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Thread: New York Film Festival 2019

  1. #31
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    Jul 2002
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    SWAN SONG (Todd Stephens 2021)



    Udo Kier takes center stage in a quietly flamboyant and touching gay role

    Udo Kier, born in 1944, is a film and voice actor from Cologne, Germany who moved to Palm Springs in the early nineties. A perennial player in pungent small roles, he has appeared in over 200 movies. After playing in Andy Warhol's Frankenstein; he had roles in a raft of horror films or all stripes. He has worked for art house and cult directors like Lars von Trier (extensively), as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Walerian Borowczyk, Gus Van Sant, Christoph Schlingensief, and Dario Argento (whose 1977 classic Suspiria he was featured in). Recently he had a key role in the critically acclaimed Bacarau as the head of a gang of evil American playboys who hunt and kill humans for sport, and also appeared in the phantasmagoric Holocaust saga The Painted Bird, where he plays a raging cuckold who gouges out the eyes of his wife’s lover. This time he's a character referred to as "the Liberace of Sandusky, Ohio." It fits him to a T. And it's a first for him: a lead role.

    In the Sandusky-set Swan Song Udo is Patrick Pitsenbarger (the fiction based on a real person), who was a high class beautician in his heyday who styled all the rich and glamorous ladies of the quiet midwestern town. Now he has had a stroke and has apparently long been languishing in a nursing home when prestigious lawyer Walter Shamrock (Tom Bloom) arrives to convey the posthumous request of wealthy former friend and client Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans of "Dynasty") to do the dead lady's hair in grand former style for her final appearance at the funeral home. He is to receive a munificent fee for this job of $25,000. At first he flatly rejects the idea. They had a falling out over her failure to attend his lover's funeral. "I'm retired," he says, Kier flashing that basilisk stare of his. He is living a dreary, curmudgeonly life, his hobbies immaculately folding paper cocktail napkins from the cafeteria and stealing clandestine smokes of Mores with a mute old lady in a wheelchair with pretty hair (Annie Kitral), and not much else. He has come to embrace denial and exclusion.

    But then "Mr. Pat" has a change of heart. Stealthily he slips out of the nursing home dressed in his usual sweat suit and gray fanny pack and sets off on foot for the town of Sandusky and the funeral home. Swan Song becomes an offbeat road movie in the manner of Lynch's Straight Story, a colorful walkabout of reconnecting with the past and making amends. In the course of it, Pat drinks, steals, charms, and learns. This is among other things an unapologetically instructional survey of ways gay life has changed since Stephens was young, with gay married couples raising children, gay bars made obsolete by hook-up apps, disappearing high camp drag shows signaling the gradual loss of a whole colorful ghettoized subculture that no longer seems necessary as gayness comes to be more widely accepted in America.

    Patrick is, of course, himself a gay man. His lover, David, died of AIDS back in 1995, a loss he can never recover from that's movingly celebrated by a visit to their joint grave. In this story, Kier gets to play a down-to-earth and personal role and shines in this unique opportunity to be the featured actor throughout a film this time playing an eccentric minority person who has faults but has never been a monster.

    In addition to learning how gay life has changed, Pat encounters other changes, like the disappearance of the joint home he lost because David left no will. He learns his protege Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge) who became a competitor didn't wrong him as much as he thought. He gets several surprises about the dead lady and her grandson (Michael Urie). His exploit at the final drag show is a spectacular surprise for the younger generation.

    As for Todd Stephens, his gay credentials couldn't be better: he wrote the screenplay for the all-time best American gay teen coming-of-age movie, the 1998 Edge of Seventeen (directed by David Moreton). (Stephanie McVay, the mom in Edge, is back here; also featured are Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Urie, and Ira Hawkins.) This time, Stevens wrote as well as directed. Stevens has set both films in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, a place he left long ago but still refers back to as his own. In Swan Song Stephens celebrates the town he grew up in as well as an accomplished and fabulously campy gay man he looked up to when he was a gay youth coming of age in Sandusky. Stephens knows the territory - and the songs of Pat's heyday, like Dusty Springfield's "Yesterday When I Was Young," Shirley Bassey's "This is My Life," and Melissa Manchester’s "Don’t Cry Out Loud." He frequented the real-life Universal Fruit and Nut Company gay bar where here we see the lip-synch drag shows Pat participated in every week are having their final evening.

