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Review

San Diego Asian Film Festival 2015 (SDAFF 2015) – The Real Jewel in San Diego’s Crown

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Just over a month has passed since the annual San Diego Asian Film Festival closed it’s curtains and I’m still gobsmacked by all of the incredible movies that were screened.  For it’s sweet sixteenth session, the festival run by the Pacific Arts Movement screened over 130 films from 20 countries and many to record sell-out crowds. All of the beautifully and carefully curated movies had one thing in common – they were thought provoking, poignant and showed off the talents of diverse Asian filmmakers from across the world whilst showing us many of the cultural threads and different lives in the countries that make up the rich tapestry of the continent of Asia.

This is a recap of the coverage that we live tweeted and recorded on Facebook during the festival

If you live or find yourself in San Diego and enjoy movies, you owe it to yourself to get a ticket to the next festivalmiss india america

Some of Moviewallas favorites:

MISS INDIA AMERICA

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Directed by: Ravi Kapoor

Screenwriter:Ravi Kapoor and Meera Simhan

MISS INDIA AMERICA kicked off the festival and tells a story about Lily Prasad (Tiya Sirdar) who is a winner, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Fresh off her valedictorian speech, Lily intends to continue living her storybook life according to “The Plan,” her meticulously-crafted scrapbook that ropes in her less-than-willing high school boyfriend Karim (Kunal Sharma). But when Karim is caught flirting with the reigning Miss India National, Lily is livid and takes aim at the crown to win Karim back, restore “The Plan” forever, and reaffirm her endless magnificence. Lily is appalled though when she finds that the path to glory is challenged by not just a drop-dead beauty of a nemesis (played by New Girl’s Hannah Simone), but also the internal nausea of having to win despite all consequences.

This is a smart and funny movie that transcends race and tells a story which is applicable to any nerdy girl who is threatened by the thought of losing her boyfriend to a model!  Most importantly  it is a feel good tale that reminds us that we are who we are, and deep inside there is a model waiting to get out in all of us.  Sassy and clever dialogue elevates the movie that crosses somewhere between Clueless and Legally Blonde, I can’t wait to see what this talented writing team brings us next

WONDERFUL NIGHTMARE

WONDERFUL NIGHTMARE

Directed by: Hyo-jin Kang

Yeon-woo (played by Uhm Jung-Hwa, Dancing Queen, SDAFF ’12) has the complete bourgeoisie starter package. A slick new BMW. A mixed martial arts personal trainer. Rare red steaks and French wine for breakfast. And she is head legal counsel to the biggest, sleaziest company in town.

But if we know anything about Korean rom-coms, it’s that sudden shocking comas are attracted to the rich and bitchy as much as grizzly bears are attracted to salmon wearing nightgowns of honey.

An automobile accident lands Yeon-woo in heaven, but even death can’t keep her spirit down. Korean angels cut her a deal. Teleport down into the chores, credit limits, and complications of a shabby housewife for one month. Then she will be allowed to return to the glitz, glamour, and unscrupulousness of her old life.

There have been many movies that explore what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes or bodyswap  and most often these fit squarely in the comedy genre e.g. Freaky Friday, Heaven Can Wait and most recently The Change-Up.  However, there are few movies that elegantly explore the emotion that goes with waking up as somebody else with a life that isn’t yours and is everything you didn’t want.  Welcome to the WONDERFUL NIGHTMARE; this is a deep and thoughtful look at what happens when a woman who seems to have it all wakes up in a life that she truly never desired and doesn’t want to be a part of.  This is a delightful movie that will have you laughing whilst reflecting on what it means to be human and what’s really important in life.

THE BEAUTY INSIDE

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Directed by: Jong-Yeol Baek

Screenwriters:Seon-jeong Kim, Jeong-ye Park and Kyung-hee Noh

Woo-Jin wakes up every morning with a different body. At first, it was a shock. Now, years later, he’s used to looking in the mirror and discovering a stranger. With only the companionship of a supportive mother and a highly-entertained best friend, Woo-Jin’s been forced into anonymity, working as a furniture designer taking orders from online clients he never has to meet. Falling in love is of course off limits. That is, until he meets E-Soo, a furniture saleswoman who makes him never want to fall asleep again.

From there, THE BEAUTY INSIDE becomes a most unusual romance, the kind that pushes its protagonists into the ultimate tests of love: can Woo-Jin be in a relationship with somebody who doesn’t recognize him? Can E-Soo feel security from a man who starts every day as a stranger? With all the magic of a good fantasy, THE BEAUTY INSIDE has the audience seeing the romantic comedy anew, much as E-Soo and Woo-Jin treat every one of their encounters like a rediscovery.

