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Thread: New York Film Festival 2019

  1. #31
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    SWAN SONG (Todd Stephens 2021)

    TODD STEPHENS: SWAN SONG (2021)


    JENNIFER COOLIDGE, UDO KIER IN SWAN SONG

    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.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-15-2021 at 05:22 PM.

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    M. HULOT'S HOLIDAY/LES VACANCES DE M. HULOT (Jaccues Tati 1953)

    Tati’s pipe-smoking, tan trench coat-clad alter-ego heads out to a seaside resort for a little rest and relaxation—but there’s never much of either on offer when the accident-prone Hulot is around. The spectacle of vacationers working overtime to relax provides a canvas on which Tati paints intricate and ingenious sight gags in this, Hulot’s first big screen outing, a sun-kissed delight that wrings belly laughs from fireworks, a befuddling train station, and uncooperative tennis balls, horses, and cars, all amounting to the “peculiar comic triumph [of catching] the ghastliness of a summer vacation at the beach.”—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker.- Metrograph

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    FIRST DATE (Manuel Crosby, Darren Knapp 2021)

    MANUEL CROSBY, DARREN KNAPP: FIRST DATE (2021)


    SHELBY DUCLOS, TYSON BROWN IN FIRST DATE

    IMDb citizen review:
    9/10
    Recommend for fans of Pineapple Express, The Big Lebowski, and Game Night
    reginaldespiritu2 February 2021
    "First Date" is an ambitious thriller-comedy-action-romance independent movie, with quirky characters and several excellent action-driven set-pieces. Its themes are subtle, and there is substance underneath all of its flashy style; but it is not heavy-handed, and it is definitely entertaining. I was glued to the screen up to the end credits, not knowing where it will go next, or how it will end! I found the movie to be like an indie homage to wild action-comedies like Pineapple Express and Game Night, though it also has the quirky world and characters of a movie like The Big Lebowski. Being that it tackles so many different genres, some may take issue with the movie's mercurial tone... but in the end it is still a thrilling, entertaining movie. Watching it was a real rollercoaster of a ride, so if you're looking for a thrilling experience, check out this movie!
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-22-2021 at 05:03 PM.

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    THE PHILADELPHIA STORY: Cary Grant, Classic Hollywood Male

    GEORGE CUKOR: THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)


    GRANT, HEPBURN, AND STEWART IN COSTUME POSE FOR THE PHILADELPHIA STORY

    Rewatching North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief this week led me to go back 15 years and rewatch The Philadelphia Story. I looked up Pauline Kael's thumbnail directory comment on it. And this is leading to a yen to watch more Cary Grant movies - the good ones. And think again about Pauline Kael's somewhat troubled legacy.

    Pauline Kael's thumbnail description:
    The Philadelphia Story
    US (1940): Comedy
    112 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc
    Philip Barry wrote this romantic comedy for Katharine Hepburn, shaping it for her tense patrician beauty and her eccentricities, and she had her greatest popular triumph in it on Broadway (in 1939) and on the screen. There's conventional Broadway shoddiness at its center: the material plays off Hepburn's public personality, pulling her down from her pedestal. As Tracy Lord, a snow maiden and a phony--which is how the movie public regarded Hepburn, according to the exhibitors who in 1938 had declared her "box-office poison"--she gets her comeuppance. The priggish, snooty Tracy is contemptuous of everyone who doesn't live up to her high standards (and that includes her father, played by John Halliday, and her ex-husband, played by Cary Grant); in the course of the action, she slips from those standards herself, learns to be tolerant of other people's lapses, and discovers her own "humanity." Shiny and unfelt and smart-aleck-commercial as the movie is, it's almost irresistibly entertaining--one of the high spots of MGM professionalism. There isn't much real wit in the lines, and there's no feeling of spontaneity, yet the engineering is so astute that the laughs keep coming. This is a paste diamond with more flash and sparkle than a true one. The director, George Cukor, has never been more heartlessly sure of himself. With James Stewart, who took the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as the journalist who has a sudden romantic fling with Tracy, and Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, Mary Nash, Henry Daniell, and Virginia Weidler. The additions by the adaptor, Donald Ogden Stewart, are brief and witty; Hepburn's gowns are by Adrian. Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
    Now I have been reminded that Kael devoted one of her best long essays, which I'd never previously read, to Grant, a 10,000-plus word profile which, as a New Yorker subscriber, I have immediate access to. It's called "The Man from Dream City," and was published in the July 14, 1975 issue. I have also found a piece about this essay by Christina Newman for BFI, "Pauline Kael and the men from dream city."

    Will the Kael Cary Grant profile tell me anything I don't already know intuitively about the actor? Maybe not, I thought. But it will be informed by Kael's incestuous familiarity with classic Hollywood movies, her lively prose style, and her bold comments on other stars for comparison to highlight what's unique about the star Archie Leach became. And I am learning a lot. Escaping a grim early life to be with a troop of players, Grant was first a stage acrobat, who always worked hard, with tremendous discipline, and did well. He was not "discovered" by Hollywood when he went there and signed a contract after a period of starring in Broadway roles; it was just another logical step up in a continuously successful thespian career.

    Kael relates Grant in this essay to the other male stars of the era of screwball comedies and its final decline. That period was wonderful, but brief: 1937-1940 were Grant's peak years. She has already described how uniquely romantic, sexy, and suave he was, why he excelled over and apart from everyone else, when she sums up his career brutally."Nearly all Grant’s seventy-two films," she writes, "have a certain amount of class and are well above the Hollywood average, but most of them, when you come right down to it, are not really very good." This is despite his never signing a contract after the age of 33 and therefore being able to make all his own independent choices.

