TSM_1Sheet_Final-260x385Miami has a bit of a local hero in the indie film world. Kenny Riches wrote, produced and directed The Strongest Man, a film he shot in Miami with a local artist (and casual BMX stunt rider) in the lead role. The film went on to have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival before coming back to Miami for a couple of packed screenings at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival and signing a distribution deal with FilmBuff (though the film has yet to appear on the site).

The film follows a character simply named Beef (Robert “Meatball” Lorie) who has his gold BMX stolen, and heads off into the mean streets of Miami to find it. On his way he struggles with other searches that involve friendship, love and his spirit animal: a chicken. The film has a unique view of Miami, something Riches tuned into when he moved here a little over three years ago from Salt Lake City. I’ve gotten to know Riches personally, so it’s weird and feels like a conflict of interest to review his film. I have interviewed him twice for the Miami New Times, however. The latest Q&A appears today on the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog. We talk about the reaction to his film at the festivals and more. Read it by jumping through the blog’s logo below:

NT Arts

We also talked about a curious quirk in his work, a humanoid figment of Beef’s imagination made up of dead palm fronds and glowing red eyes. I asked Riches about the similarity of this creature and the “ghost” in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 movie Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a personal favorite of this writer (Film Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). Riches admitted that I wasn’t the first to make the comparison, but he has yet to watch the film.

Here’s a film still from Uncle Boonmee:

PR still from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

And this is the creature from The Strongest Man posing for a photo with actor Patrick Fugit, who plays a meditation guru with a German accent who guides Beef to his discovery of his spirit animal in Riches’ film:

Patrick Fugit on the set of Strongest Man

During two interviews with Riches (here is the first, also from The Miami New Times: Miami Filmmaker Kenny Riches on His Selection to Sundance), I checked whether Riches had caught up with Weerasethakul’s film, but he admitted he hadn’t. During our second chat, he offered details behind the inspiration of this lumpy creature with glowing red eyes that haunts Beef throughout the film. It’s actually grounded in a personal late-night experience he had in Miami.

“Just driving around Miami, you see those piles of dead palm fronds,” he says. “They’re just lying by the side of the road waiting to be picked up, and the leaves turn black. One night in particular, I was driving home with Cara [Despain, the film’s art director] from our art studio, and there was one of those leaves — a huge one — hanging on a pole somewhere. We stopped at the light, and we didn’t know what it was as we were pulling up to it. It was just this kind of looming figure. It was really scary because we couldn’t really tell at all what it was until we got close.”

It was the vision Riches needed to plant the seed of this creature in his imagination. “I started talking about how it would be cool to have something signifying Beef’s anxiety, something that can represent a physical manifestation of it, and just picking up one of those palm fronds, you hear the rustling of it.”

The eyes came from the after-hours flashing red lights of traffic signals that many who go out late at night in Miami might be familiar with. “It started because of the blinking red streetlights in downtown,” says Riches. “We don’t have that in Salt Lake City. The lights are just always normal. They don’t switch over late at night instead of flashing yellow and flashing red lights.”

Hans Morgenstern

The Strongest Man will have a week-long theatrical run at O Cinema Miami Shores, beginning this Friday, June 26. It is also opening in limited release in Tampa, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. In Miami, Riches will host a filmmaker workshop at FilmGate Interactive, on July 10, to talk about his Sundance experience (details and ticket info here). All images are courtesy of Kenny Riches. Except the still from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (courtesy Strand Releasing).

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

cartaz-tabu-lightPortuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes heralds the new year of cinema with a bold film approaching masterpiece greatness. Shot entirely in black and white and featuring mostly silent action dominated by voice-over narration, Tabu also features an unclassifiable narrative structure. Though romance is at heart of this film, Tabu vibrates with life beyond a love story. Gomes is interested in working beyond cinema’s narrative techniques by calling attention to them and then pushing story beyond straight beginning-middle-and-end narrative to offer something grander and more self-reflexive. The director’s work recalls other cinema pioneers interested in exploring the edges of the art form, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Guy Maddin and his fellow countryman, the late, great maestro Raoul Ruiz.