THE BEAUTY INSIDE is one of the most unique movies that explores the true nature of who you are and how this changes if you physically don’t recognize who you are in the mirror.  Stunningly shot with elegant dialogue, this film will leave you feeling like love truly can conquer all.  The most impressive thing about the movie is it’s female lead Hyo-ju Han who effortlessly captures our hero’s heart.

IT’S ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG

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Directed by: Emily Ting

Screenwriter: Emily Ting

Josh struggles with his lucrative job in finance, his practical-minded girlfriend, and his desire to become a novelist. Ruby, content with her job designing toys, imagines what she could be doing had she pursued her love of fashion design. Both are young American expats who happen to be on the same Hong Kong street when Ruby gets lost and Josh decides to help her find her way.

Soon though, their serendipitous meeting and stroll through the city leads to the kind of expat fantasy that seems to allow for limitless possibilities – even infidelity. Together, they begin to see their desires come within reach, however stymied by impracticality and fear of the unknown.

IT’S ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG elegantly and wistfully captures what happens when a spark is ignited between two people with an ocean separating them and the questions that arise when we find ourselves in a situation that we shouldn’t be in.  The chemistry between real life couple Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg as Ruby and Josh is electric and we find ourselves rooting for this would-be couple who have more than distance to potentially contend with.  Moviewallas caught a screening of this during LA Film Festival earlier in the year but the movie was so good that we couldn’t help ourselves watching a second time.

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART

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Director: Zhangke Jia

Screen-writer: Zhangke Jia

At first, the latest from filmmaker Zhangke Jia appears deceptively simple, a step back perhaps, crude even. Why would the director of THE WORLD and STILL LIFE and most recently, the brutally unsparing Cannes winner A TOUCH OF SIN, want to make what seems a visually unkempt and thematically shallow love story. A girl in small-town China has to choose between the affections of her ambitious, pushy, city boss and her aggravatingly shy, local coworker. You wonder if the great Zhangke Jia has finally wandered into a genre – the romantic triangle – that is outside his grasp.

And then you spend the rest of the film realizing how wrong you were to doubt him in the first place. Because it is only after awhile that the ambitions of the movie become evident. And when they do, you sit back in awe. As this film jumps from the initial story set in 1999, to 2014, and then giddily to 2025! And here is why this film needs to be sought out by cinephiles, because even as the movie sprints 15 years ahead with each leap, it also literally opens up, with a widening aspect ratio. The screen widens with the passage of time!  And this was one of the most joyous surprises I witnessed in a cinema hall all year. And the widening is unqualified, as the film opens up thematically (it only lulled you at the start into thinking that this was a romantic melodrama), geographically (from rural China to Shanghai to Australia) and the scope of its reach (easily commenting on the big themes as the film progresses). The film also smartly avoids the rigors of traditional epic storytelling in which the very same characters are examined through a lifetime. Instead MOUNTAINS MIGHT DEPART concentrates, in the moment, on a specific character(s) during each time period. Yes, these characters are related, but the film has no interest in looping back to re-examine each of the original players from the first act.

The visionary filmmakers often tend to put all their cards on the table at once, aiming to dazzle you upfront, but they sometimes have a hard time sustaining that through the last act when things whimper to an end. I am more impressed by films which calculatedly build their fort and become increasingly more breathless on their way to the conclusion. MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART takes off in its last act, when it bravely somersaults into an unconventional (if not transgressive, for some) relationship between two new characters. How many filmmakers possess the bandwidth to grasp for so much.

In watching sons deal with the footprints of their fathers, and in its formal structure, this is like a smarter version of Derek Cianfrance’s THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. But no matter how you cut it, this is the work of a master.

The Riot Club | Review

Riot Club is no Downton Abbey however, it cleverly explores class, gender and economics in a modern-day England where the existence of a privileged “Old Boy’s Network” is often under-estimated.

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Filthy. Rich. Spoiled. Rotten. A band of overprivileged rich boys run wild in this savagely funny satire of money, sex and power. In the elite realm of Oxford University, no society is more exclusive than The Riot Club, the ultra-selective fraternity for Britain’s most privileged sons. When he’s recruited to join, down-to-earth first-year student Miles (Max Irons) is at first amused—but he’s about to get a taste of upper-crust entitlement at its ugliest when a hedonistic night of drinking and drugs spins out of control. The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin co-stars in this deliciously dark look at boys behaving badly from the Oscar(R)-nominated director of An Education Lone Scherfig.  The movie is adapted for the screen by Writer Laura Wade from her play of the same name citing: “I think we are fascinated by that class, those of us who aren’t of it and I think we love watching rich people behaving badly”.

