August 1, 2014
I’ve been a fan of Vincent Moon since 2010, however, I had never heard about him until last week. Before then, I had spent countless hours watching La Blogothèque videos and other films directed by Moon but never paid attention to his name. I became aware of this videos by just searching for music that I like, which I often play it in the background, but there was something so unique about the videos from La Blogothèque. They are filled with a humanity that is usually absent from music videos, the type of incredible connection you can have to a musician during a live concert. These videos were also adventurous, often featuring some kind of action in the streets that just seemed very exciting and spontaneous. It was only until I listened to Moon talk about his artistic philosophy and filming style at an event hosted by the Indie Film Club last week that I understood how someone can encapsulate so much humanity into a very small video.
Last Thursday, July 24, I attended a retrospective on Moon’s work (read our preview interviews here). It sounded half bombastic to me: attending a retrospective for a guy who’s not 35 yet and has not released commercial work under the auspices of a big production house. Nonetheless, I was intrigued because of my own personal connection to the music that is in most of his work. The setting was The Screening Room, a small gallery in Wynwood, an unassuming room filled with fold out chairs and dozens of aspiring filmmakers.
The talk started as a friendly Q&A led by Diliana Alexander, Indie Film Club’s executive director, who admitted to the audience, “I’ve been trying to bring Vincent to Miami for years.” And there he was in front of an eager, capacity audience. He described his philosophy of making films as an artist would. He creates content that is free of charge and uploads it to Vimeo, YouTube or his own website for everyone to enjoy. His budgets are non-existent. “I believe it keeps things pure,” he said in a heavy French accent (he grew up in Paris, but has no specific home since about 2008). Indeed, the artist approaches each project from a human perspective, his goal, he described, is to make people look beautiful and showcase beauty through what they do: music. But much to my surprise he sees music as an expression of community and culture. He looks at musicians as generators of culture or providers of meaning as a cultural expression.
Moon quickly took over the conversation and often interrupted the discussion to share some of his favorite videos. In all of the highlights he shared, he described them as an experience that could not be replicated. Someone in the audience asked him about preparation ahead of each shoot. He said he travels around the world and meets with different musicians and people whom he records, but there’s no direction. When asked about research, he scoffed, paused and said that he traveled to each location without preconceived ideas. That’s when I understood the marvel behind the videos because you are experiencing with him something unique through his camera lens. One of my favorite videos he shared that night is the following. It took place in Argentina and you can see how it captures a moment in time that is quite special. The background sounds add an atmospheric layer that cannot be replicated– Moon mentioned it was firecrackers among other sounds that you can hear in the background adding an almost surreal percussive accompaniment.
As the night went on, a lot of the filmmakers wanted to know how he survives financially or how the artists themselves benefit, as his work is freely available to anyone for download. He was a little puzzled by the questions, just as puzzled as the audience about his disregard for “making it big.” He picks places based on a feeling and admits that his worry is the opposite. His concern is how big budgets actually take away something from his work. He relishes the freedom and challenge of working with minimal resources because limitations spark his own creativity.
I am only thankful to Indie Film Club for creating a space where directors like him can be featured at Miami venues. I leave you with my favorite videos (part I and II) from the Take Away shows. Shot in Colombia, featuring Bomba Estereo. I love how the music blends with the landscape…
It takes a courageous sense of perspective for a filmmaker to get to the place necessary to make a review-proof documentary, and director Steve James deserves all the praise he has so far received for Life Itself. James burst onto the documentary scene in 1994 with Hoop Dreams, a film that has stood up so well 20 years later because the director showed a clear understanding of staying true to his subject no matter how distressing the picture became. With Life Itself, James turns his lens on film critic Roger Ebert during his final days.
A well-known seeker of humanity in cinema, Ebert comes across as the ideal subject for James, ready to open himself up to the film with as much honesty as he can humanly muster. It helps that Ebert’s trust for James began with Hoop Dreams. After all, the Chicago Sun-Times film critic championed the film when it first came out, giving it a four-out-of-four-star rating. To Ebert, a four-star film had to transcend the screen as something more than escapism. He opened his review with a typically bold statement for a movie bestowed with a perfect rating: “A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”
James has now given Ebert the ultimate payback. The filmmaker employs his perceptive lens to document the writer’s life and the aftermath of his death with an empathy that is both a tribute to Ebert and a gift to those who will see this film. It opens with a snippet of a speech Ebert gave during the dedication ceremony of his sidewalk “medallion” in front of the historic Chicago Theatre. “For me,” he says, “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” James has certainly taken this to heart, as he seeks out the person that was Ebert over any sense of grandiose legend.