    Swan Song is a tour de force for Udo Kier, a warm-hearted, nostalgic performance for both him and writer-director Todd Stephens. Resorting to some surreal moments and tricky flashbacks, Swan Song is not as smoothly directed and edited a film from minute to minute as Edge of Seventeen, which had the directorial hand of David Moreton.The new script as the Variety review puts it is on the "earnest but anemic" side and Udo's teutonic accent takes the speed out of Pat's zingers. The movie's rhythm as a whole falters after the midpoint. The narrative teases expectations so often we start to wonder if Pat is really ever going to do the dead lady's hair, after all. Both the physical challenges the elderly protagonist is put through and the quantities of alcohol he is made to consume strain credulity. But with his patience and quiet inner confidence Kier nonetheless succeeds, seeming indomitable and more sincere than campy playing this real-life person.

    Swan Song 105 mins., debuted Mar. 18, 2021 at Austin (SXSW); also scheduled to feature at Cleveland, Provincetown, Nantucket, and other festivals including Frameline (San Francisco). It has been favorably reviewed already at its debt in Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and IndieWire. It is scheduled for limited US release by Magnolia in theaters Aug. 6, 2021 and on demand Aug. 13.
    OPENS August 6, 2021
    - Elmwood 6 Rialto Cinema - Berkeley, California
    - Rialto Cinemas 9 - Sebastopol, California
    - Cameo Cinema - Saint Helena, California

    OPENS August 13 - On Demand
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-31-2021 at 12:36 AM.

  2. #32
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    Jul 2002
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    THE GREEN KNIGHT (David Lowery 2021)



    A medieval classic with some changes

    It's nice that a director as original and risk-taking as David Lowery found it worthwhile to adapt a great, but obscure, Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem is a stunning masterpiece with moods and moments you won't find anywhere else in literature. Don't get the idea it's just another chivalric coming-of-age knights-of-the Round Table tale; it's unique. Did Lowery capture it? Not quite. But that's a difficult task and at least he starts us on a plunge into it led by the immensely appealing Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, the young knight (or proto-knight?), King Arthur's untried, unproven cousin, who takes on a deathly challenge out of youthful derring-do and fails the ultimate journey-quest of his life but is nonetheless forgiven.

    The poem is more forgiving and wittier than Lowery's version. There's a lot of laughter in it too; but in this movie all we hear is The Green Knight's loud, mocking guffaw ending his first appearance. The appearance of the Green Knight is one of the most stunning moments in medieval English literature. He is huge, with a virtual cape of long hair, riding a horse, and everything, head to toe to spur, horse and all accoutrements included, is bright green. It is this lurid color that shocks and paralyzes King Arthur's knights. It's stranger than strange. Everything green. But for reasons of his own Lowery has made the strange visitor more of a giant charred stump of a monster-man. In the poem, the green knight is beautiful, a richly attired though frightening figure.

    Notably, since it's Christmas, it's a festive day and a festive scene in the court. And with a strange paradox, the scary green color too is Christmassy. So is the blood that flows red from his neck when Gawain chops it off: green and red, Christmas colors. This is a game (also festive, partly a scary lark): whoever takes the challenge can take a chop at the strange visitor, but in return must submit to a return blow at the Green Chapel a year from this day. Can it really be true? Or is it a Christmas blague? In the poem, after the Green Knight's head's off, they kick it around a while, like a soccer ball.

    Everything is dark and gloomy in Lowery's movie and this look, especially in the big opening Green Knight sequence, is surprising. It makes one wonder if the filmmaker thinks the Middle Ages really means the "Dark Ages" in a literal sense, so that everything must be clothed in semi-darkness. Many of the film's scenes are that way (not all). I thought of the Knight playing chess with Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal - certainly a dark view of the medieval world and Huizinga's "violent tenor of life:" but that image is a contrasty black and white that gleams.

    Take a look at one of the great medieval illuminated manuscripts, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and you will see scenes of bright and glowing color that are typical of how things were visualized at this time. The images of Les Très Riches Heures are also, typically for the time, represented as a jumble of busy scenes on top of scenes with very little subordination. This is also different from The Green Knight, which tends to highlight a few figures and hide most of the rest in darkness. This visual style seems oddest in the court scene.

    But really we are always looking at Dev Patel. I have no trouble buying him as a noble striver and an action hero. He is an actor with panache, physical prowess and sexiness and a touch of lingering goofiness as well ever since his debut in "Skins" (a series I loved). He has always been a champion athlete in martial arts, physically impressive, and now a hottie among internet followers. I just hoped people wouldn't think of Dev's action-hero disaster The Last Airbender. But that was a while ago and judging by Green Knight's current Metascore of 84%, a raft of very reputable reviewers have been enthusiastic about this movie. However, as happens with literary adaptations more often than not, I have some reservations. Some big ones, actually. That said, this is an intense fantasy adventure that takes us to some haunting places. If I'm rather disappointed by the Green Knight himself, Sir Gawain (Patel)'s challenger/nemesis, it was satisfying to see Barry Keoghan appear as the taunting, bad-helper Scavenger.