When all over the world the British Monarchy are loved and the presence of them almost envied, Riot Club explores the “Haves” and “Have little” along with the politics of the one percent in a country where young affluent boys are the heirs to debauchery, power, excess and a consequence of who they are born to vs what they will or won’t achieve; where as a result of deep routed nepotism, your family name can open up a lifetime of doors and quickly bury any of your mistakes should you make them.

Entitlement and breeding are a key theme throughout the movie as it explores rich boys behaving badly and rich boys who want to do something more than be known for who their Fathers or brothers are.  Palpable tension is at work throughout as this group of would-be playboys work incredibly hard to have a good time and leave a legacy.

Riot Club starts as a smart satirical comedy but quickly gets dramatic as ideas about right and wrong are pushed to the limit.  Sometimes a little tonally inconsistent, this movie does do a good job of examining what it means to belong and the limits you go to in order to protect it.  A look at life behind the walls of an age-old institution with often strange rituals, ultimately what I took away from this movie is that there are no limits to entitlement and the fact that often it’s not what you know but who you know

Check local listings for show times

Riot Club Trailer

The Way He Looks | Review

 

Of all the genres in all of cinema, my favorite is coming-of-age films. Because when done right, they can reflect on life just about better than any other art form.

 

THE WAY HE LOOKS, Brazil's entry to the Oscars

THE WAY HE LOOKS, Brazil’s submission to the Oscars

THE WAY HE LOOKS  (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho) is Brazil’s submission to the Best Foreign Film category at the 2014 Academy Awards. By the third scene, I had decided that I had unreasonable love for this film, and from that point on, it did not once betray my judgment. Written and directed by Daniel Ribeiro, it tells the story of Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) a somewhat shy teenager. He is blind and aware of his place in school due to his disability. His parents want to protect him even as they struggle to let him be independent. Leo’s best friend since childhood has been Giovana (Tess Amorim) and the two are inseparable. In many ways he sees the world through Giovana’s eyes. One need only watch Giovana looking at Leo to know how she feels about him. Enter the unreasonably amiable new student at school, Gabriel (Fabio Audi), and Leo and Giovanna’s friendship may need to be redefined.

 

Nothing in this film is what we haven’t seen before. And yet, the film is written, acted and put together with such a matter of fact honesty and simplicity that it rises up to be one of the better films of the year. We have seen these young love triangles a hundred times before; Jules et Jim kicked off the entire French New Wave for crying out loud. But it is the assured control over this material that singularly elevates this film to something of a discovery. The refusal of the film to make a big deal about major developments is what is truly surprising, in comparison to say Blue Is The Warmest Color from last year, which carried an unbearably heavy agency to it. The Way He Looks makes its observations without fuss, without drama, and without prurience. So what if the lead character is blind. So what if he happens to fall for another guy. Without tilting into caricature, the film strikes authenticity while never submitting to melodrama. One The Way He Looks can do more good than a hundred after-school specials about tolerance.

 

MV5BMTQ5NjYxODk2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTgyNTU4MjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Who hasn’t experienced the dynamics with a friend change due to the necessary introduction of a new person. Best friends get married. They move to other cities to be with other people. They follow other professional tracks in life. In recent years Frances Ha and Bridesmaids have dealt with these situations with some degree of depth. But see how this material is handled in The Way He Looks; the respect the script grants these characters, to be contrary and complex, to be hurt and to stumble, and to grow and find their footing, is something to behold. To watch a movie capture something universal without heavy chest-beating is a minor miracle.

 

Like the best films, this one is populated by characters who are all inherently good. Which is like life; people we interact with in the real world are seldom all out evil. Films that understand this – and refuse the easy out by creating conflict through a single malevolent character – are already leagues ahead of other movies. See how this first time feature filmmaker, Daniel Ribeiro, treats even the least likeable character, that of the school bully Fabio. He constantly taunts Leo. He is cruel, yes, but not necessarily because Leo is blind. It is because Leo is an easy target, a misfit, different because of his blindness. Fabio makes fun of Leo, first alone, and then when he is with Gabriel. And at some point the film asks the audience, do you want to be Fabio? Do you want to be this insecure person who is unable to accept anyone who is different? It is strikingly mature handling of this material, when it would have been so much easier for the film to simply paint Fabio as a villain.

 

If there were justice in the world, this script would get nominated for year-end awards. Watch this film if only for its writing, particularly with sly observations about how the world deals with someone who is visually impaired. And like much of the no-fuss aesthetic that defines this movie, the film does not linger on its dialog, as exacting and truthful as it is. When Gabriel is first making friends with Leo, he off-handedly asks Leo if he ever noticed something in a particular movie. And then realizes with a start that Leo couldn’t have seen that film since he is blind. Touches like this make you realize that this is the work of a gifted storyteller.

