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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.
    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.

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    THE GREEN KNIGHT (David Lowery 2021)

    DAVID LOWERY: THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)


    DEV PATEL IN THE GREEN KNIGHT

    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.


    BENGT EGEROT AND MAX VON SYDOW IN THE SEVENTH SEAL
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-01-2021 at 12:08 AM.

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    THE MACALOSO SISTERS/LE SORELLE MACALOSO (Emma Dante 2020)

    EMMA DANTE: THE MACALOSO SISTERS/LE SORELLE MACALOSO (2020)



    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.

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    BRING YOUR OWN BRIGADE (Lucy Walker 2021)

    LUCY WALKER: BRING YOUR OWN BRIGADE (2021)


    EMERENCY TEAM AT MALIBU (THE NOV. 2018 WOOLSEY FIRE) IN BRING YOUR OWN BRIGADE

    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.

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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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    YAKUA PRINESS ( Vicente Amorim 2021)

    VINCENTE AMORIM: YAKUZA PRINCESS (2021)


    MASUMI AND JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS IN YAKUZA PRINESS

    A samurai movie set in São Paulo's Japanese neighborhood of Liberdade

    Director Vincente Armorim boasts of this movie that he and his crew "have built a desaturated version of [a] nineties neon noir, without its corny excesses." He's not lying, and this wasn't a vain project: it's for its gorgeously overwrought visuals that this movie is worth watching, maybe even re-watching. Rather an oddity, this is an expensive coming-of-age/birth-of-a-female-super-hero Japanese gangster movie set in Brazil, specifically in São Paulo's Liberdade section, the largest ethnic Japanese community outside of Japan. Where do you get neo-noir nowadays? In a graphic novel, and Danilo Beyruth has provided one as this film's source and offshoot, a Brazilian-Japanese creation, Shiro Samurai.

    Yakuza Princess is a brooding, aesthetics-over-sense film replete with thunderstorms, blue-lit tombstones and limbs lopped off with a shimmering, ringing ancestral samurai sword with a noble name, the Muramasa, and an in-built curse.

    "Ren Oshima," 1947-1999," in Japanese on a tombstone, and the headline "Takikawa Clan Boss Brutally Murdered Along with His Family" on an old newspaper clipping hidden there, are shocking revelations for the film's protagonist in the Libertade cemetery. They arrive only in the last third.

    There are two main characters. That they have little connection most of the way through is a sign of the film's somewhat hazy premise and slow-opening water flower of a plot. First is Jonathan Rys Meyers, known here as Shiro, who wakes up in a São Paolo hospital - from which he must escape - with slash marks on his face due to that sword, which was found with him and which he carries away. He remembers nothing, not even his name. Next, and more central, is Akemi (Masumi) a young woman working somewhre nearby at two jobs and also practicing the art of Japanese swordplay. It's her 21st birthday, and now that she wants to walk away from her present life she starts finding out she isn't the person she thought she was and her real grandfather was somebody else.

    Shiro - but he doesn't yet have a name - for some reason decides that Akemi will know the story of the sword he's carrying and give him some fix on who he is. His innate ability to knock out rooms full of men and language skills he didn't know he had mark him as a sort of scruffy Asian-influenced Jason Bourne. Very violent and very empty, he makes a perfect sexy movie-star hero, but he's rather under-used here. Akemi is a mixture, sweet, puzzled, and tough, with a soon-to-be-discovered gift for ultra-violence. The actress, a newcomer, is rather over-used, earnest but not quite as interesting as her constant screen closeups seem to imply.

    In any case these two characters in search of pasts always remain less important than the handsome cinematography by frequent Amorim collaborator Gustavo Hadba. Hadba has said they shot "not the real São Paulo, but a Japanese city from graphic novels, closer to the Tokyo or Osaka we have in our collective memory." Note Amorim calls this a "neon noir," not a neo-noir: his concept of the genre leans toward the purely visual.

    The imagery that grabs you from the film's earliest sequences is dramatic, romantic, and handsomely composed, drenched in desaturated blues or ambers of the "neon noir" the director mentions. A single flash of lightning suddenly illuminates a glittering white blanket of heavy rain: it's a gorgeous throwaway two-shot sequence so striking it makes a memorably pure and pleasing visual meme. Rhys Meyers/Shiro's yellow-greenish hospital room, with its dirty glass wall behind the head of his bed revealing a corridor and orderlies beyond, is a gemlike mix of grungy and grand. It's these visual delights along with the adrenaline rushes of sporadic violence that glue the vague, patchy plot together, and keep you watching for the next mood-swing.

    The narrative craftsmanship doesn't live up to all those production values. Things take a little too long to develop their portents into events. A character called Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) enters the scene by shooting three men, a prisoner revealing a whispered secret to him and the two men who've been guarding him, and goes on from there. Later, after a mysterious but visually handsome melée in the cemetery that Takeshi begins to spell out more clearly his significance when he reveals to Akemi, who he calls Aki, the secrets of her family that make her partial heir to a divided gangster dynasty. But do we care? And where's "Shiro", whose compelling plight opened the movie but then, except for a some inexplicable murders, fell by the wayside?

    Linguistic oddities of this movie: though it takes place in Brazil, almost no Portuguese is spoken. Takeshi speaks lengthily in slow, laborious English with Akemi, even though she has demonstrated that she can speak Japanese. (He is a veteran Japanese movie actor; she is a first-timer who has lived a lot of her life in the US.) The dialogue can be clunkily generic: "I won't be trapped by a past that isn't my own."

    But in true Japanese gangster movie fashion, this film's ending sets us up for the next episode: Akemi in Japan. An interesting hybrid: one only wishes it were in Japanese and Portuguese, but's going for the international market where dramatically lit sword battles and elementary English are the accepted norm.

    Further notes

    Yakuza Princess, 111 mins., has its festival debut at Montreal (Fantasia International Festival) Aug. 18, 2021. US release by Magnolia Pictures and Magnet Releasing in cinemas and On-Demand Sept. 3, 2021.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; Today at 08:40 PM.

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