OLD SCHOOL KUNG FU FILM FEST: Hapkido with Angela Mao Intro

Angela-Mao-hapkido-1972-1499128213-726x388In a manner befitting the impressive combat acrobatics on display over the course of the weekend, even the Q&A session at the opening night screening of the seventh Old School Kung Fu Film Fest was a display of physical acumen. Where a simple raised hand would suffice, kung fu fans excitedly leapt from their seats, gesturing frantically for the opportunity to ask a question of martial arts legend Angela Mao. This display set the tone for a weekend full of fist-and-foot action mostly on 35 mm.

Mao was onhand to introduce her 1972 classic “Hapkido.” With the help of a translator, Mao recounted her preparations for the film (also known as “Lady Kung Fu”), traveling to Korea to study the eponymous local martial art until she obtained a third degree black belt. This training coupled with acrobatic skill learned at the Peking Opera House prepared her for the role of Yu Ying, who opens a martial arts school in her native China with two partners. The nationalist tendencies of the era’s kung fu films come into play when they’re challenged by a rival Japanese school; a parallel narrative can be found in the same year’s “Fist of Fury” with Bruce Lee, who Mao described as like a big brother when they worked together the following year on “Enter the Dragon.” Read more

Film Review: KUSO

In 2016, Park Chan-Wook’s psycho-sexual thriller “The Handmaiden” —one of the best films of the year— included among its visual oddities a POV shot from the perspective of a vagina. In 2017, musician and producer Steve “Flying Lotus” Ellison’s “Kuso” shared the view from inside George Clinton’s anus; while one could see this as indicating a spiritual kinship between Park and Ellison’s films, it’s safe to say that “Kuso” is far from the year’s greatest. Kuso Much of the early buzz around “Kuso” centered on its Sundance premiere, where the walkouts it inspired were sometimes discussed more than its content. This mass revulsion seems to be Ellison’s desired reaction, as every aspect of the film is a carefully crafted provocation. The characters are sad creatures living lonely existences in a Los Angeles ravaged by an earthquake that somehow led to denizens being deformed with boils, blisters, and sores. Child abuse, rape, and deviant sexual behavior are common practices for most of these characters. Even the sets are gauged to disgust, liberally smeared with a substance one can only hope is chocolate. The gross-out assaults are meant to inspire shock in some and laughter in others, but their ubiquity just grows tedious as the film progresses. Read more

NY Asian Film Festival Review: MATANGTUBIG (TOWN IN A LAKE)

MatangtubigAt first glance, Jet Leyco’s “Matangtubig” (“Town in a Lake”) appears to be the result of filtering David Lynch’s sensibilities through the culture of the Philippines. The plot –focused on the rape and murder of a female high school student and the disappearance of another in a small town– bears more than a passing resemblance to the story of Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks”; the fact that both girls are represented by framed photographs in the media hysteria that ensues calls to mind Laura’s ever-present homecoming picture. Just like in Lynch’s television masterpiece, the crime is merely a pretense to explore general aspects the town, including school life, political maneuvering, and law enforcement. Leyco even pays homage to Lynch’s enthusiasm for strobes as scenes that suggest a meeting between two worlds —law-abiding and criminal, earthbound and otherworldly— are bathed in a red light.

Leyco’s reverence for the work of the American master also plays a role in shaping his cinematic grammar, but it is in this realm that his personal style shines through. Like Lynch, the Filipino director plays with time, alternating the film’s pacing to keep the viewer on his or her toes or to heighten a sense of dread. His scene transitions in particular can be jarring; many scenes end by suddenly cutting to another scene or to a black screen that lingers silently for what could feel like a few seconds too long. These transitions work well, though, in drawing the viewer into the frenzy surrounding the search for the killers. Read more

Film Review: Folk Hero & Funny Guy

folk_hero_and_funny_guy_original_1With its bifurcated title, “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” —the new film from “It’s a Disaster” director Jeff Grace— makes a clear mission statement of comparing and contrasting a pair of individuals before the audience has seen a frame. Grace follows down-on-his-luck comedian Paul (Alex Karpovsky) as he joins childhood friend and famous musician Jason (Wyatt Russell) on a small club tour of the east coast. Shortly before Jason convinces Paul to join him on the road, a split screen shot shows the beginnings of each of their days. While Scott trudges through a work day as a temp, Black stays in bed —sleeping and otherwise— with a ladyfriend. Their vastly different routines prepare the viewer in a purely visual manner for the conflicts to come.

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Tribeca Film Festival Review: Bobbi Jene

Bobbi-Jene-main-still-Web1About an hour into “Bobbi Jene” —director Elvira Lind’s winner of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Documentary award, the audience is presented with the mission statement of its subject, dancer Bobbi Jene Smith. In an interview with a journalist, she explains that —in her craft—she seeks ‘a place where I have no strength to hide anything.’ Lind’s masterful film firmly situates Smith in this place regardless of whether she is on or off the dance floor.