 

Any lover of good films should make plans to watch The Way He Looks because of all the things its gets right. It gets the acute hurt that a person with disabilities feels when they are made fun of. It gets the love of parents who are protective of their child and the horror they must feel to forfeit those small parts of their child’s environment they can safeguard from harm (another masterful film Margarita, With A Straw which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year also dealt with this situation with uncommon empathy).  The film gets the hesitation, the tentative thrill-and-despair dance of acknowledging first love, just right. It gets just about everything right. Most of all, The Way He Looks is worthy of veneration for how it makes a hero out of Giovana, because it understands that best friends, real friends, will eventually sacrifice their own thumping affections for the sake of their friend’s happiness.

 

Yes, The Way He Looks may nominally just be a Brazilian teenage love triangle. But it is the best example of its kind to make the case that sometimes a truthful story told with a good heart is all it takes. The hell with CGI. The hell with histrionics. The hell with unnecessarily complicated non-linear, non-narrative mumbo-jumbo. Give me something as simple and well-intentioned and humorous and kind as The Way He Looks any day of the year. When films these days are seemingly only interested in hipster posturing and cynicism, the most provocative thing of all may be a film that rewards viewers with genuine sweetness.

 

 [THE WAY HE LOOKS is playing in San Diego at the Landmark Ken Cinemas, November 14-20]

 

 

Summer of Blood | Review

Halloween is upon us and with it comes a slew of scary movies; “Annabelle” “Dracula Untold” and “Horns” just opened or are about to.  However, if you are not a die hard fan of having your adrenaline levels peak in the dark or find that a good nights sleep escapes you after getting the bejeezus scared out of you then this may just be the movie for you.  Welcome to Summer of Blood

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Writer/director Onur Tukel turns in a hilarious performance as the monumentally lazy, socially oblivious and commitment-shy Erik Sparrow, who is dumped by his career-woman girlfriend (Anna Margaret Hollyman, White Reindeer) when he rejects her rather charitable marriage proposal. Feeling lost, he turns to a disastrous string of online dates that successively eat away at his already-deteriorating confidence until a lanky vampire turns him into an undead ladykiller. Soon, Eric is prowling the streets of Brooklyn in search of anything to satisfy both his maniacal sex drive and his hunger for blood.

Despite the fact that Eric is such a misogynist loser, Tukel shows skill in making the main protagonist incredibly likable; I couldn’t help but be on his side.  Helped by the witty dry comedy which runs through the movie both Eric and the rather ridiculous plot had me smiling and chuckling for the entire movie including a few belly laughs thrown in here and there.  The dialogue is hammy in places but mostly clever and smart and there is an interesting narrative about the lives we lead if you look for it. Anna Margaret Hollyman who plays Eric’s love interest plays her role perfectly, equally lovable and annoying all at the same time and is impressive in her ability to detest Eric so convincingly.

Summer of Blood is by no means as polished as other undead offerings like “Twilight” or “True Blood”  in fact at times at times this movie looks rather amateurish and even homemade, but that doesn’t make it bad.  I believe this hard working movie could turn into an underground cult classic in due course and I will certainly be lining up to watch this one again

Described as a horror comedy horror, this is more comedy than horror and definitely not a horrible comedy by any means.A collision of absurd, self-deprecating wit and existential curiosity, Summer of Blood is a hilarious horror-comedy with a clever bite all its own that starts with one of the best break up scenes ever right at the beginning of the movie and is definitely worth a watch

The film is releasing this Friday October 17th in select theaters and VOD.  Check local listings for a screening near you

Art and Craft | Review

This documentary begins with the quote “Nothing is original under the sun” however this definitely does not apply to the person who quotes it.  Mark Landis is an artist; a con artist for all intents and purposes and has been called one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history. His impressive body of work spans thirty years, covering a wide range of painting styles and periods that includes 15th Century icons, Picasso and even Walt Disney.

Landis makes an interesting protagonist in the movie Art and Craft, described in his youth as a “bright little boy but prone to be mischievous”, the little boy never quite leaves the screen as you are mesmerized watching this genius copying incredibly complex works of art, a talent that he discovered in his youth after visiting museums with his parents and copying from museum catalogues.  And whilst you may think that Landis may be in it for the money, this is far from the truth. Instead, Landis derives much pleasure and purpose posing as a philanthropic donor, a grieving executor of a family member’s will, and most recently as a Jesuit priest and has given away hundreds of works over the years to a staggering list of institutions across the United States.