    Unlike everyone else, he studiously avoided being corralled into playing cowboy roles. What he held out for most was the current equivalent of drawing room comedies. But the trouble with that strategy, Kael says, was that the first rate writers were no longer doing those, so he constantly wound up with second rate material. He avoided anything really serious, with rare exceptions, the main one being None but the Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets 1944), Odets' directorial debut with someone else's material, which Kael has a lot of good to say about, and about Grant as the poor son Ernie and Ethyl Barrymore as his mother. She is better than him, Kael says. She thinks he was aware that in this role closest to his heart and his early life he nonetheless ironically wound up seeming miscast. He turned away from stretching himself thereafter.

    ". . . if Alfred Hitchcock, who had worked with him earlier on Suspicion, hadn’t rescued him with Notorious, in 1946, and again, in 1955, with To Catch a Thief (a flimsy script but with a show-off role for him) and in 1959 with North by Northwest and if Grant hadn’t appeared in the Stanley Donen film Charade in 1963, his development as an actor would have essentially been over in 1940," Kael writes. His career sailed on, friends with Odets but avoiding his projects in future, never again doing something as demanding and close to home as None but the Lonely Heart. From then on he only played Cary Grant. "He might have become a great actor; he had the intensity, and the command of an audience’s attention. But how can one tell? One thinks of Cary Grant in such a set way it’s difficult even to speculate about his capacities."

    Kael is great on how Grant gets better with age and more himself by playing down. Macho actors like Anthony Quinn and Kirk Douglas overstrain as they get older, she says, while "Grant, with his sexual diffidence, quietly became less physical—and more assured. He doesn’t wear out his welcome: when he has a good role, we never get enough of him. Not only is his reserve his greatest romantic resource—it is the resource that enables him to age gracefully." And this defines better than I could what's so great about watching Grant play Grant in To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. She also points out that the understated elegance of his clothes, like "the lean-fitting suit he wore through so many perils" that "seemed the skin of his character" in North by Northwest - was another thing that came later; his earlier outfits, however snazzy, were bulkier and more ordinary.

    In The Philadelphia Story Grant isn't as important and his role isn't as well worked out. But at times something subtle and complex is going on with him and James Stewart, as if almost accidentally. Stewart has the better role; and he received an Oscar for his handling of it. Stewart does some remarkably subtle things in the scene in the library when Kathryn Hepburn's character has just discovered he's a sensitive poet. This happens in a movie where so much of it is schtick of drunkenness (which may have won the Oscar). Stewart's sweet, soft voice in the library scene is disarming and fresh.

    Grant gets to play with his lines, because he's on the sidelines. All the subliminal stuff in The Philadelphia Story I didn't remember makes it fascinating, even troubling. I thought "I have to watch all that stuff again, to try to figure it out," at the same time thinking it may ultimately be unfathomable. The complexity of both Stewart and Grant in this picture seems remarkable, yet accidental, and largely the result of improvisation. It gives one hope to see that between the lines in a conventional (if highly successful and entertaining) Hollywood comedy, one may yet find extra things, hidden treasures that at first don't meet the eye.

    These explorations next led me back to watching Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946). Though the latter is very highly regarded, and the grownup Ingrid Bergman is certainly more appealing and three-dimensional in Notorious than the shallowly naive, adolescent character played by Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, Notorious is a disappointing story that doesn't hold up. Modern presentations of espionage and enemy plotting are more sophisticated and complex than this too-easy seduction by Bergman and the accidental discovery of uranium in a wine bottle. Suspicion almost stands out more: at least Cary Grant's irresponsible gambler character, this charming and dangerous con man, seriously upsets me. Both movies leave me longing for the endlessly suave Cary Grant "playing Cary Grant" of the later Hitchcock films.

    Nonetheless Kael is almost absurdly dismissive of both these films in her brief references to them. Of Notorious she says, in a thumbnail review, that it's "great trash, great fun." Richard Brady, The New Yorker's behind-the-scenes movie writer (where Anthony Lane is the longtime for-show one) has fun with Kael's arbitrary evaluations and dismissals in a short column headed "Pauline Kael's Cannon Fodder."This wasn't in the main pages of the magazine, though; it was restricted to its online movie notes. It was when David Denby still alternated reviews with Anthony Lane, Denby, whose bitter oedipal resentments toward Kael were recorded in a 2003 piece in the magazine, "My Life As a Paulette." Could Brody's piece have been influenced by rancorous chats with Denby?

    Brody says in his column that in her writing, at least, Kael ignored Hitchcock's (most admired by cinephiles Vertigo and when it was revived she chose not to write about Psycho, which Brody particularly admired. He implies she valued all the wrong things and overlooked reviewing great films when the came out. This may be true though, of course, it's a matter of opinion what most needed to be written about. We'll see if Brody leaves a comparable legacy. (In a sense he's doomed from the start because he has not had her public voice as a main New Yorker movie reviewer. Denby did from 1998 to 2014; he still writes occasionally for the magazine, but not reviews.)