If there is any doubt of that, James gives us an unflinching scene while Ebert was hospitalized. A nurse uses a gastronomy tube to suction out Ebert’s throat (cancer left the writer without most of his jaw and robbed him of the ability to drink, eat and speak). In a brief but uninterrupted take, Ebert squints and shudders, his lower lip swaying without muscle or bone support. The sound of liquid rushing through the tube mixes with Ebert gasping for air. It’s quick but clearly painful and after the nurse removes the tube, our man slumps over exhausted but gives the nurse a thumbs up. Later that day, Ebert sends James an e-mail that reads, “I’m happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees: Suction.”
Ebert understood the role pain plays in appreciating life, so of course he would find a not-so-subtle way to encourage James to include the scene (Ebert is also the guy who wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valey of the Dolls, after all, so he also appreciated anything in-your-face or maybe over-the-top). In a way, James grants Ebert input in a gesture that acknowledges that this film critic knows the value of dramatic dynamism in telling a story. A film that’s supposed to cover a life in less than two hours needs resonant moments like these that may disturb to inform the lighter, more banal moments.
Throughout Life Itself James captures many sides of Ebert. He was a cocky young reporter, but he also knew how to empathize with his subjects at an early age. James does not gloss over the younger Ebert’s penchant for drinking and whoring but gives equal time to his decision to join AA and settle down with Chaz Ebert. His widow also comes clean for the first time that she too was in AA, and that was where she met her husband. It’s a gesture that shows how deep she loved Ebert; she understands presenting her vulnerability stands as testament to the love of her life. She now carries on that affection by managing his website, which continues to put out exemplary film criticism in the spirit of Ebert.
Of course much of the Life Itself spends time on his television work with fellow Chicago film critic and beloved nemesis Gene Siskel. James captures a rivalry full of humor and pathos that grows into a profound affection for the other. But Life Itself stands as something so much more than a movie about a movie critic. Though James spends time going into what drove Ebert’s aesthetic principles as a film critic, featuring insights from the likes of A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum, this is a film less concerned with film criticism than it is humanity. Even these critics toss off observations about Ebert’s style on a personal level, as if Ebert’s writing was an extension of his persona. That’s the power of having a distinctive voice, that an essence of the author can exist in his words. For that, despite his suffering, Ebert is fortunate to have found a bit of immortality that will continue to touch readers, and Life Itself is a worthy cinematic totem to not only Ebert but the Ebert sensibility that lives on in much of film criticism.
Life Itself runs 118 minutes and is rated R (language and images of R-rated movies and stills). It opens in South Florida on July 11 at O Cinema Wynwood, Miami Beach Cinematheque, The Bill Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood, Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale. On July 18 it opens at O Cinema Miami Shores (which happens to be Roger Ebert day in Chicago). It has theatrical opening dates scheduled through October. Visit the film’s official website for details. Magnolia Pictures provided us with a preview screener for the purpose of this review.
Update: O Cinema has finalized a critics panel preceding Saturday’s 2 p.m. screening. Meet some of South Florida’s film critics (in order of how well I know them, from seeing almost daily to never having met). It starts at 1 p.m., and it’s free (you will have to pay for the film):
Miami SunPost’s Rubén Rosario (miamisunpost.com)
Miami New Times Cultist contributor Juan Barquin(dimthehouselights.com)
Reuben Pereira (filmfrontier.wordpress.com)
Kai Sacco (kaisaccofilm.tumblr.com)
Billy Donnelly (thisisinfamous.com)
Andres Solar (hudakonhollywood.com)
Marc Ferman (keepitclassic.com).
July 4, 2014
Sometime past the halfway point of Begin Again, ex-record executive and occasional drunk Dan (Mark Ruffalo) tells his new discovery, the British singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley), something that could very well be the driving force behind director John Carney’s aesthetic. “Music turns everyday banalities into these transcendent pearls of wisdom.” In both this new film and his highly regarded 2006 movie, Once, Carney, a musician himself, leans so heavy on music for narrative, song lyrics mark moments of transformation in his characters’ lives that transcend exposition.
With Once, Carney brought together a self-conscious yet sincere Irish guitarist (Glen Hansard) and an animated yet awkward Czech pianist (Markéta Irglová). Though they get to know each other in conversation, they actually seem to fall in love through song. The film collected one of the better-earned Oscars for original song in many years because the ballad “Falling Slowly” was, unlike most original song nominees, so much more than accompaniment to an end credits sequence or a musical interlude in the film’s action. It resonated through the film on a narrative level while transcending the traditional narrative of a film. Carney granted the songs in Once, which were written by the movie’s leads, space to move the narrative by allowing them to unfold from the musicians for long sequences, like the equivalent of musical numbers. Once stands as one of the most subtle musicals of the post-musical era.