 

 

The caper begins to unravel after he dupes Matthew Leininger, a tenacious registrar who ultimately discovers the decades-long ruse and sets out to expose his philanthropic escapades to the art world, Landis must confront his own legacy and a chorus of museum professionals clamoring for him to stop.

What is most enjoyable about the movie is the equal obsession demonstrated by both the forger and the man determined to stop him, like any good Super hero story, the latter needs his arch nemesis and quickly we realize that this movie isn’t actually about the art in question but about the mania of two men each obsessed with their own purpose.  At the end of it all though, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this incredibly talented man did his own work?

ART AND CRAFT opens at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles this Friday, September 26th 
Check local listings for a screening near you

http://artandcraftfilm.com

Out in the Night | Los Angeles Film Festival 2014

Exactly what is the responsibility of the media in reporting news? In my opinion, news should be reported factually and in an unbiased fashion. However we all know that with the advent of syndicated news channels and the need for 24-hour news cycles, it is easy for smaller stories to escalate to larger ones and others to get sensationalized and out of control. Welcome to the movie Out in the Night, a new documentary by Blair Dorosh-Walther that examines the 2006 case of The New Jersey 4.

 

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Through the lives of four young women, Out in the Night reveals how their race, gender identity and sexuality became criminalized in the mainstream news media and criminal legal system.

The documentary skillfully tells the story of a group of young friends, African American lesbians who are out, one hot August night in 2006, in the gay friendly neighborhood of New York City. They are all in their late teens and early twenties and come from a low-income neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Two of the women are the focus – gender non-conforming Renata Hill, a single mother with a soft heart and keen sense of humor, and petite femme Patreese Johnson, a shy and tender poet. As they and their friends walk under the hot neon lights of tattoo parlors in the West Village, an older man sexually and violently confronts them. He says to Patreese “let me get some of that” as he points below her waist. When she says that they are gay, the man becomes violent and threatens to “fuck them straight”. He spits and throws a lit cigarette. Renata and Venice defend the group and a fight begins, captured by security cameras nearby. The man yanks out hair from Venice’s head and chokes Renata. Then, Patreese pulls a knife from her purse and swings at him. Strangers jump in to defend the women and the fight escalates. As the fight comes to an end, all get up and walk away. But 911has been called and the man involved has been stabbed. Police swarm to the scene as their radios blast out warning of a gang attack. The women are rounded up and charged with gang assault, assault and attempted murder. Three of the women plead guilty. But Renata, Patreese, Venice and friend Terrain claim their innocence. They are called a “Gang of Killer Lesbians” by the media. In activist circles they become known as The New Jersey 4.

One can easily forgive Dorosh-Walther for giving us a somewhat one-sided narrative given few people were initially advocating for the women and even fewer people have been able to hear the story from their side, but this is an important documentary to watch. Out in the Night will anger you, sadden you and frustrate you all at the same time and so it should because Justice should be genderless, raceless and sexless and yet we are led to believe time and time again that had these women been middle class heterosexual white women, their lives may have turned out very differently.

The incredible narrative that unfolds over a period of years beginning in 2006 through to present day and in some cases through many of the years that some of the women were incarcerated  will have you glued to your seat. Beyond the injustice however, the most endearing thing about this documentary is the women front and center of the debate, Renata, Patreese, Venice and Terrain, who have very graciously opened up their lives to us.

Out in the Night Trailer

Natural Sciences | Los Angeles Film Festival 2014

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Nothing in the world is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, wrote Victor Hugo more than a hundred years ago. And so it is with the lead character in the quietly amazing Argentinian film NATURAL SCIENCES (CIENCIAS NATURALES).

 

Lila, a teenager in a boarding school at a rural mountain town has suddenly reached a juncture in life where her paramount need is to find her biological father. Her mother who works a bare, hard life on the farmland will not give her any information regarding the man. Freezing winter is fast approaching but Lila is undeterred in her pursuit. She has tried to run away from school in search of her father, once on a horse through the snow-covered hillsides, and once in a car she doesn’t know how to drive. The school Principal is perplexed, then angered by this sudden, irrational desire on the part of someone who had until then been a quiet, unremarkable student. Reasoning or discipline prove ineffective. Lila is consumed by her mission and is unstoppable. A more sympathetic faculty member, who teaches Natural Sciences at school, also tries to deter Lila. But recognizing that Lila will not relent and likely concerned for her safety, she joins Lila in her quixotic quest. With nary a clue about the man they are looking for, the two hit the road.

 

This should sound like the sort of sappy, road-trip movie that Hollywood likes to dole out with some regularity. If you are more generous, this may seem to you like one of those well-meaning, heartfelt indie films about strangers connecting through unusual circumstances. But NATURAL SCIENCES transcends those categories altogether.