    Despite the not too surprising jackals constantly nipping at the edges of her reputation (she ruffled too many feathers in her lifetime, and she left some former acolytes who turned ungrateful) Pauline Kael is a gift to cinema buffs that keeps on giving. This I'm reminded of on finally getting around to watching Visconti's 1963 The Leopard/Il Gattopardo. Kael has an enthusiastic review of it (when 20 years later it finally arrived in the US with its full original 3-hour-plus Italian soundtrack; she points out the 1963 film first came to America in a discolored-looking English-dubbed version missing 20 minutes). This was published in The New Yorker in September 1983 but you can currently find it reprinted online. It shows also how good a summary of this her short blurb-index version is, but what's missing from that is the detailed description of the film's hour-long final ball section, essential if we accept that this part of the film is "one of the greatest of all passages in movies."

    It is a magnificent passage, even if the Prince's malaise and brave gloom begin to pall and it doesn't seem to contain any other ideas. It caused me to think of a similar sequence, the final ballroom one of Sokurov's dreamy historical meditation-com-technical tour de force Russian Ark. That sequence depicts the last great royal ball held at the Hermitage under Czar Nicholas II in 1913, shortly before the Bolshevik Revolution. I was underwhelmed by the film's technical feat of a 95-minute unbroken digital-camera single take, though reading Ebert's 2003 review now (yes, Ebert again!), I'm moved by his idea that "every edit" in a film "is an awakening," so making one long film without a single edit enables Sokurov to "spin a daydream made of centuries." Looking at the Russian Ark ballroom sequence in a 12-minute YouTube clip at first it seems more "real," as one "moves with" the camera eye into what appears an event disocovered in progress.

    But then, what strikes me in the Russian Ark ball is how cold the color is. It appears shot by daylight in the Hermitage Museum's white painted grand hall, and many of the women's gowns are even white. In The Leopard ball - a huge contrast - what's striking are the intense period colors of the late-19th-century women's gowns, in such subtle and authentic colors and such a variety of textures and patterns of materials, and the golden-hued light of the ballroom below two enormous candelabras filled with lit candles. (The parvenu mayor Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) wonders at these candelabras, and so do we.) The spaces between figures in some shots are black. The Sicilian ball is filmed from many camera angles, with many edit "awakenings." But its splendor and warmth blow away the Russian Ark ball. Perhaps it needs to be very present, as it is, precisely because it backgrounds a man who is there, but not there, the fading Principe.

    "Visconti’s triumph here," Kale writes of this passage, "is that the ball serves the same function as the Prince’s interior monologue in the novel: throughout this sequence, in which the Prince relives his life, experiences regret, and accepts the dying of his class and his own death, we feel we’re inside the mind of the Leopard saying farewell to life." I don't think the viewer is placed inside the Prince's mind or his skin in The Leopard as totally as Kael says. Even limiting to what the protagonist sees, which Visconti doesn't exclusively do, can't make you feel what he's feeling - as a novel can. The more we experience film as tour de force the more aware we are of its relative superficiality and shallowness compared to great fiction. But, now worries: The Leopard is replete with scenes like rich 19th-century paintings, richly authentic-looking interiors, crowed scenes, and Garibaldini fighting in the streets that are a delight to the eye. That and all these great actors make up for the failure to capture the complexities of politics and society in 1860 Sicily or the melancholy meditations of a fading, impoverished but noble Sicilian aristocrat.

    Il Gattopardo , speaking of actors, incorporates at least three main actors who aren't Italian, Lancaster, Delon and Clémenti, by the technical feat of seamless post-synching or dubbing, a familiar one in Italy, unlike Sokurov's unique feat of a 95-minute single take film. This impresses particularly with Burt Lancaster, whose performance is so relaxed and natural. Delon is very lively, but he may be straining. It's not their voices we're hearing. I take it this practice is less dominant now and that explains less (or no?) use of foreign stars with dubbed voices in Italian films. This practice was a key to the brilliant use of non-actors in early Italian neorealist films. In a film like The Leopard it seems more a distracting oddity.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-26-2021 at 10:22 PM.

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    THE MEANING OF HITLER ( Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker 2020)

    PETRA EPPERLEIN, MICHAEL TUCKER: THE MEANING OF HITLER (2020)


    HISTORICAL PHOTO OF ADOLF HITLER FROM THE MEANING OF HITLER

    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.


    RIGHT WING DEMONSTRATION IN EASTERN GERMANY FROM THE MEANING OF HITLER
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-24-2021 at 07:27 PM.

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    AWAKEN (Tom Lowe 2018)

    TOM LOWE: AWAKEN (2018)


    CHINESE FESTIVAL IMAGE (LUNAR NEW YEAR DRAGON) FROM TOM LOWE'S AWAKEN

    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.

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    BROKEN DIAMONDS (Peter Sattler 2021)

    PETER SATTLER: BROKEN DIAMONDS (2021)


    BEN PLATT, LOLA KIRKE IN BROKEN DIAMONDS

    A vivid portrait of life disrupted by mental illness

    This a film about schizophrenia, from the point of view of the younger brother who has had to deal with his sister's mental illness since he was young. Now, the twenty-something Scott (Ben Platt) has imminent plans to move to Paris and write a novel. But his sister Cindy (Lola Kirke)'s disease has other plans. The sudden death of their father, together with Cindy's expulsion from the mental health facility she has been living in, means Cindy is Scott's full-time responsibility just when he was hoping to ease away from it.

    Not so important what happens here, though the question whether Scott will be able to depart for Paris or not is suspenseful. The essential element of the film is its depiction of what it's like to be involved with a family member who has schizophrenia. In lively, personal form, this is an instructional film about living with mental illness. This is underlined when the film ends with footage of a real life support group for people living with mentally ill family members. Steve Waverly's screenplay was written from personal experience.