    I'm not sure Keoghan represents an actual character in the poem source. But it started to seem Lowery was most at home when he was riffing or inventing. Does the poem have a talking fox? If so, is it one that follows Gawain around in the moors like a pet? Did the Gawain in the poem get drunk at a whorehouse the night before the court Christmas celebration?

    In the poem, the big section of the journey, the biggest test on the way to the Green Chapel, comes when Gawain is a guest at a castle where day after day his host goes out hunting for different game, leaving his beautiful wife to repeatedly tempt him. If this happens in the movie I must have dozed off and missed it. Lowery's film provides Gawain with all sorts of challenges. Someone in a review describes the journey as "hypnotic." It seems to have a slow, uneven rhythm.

    Lowery's version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is sui generis. One can't pin him down on it too much. There are numerous good moments, and a rough outline of the story-poem is provided in an original way. My only disappointment is the darkness - and a Green Knight who isn't bright green but some sort of eco-sensitive autumnal critter not as scary or as strange, taunting, and inexplicable as the terrifying, jovial creature in the poem.

    The Green Knight, 130 mins., opened in the US Jul. 30, 2021. Metascore: 84%. The language of the original poem (anonymous, 1360-1400) is in a northern dialect of Middle English much harder than Chaucer, but the Burton Raffel translation is fine; Simon Armitage’s newer one is said to be excellent too.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; Yesterday at 12:08 AM.

  3. #33
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    Jul 2002
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    A gang of girls who spin apart over the years

    This is the second feature film adaptation and direction of one of her own plays by the popular Palermo-based Italian playwright Emma Dante, the first having been the more minimal traffic jam two-hander A Street in Palermo (2013). This one's focus is five sisters at three stages of their lives (in three acts), except one sister is involved in a tragic accident at the beach in the first segment, and another sister, rather old by then, passes away in the last one. Much of the action revolves around a ramshackle top-floor flat by the Palermo shoreline where initially the girls, aged eight or nine to nineteen, are supporting themselves, following their parents' unexplained demise, by renting out the doves they raise on the roof and sometimes paint festive colors for weddings and funerals. The noisy, explosive first act, ending with the sisters' ill-stared trip to Mondello beach and a spectacular, crumbling beach house called the Charleston, thanks to the young actors, Dante's direction, and the febrile and brilliant cinematographer Gherardo Gossi, is a marvel. It's so stunning by the time I'd recovered the film was over; it economically covers its near-lifetimes in only eighty-nine minutes.

    Before anything is seen the film starts with a grating, edgy sound. It's the girls cutting a hole right through the front wall of their flat to peek out. It's a sign they don't have to follow conventional rules, and things are going to be pretty chaotic from here on. Sights and sounds are intense too, and closeups abound. Gossi makes you remember images: the shapes of the different girls; the smallest getting that first dab of lipstick; a commode with a beautiful drawn landscape like a china plate or a swatch of Toile de Jouy; the doves everywhere and eating off a good plate; the skimpy cotton dresses. Summertime, summertime! There are lots more noises to come. At times this segment seems more a dose of pure energy than a story.

    The rowdy five-sister setup is rather reminiscent of the "Turkish Virgin Suicides," Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Mustang (2015) with its vivid picture of five female siblings running wild in a rural cage. Both films illustrate how if you come on hard and fast enough at first the rest risks being anticlimactic.

    Antonella is the baby and mascot of the bunch; plump and placid Katia comes next, followed by plain bookworm Lia, who is given to fits of anger and is always getting into fights with the vain, pretty, and romantic Pinuccia. The eldest, responsible for the rest but not entirely up to the task, is Maria, a tall, skinny girl who dreams of becoming a dancer. When they all arrive at the beach in the memorable first section, Maria slips away to meet another young woman and the two declare their undying loyalty and love and do a lot of kissing. It seems innocent - but also irresponsible; Maria should be watching the other girls. As the play in the water is about to take its tragic turn the segment ends. Dante will return to the moment several times, finally at the very end to spell out quite unnecessarily the specifics of the fatal event.