After quickly detailing the 21 year-old Smith’s earlier relocation from New York City to Tel Aviv to perform with the Batsheva Dance Company, the film begins with the now 30 year-old dancer returning to the United States. From the first shots, Smith’s face conveys a quiet, simmering intelligence that —coupled with the raw physicality of her dancing— demands attention. We often see her dancing in a frenzied state, her long hair billowing as she swings her arms upward and downward. Her performances sometimes end with contemplative stares into the distance, and her intense control is such that the viewer is left wondering whether these moments are genuine or part of the choreography. Read more

A Look Back: Good Night, and Good Luck

good-night-and-good-luck-immagini-dal-film-3An American politician uses fear of a foreign entity in an attempt to wield authoritarian power. His enemies are branded as sympathizers at best and collaborators at worst. Among those enemies is the news media, who he attempts to delegitimize with accusations of bias. While this situation reasonably applies to 2017 and the 45th president of the United States, it diverges from current events when the efforts of a courageous television journalist and his intrepid news team ultimately help to discredit the politician and cause him to lose the public’s trust.

The year in question is actually 1953. The politician is Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The journalist is Edward R. Murrow. And the film that recounts this fight for American ideals is George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck”. Read more

Tribeca Film Festival Review: King of Peking

Screen Shot 2017-04-29 at 12.37.32 PMDirector Sam Voutas’ “King of Peking” shines a light on an unsung hero of the film industry: the projectionist. Big Wong (Jun Zhao) and Little Wong (Wang Naixan) travel from village to village in contemporary China executing outdoor screenings of Hollywood favorites in courtyards. The flagging fortunes of their business —which threatens to deny father/son visitation as Big Wong’s ex-wife demands past-due child support— rally when Big Wong finds a DVD recorder, and the duo starts selling bootlegs under the moniker King of Peking.

Just like a projectionist, Voutas is concerned with framing the film’s proceedings. A red curtain acts as a framing device for the film; we begin and end the movie on an image of the type of hanging, billowing red velvet that encases a cinema screen. Big Wong’s own understanding of the world is so grounded in the context of the cinema that he claims early in the film that he used to believe Italy and France were entirely black and white, as he only knew Europe through black and white classics.The film itself is broken into chapters that take their titles from whatever role Big Wong is playing at the time, starting with “The Projectionist.” These reframings are an astute choice in a film interested in how one’s status in life influences one’s perception. Read more

Tribeca Film Festival Review: Flower

FLOWER“Flower”’s credits boast an executive producer credit for Danny McBride. Erica Vandross —the film’s 17 year-old protagonist played by Zooey Deutch— has a bit in common with McBride’s signature character, Kenny Powers. Both are hyperactive, hypersexual iconoclasts with a talent for instigating conflict. Despite this outward abrasiveness, Erica and Kenny often prove to be sensitive at heart. On the surface, McBride’s involvement with the latest from director Max Winkler (“The King of Central Park”, “Clark and Michael”, “Ceremony”) seems apparent. Read more

Tribeca Film Festival Review: The Reagan Show

TFF17_The_Reagan__Show_3“The Reagan Show” —the latest from directors Sierra Pettengill (Producer of “Cutie and the Boxer”) and Pacho Velez (“Manakamana”)— is a patchwork quilt of a film. Network news broadcasts, rally footage, home video, and more come together to tell the tale of Ronald Reagan’s two terms as President of the United States. The filmmakers compile what amounts to the president’s greatest hits, with iconic lines like ‘Trust but verify’ and ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ making appearances. Using clips that have often been rerun over the past 30 years shines a spotlight on the clean, crisp video transfers that Pettengill and Velez use throughout the film. Read more

New Directors/New Films Review: PENDULAR

Pendular. 2017. Brazil/ Argentina/ France. Directed by Julia Murat. Courtesy of Still Moving.

Pendular. 2017. Brazil/ Argentina/ France. Directed by Julia Murat. Courtesy of Still Moving.

A dilapidated industrial space in Rio de Janeiro houses buckets, tables, carts, and more strewn between its pillars, white on top and green on bottom. A wooden, asymmetrical sculpture sits at the center of the frame. From the camera’s perspective, it appears to be a plank cutting through the center of a cube. Within seconds, we will witness another bisection. We hear it before we see it; the sound of tearing tape leads to a man and a woman working their way across the room with orange tape. He peels it, and she stamps it into the ground. Once the task is complete, they run back and forth across the line in an impromptu game of tape ball soccer.

This opening to Júlia Murat’s relationship drama “Pendular” —executed in one static shot— sets the stage for a film where its titular couple creates boundaries and transgresses them constantly. Ele (‘he’ in Portuguese) is a sculptor working in wood as well as industrial materials like wire and aluminum; Ela (‘she’) is modern dancer whose work veers into the abstract. The tape demarcates an area for each artist’s studio. Read more

New Directors/New Films Reviews: BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK, QUEST & THE FUTURE PERFECT

By The Time It Gets Dark

By the Time It Gets Dark. 2016. France/Netherlands/Qatar/Thailand. Directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong. Courtesy of KimStim.