    This is a worthwhile subject, but the general public won't usually want to go for entertainment to an instructional film. It's only incidentally that, though. Ben Platt, who won the Best Actor Award for his lead performance in the multiple Tony-Award-winning Dear Evan Hansen, the musical that opened on Broadway five years ago (and which Platt reprises in a film version opening in September), and an equally fresh and lively performance as Cindy by Lola Kirke, who starred in Noah Bamubach's Greta Gerwig-scripted Mistress America (2015), are two appealing and gifted actors who make every scene come to life.

    Early on one feels as if the film is continually trying to make light of matters that seem disastrous. This may gibe with Cindy's quirky point of view and Scott's experienced one, and also seems designed to ease us, the viewers, into an experience that is deeply troubling and difficult to deal with. But it may impair our ability to take matters seriously, for a while, anyway.

    Some new insights for me came with time. According to the mental health facility director whom Scott consults when Cindy disappears, schizophrenic patients sometimes feel powerless as well as numbed when on meds. It is also to be noted that the meds tone down the voices but don't eliminate them. The voices make patients feel stronger, anyway, and this is a reason they go off them, so the facility director tells Scott. Efforts to set Cindy up in a menial job, which all fail in the interview stage, show the difficulty and heartbreak of trying to reinstate a family member with schizophrenia in the functional world.

    A major subplot is paradoxically, the lead's. The storyline looks at how the central character has been continually forced into a peripheral position. Scott says he got his first pimple on the way to a mental hospital and this symbolizes the way his life has revolved around his sister's. He hasn't had much chance to look at his problems. Here, he tends to deny he has them, when Cindy's shrink urges him to consider therapy for himself. The support group is a kind of solution. So may becoming a full-fledged writer. But someone whose life has been derailed by a sibling, who has taken precedence over serious parental conflicts, has issues he or she needs help with.

    Ben Platt is an engaging actor who attracts our sympathies throughout. Lola Kirke has the more complex role, which requires conveying the many personality facets of her character, which range from "normal" to "completely crazy," and slip back and forth among them. While avoiding stereotype or artificiality, Kirke performs this creditably. A more searching film might have delved deeper into Cindy's mind and further explored the whole trajectory of a woman who, as an encounter 15 years later with a high school classmate, was once the most promising actress in the school. How did she change? When was she diagnosed? It might also have been worthwhile to bring other family members into the picture beside a short conversation with a mother with the beginnings of dementia. There are very brief sudden "flashbacks" that do a quick review of the siblings through childhood and growing up; they maintain a focus that allows us to get fully into Scott and Cindy and their relationship in the present. The essence of Broken Diamonds is that it's about a life of trouble every day, of plans disrupted. It's a whirlwind that finds resolution - at least temporarily, providing a vision of life with hope under difficult circumstances.

    Broken Diamonds, 90 mins., debuted at Santa Barbara (SBIFF) Apr. 1, 2021, and releases in theaters and on demand in the US Jul. 23.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-08-2021 at 09:34 PM.

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    TWIST (Martin Owen 2021)

    MARTIN OWEN: TWIST (2021)


    RAFF LAW, MICHAEL CAINE IN TWIST

    London art pranksters - and they never mention Banksy. But his spirit hovers over this Dickens knockoff plot-line

    This modernization of Dickens' Oliver Twist has Michael Caine as Fagan and Raff Law, Jude's son, as Oliver Twist in what's very much a sparkling modern-day London. Twist is a young graffiti artist and master of parkour (or freerunning), and outsider and an orphan who agrees to join Fagan's "family" (adult here) and is turned by Fagan over to the tutelage of a tomboy called Red (Sophie Simnett) whose building-jumping skills equal or better his. The Artful Dodger is reprogrammed as Dodge in a gender switch to the style-mad singer and sometime Raff Law girlfriend Rita Ora. The assignment is revenge against an art dealer called Losborne (an amusingly stuffy David Walliams) who Fagan says stole all he had when he, formerly, was an art dealer himself, and he plans to repay in kind. What follows is a caper.

    Many are hard on this film, understandably frustrated that it is in no way a suitable updated replica of the Dickens novel and making the accusation that it's "just another Guy Ritchie knockoff." I certainly hope not that - though the Independent critic Clarisse Loughrey who says it makes some clever points, and certain heavies and zooms and twisty camera moves do look dangerously Ritchie. This isn't a great film. But its main actors have charm, it has its moments, and if you go with the flow, it delivers a bit of fun. It is hard to admire, but still likable.

    Caine is old (rather remarkably, 88 now), but he has lost neither his cockney accent nor his timing. An appealing lad, Raff Law is the image of his father and even has the same soft, hoarse voice, but sports youthful fashions that look like Justin Bieber's Drew, but probably aren't since he is loyal to British labels. Style aside, he may lack the depth at this point to make this somewhat thinly written material solider, but the emphasis is on the caper, the action, and "freerunning" in this instance indeed involves a lot of running from the start, when Twist, joined by Red, gives some cops the slip hoofing it along narrow London side streets.

    The anti-Losborne caper's first focus is a genre painting of ruffled ladies, "The Harlot's Progress: The Arrest," one of series of six by William Hogarth, up for auction at Dotheboys (Sothebys, get it?). In the effort to steal it in the middle of an auction, Fagan's crew and Fagan himself on hand disguised as a Russian oligarch in big fake black mustache, typically find their maneuvers going wrong and later, in complicated ways, right.