    In part two, Pinuccia (Donatella Finocchiaro), who is now an attractive young woman with a boyfriend, has invited the married sister Katia (Laura Giordani) over for dinner. But Lia’s mental problems have pushed her innate aggressiveness over the edge, and in a very theatrical screaming match, Pinuccia accuses her of killing Antonella that long-ago day on Mondello beach. It was clear that Lia can be calmed by reading to her. That's still true. The world of the Macaloso sisters seems as chaotic as ever; it's just the family dynamic has been forever disrupted by tragedy. They want to get it back but they can't. This movie revolves around that futility.

    The middle and final segments try very hard not to be anticlimactic. Number two has its raging fight and revelation of full-on madness with the more eccentric, now clearly deranged, sister left to live by herself. Number three has a death and a funeral gathering where a coffin is lowered from above down to the street below to the general applause of the mourners.

    Beside the loss of focus of these jumps through time there is a certain sentimentality and repetitiveness - of the dove-images, of focus on furniture in the flat, of Satie's over-familiar "Trois Gymnopédies" first as a diegetic and then as formal overlapping theme. These accumulated touches eventually make one start to fear the vibrant cinema of part one may have been an accident. But this remains a vivid, empathic film that seems likely to put Emma Dante on the international film map.

    The Macaloso Sisters/Le sorelle Macaloso, 89 mins., debuted at Venice (Venezia 77 Competition) Sept. 9, 2020; it showed at other international festivals including Warsaw, Busan, Göteborg, Athens (Greek Film Archive), Venice to Moscow; Sodankylä, Finland (Midnight Sun); and Melbourne. Its US release begins Aug. 6, 2021 in NYC and Aug. 13 in LA.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-31-2021 at 11:05 AM.

  4. #34
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    Jul 2002
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    BRING YOUR OWN BRIGADE (Lucy Walker 2021)



    Causes and prevention of destructive California wildfires from a Londoner's perspective

    Lucy Walker is a filmmaker from London living in California and identifies as such in frequent voiceovers to this new film. The film is about fire. It is more comprehensive but less elegant than Ron Howard's National Geographic film Rebuilding Paradise (2020) from last year. (There's also a new one about young prisoners used by Cal Fire, Fireboys.) Ron concentrated his terrifying, grim footage of the destruction of Paradise in the Camp Fire to a few minutes at the outset. The rest of his documentary focuses on who stays, and who rebuilds. Lucy Walker devotes more footage to the Paradise horror and its harrowing and ugly aftermath. She makes you stop and think: what if my whole house and everything in it were destroyed in minutes?

    But this is still only the beginning. Walker has multiple subjects; even so, her film seems too long. But while she seems unable to decide how to relate her coverage of Malibu and the Woolsey Fire and Paradise and the Camp Fire (both started November 8, 2018) - leaning more and more toward Paradise - Bring Your Own Brigade has illuminating (if prolix and repetitious) discussion we all need about the real causes of these fires and our future prospects of preventing them - and what fire means in the world and in nature.

    I wound up a bit confused by Bring Your Own Brigade. Indeed even the title is confusing. It seems to refer to the wealth of some Malibu residents, which is so great they can afford to finance private firefighting teams (their "own brigade") to save their own properties from destruction. But this is not the main drift of the film and leaves one wondering why it was chosen as the name of it. Nonetheless, however messy this film is compared to Ron Howard's neatly organized one, this is a stimulating, searching exploration of a huge subject.

    Now, is global warming the main culprit or isn't it? Walker makes clear enough that there are many factors. Her film is excellent in the experts she provides, with very different orientations, who talk about this. One thing explained in detail is that the location of both Paradise and Malibu sets them up to be exposed to fires every few years, or at least every decade or so - perhaps now increasingly often. One factor a scoffing Malibu architect resident points out is "dumb" construction. His house with its sound use of materials and design did not ignite, while it's surrounded by dozens of houses, ranch style or Tuscan villas or whatever, that burned to the ground because their architecture was chosen for purely emotional reasons and they were very badly made for a fire zone.

    Similarly, surroundings and detailing of houses are willfully ill chosen in places that have seen repeated destruction by fire. We see the town of Paradise have a meeting in which citizens and the city counsel members all vote to reject every single one of the fire department's recommendations to protect their houses, the most important one being a five-foot clear zone around their buildings. Flowers and bushes were too dear for them to protect themselves from their house burning down. Doing away with gutters and overhanging roofs, both accoutrements that cause houses to ignite - was also summarily rejected.