“By the Time it Gets Dark”, the new feature from Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong, is the narrative equivalent of a leisurely stroll through an unfamiliar landscape. Characters from all walks of life in Thailand —from chamber maids and students to film actors and revolutionaries— appear, disappear, and reappear at random in scenarios centered around a female filmmaker’s research for a script about an aging female revolutionary. While this exploration of identity and roleplaying creates a surplus of vantage points for a colorful survey of Thai culture and history, Suwichakornpong uses the same tactics as an icon of Nordic cinema in crafting this journey.

The film’s dreamy pace recalls the work of Nicolas Winding Refn. The Danish director’s films about criminals are contemplative, preferring to explore the moments when these psychopaths brood as opposed to whenever blood is shed. Think of “Drive”’s long shots of Ryan Gosling–captured from the front passenger’s seat–driving his car to the strains of pop music as neon colors bathe his face, and you will have a pretty good idea of how Suwichakornpong appropriates Refn’s pacing for a more pacifist film. In one scene, Suwichakornpong follows a lone woman as she arrives at her home. When she prepares to fry a single egg, the camera’s interest focuses on the wok more than the woman. This choice forces the viewer to follow the action of the sequence via the small breaks in the ambient noise soundtrack. The film in turn demands an understanding of a character’s surroundings in order to understand the character. This same deliberateness charmed audiences at Cannes in 2010, winning the Palme d’Or for Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s masterpiece “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Just like in that classic from a countryman, slow, methodical action in “By the Time it Gets Dark” lures and eventually charms viewers into following its unpredictable turns until the screen itself gets dark. Read more

New Directors/New Films Review: STRONG ISLAND

Photo credit: 8SP - Simon Luethi © 2016

Photo credit: 8SP – Simon Luethi © 2016

A simple disagreement with a mechanic about fixing his girlfriend’s car led to the shooting death of William Ford Jr. on April 7, 1992. After the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office on New York’s Long Island showed more interest in investigating the African American victim than the white defendant, a grand jury declined to indict. William Ford was treated like another black body destroyed and discarded by a prejudiced justice system.

Screening as a part of New Directors/New Films, “Strong Island” —a documentary from William’s sibling Yance Ford— explores the circumstances surrounding the terrible evening. In an attempt to put some attention on his brother’s story, Yance lenses his own black body in ways that brings William’s murder back into focus.
 
Yance’s face —round with a small scar stemming from the left side of the bottom lip— often faces the camera in a close-up. The background is dark black, and little below the director’s chin is visible, isolating his face in the frame. This stance is confrontational, setting the tone for a story seeking to challenge an authoritative account of events. In a statement at the start of the film that gives us a pretty solid understanding of what’s to come, Yance lets the audience know, “If you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go.”

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New Directors/New Films Review: ARÁBIA

Arábia

Arábia. 2017. Brazil. Directed by Affonso Uchôa and João Dumans. Courtesy of Katasia Films.

The city of Ouro Preto is an historic site known throughout Brazil for its decadence. A gold boom in the 18th century bolstered its initial growth, which led to several famously ornate churches dotting the horizon. During my year on a Fulbright Fellowship in the country, many Brazilian Millennials fondly remembered the city as the site for class trips admiring gilded Baroque architecture. João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s “Arábia” steers the Ouro Preto narrative away from the city’s opulence, drawing to the forefront the tough lives of laborers in the state of Minas Gerais.

Dumans and Uchoa begin their film with teenaged Andre’s struggles caring for a sick brother in place of absentee parents. Early in the film, he discovers the journal of laborer Cristiano. When Andre opens the book and the title card appears 20 minutes into the film, we start following Cristiano as he bounces from job to job. The framing device is largely unnecessary; we could have gained just as much insight on Cristiano’s experiences in the working class from his narration without ever introducing the Andre character. Considering the fact that Andre’s one reappearance after the narrative device begins is fleeting, basing the film in Andre’s discovery distracts the viewer more than it gives the viewer a point of entry to Cristiano’s life. Read more

Olivier Assayas’ Ghost Story PERSONAL SHOPPER is a Pale Imitation of Previous Triumphs

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Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright in Olivier Assayas’s PERSONAL SHOPPER. Photo by Carole Bethuel. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Kristen Stewart’s characters in Olivier Assayas films tend to keep friends, family, and colleagues at a distance while doggedly pursuing an agenda. She continues this trend established in 2015’s “The Clouds of Sils Maria” into their most recent collaboration “Personal Shopper”. Another film in the former film critic’s oeuvre making a statement about the way people produce and consume media, “Personal Shopper” attempts to use its bully pulpit to rail against the impulse to mediate experience but fails through its reliance on clumsily executed set pieces.

Stewart’s Maureen and her twin Lewis are mediums, communicating with the dead. After her twin’s passing, Maureen remains in Paris to attempt post-mortal contact. In the meantime, she works an unfulfilling job for a demanding boss (Nora von Waldstätten) as a fashion buyer. Like most Stewart characters, her inner conflict manifests itself through a twitchy restlessness tightly packed into the actress’ small frame, which is gaunt, hunched, and wrapped in a leather jacket throughout most of the film. Stewart’s performance perfectly portrays someone more comfortable exploring a land of spirits than making her way in the land of the living. Read more