    It feels odd to have a story about contemporary London art crime and raucous street art exploits and no Banksy, but there is a "Batesy" (Franz Drameh), a black fellow. Dickens' sinister bad guy Sikes ("Game of Thrones'" Lena Headey) is an murderous lesbian in a long black coat who undermines the Fagan "family" at every turn. She considers Red her moll but Red thinks otherwise and has her eye on Twist, aka Oliver, now.

    The way the paintings are straightened out at the end (described in a TV newscast rather than shown) and the introduction of Twist's painting in a major museum show are further evidence, I'd say, that the spirit of Banksy's genius jiggery-pokery hovers over this charming if not thoroughly successful film throughout.

    Twist, 90 mins., was released in the UK Jan. 29, 2021 and was reviewed there then (Bradshaw gave it two out of five stars). It comes out in the US in theaters, on digital, and on demand Fri., Jul. 30, 2021.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-11-2021 at 01:55 PM.

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    PINK OPAQUE (Derrick Perry 2021)

    DERRICK PERRY: PINK OPAQUE (2021)


    ELIJAH BOOTHE IN PINK OPAQUE

    A little coming of age debut set in Los Angeles

    This may amuse you for its naiveté at times, but it covers all the bases and succeeds in scoring with a number of intense scenes. There is a young black protagonist struggling to finish his final project to graduate from film school. His name is Travis Wolfe (Elijah Boothe), and he has some things to learn about his father, who committed suicide many years ago and whom he never knew. His mother is expecting him to return home, but doesn't understand him. His Korean American girlfriend , Kristen Lee (Ruby Park), a talented young fashion designer, has New York City in her sights, but she is living with a menacing, drug-dealing brother, Daniel (Paul B. Kim) who forbids her to see Travis again.

    Pink Opaque never loses sight of the fact that it takes place in Los Angeles. A wealth of images, including drone shots, show the city's unique look and strange beauty. And after all this is about a young man who is making a movie about the city, and is constantly photographed against LA backgrounds.

    Travis has been working on a film about the LA homeless population, which he cites as numbering 55,000 (some online stats put it more in the forties), but he seems stuck. His segments have a rough and grainy video look. "I like the aesthetic," he says, but the school supervisor finds it unacceptable, and once again warns him he will not graduate - which his mother struggled to support him for - if he doesn't come up with a good film pronto. Right when the deadline is down to a few days, he gets kicked out of his living situation and is forced to live out of his car. And then he's broke and it gets towed, while he's with his girlfriend.

    Desperate, Travis looks up his maternal uncle Robin (the charismatic Chaim Dunbar), whom he knows to be well off. Robin lives in a posh sunny Los Angeles house, but his success as a TV writer and producer was decades ago and now he drinks too much. He has good friends but no ideas. When he meets with a comical TV impresario his concept of a series of stories around a Harlem funeral home falls flat. Desperate, he gives the guy the hard drive of Travis' unfinished unsheltered angelenos film and, glancing at it, the impresario likes it as a series idea and keeps the hard drive to show to colleagues. Robin is elated. Travis has gotten an immediate loan from Robin and overnighted at his place, but when he hears about this, which leaves him without anything for the graduation show, he is furious and desperate. But adversity leads Travis to find a solution.

    Pink Opaque has few surprises but its characters are readable and the main ones are warmly appealing. Like a sports film where it all leads to the final big game, all roads in Pink Opaque end at the film school graduation, with Travis literally down to the last second finishing a new documentary on the same subject but with a much bolder and more personal slant, on which he is helped in the shooting by his former roommate. The minutes leading up to delivery of this film for the graduation screening are intercut with an exciting subplot involving Travis' girlfriend's dangerous brother Daniel, who becomes a menace to her now as well as him.

    It all ends happily - though not without jolts and danger. It may be a little too neat. That is part of the naiveté - and the charm - of this upbeat tale about Los Angeles, movies, and multicultural youth. Travis, exhausted, hasn't the strength to sit through the public screening. He is out on the steps to receive accolades after the event is all over. To his surprise because relations had chilled, Robin was in the audience and not only does Travis get accolades from his classmates and approval from the director and a loving reunion with Kristen, but an emotional story from Robin about his father.

    Some people definitely need a movie like this, to make it or just to see it. Its freshness and sincerity keep things from feeling too clichéd, even though its themes and characters and structure are all familiar. It does have a rather fresh take on making a film school graduation film. The idea of speaking your own truth about the subject is a valid and a currently fashionable one. And many creative efforts indeed are finished at the very last minute under an intense deadline.

    For another recent film that looks at another black film student I recommend the brilliant and more formally sophisticated Residue by Merawi Gerima , which came out last December and is available on Netflix. You can see it, if you like, as depicting Travis at a later stage, when he goes home. Gerima's young recent California film school graduate who returns to the east coast suffers from survivor's guilt, alienation, and estrangement as he tries to connect with his old DC neighborhood which is undergoing gentrification. And of course everything is still ahead for Travis, too.

    Pink Opaque, 90 mins., debuted Aug. 20, 2020 at American Black Film Festival (Los Angeles). US release July 27, 2021 by 1091 Pictures.(
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-11-2021 at 09:11 PM.