Eight years later, Carney returns with a film built on a similar formula, this time in New York City and presenting two different stories of love, one of loss and another of redemption, which unfold against a slight critique of the music business. It’s not Once, which was set in Dublin and focused solely on the couple, but it still has elements that will charm many fans of Carney’s previous film. Despite a polish far removed from the low-budget intimacy of Once, at its core, Begin Again maintains the essential formula that made the former film beguiling. Many of the film’s turning points happen via song lyrics. Upon first-listen, Gretta’s music gives Dan renewed hope for his role in the music industry. Gretta also learns of the infidelity of her boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Adam Levine) a few seconds into hearing a new song he has just recorded.
As much as the film is about this young creative couple in turmoil, Begin Again spends equal time following Dan, a divorcé who has lost faith in contemporary music (an early scene of him talking back to demo CDs and throwing them out his car window is hilarious in its take-down of pop music tropes). More emotionally crippling, however, is how little faith he has in becoming the father his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) needs. The gap between his ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) has entered a place of ambivalent malaise, as the parents have resigned themselves to making a go of a sense of family for the sake of Violet, even though the father moved out of the house long ago. Gretta becomes less a love interest for Dan than a comrade in disheartened arms. She also has her own sense of cynicism about the world of music, as she has no interest in sharing her autobiographical songs outside of her former collaboration with Dave, who seems on his merry way to pop stardom without her. However, Dan and Gretta share a similar passion for music that will prove hard to keep them from working together.
It’s an easy relationship to buy, as within the film’s first few minutes, both the director’s and actors’ affection for these characters shines through, making the movie an easy film to ride along with and fall for, scene after scene. At the start of Begin Again, the morose, freshly-heartbroken Gretta hesitantly takes the stage at an open-mic night at the coaxing of a less shameful musician friend Steve (James Corden who frequently lightens the film’s mood as perky comic relief). She sings a song that not so subtly alludes to suicide by subway while most the bar’s patrons talk over it. Dan, however, seems captivated, and when the song, entitled “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” arrives at its quiet end, he’s the only one applauding. Just why is revealed in drawn-out flashback sequences, as we learn of both Gretta and Dan’s personal baggage leading up to their meeting in separate sequences. Though these Groundhog Day-like narrative turns might sound gimmicky, it works to keep the film’s sprightly pace and speaks to how important experiences are to the enchantments of a song that comes along at the right time. Though the song is a dreary affair, Dan is ripe to receive it after a rough day where he forgets Violet’s age, gets beat up in front of her for running out on a bar tab and is fired from his record label by his former business partner Saul (a slick and elegant Mos Def). By the time he arrives at the open-mic performance, Dan is primed to get lost in Gretta’s downer of a ditty. Despite the fact that she is only up there lightly strumming an acoustic guitar, he can hear and— in what may be too precious a fantastical representation— actually see an invisible arrangement, as instruments start playing themselves behind her spare picking and silky voice. Dan eventually convinces her to make a record with him, outdoors with the ambient din of New York City as just another element of her songs. Several songs unfold over the course of the film that show Gretta growing as a confident bachelorette while finding her voice. Meanwhile, Dan regains his personal confidence in both the industry and as a father and provider.
If there’s one thing lacking in Begin Again it lies in the strength of the songs, this time written by pop music songwriter Gregg Alexander, former frontman of the New Radicals and writer of hits for the likes of musicians from Santana to Boyzone. Outside of the film’s narrative context, Alexander’s songs come across as a tad saccharine and lyrically heavy-handed. That they work within the film, however, stands as testament to Carney’s filmmaking talent. There’s heart and humor between the film’s two leads, and the dialogue never feels forced. That their relationship never becomes romantic reveals a strength of their devotion to their music project, and the importance of their own private pasts, once again consistent to the dimension of the presence of baggage and experience that informs the music.
Though Carney is working with recognizable actors and high-profile musicians (including a scene-stealing CeeLo Green) celebrity never overshadows the film’s essential allure. Levine’s character never has to do much to be the unlikable louse who breaks his partner’s heart. After their breakup, he grows facial hair, from awkward mustache to full-on bushy beard. As he grows both more obnoxious and distant, the facial hair becomes a grander barrier. Knightley, who also does her own singing, infuses Gretta with a natural, fragile charisma that never betrays the character’s strength as a confident musician.