 

This is an accomplished film from first-time director, Matias Lucchesi, who retains a strong, confident hold over this material at all times. Pick a scene from this film, pick any scene, and notice the rigor with which it has been constructed, how it completely bypasses familiar traps, or cliché. You can notice this on a minute by minute basis, in the precise writing, the affectless acting and direction that does not draw attention to itself. In its hard-won naturalness and rigor around all of filmmaking components, NATURAL SCIENCES draws easy comparison to the austere, stark and no less devastating Chilean movie from last year, THURSDAY TILL SUNDAY (DE JUEVES A DOMINGO).

 

The actor who plays Lila (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) necessarily carries the film on her young shoulders. And effortlessly brings it to a place of believability, capturing the sullen, untalkative affect of the teenager whose world is dominated by a singular myopic obsession. She may seem possessed by the fever of an irrational pursuit, and may not have the means to articulate it fully, but she is also inherently a good person, a person trying to discover herself as a grown human being and unable to do so without locating her roots first. And how about Paola Barrientos who plays the teacher who accompanies Liza on her search; one of the hardest things for an actor to do on screen is to transmit empathy, and Barrientos does it with a rare authenticity that never once tilts into cheap sentimentality. What great fortune for this director to have been able to recruit these two actors for his first film.

 

This is a film of quiet wonder. It tells a story that may initially seem familiar, but in how it goes about telling it, the film is note-perfect . I cannot wait to see the next project from this filmmaker.

 

NATURAL SCIENCES is the best film I saw at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. And by a wide margin.

 

[Natural Sciences is an Argentinian film currently making the festival rounds and was screened at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival.  It is awaiting distribution in the U.S. You can watch the trailer here].

 

 

2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival Finds

One of the best our city has to offer, the 2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) is here.

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Running across two weekends, the fest features an impeccably curated selection of movies that are likely to suit every taste. Whether you like mainstream cinema, or have an affinity for smaller independent films, or if you prefer documentaries, you will find all manner of gems. And that doesn’t even include the short films program, the Cinegay selection, or the special program of films from Chile that are being highlighted at this year’s SDLFF.

 

Some people give me a funny look when I mention film festivals. If the idea of seeing a movie at a film festival seems too particular, or too intellectual, or too fringe, can I please assure you that it is none of those things. You show up and buy a ticket just like you would for any other film. You are more than likely to have the filmmaker or cast members in attendance. And a Q&A session with them at the end of the screening. Where else can you get the opportunity to hear directly from the creators of a film you have just seen. In many instances, this may be the only opportunity to watch the film because it may not get subsequent distribution. Also if you tell yourself that none of the films will be of interest to you since you are not latino, then you will be dead wrong. Three of the films screening here are already on my list of the best of any films I have seen so far this year.

 

Below are some of the films that are playing at this year’s festival. It is only when I listed together here that I realized that all of them are strangely, in one way or another, about brothers and sisters.

 

MV5BMjA0NTI2Nzk2N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDEyODExMTE@._V1_SY317_CR12,0,214,317_SOMBRAS DE AZUL (Shades of Blue, Mexico): A young girl shows up in Havana for the first time, and settles down to spend a few days in the city. As she starts to roam the Cuban sights, you realize from her mental conversations (directed to a lover? father? friend?) that she has run away from her past life. She frequents the city attractions, spends time with another resident at the lodging house she is staying at, and finds herself surprised at developing a friendship with a local man who she first met when he tried to steal her camera. Part travelogue, part confessional, and altogether authentic, the experience of a person in a strange new land amounts to a film of unexpected depth. This is assured, confident filmmaking, characterized by remarkable acting. An example of how the honest and truthful telling of a personal story is  all it takes for a movie to hum with universal truths. What a remarkable achievement this quietly devastating film is.

 

Unknown-31STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS (USA): This film is another stellar example of an immersion in the lives of a few individuals that results in a greater understanding of what it means to be human. Mariana is a single parent who makes a living cleaning homes. At the end of each school day, her daughter is entrusted with bringing her autistic younger brother Ricky back home. One day, Ricky wanders off after school and doesn’t return home. How does a parent deal with the nightmare of a lost child, as hours slip into days? How is a mother to forgive her daughter for the consequences of her carelessness? How is a severely autistic child to come home when he isn’t wired to be able to do so? Who can you truly rely on in a difficult time, particularly if you are stationed close to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder? Austere, stark, and almost documentary-like in its quiet observations, this film demonstrates that the best cinema places you squarely in the shoes of someone else and lets you feel that person’s existence. And by doing so, moves you to contemplate your own place in the world. It absolutely breaks my heart that a film as unquestionably brilliant as this one will not get a hundredth of the exposure that it deserves. At the film’s conclusion, the audience I saw it with leapt into applause. I couldn’t join them because I was too choked up to respond. This film is the reason we bother to watch movies at all.