    It is incidentally a clear contrast politically between Malibu, with its properties averaging $3 million in value, and which is liberal democratic, and the relatively low-income Paradise, average house value $200,000, and which is predominantly Trump-supporting republican - some of whom definitely don't believe that climate change is a real thing. This relates to the town meeting: Paradise residents have a self-destructive obsession with "individualism" against the recommendations of authorities and experts which Lucy Walker states herself unsympathetic to and uncomprehending of as a European. When you have a population who think individual liberty enables them to reject scientific fact, what can you do?

    Another major factor in the case of Paradise is what Walker's film shows to be a whole complicated system of disastrous and dangerous land and woodland management by government and timber companies, notably clearcutting by the huge Sierra Pacific Industries, that led to increasingly dense forestation of smaller trees and depletion of fire resistant large trees and shrubbery that made all the land around a tinderbox. After each fire the tendency has been to go in and replant more young trees and create denser forestation.

    The film contrasts the wrongheaded forest management with traditional Native American use of fire to remove periodically dangerous fire-starting underbrush. Historical background is provided to show the white man rejected fire-protection fires by Native Americans from when they first encountered them. The Gold Rush beginnings of the California land boom, it's explained, brought policies of careless, impatient, destructive land development that fostered fire danger. On the other hand, there are scientific voices here to state sophisticated understanding of the eternally important positive role played in the ecosystem of fire.

    An important footnote is included to show the destructive effect on firefighters like Montecito Fire Department supervisor Maeve Juarez, of doing their jobs in the high-fire environment, which destroyed marriages, led to major burnout and PTSD even after a period of heroic leadership (Ron Howard's film, which focuses more on the individual Paradise leaders who kept things going after the fire, also shows this). PG&E, the utility company, is a favorite culprit (it has pledged to bury a vast quantity of wiring underground, since it was the overhead wiring that fed sparks). But a Paradise resident points out PG&E also made the place possible, by bringing in electricity to a hard-to-reach location; without PG&E, he says, they'd not have been there at all.

    Zeke Lunder, a geographer who specializes in wildfire and forestry, importantly declares early in the consideration of causes that Paradise would have burned down with or without global warming. But isn't global warming a primary reason for the bigger and bigger fires - and their occurrence worldwide today? This isn't made clear in Walker's film; more information on the worldwide situation would have been welcome. Despite its thoroughness, this documentary doesn't quite get to the bottom of some of the biggest issues or give climate change its proper weight.

    One reason for its straying from such nagging questions as the role of global warming, apart from its being so complex as to require a whole film unto itself, is perhaps that, much like Ron Howard but with a focus on different people, Lucy Walker in quite enamored of individual personalities, seemingly more and more for their own sake. Foremost among these is a tall, jovial man called Brad Weldon, whose wife has recently died and who cares for his apparently bedridden ninety-year-old blind mother, feeding her multiple marijuana cookies to keep her successfully blissed out. Brad's outdoor, community style marriage to a neighbor ends the film. This is, indeed, an irresistible portrait of life going on and life being affirmed - he even says "I love life." Brad's house survived the destruction of all around, and he established what he calls a "mini-commune" of homeless Paradise residents after the fire in a gathering of campers whose social life centers at Brad's house. Malibu has good people after its fire too, but doesn't quite provide such examples of community and folksiness. The rich survive; but will they prevail?

    Bring Your Own Brigade, Debuted at Sundance Jan. 2021; apparently no other festival showings. (See the Hollywood Reporter review by Leslie Felperin; also reviewed at Sundance in Variety and more critically in IndieWire.) US release Aug. 6, 2021 prior to digital streaming on Paramount+ on Aug. 20 by CBSN Films.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-31-2021 at 10:24 AM.

  5. #35
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    Jul 2002
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    THE MEANING OF HITLER ( Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker 2020)



    A film about der Führer seeks a new glimpse of relevance and danger

    British anti-Semmite and Holocaust denier David Irving is featured taking a group of supporters on an impromptu tour of the Treblinka concentration camp site in the documentary, The Meaning of Hitler. It's likely Irving, now 82, hasn't been followed around even this briefly in any recent documentary, but this is a sign of how explorative this film is in its synthesis of history and psychology as it reviews the lasting legacy of the Third Reich's Fuhrer. It finds troubling new echoes in the alt-right and Donald Trump. Touring around behind the windscreen of a telling Mercedes Bentz symbol, the filmmakers visit many sites, following an exploratory road-movie format. They look at an example of Hitler's watercolor painting preserved in Virginia. They take a look at the building in Braunau in present-day Austria where Hitler was born and the visit the Vienna e Academy of Fine Arts that rejected him. They take a tour of the bunker where Hitler committed suicide, intermixed with film clips of dramas about that event. They hear Martin Amis say a knowledge of Hitler is necessary to be a modern thinking person.