The director juggles the characters well for the duration of the film, and the complexity of multiple storylines merging never throws the drama off balance. As befitting the abstraction of music as narrative element, Carney prefers working in montage to move the film’s action along. There must be about 10 montage sequences in the entire movie. Even without musical accompaniment, the film’s editing features cuts pregnant with action left off-screen but still resonant in the characters’ growth and behavior, as if every second of character development matters, even the moments off-screen. As in Once, Carney employs handheld camera that never feels jarring. It brings an earthy quality to the film that brings the audience closer to the characters. In the end, it’s all about intimacy and nothing captures it better than shared musical experiences, even if the songs can sometimes sound silly.
Begin Again runs 104 minutes and is rated R (for swearing). It opened in South Florida on Wednesday, July 2, at the following theaters:
For screening information in other cities, visit the following link. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.
Snowpiercer is an enthralling, fast-moving sci-fi action film about a post-apocalyptic world where the few survivors of a frozen planet earth are the occupants of a train. The film starts off in 2031, a failed attempt at curbing rampant global warming is depicted by distant rockets streaking across clear blue skies, the voice of an unseen news anchor providing the background and an ominous symphonic score. Seventeen years later, all that is left of humanity are those who have boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that loops the globe once a year, without stopping thanks to a supposedly brilliant breakthrough in engineering called “the eternal engine.”
The entirety of the film’s action takes place within the train, a long, narrow series of cars, defined by a hellish class system, that gives off a feeling of oppressive, almost claustrophobic confinement, on more than one level. The action starts at the back of the train, where we meet Curtis,(Chris Evans) the reluctant hero with side-kick Edgar (Jamie Bell) as they strategize their escape from the back wagon. Under the counsel of wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and Edgar plot to take over the train and undo 17 years of injustice. The mammoth task soon seems insurmountable as we meet an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton playing Mason, the enforcer of control, keeper of the order and representative of Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s inventor/conductor and its de facto ruler, whose sole concern is balance and order inside the moving train. Serving as spokesperson for Wilford, Mason talks at people in the back of the train— and therefore at the bottom of the social ladder— in a forceful tone, reminding them constantly to “keep their place.”
The rule-of-law inside the train, constantly moving at high speeds and bursting through errant snow drifts, makes use of not only heavy force but also information control. Mason is the best example of this mind control, as she exacerbates every statement with a heavy assertion of “… and so it is” with a ritualistic hand gesture. Beyond coercion and the train itself, power also emanates from the hegemonic Wilford through information and thought control. As Curtis and company move up towards the front of the train, they encounter an elementary school-level class of children in session. There, a teacher (Alison Pill) indoctrinates children on the life and many feats of their train conductor Wilford, and the laughable idea that things might be different by setting foot outside the train.
The visual narrative of Snowpiercer is clearly inspired by graphic novels. The stunning quality of the fast-moving shots in many of the fight scenes feels like an extraordinary page-turner. There is an extended scene once the revolutionaries reach the “water” wagon. Here, the establishment gains the upper hand as the train enters a tunnel and lights go off. The frames, and the action within them, move so fast you’re almost afraid of blinking.
Besides these fast scenes, there are some serene moments that focus on the emotional state of its characters, a prime example is when one of the windows of the train breaks and a single snowflake drifts into the scene stopping door-cracking expert Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo) in his tracks. It is no surprise then, that South Korean director Joon-Ho Bong has said he was inspired by the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. The aesthetics will please sci-fan fans as much as art house cinephiles. While the film is dark and crowded in the beginning, as our heroes move up to the front of the train they encounter light and what privilege looks like — a lot better in terms of creature comforts but also increasingly more bizarre with every door that they open.
Lest you think Snowpiercer is just another sci-fi, good-time film, there is an enduring quality to it. Its underlying environmental message points to the hubris of human control of its environment. Once you have living, breathing organisms, an ecosystem soon follows. Control of the environment necessarily goes together with coercion and in extreme cases — such as the self-contained train— there is also a political system that is hierarchical, the mantra of Wilford: “Everything in its place.” People, animals, everything is ordained. A rigid class system was developed and enforced via the compartments in the train, which inevitably led to authoritarianism.
The articulation of injustice done to humans and the environment is not subtle but is far more thoughtful than many of the action flicks produced by Hollywood every summer. Director Joon-ho Bong’s depiction of the class system and its ties to political and environmental factors is reminiscent of Robert Reich’s critique of the current American system of inequality. Indeed, this film redeems the best qualities of sci-fi: the ability of entertaining while depicting a satiric, exaggerated picture of the ills of the current times.
Snowpiercer runs 126 minutes and is rated R (expect some disturbing scenes of violence). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which is hosting a retrospective of Joon-ho Bong’s films throughout the month of July (see their calendar for details). For nationwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).