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    NINE DAYS (Edson Oda 2020)

    EDSON ODA: NINE DAYS (2020)


    WINSTON DUKE IN NINE DAYS

    Philosophical sci-fi about souls in limbo that's also a meditation on suicide

    Imagine if you can (I find it hard myself) a "world" in which "souls" appearing as grown-up people in bodies are selected to live as mortals. But here's the catch: most of those "souls" won't make the cut. And imagine also if you can a large black man named Will (Winston Duke of Black Panther and Us) in a one-storey house in the middle of nowhere (possibly Utah) in charge of a small segment of what may be a vast, global operation. He has previously chosen 25 or so to live lives on earth. In the house, there's a big room full of old tube TVs playing full blast all the time. These are POV films of these lives, and Will needs to monitor them, to keep track whether his choices are holding up. Is it any surprise that life and TV are conflated? Or that VHS tapes are much used, as well as notebooks and pencils? This is sci-fi whose spiritual and moral bent is softened by retro trappings.

    Will, whose moodiness relates to his having lived on earth before but not very successfully, has one favorite among his group of chosen beings, a talented young violinist called Amanda (Lisa Starrett). Her big moment is coming up, which Will and his sidekick and pal, a free-floating soul at this outpost called Kyo, pronounced here "Kee-oh" (Bennedict Wong), call "her concerto." (They seem to mean a concert where Amanda will solo in a concerto for violin; the musical details are left a bit hazy here for my taste.) But things turn sour when, on the way to the "concerto," Amanda drives her car into a concrete barrier and is killed. It takes most of the film for Will to fully ascertain and then accept that this was suicide. He struggles to know why. He blames himself. And so on. Kyo tells him to let it go yet he cannot.

    But all that, though important, is secondary. The main focus of the screenplay is the process of choosing Amanda's replacement. There is a "soul" to "body" quota system in which Amanda's death creates an opening that must immediately be filled - within the titular nine days. A group of "souls" (shall we say half a dozen?) come around - the candidates. Will begins observing them, interrogating them and testing them with hypotheticals, in administering which he tends to be abrupt, repetitious, and brutal.

    It hardly matters who is chosen, and some of those who aren't may even be more important than the one who is. What counts is that the self-contradictory, repressed, shut-down Will should learn to be more of a mensch. Hopefully he will become less brutal, master his ill-concealed rage issues, stop yelling so much, and stop being sadistic and arbitrary in dealing with candidates in any future soul-selection rounds.

    This is a big and perhaps unexpected role for Winston Duke and he proves to have the range for it and then some. Will plays God, and he's certainly the God of this movie. Much of the time he seems one-note, but when his other facets jump out they're astonishing. The little round silver spectacles Will mostly wears make him look prissy. But when they and his vest come off at the end and he dramatically recites from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," the sun shines forth, the voice waxes Shakespearean, and the eyes sparkle with youth and hope that show what magic an actor can work who has the chops this man has.

    In that triumphant final scene and many short ones before Duke plays opposite Zazie Beetz, a light skinned, wild-haired black woman of considerable beauty and presence. She plays Emma, a seemingly promising, or at least consistently arresting, "soul" candidate who could be described as Will's favorite reject - so much so that he keeps her around as long as he can and wants her back when he has let her go.

    Additional cast members who stand out are Tony Hale as Alex, the joker and hang-loose guy among the "souls," and Bill Skarsgård, as Kane, the toughest one (though his part is underwritten). The others, I fear, come off as rather pathetic. What else can you be when you are told that you didn't make the cut, and that means very shortly, with or without a "favorite moment" reenactment, you will simply cease to exist? But they are at least briefly memorable. Importantly, director Edson Oda skillfully maneuvers a complicated game in this film of shifting rapidly from "soul" to "soul" and wrangling all those old TVs broadcasting POV films of separate lives, and he manages to do this without too much confusion or overwhelm.

    There have been both raves and hoots of derision for this movie, but the raves sound loudest. Viewer doubts are understandable. How can you have people who are "souls" that haven't got bodies yet - if they appear to us as flesh and blood? Relax, it's a movie. Some critics feel the second half fails to sustain the excitement of the first. I must be missing something because I don't really even see two clear halves.

    What confuses me more is that reviewers think this is an extraordinary and unique work. Director Oda handles this material in an original and highly competent manner. He has evident talent for the feature film medium. But the theme of creatures in limbo being chosen or not chosen to go down and live on earth seems familiar enough, even without the example of Koreeda's After Life, which is frequently mentioned. One last saw it notably in Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers' Soul for Disney. Oda has managed a pretty interesting mise-en-scène considering the dry, house-bound nature of the action, how theoretical it is, and how reliant on moral questions.

    An example of the latter, posed brutally by Will: in a concentration camp you must agree for your teenage son to be hanged or you and everyone else in the camp will be killed. What do you do? Tough one, eh? Maybe being in Will's house really isn't a lot different from that concentration camp, for these souls in limbo.

    Director Oda has said that when he was 12 his uncle committed suicide. The need to deal with that terrible event seems one of the chief personal sources of this screenplay. A compensation for the intellectuialism is the "souls'" passion for physicality: hence one feels with joy the flow of hot and cold water from a shower nozzle, and another delights in treading barefoot in the sand, virtually. The message is obvious but it is spelled out too: we are blessed to be able to live on this earth.

    Nine Days is the promising and original debut feature of the Brazilian-Japanese, USC-trained maker of commercials and music videos who has won prizes for them and workshopped the film at Sundance.

