy world–the world of sports-hecklers–seems almost relatable.

Like Observe and Report, there are many dark moments in the film–certainly most of us would not want to live in this character’s world–but ultimately the film has compassion for all of it and unexpected lightheartedness. “It’s going to be a great year.” Mr. Oswalt says towards the end of the film and we believe him.

At a Q-and-A after the film, Mr. Siegel said that he likes his movies to be a balance between funny and sad.

The Wrestler was about 80% funny and 20% sad,” he said. “This one’s about 50/50.”

He said that he prefers his movies this way because he feels that comedy and tragedy are intertwined, which is true, but that balance can often be hard to strike and it is much to Mr. Siegel’s credit that he managed it.

Finally, it is important to say that I saw this movie in a “packed” crowd. This was the New York premiere and obviously many people who had worked on the movie from Staten Island were there, chanting-and-hollering defiantly. But then again, I feel more lucky than influenced in my assessment of the film; after all, I think if the film was bad, those Staten Islanders would have beaten the crap out of Siegel on stage (a scrawny fellow) instead of giving him cheers and hugs, like they did.

-Nicholas Feitel