Friday, September 27, 2013

Cinema Scope Feature - Women Under the Influence: Hong Sangsoo's Nobody's Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi

This piece appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Cinema Scope. 

As an agent for acclimation, alcohol is one of our most proven resources. In the cinema of Hong Sangsoo, it’s less a casual commodity than a conduit for conducive social interaction, a property of both emotionally collateral and physically direct engagement. The characters portrayed in the prolific South Korean auteur’s work drink incessantly, to the point of excess and usually beyond, beer and soju bottles strewn geometrically across dining tables in an array of intuitive designs (and never further than arm’s reach, of course). As befits a filmography featuring heavy drinkers, written and directed by a heavy drinker—Hong is known to encourage, shall we say, method acting as the occasion sees fit—Hong’s narratives are often unpredictable proceedings, as restless or volatile as any given individual in the director’s dilated purview. It’s almost as if in Hong’s universe, as opposed to (most of) our everyday lives, liquor itself is the constant and emotion is the variable, as likely to facilitate communication as it is to reduce the same to simply a series of loaded, unconscious mannerisms.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Jean-Pierre Melville's Two Men in Manhattan [Cohen Media Group]

The year is 1959 and French director Jean-Pierre Melville is coming off a modest though far from recognized success with Bob le Flambeur, a heist film indebted to the American gangster films of the 1940s and '50s, but with a stylized aesthetic energy that would prove influential on the nascent nouvelle vague. Like Melville, the critics turned filmmakers affiliated with Cahiers du Cinéma at the turn of the '60s who took an interest in the craftsmanship of the Hollywood studio system would parlay their enthusiasm into wryly subversive takes on such associated genre tropes. Appropriately, with his next film, Melville would attempt to more fully and authentically bridge these contrasting impulses. The result was Two Men in Manhattan, a moody, jazz-laced take on New York City noir narratives with a distinctly French bent, preemptively solidifying a lineage that was just then taking root among Melville's national cinema.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Toronto Film Festival 2013: Wavelengths Features

With the recent expansion of the Wavelengths Program, the Toronto International Film Festival has been able to accommodate more films, particularly work that falls somewhere between short and feature-length designation. Allotted a block of time equal to that of your traditional screening, these films of intermediate duration are given a showcase via programs featuring multiple works. Amongst these ranks, the highlights of this year’s festival were French iconoclast Jean Marie-Straub’s latest cinematic monologue, Un Conte de Michel de Montaigne, wherein the sixteenth century author’s text is recited atop images of his marbled visage, Nathaniel Dorsky’s wisely paired diptych of compartmentalized phosphorescence, Song and Spring, Peter Hutton’s meditation on the routine pleasures of far-flung laborers, Three Landscapes, and, most especially, Miguel Gomes’ nostalgic montage of personal and cultural debility, Redemption, something of a mini masterpiece in and of itself. Alongside these works were less immediate experiments such as Mati Diop’s earnest but fleeting hybrid narrative A Thousand Suns and the dense archival mediation on Mussolini’s savage conquest of Africa, Pays Barbare, by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucch, the little known duo behind the late-eighties landmark From the Pole to the Equator.

Toronto Film Festival 2013: Wavelengths Shorts

During her introduction to the first of four evenings dedicated to short-form avant-garde works scheduled over the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, programmer Andréa Picard described these intimate evening gatherings as “the heart and soul” of the annual Wavelengths program. The Wavelengths strand has expanded recently, folding in the section formerly known as Visions while scheduling medium length films in separately curated screenings right alongside the festival’s narrative features. Thus, as one gathers amongst just a couple hundred other cinephiles for these modest nocturnal affairs, it’s difficult not to sympathize with Picard’s assertion. The films comprising the Shorts program, while fated for mere festival praise and, best case scenario, museum and repertory screenings thereafter, consistently provide some of Toronto’s most visceral thrills and left-field surprises—and from some of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers at that.

Toronto Film Festival 2013: Week Two Round-Up

Festivals are traditionally front loaded affairs, and more than most, the Toronto International Film Festival concedes to early exits. Whether you’re here for Academy-geared or avant-garde films, the work most primed for audience acceptance and critical acclaim is more often than not programmed during the fest’s first half. So it goes that the second week of TIFF allowed for far more screenings but offered less overall satisfaction.

Setting the scattershot tone was Devil’s Knot, the latest in a long line of unfortunate films from the once-great Atom Egoyan. A dramatic retelling of the well documented West Memphis Three case, the film is a tonally awkward, badly acted, and utterly inept work of presumed ignorance and indecisive storytelling. Matching Devil’s Knot in both clumsy construction and redundant topicality was Ettore Scola’s expendable How Strange to Be Named Federico, a kind of hybrid work that fails as both biographical narrative and cinematic testimonial.

Toronto Film Festival 2013: Week One Round-Up

The Toronto International Film Festival has traditionally defined itself by its inability to be easily defined. Simply put, it’s a festival with an identity crisis. The sheer breadth of the line-up all but guarantees this designation, with 400+ films spread over 10 days and across multiple programmes and sub-sections. Converging for the festivities is an array of journalists, bloggers, and industry professionals (not to mention the public), all with opposing agendas and assignments.

For those who like to take the road less travelled, it's easy to focus on less widely documented films from the world and experimental ends of the cinematic spectrum. Luckily, many of the bigger titles anchoring the TIFF lineup already premiered at the Venice Films Festival over the last couple of weeks, and LWLies has dutifully reported on many of them, including Gravity, Under the Skin, and The Wind Rises, among others.

Toronto Film Festival 2013: Alex van Warmerdam's Borgman

This piece was written for Cinema Scope's 2013 Toronto Film Festival coverage.

Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman opens not simply in media res but in mediam tumultus, as an unidentified mob (led, in true van Warmerdamian fashion, by a priest in full regalia) run roughshod across a dense forest floor, uncovering a hidden bunker outfitted with a small militia’s worth of assault weaponry. Roused from his slumber by the invading gang, a weathered, bearded man—identified later as the eponymous Borgman—flees his apparent assailants, seeking sanctuary in the home of a family soon to be divided over their visitor’s dubious motivations. This kinetic opening, besides being an effectively disorienting table-setter, is also a lofty bar to set for oneself, and despite van Warmerdam’s best efforts to maintain an atmosphere of suggestive ambiguity, Borgman ultimately becomes yet another of the director’s quaint allegories. Van Warmerdam’s allegorical conceits, however, have proven acute over the years, and in Borgman, the Dutch satirist’s preoccupation with class divisions and the effect individuals from different social strata have on one another is delivered in perhaps its angriest iteration yet. Borgman’s time spent on the lam is presented in van Warmerdam’s familiar mixture of dark comedy and absurdist drama, although this time with a heightened sense of the macabre, like Aki Kaurismäki retrofitting Pasolini’s Teorema through the lens of modern European capitalism. Once Borgman’s cadre of thugs join him in his suburban hideout, slowly “replacing” the hired help, the film inevitably sacrifices a bit of its previously suggestive tone. But judging by the film’s third-act turn towards brutality, coupled with that breathless opening sequence, it’s clear van Warmerdam has less whimsical intentions with this archly didactic fable of cultural contradiction. [CS]