    Nine Days, 124 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, also Cologne, The Hamptons, AFI, Austin, Savannah, Stockholm, Thessaloniki, Taiwan, and other fests. US release by Sony (NYC, LA) Jul. 30, 2021; northern Calif. Jul. 6. Current Metascore: 78%.



    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-12-2021 at 10:22 PM.

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    SABAYA ( Hogir Hirori 2021)

    HOGIR HIRORI: SABAYA (2021)

    IN THEATERS (ROXIE, SF) FRI., AUGUST 6, 2021


    WOMEN IN AL-HOL REFUGEE CAMP IN SABAYA

    Fly-on-the-wall film of rescuing Daesh sex slaves

    Let's call it Daesh, though US usage has been ISIS or Islamic State - because Daesh is what it's called in the region and widely elsewhere. This film, hard to watch for multiple reasons but a powerful piece of courageous photojournalist infiltration, relates to City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman 2017), which focused on RBSS, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (الرقة تذبح بصمت), a small band of men of that city from various walks of life bravely taking action to make known to the world how Daesh smothered their town to make it their "capital." Here the focus is on the Al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria for victims of Daesh, 60,000-70,000 strong. It is located just south of the town of Al-Hawl (الهول) and in an interview the director has said it is a place of "lawless chaos and danger."

    At the height of its power Daesh preyed on the Yazidi people in northern Iraq and kidnapped their women or girls as sex slaves ("sabaya"), who have been sold and resold by smugglers as young as one year old. The dangerous paradox is that Al-Hol camp is infiltrated by Daesh members. Explanatory captions early on explain the Yazidis are an ethnic non-Muslim minority that follows their own religion, Yazidism. Thus the Daesh considered them open season as "infidels" targeted for genocide, mass kidnapping, rape and forced marriage of its young girls. In the film we hear a lot of Kurmanji, the Kurdish language chiefly spoken by Yazidis, as well as some Arabic.

    The film stays close to a man called Mahmoud and his boss Ziyad, the latter head of the Yazidi Home Center, a rambling makeshift structure within a rough car drive of the refugee camp. It's hard to figure out what's going on because this on-the-fly film explains nothing and most of it appears shot surreptitiously. The Hollywood Reporter review by Imkoo Kang provides explanations, which gradually may emerge just from careful scrutiny of the film. Mahmoud and Ziyad have young women allies at the camp who (surreptitiously) look for stolen Yazidi girls who are still being held in the camp. They report to Mahmoud, and he and Ziyad make risky armed runs by car to the camp to rescue the girls forcibly, and these runs are filmed. We get some glimpses of the rescued ones later, but don't see much of the young women running the inside search operation.

    Mahmoud and Zihad and their by us unseen helpers are doing courageous and good work. But it's slow and dreary to watch, though briefly intense and scary, only the scariness and intensity don't show much without the buildup and glamor a fiction film would attach to the rescue actions. The settings too are dreary, a sandy golden blur oscillating between the primitive-looking Yazidi Home Center, with a fat lady cooking at a small stove and men eating on the floor on scattered rugs in large empty spaces; and the bustling Al-Hol camp. There are also glimpses of a visit to a prison with masses of Daesh prisoners all huddled together and one miserable, crippled prisoner who is persuaded to speak of his two stolen Yazidi "wives." ("They call it 'marriage,' but it's really rape," one woman says.)

    A little girl is rescued, Mitra, who is only seven, apparently kidnapped by Daesh at age one. At the end, we see a new little group of women prepared as "infiltrators." They put on full black covering up to the eyes and, with minimal prepping by Mahmoud, are taken to Al-Hol camp. We have seen how traumatized most of the rescued girls are; another issue is how difficult reintegration into their families may be. One is forced to leave her open-faced little baby at the Home Center because his father was a Daesh rapist and murderer and her family won't accept him. The Home Center has rescued 206 women and girls, we learn via caption. There has been constant danger, an attack launched by Turkey's Erdegun on the Kurds, and they've frequently been fired on by Daesh fighters and renegades. Not here but in an interview the director, who is also his cinematographer and editor, shot footage in Al -Holl camp from the POV of a woman infiltrator that was actually him disguised as a woman, with a hidden camera. Risky business indeed.

    The Daesh caliphate has fallen and it has lost foreign members and gone underground. But it's still a live threat as well as a source of generations-long trauma. This mysterious film is also an eye-opener and thought-provoker. It is necessary viewing for students of Middle Eastern politics and fans of risk-taking documentary filmmaking.

    Sabaya, 90 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2021 and received the World Cinema documentary directing award. It received ten other festival awards and nominations and was in eight other festivals including Copenhagen (CPH:DOX), Columbia, MI (True-False) and Tel Aviv (Docaviv). MTV Documentary Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, July 30, 2021 Showing at the Roxie Cinema, San Francisco Aug. 6.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; Today at 08:04 PM.

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    FIREBOYS (Jake Hochendoner and Drew Dickler 2021)

    JAKE HOCHENDONER, DREW DICKLER: FIREBOYS (2021)


    INCARCERATED YOUTH FIREFIGHTING CREW MOVE OUT IN FULL GEAR FIREBOYS

    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.