 

Unknown-32LES ANALFABETAS (The Illiterates, Chile): This film is a character study of the kind of person we seldom see films pivot around: an irritable, impatient, prickly, and proud individual. The kind of person who has decided that they will not (can not?) play by the rules of society. The kind who is deeply, resolutely set in their ways. And then consider the plot: an illiterate individual learns how to write. This could have been the sort of soggy, insufferable dredge that this premise might dictate, but the movie completely bypasses that trap. After her sublime turn in GLORIA, here is Paulina Garcia again in a completely different incarnation, shorn of all vanity and playing an individual that is instantly recognizable. The film also has the good sense to not provide every answer, leaving it up to the audience to contemplate the reasoning behind certain actions in the film. A movie will stay with you longer if you are left with just enough ponderables to keep you wondering.

 

Unknown-33HELI (Mexico): This film nabbed the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. And I can see why: it creates some of the best sense of foreboding that I have seen in a movie in some time. It is that feeling that something truly awful is going to happen any moment – that is sustained through much of the narrative. This film will resonate with those who admire darkly bitter, deeply violent films. From the very first scene that elicited a gasp from the audience in the screening I attended, this film is unrelenting in its single-minded pursuit of exploring the worst in human behavior. Set in a deeply rural Mexico where government and lawlessness coexist as one, the film revolves around a family whose lives implode when the teenaged daughter has the misfortune of falling for a young army cadet who tries to get away with a stolen batch of cocaine from his superiors. Pulpy and gonzo, the film may not be for everyone, but there is no denying the high voltage charge it carries.

 

Unknown-34LEVANTAMUERTOS (Death Strokes, Mexico):  This films clocks a few days in the life of a man who works in the coroner’s office. Frequently dispatched to take care of bodies of the recently deceased, things get into a tailspin when he is forced to use many of his vocational skills to conceal a death that has occurred at this hands. Like HELI, this film carries a foreboding air that is heightened by a morbid tone and dark humor. Set amongst the inhabitants of a small town in Mexico that is cooking under the relentlessly brutal summer heat that almost justifies the extreme actions of many of its characters. Had this film been able to build on the rich characters and setting, it would have been a great Lynchian outing. But even though it diffuses in the last act, it makes for a good ride to the dark side.

 

Unknown-36MY SISTER’S QUINCEANERA (USA): A latino family in a small American town is the focus of this film which observed them in the week leading up to the quinceanera of the oldest daughter. What is refreshing about this film is that everyone in is inherently decent; there are no bad characters here. The younger sister feels a little left out since her turn for a quinceanera is yet to come. Her older brother hangs out with his best friend and is trying to hold off the onset of adulthood and responsibility as much as possible. This is one of the better depictions on film that I have seen of the struggle to decide whether to stay in the same small town one has grown up in versus getting away from home for college.  The film has a wonderful, gentle understatedness about it; there is nothing overly dramatized or shrill in the movie. Also there is a naturalness about the actors, maybe because many of them are related in real life. This is a quiet gem of a film.

 

 

Stranger By The Lake | Review

The French film STRANGER BY THE LAKE (L’INCONNU DU LAC) examines the extremes of blinding desire.

 

Here is another film to file under ‘this too is what cinema can be’.  It is an oddity of a film that will alienate some viewers and confound others, but there is no denying that there just hasn’t been another movie like this. Its creates its own unique category, and how often can you say that about cinema these days? And that category would be films that are channeling Hitchcock, are rigidly naturalistic in their aesthetic, and feature copious nudity.

 

Unknown-30The film is set entirely in and around a stretch of sandy beach by a lake in rural France that is popular amongst gay men. The thirty something Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps) is spending his summer days by the water, slowly building a friendship with the middle-aged Henri while developing a serious attraction for Michel, a man that everyone seems to be lusting after. One evening by the lake, Frank witnesses what appears to be a murder at the hands of no other than Michel. The film tracks the events that unfold after that. And you slowly realize that the movie title may have a second meaning; the goings-on indeed get stranger by the lake.  And what we have is a sort of reversed parallax to Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, in which James Stewart becomes obsessed with a murder he suspects may have occurred. In STRANGER BY THE LAKE, Frank resolutely refuses to act on the murder he know has occurred.