    They take their title from a 1978 book by German journalist Sebastian Haffner (Raimund Pretzel). They talk to historians and to anti-Semitism Deborah Lipstadt, who once suied David Irving for libel. (They also film relevant comments from Yehuda Bauer, Saul Friedlander, Winfried Nerdinger, Francine Prose, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, Klaus Theweleit, and Jan T. Gross.) They find some who remember the rise of Naziism. They consult with a psychiatrist, a sociologist, a forensic biologist, an archaeologist, a pair of Nazi hunters and a "microphone guru." The latter shows us the early crystal microphone, known as the the 'Hitlerflasche' or 'Hitler Bottle' the Neumann CMV3, whose ability to convey not just the sound but the emotion of HItler's oratory is deemed a part of his power. This was a new kind of mike unlike the carbon chip ones. Those required the speaker to be within an inch and not to budge to be heard. This one let Hitler to be much less constrained, to move around and gesticulate. The film clips in this segment linking Hitler's rallies with the Beatles' appearance at Shay stadium is troubling, to say the least. HItler's oratorical sill is paralleled with Trump's claimed eloquence on Twitter.

    It could all come back. The film shows us how Germany's recent admission of massive numbers of immigrants has turned sour and fueled nativism and racist patriotism. Such people can always reach back to the thirties and forties for inspiration, from a time when a man who, as Haffner says in the titular book, had no occupation and do friends and couldn't even get into a trade school, would become a terror to all the world.

    The film is self-reflective, and calls attention to its simple craftsmanship by having an old-fashioned clap-board into to every new sequence. The effort is to wake us up to this familiar theme and be open to new perceptions. If you respond to its inquests, are inspired by its perceptions and odd facts, that could happen. But the prevalence of elderly talking heads may put you off: it undercuts the filmmakers' intention of being formally inventive. And some of its points are glib. Such is novelist Francine Prose's dismissal of Leni Riefenstahl's striking propaganda films for the Third Reich as mere kitsch. The trouble is, they're very good.

    The film's last word goes to talking head Yehuda Bauer, who is 95 ("I'm still working") who sums it up: "The Nazi ideas were ideas that were acted out by people that were absolutely normal."

    The Meaning of Hitler, 92 mins., debuted at DOC NYC Nov. 2020; also shown at Amsterdam, at Sofia Mar. 2021. Release (IFC Films) Aug. 13, 2021.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-24-2021 at 07:27 PM.

  6. #36
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    Jul 2002
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    AWAKEN (Tom Lowe 2018)

    TOM LOWE: AWAKEN (2018)


    The latest offshoot of Reggio's 'Koyaanisqatsi' to be reissued in a form ideal for home large-screen 4K viewing

    Awaken, which debuted on demand April 9, 2021, is a meditative, decorative, abstract film after the pattern of Godfrey Reggio's 1982 Koyaanisqatsi (YouTube). This is the latest in a long line of offshoots whose original Reggio ancestor was presented by Francis Ford Coppola and released in the US in 1983 with a score by Philip Glass.

    The word "koyaanisqatsi" is given in the Hopi Indian dictionary as meaning "life out of balance" or "life of moral corruption and turmoil." The film was a seemingly endless flowing montage of cityscapes and images of nature or people, the film run at different speeds, speeded up or in slo-mo. The repetitive, hypnotic (or annoying) music of Philip Glass was accompanied by no narration or storyline.

    Koyaanisqatsi, which we learned how to say, became a temporary cult phenomenon. It filled the big old Castro movie palace in San Francisco for a week, for example - as I learn from Jeffrey M. Anderson's April 8 "Cinema Toast" column in the San Francisco Examiner . Anderson provides a gentle argument in favor of this genre's latest iteration, by Tom Lowe.

    Koyaanisqatsi led to 1988 and 2002 sequels by Reggio, and his dp Ron Fricke also turned director with two similarly formatted films, Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011). Reggio himself was back with Visitors (2013), a semi-abstract black-and-white exploration of human faces with another Glass score. The passing-along continues, as it is Visitors' cinematographer Lowe who has made Awaken. Lowe has worked with Terrence Malick as well as Reggio on projects, and both men executive produced on Lowe's new film.

    Recent technology enables films to appear clearer and brighter and hence perhaps more beautiful. Thus Awaken, using drones and a variety of fancy lenses, was shot in 4K resolution which some home TV viewers now have and can be an improvement in clarity over HD resolution. "4K" stands for the approximately four thousand pixels horizontally of the images in this format. (More information can be found about Lowe's process ad the film's content from an article/review in The Film Stage by Gordon Raup.)