  13. #43
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    SAUL BELLOW (Asaf Galay 2021) SFJFF

    ASAF GALAY: THE ADVENTURES OF SAUL BELLOW (2021)


    At last a documentary portrait of Saul Bellow

    Perhaps in a moment of enthusiasm, the eminent critic James Wood wrote that Saul Bellow was the finest prose stylist of the twentieth century. Surprising we've waited till sixteen years after his death for someone called Asaf Galay (qualified: he previously did one about his great Yiddish forebear Isaac Bashevis Singer), to make a documentary film about a man who was the leading writer in America for decades, who received, besides the Pulitzer, the Nobel for Literature, and most deservedly.

    Sadly, a bit late. In his heyday, which lasted about forty years, Bellow was a central figure in American, indeed English language, fiction. Now as Prof. Hana Wirth-Nesher says toward the end as a sort of postscript-epitaph, Bellow's writing is considered "offensive," and he is not read so much anymore. But this film, the first of its kind, however flawed or leaving room for comment and addition, is a superb piece of work and a pleasure to watch and even, for a lover of American fiction, a thrill. Here is the last great literary man from when one man could matter, the man, we learn, who turned the Hemingway sentence on its end and made it more inward and complex.

    Literary reputations change. The "offensive" is on two counts: racism, noted in a passage in Bellow's (late, 2000) novel Ravelstein, read and commented on by the black novelist Charles R. Johnson; and, in considerably richer detail, misogyny, noted in many clearly autobiographical passages in various novels and evidenced in his behavior toward women as a man who had five wives and often depicted them unflatteringly in his pages.

    No one of his five wives speaks ill here of Bellow here. But two of the marriages were brief and ended acrimoniously. His fourth wife, a Romanian mathematician, says she felt after their eleven years together he simply was done with the experiment and ready to try something new. He married women younger, much younger, and the last time much, much younger: forty-seven years younger. But he was up to it, since at eighty-four he fathered a daughter by Janis, whom we hear from the most, reporting a happy, youthful-seeming union, and is worshipful and full of good memories. A man who has five wives must have a complex relation with the fair sex.

    What we get here that we wouldn't get from a print biography is images, first of all, many handsome, nostalgic ones of the city of Chicago. The film also shows us many pages of the novels and lets us hear people, in some cases close relatives, read from them. Then there are all the people, in person, the children, the nephew, the admiring writers, the literary authorities.

    Three very significant writers express in detail their debt to Saul Bellow and admiration of his work and of his achievement: Salmon Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Philip Roth. Roth was his successor, almost his child and literally his friend. Luckily, Galay was able to interview Roth before his death in 2018. Rushdie and Amis show that to feel kinship with Bellow does not require one to be Jewish.

    They and other speakers make clear the lasting importance of Bellow's third novel, The Adventures of Augie March. So much so that its opening lines are to be read and remembered today, and are read and commented on here: "I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent." The first part, "an American, Chicago born," has the sound of a Walt Whitman. The ending, Prof. Wirth-Nesher notes, is a Jew speaking: a Jew has to knock. Whitman didn't.

    That Bellow was a Jewish writer is central and this film clarifies how that worked and how the way it worked changed. For me the most enlightening words - though she is saying things she wrote decades ago - come from Vivian Gornick (whose In Search of Ali Mahmoud touched unique cords for me as someone with ties to Cairo). Bellow wrote as a Jew who was proudly American (though, interestingly, he was born in Canada), a Jewish writer who grew up constantly exposed to Yiddish, Hebrew, and English and became a master stylist and innovator in an American literary idiom he made his own. As Roth took up the mantle as the foremost American Jewish writer, the role of being Jewish became more of a shtick and could be played with and joked about as well as continuingly chronicled. Other Jewish writers, Bernard Malamud and above all J.D. Salinger, neither mentioned here, contributed to making Jewishness increasingly mainstream. And they mattered. But I see listed online an academic article (often cited, perhaps) called "The Death of the American Jewish Novel," dated 1978.

    It seemed so important to read the Jewish writers in late Fifties and Sixties America. It was. This film shows how it doesn't matter in the same way any more and has not for decades. Gornick explains this is because Jews are so much more assimilated, as has been happening similarly, but a little alter, to blacks and Hispanics (and latest, Asians).

    Galay is judicious; the voices here feel essential, no one unnecessary. And we are also fortunate in hearing fairly often from Bellow himself, and even see him, laughing and chortling a little too much, perhaps in embarrassment, on the Dick Cavett show. Always he is the natty dresser with the nice suit, the jaunty hat, the bright bow tie, the bright smile, the fresh, smiling face, always vivacious, charming, sometimes a little too sure of himself. Not for him the diffident, perpetually tentative voice of that other, more recent, and half Jewish Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Patrick Modiano. (What would he say about Bob Dylan?) Bellow explains how it was fun to win the Nobel at first, but then it meant he and his wife had to hide - in Chicago. But he died at their summer place - in Massachusetts; and I feel that the film's promise of telling us about Chicago is not quite kept.

    Nearly half of the novels are not mentioned. They don't talk about Henderson the Rain King. They never mention it, or Seize the Day. They do talk about The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Humboldt's Gift, and Ravelstein. This choice perhaps reflects a biographical bias. The film is handily hung on the story of Bellow's five wives and how they figure in these novels. That is alright: this excellent film digs deep and enjoyably into the life, the man, and his place in the pantheon. Next time a filmmaker can reexamine that place (will he rise in a post-racial, post-#MeTo world?), and delve more deeply and widely into the novels. This film, with its fresh footage of key people and its balanced, enjoyable unfolding, is unlikely to be majorly bettered, though.

    The Adventures of Saul Bellow, 84 mins., was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-17-2021 at 08:12 PM.

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