June 30, 2014
It has been almost two years since Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry hit theaters (read my review). For a comprehensive film on the Chinese dissident artist who was so open to expressing himself both artistically and personally there was one part in the film that felt chillingly obscured. During the two-year shoot, he was taken by police and put in jail. No one heard a word from him, not even his family, for 81 days. Then he reappeared but refused to answer questions from the filmmakers, supporters or journalists wanting to know more about his charges or what happened in prison.
Here comes Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case to fill in the gap. In some ways it feels like a sequel to its predecessor. It opens with that scene of his night-time return home and the waiting foreign media lobbing questions at him, but all he can say is, “I cannot talk about it.” Also, the style of Danish director Andreas Johnsen is so similar to American director Alison Klayman, I had to check whether he was involved in the former film in some capacity. He was not. Even his style of editing is similar: lots of quiet establishing shots of Ai’s home or his cats doing their thing before cuts of casual vérité distance featuring Ai talking to someone and looking directly in the camera.
However, The Fake Case was shot over a shorter period of time and is clearly more focused on this “Fake Case” against Ai: tax evasion (as an American friend of Ai explains, the film’s title is apt because the Chinese do not pay taxes). In some ways, the narrow focus of subject and time frame of shooting works to the film’s detriment because it doesn’t have the getting-to-know-Ai sentiment of the earlier film. Whereas Never Sorry captured a dynamic growth in the artist’s role as an activist, Ai is more fully formed in this film but less dynamic. Still, he is no less insightful, as he is prone to explain his desire to express himself despite the autocratic regime’s attempt to undermine his efforts at every turn. “If I don’t act now, I believe, then I’m dead already,” he says about possible death threats.
Much of Klayman’s observations may feel redundant to those who have seen Never Sorry. As in the previous film, Klayman captures the anonymous affection for Ai from the Chinese public, which arrives in paper planes made of money thrown over the wall of his home. There is even a confrontation with police by Ai, angered when a photographer shows up at his home with scratch marks. His family once again appears, and the audience is reminded of his father’s persecution as a poet in China.
Though those who were introduced to Ai via Never Sorry probably should not expect newer insight into the artist, The Fake Case offers a more comprehensive look into his legal difficulties while he creates a new piece literally illustrating scenes of his captivity in the form of large diorama in black boxes (the poster art above is an example of one). It is ironic that his popularity insulates him from further persecution, as the Chinese prosecution, despite intimidation tactics that scare off virtually all Ai’s lawyers, figures its best strategy is to not to call further attention to the artist. Still, the police keep tabs and passive aggression is wielded menacingly above Ai. Still, even though the film ends rather open-endedly, Ai never seems to lose hope. He says of China, “One day it will completely collapse. When, I’m trying to figure out.”
Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case runs 86 min., is in English and Mandarin with English subtitles and is not rated (expletives and nudity in art). It is currently playing my area, South Florida at O Cinema and Boca Raton’s Living Room Theatres until July 3. If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.
Ida, the new film by Pawel Pawlikowski, already stands as a favorite film of 2014 for this writer. I’ve seen it about three times already. It’s a beautifully shot film that more impressively harbors a multi-layered story featuring outstanding performances. My relationship with the film began when the director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival asked me to introduce it during the festival, earlier this year.
A couple of months later I wrote my review. Reverse Shot, a film blog/magazine co-founded by Michael Koresky, a critic whose name I grew familiar with from reading Film Comment and who now holds one of the best jobs any cinephile could desire: staff writer at the greatest home video company ever: The Criterion Collection. After sharing my Blue Is the Warmest Color review with him and receiving some positive feedback, I pitched him a review of Ida for Reverse Shot. He accepted and warned me it would be an intense editing session, and he did not disappoint. The last time someone edited my work with such vigor was when I wrote feature stories for the Miami New Times before the Internet age. It was challenging but refreshing. Above all, I think readers of this blog will still recognize my voice in the final review. Read it by jumping through the headline and by-line below:
Now Ida finally arrives in South Florida for a theatrical run. Particularly notable is the fact that it will be screened in that now dying, classic format, 35mm. The Coral Gables Art Cinema is the only movie house of the many theaters in South Florida that will present the rare print. All details about South Florida screenings can be found below. A shout-out to MJFF director Igor Shteyrenberg and Michael for inviting me to explore this movie with a depth I seldom have the luxury to experience, and I still love it. Take that as testament to the strength of this film.
Ida runs 80 minutes, is in Polish with English subtitles and is rated PG-13 (there are scenes of nudity and references to violence). It opens in South Florida this Friday, June 20, at the following venues:
(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)