    There has always been doubt about the profundity of these films, and Awaken has not been met with universal acclaim. Jordan Hoffman, a New York-based writer who often reviews films for the Guardian, has sharply critiqued Awaken on Decider, describing it as chiefly of value if you want to "test drive that new 40-inch flatscreen." Despite its 4K and fancy lenses and drone and time-lapse shots and its attempt to be "about everything, man," its "tidal wave of imagery and music," Hoffman says, Lowe's film provides only "a glimmer of meaning" - not aided by the director's"scribbling out" a few lines "of bad poetry for Liv Tyler to read in voice over." (Liv Tyler's whispered tone would seem to be a mannerism borrowed from executive coproducer Malick.)

    Hoffman rates the film below even what he calls "also-rans" like Baraka and Samsara and far short of the Reggio original - which indeed even Reggio couldn't match in his sequels. Hoffman singles out a couple of moments he likes - the Lunar New Year dragon in slow motion; "some dude dressed as the Grim Reaper somewhere in a Spanish-speaking land" - but his concluding advice on the film is "Skip it."

    Hoffman grants that Awaken uses well new technologies like drone-cameras and high speed image capture with automated lenses. These are things Reggio didn't have access to. But Reggio didn't need them. Great cinema is rarely dependent on the specific details of visual or sound technology - though it relies, obviously, on basic tools and choices like black and white vs. color, film vs. digital, various aspect ratios, sound design and score. Reggio produced something, relatively speaking, extraordinary, if by simpler means (and not that simple; it was 1982, not 1932).

    Lowe sometimes seems to have misconstrued Reggio, using slo-mo so excessively it's like being on Xanax. He exhibits retro, escapist tastes - Nordic dairy maids, semi-nude Pacific fishermen, cute, healthy, or healthily aged peasants and native types (flipping back and forth among hemispheres to find them) - all making one remember how much of our world is poor, crowded, and violent. He likes exotic items like trees mushroom-shaped trees, cactus trees, or trees growing out of water, a swimming elephant filmed from below, small smiling kids emerging from happy tepees, fisherman atop poles along the shore, a camel being watered at the edge of the sea. Juxtapositions can seem comical: a young ballet dancer repeatedly posed leaping in the woods against the light is preceded and followed by an old gent looking up, carrying a milk pail. In about the last twenty minutes Lowe gets to cityscapes and urban people, and then the film speeds up a bit. Too late.

    Reggio, with his "life out of joint" theme, focuses on urban life from the start, and on speed. His choices of imagery are original. He creates remarkable effects of strangeness just from running film of a crowd entering a subway, and many other things, in reverse. Without drones, he shows dramatic, angular images of cities from high above. And he has Philip Glass, who, however annoyingly repetitive sometimes, weaves hypnotic effects. Lowe's score by Joseph Trapanese does not. Koyaanisqatsi is an apocalyptic look at urban life, David Lynch on acid. Forty years on, it's more mind-blowing than ever. They should have broken the mold. And in a way, maybe they did.

    If we may judge by his brief IMDb autobiography, Godfrey Reggio has had a rather amazing life. It seems like it would be nice now for him, or someone, to stop post-crafting the striking images trickily shot round the world and make a documentary about that.

    Awaken, 74 mins., debuted Nov. 22, 2018 at the Tallinn Black Nights Festival (Estonia). Released in the US Apr. 9m 2021, it comes out in a new collector's edition 4K UHD Blu-Ray format at the end of July 2021 along with a theatrical event-tour by Circle Collective starting Aug. 3, 2021 in Los Angeles and unrolling nationwide in fall and winter.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-09-2021 at 05:05 PM.

  7. #37
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    FIREBOYS (Jake Hochendoner and Drew Dickler 2021)



    A California youth inmate firefighter system that is a mixed blessing

    Fighting summer wildfires in California, everyone knows, is a huge and growing problem. Massive crews are required and those who go along the ground creating fire lines with shovel and chainsaw are essential. As much as a third of them may be inmates. This little documentary about California incarcerated youths (18 to 24) concerns the "fireboys" who volunteer and make the cut to work for Cal Fire fighting big fires in a freer environment. They can do this to work their way back to release. This offers them the experience of the toughest job they'll ever love. It's a discipline and a togetherness the film shows us are special. This can be rehabilitation. But it's complicated. The system is not fair. It is exploitive. This film introduces us to the young crews. It gives us a rough idea of the complications. It doesn't provide a complete context. But the experience it shows us is memorable.