 

Lets get the obvious out of the way. Yes, this film features more skin than what the typical filmgoer is accustomed to. Think of it as the male equivalent of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, the other Cannes film from last year that got a lot of ink by virtue of its unwaveringly explicit sex scenes between the two female leads.  Well, STRANGER BY THE LAKE does its part for gender equality with its male characters. The two films are vastly different in tone, scope, and aesthetic, but in a way both movies reflect on the consequences of an unfathomed attraction that is absolute in the destruction it wreaks.

 

The defining aspect of STRANGER BY THE LAKE is its naturalistic construct. The film appears to have been shot using only natural light. Also the filming rigidly eschews obvious camera movements; most scenes play out with a patiently stationary camera. Note the single take of more than five minutes during which the said murder (involving the drowning of a man at the lake) occurs; it is a marvel of lighting, choreography and pacing. The naturalistic vibe extends to the dialog which save for the very last act has a calm, studiedly casual cadence. The conversations between Frank and Henri are so authentic in their hazy, lilted rhythms that it makes you wish the film had been only a study of these two characters. Most commendable of all is the extension of the naturalism to the physical acts on screen; all of the sexual content miraculously bypasses the prurient and is presented with a shrugged matter of factness. If you are uncomfortable with its frankness, the shame rests with the viewer because the film disavows it.

 

The power of the film comes from its ability to render believable a protagonist so drawn to the object of his desire that he overlooks the fact that this man is a murderer. Does Frank truly doubt what he saw? And then use that doubt as an excuse to not report the crime. And to even actively contribute to protecting the murderer. We hear all the time about rational people who willingly partner with criminals to abet in murder. We know of women who write love letters to imprisoned criminals. We read about the kidnapped who eventually help their kidnappers on their spree of crime. The irony with the Frank character in THE STRANGER BY THE LAKE is that he is suffering from Stockholm syndrome even though he is not physically captive. However his attraction to Michel is so strong, so consuming, that he might as well be literally imprisoned by Michel. To the film’s credit it makes it obvious that there isn’t anything mentally disturbed about Frank. Frank is not delusional; he is doing what he does because he sees no other option. Few films explore the pathology of a person who walks with eyes open into a potentially fatal situation – by virtue of a desire so blindingly absolute that reason cannot permeate through it.

 

This is a fascinating concept, and the reason for the very dark places the film gets to in its final act. But even then, the last act of the movie plays out in such a tangent to the gentle natural rhythms of the earlier part, that it becomes an altogether other film. Which is a shame because the film up until that time had been one of uncharacteristically sharp character observations. Even then, STRANGER BY THE LAKE is such a strange brew, such an untasted concoction, that most film lovers will not be able to resist it. And they should not.

 

STRANGER BY THE LAKE screens March 14-20 at the Landmark Hillcrest cinemas in San Diego. 

Le Week-End | Review

Having just returned from a vacation in the city of lights, I was both excited and delighted to watch the latest offering from Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on Hudson) and writer Hanif Kureishi (My beautiful Launderette, The Buddha of Surburbia) Le Week-End starring the inimitable Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and Jeff Goldblum. 

Broadbent and Duncan play a long-married couple Nick and Meg who revisit Paris for a long weekend for the first time since their honeymoon, in hopes of rekindling their relationship-or, perhaps, to bring it to an end.  Nick is reticent and wistful whilst Meg is demanding and take-charge.

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The movie excels at showing the couple flip-flop between harmony and disharmony to resignation and back again as they take stock and grapple with love, loss, regret and disappointment in their own very English way.  Tensions rise even further when Meg and Nick run into Nick’s insufferably successful old friend Morgan, an American academic superstar with a fancy Parisian address played by the delightful Jeff Goldblum.

The one thing that elevates this movie is watching veterans of the craft mastering subtle yet impactful acting.  I very much felt like a fly on the wall following Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan playing a couple who have clearly had many decades together.  Their incredible chemistry even when they are fighting is mesmerizing to watch and I couldn’t decide whether I was routing for them to stay together or willing them to break apart.  Just at the point when you begin to feel a little more uncomfortable about being present during this couple’s unraveling, Jeff Goldblum brings some respite in the form of comedy.  His quirky yet intriguing character is just what we need as we need as we head into act three

Hanif Kureishi’s wonderfully poetic screenplay is admirable to watch.  Filled with witty dialogue and heartfelt conversation, this adds a layer of richness to this already beautifully performed movie

Overall, I enjoyed my weekend with this couple although I felt the movie was just shy of greatness.  Higher highs and lower lows would have made elevated this movie from very good to excellent.

Le Week-End will be will be opening on Friday 14 March at The Landmark in West L.A. and Angelika NY, Lincoln Plaza in New York.  Check local listings

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