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

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 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