    The training is a very specialized kind of boot camp. In many ways it seems less regimented, or simpler in its rituals, than basic training in the Army. But of course the youths at the firefighter camp haven't their rights.

    .They are 18-24. They are carefully screened to be capable of the level of very hard wo involved in fighting major California fires and having the discipline to live in a minimum security environment. A supervisor says the youths differ from the older men in that they will work as long as there is work to do or until they can't work any longer. They're impressive. There is esprit de corps.

    Guys earn only $2 to $4 an hour for fighting fires. We see an early physical workout at a pre-selection stage. Then focus is on Alex, who owes $20,000 for car jacking, etc. He is selected to to go the coveted Pine Grove youth firefighter camp. Its entrance sign says it dates back to 1945. This is not explained in the film, but apparently the system was bilt up during the war when firefighters went to fight Germans instead of flames. Alex is motivated and bright: he almost instantly memorizes a set of regulations. The camp is like an army barracks building. Drugs are forbidden, also cell phones.

    This is a kind of work-release program. But an article shows that few make it successfully, and most come from a dangerous world of gangs, violence and poverty in L.A. that is a railroad to prison and dangerous to go back to. The camp is much nicer than prison.The food is reportedly better. There are no fences or barbed wire, no guard trucks. But it is incarceration and arries the feeling of being institutionalized. There is a roll call every hour. Calls home must be made on a pay phone at permitted times. The inarcerated firefighters are rated the same as the pros, but they get $5 an hour and the pros get $20.

    Chuly is a young inmate who has been the leader of his group for three years, and then he is sent to head his team in firefighting when he has days to his release. He has been incarcerated for four and a half years. His release and life on the outside are a main focus of this film. Chuy's ase shows that it's not so easy to get hired as a firefighter after this experience. His felony conviction means he has to wait seven years to do so. He can worlk for the forest service as a young man who spoke to the fireboys did, but that requires going three hours away. He wants to stay at home. His job in security for $12.50 an hour he'd gladly trade for being back working a chainsaw fighting fires for a dollar an hour, he says. Onscreen notes tell us arrangements have been made recently in California for incarcerated firefighters to have their records expunged so they may go to work for Cal Fire after release.

    Chuy seems torn. He wanted very much to go back to his granddad, his family in Stockton. But he was going back to the unknown from a world where he had come to feel very secure and gained satisfaction. The film picks him up six months later working at the security job. But, a couple years later, he is able to go to welding school and become a full time welder, a skill we're told he began at Pine Grove.

    The film also follows a younger guy, Alex, who makes the cut and goes into final training. He's a little heavy (a lot of them are). His feet hurt and the hikes are hard for him. But he is bright and motivated.

    Another guy is pulled off the team by the female training officer for having a bad attitude. The filmmakers are not allowed to follow him on the outside as he is returned to a correctional facility. We do not see that he has done anything dramatically wrong. Do the training officers maybe have too much power? Was he a danger to anybody?

    Anyway, Alex does well, and is promoted to a chainsaw position on his crew - after a year. He may be released in six months. Chuy ends by saying how he loves a fire and a chainsaw. "I'm always a firefighter," he says.

    The film concludes by pointing out that as California fires grew year after yeear, "incarcerated firecrews continue to be used without without fair compensation or a clear pathway to employment after prison." We do not live in the most enlightened of societies. In fact America's huge prison population, with all of its wrongs and its woes, is one of its biggest problems, and the prisoner fire crews working to release, as a bright spot, is somewhat illusory.

    Fireboys is best at capturing the youthful energy and enthusiasm of the firefighter inmates and the stoicism of the crews who manage them with tough love. The film has the limitations of the system. Clearly they were working under restraints. The editing is a bit haphazard. Its good that there is no intrusive narration or noisy music. A USA Today article suggests that the film is very sketchy in its provision of background and rather vague about the pros and cons of the system. It says the training the inmates receive is very inadequate. Supposedly this system saves the state or taxpayers $100 a year. But if well paid professional firefighters replaced the inmate volunteers and paid taxes, maybe it would be more cost effective.

    As a recent New York Times article reports, COVID has limited the number of inmates available to fight wildfires.

    The filmmakers are passionate about social issues. A web page about this film provides fuller information and context. In fact that document seems like a description of the film they wanted to make, and is a necessary supplement to the film.

    Fireboys, 82 minutes, will be available to purchase or rent AUg. 3, 2021 It is not listed on IMDb.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-16-2021 at 12:31 AM.

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