As Ruiz did with his final masterpiece, Mysteries of Lisbon (read my review: ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ peels away layers of story to reveal infinity), Gomes is interested in capturing the other lives many people have a chance to experience in their mortal moment on this planet. He does so by presenting the viewer with distinct episodes of the life of Aurora. Laura Soveral plays old Aurora as she approaches her twilight in Lisbon. These are the days in her 80s, as she approaches hospitalization. They are filled with a perceptive range of naïve wishful hope but mostly paranoia and bitterness seething with an unshakable awarenessTabu The End approaches. Then there are the days she lived in Africa. The younger Aurora (Ana Moreira) is a sensual being full of life, freshly married, hunting (she never misses) and making a cuckold out of her nameless husband (Ivo Müller) all while she carries his child.

But dividing Tabu into two sections is not enough for Gomes. He sets Aurora’s story up by offering a brief but colorful introductory tale, and then later, another character, Aurora’s pious, patient and solitary friend Pilar (Teresa Madruga). The first story unfolds in that place seething with so much life: the jungle. The film opens with an explorer decked out in cliché pith helmet and khakis following African men taking machetes to the thick brush. The explorer takes careful, methodical steps as the men of that land tangle with the brush for him. A voice-over (Gomes) explains the explorer’s mental state. The voice uses ornate language indulging in melodrama to  explain this explorer’s misery and melancholy. A piano plays a shifting, dramatic score, as in a silent film, as his guides confront the savage land while he follows behind. All the while, the narrator emphasizes this explorer’s despondency while explaining the loss of this character’s wife. In the end, the adventurer takes dramatic action to join his wife and chooses suicide by crocodile. The savages break out into a song and dance. Then, an apparition of his wife appears sitting next to the crocodile. The melding of life and memory becomes part of the land that carries on. The surreal notion of a ghost haunting a crocodile that has eaten your lover captures the utter romance of these mortals while also showing how insignificant they are to the (comparatively) immortal land. It offers a twisted joke that sets up a film, which will end in nothing short of idealistic romance.

Tabu_big

This first narrative is then revealed as a movie. Gomes makes a wild, dramatic shift reminding the audience they are in the theater by introducing Pilar gazing right into the camera in an empty movie theater in present-day Lisbon. After she has experienced her dream within dreams on the screen, this is now to be our waking dream, and the layers of dreams, fantasy and memory all play key roles in this film. Often movies are made as distraction from our lives. However, Tabu spends much of its time telling stories within stories within stories that enforces the artificiality of life on the big screen. Despite that, Tabu still manages to magnify the verve of our own knotty existence on this planet, which, the film often reminds us, has its own power to create and extinguish life.

A title card introduces this section with Pilar as “Part I: Paradise Lost.” It follows her, as she heads to the airport to pick up a young pilgrim who was to stay with her. Instead, a friend of this young woman in short shorts and a backpack meets Pilar to tell her that she will not be coming. tabu_04The dialogue has a dry quality, enhanced by the stilted use of English, as the young woman is Polish and her common, shared language with Pilar is English. This manner of speaking, the notion of a mystery lodger who never arrives and the way this messenger from another country turns and walks away once again feels surreal. With its black and white cinematography and this jarring behavior of the actors, Gomes recalls Maddin or even David Lynch. In fact, Gomes loves to reveal what lies in the dark in a gradual way that will seem very familiar to those who have seen Eraserhead. This visual referencing to the unconscious is unmistakable.

However, Gomes is not interested in using dreams as narrative. He actually seems to subvert the notion. When he introduces old Aurora she is telling Pilar about a dream. Reel1_2Casino_Aurora_old_reducedAs they sit and talk, what appears to be a treadmill with baggage, heavily blurred out in a short depth of field focus, trudges along in the background, giving the illusion that these sedentary older women are always moving. Aurora describes a dream of seeming nonsense where she battles monkeys who have invaded her house. During the fight, one of them morphs into the form of the deceased husband of a friend of hers and begins to talk to her. She notes that even though he talks, she is always haunted by the idea he was a monkey, and he sometimes behaves like one even in human form.

This glimpse into Aurora’s unconscious could illuminate how she regards her African maid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), who she says is trying to poison her with voodoo. tabu-stills-010It also may reference her alleged experiences living in Mozambique as a young woman, which will not be revealed until the second part of the film by a man who may be an unreliable narrator. But before this recalled life appears, Aurora is revealed to have a bad gambling habit. Though Aurora tells Pilar that a dream showed her how to bet and beat the house, she admits, “People’s dreams are not like their lives.”

Aurora does indeed seem a character uncomfortable in her dying skin. Her daughter never returns her calls, and she doesn’t trust her only caretaker. “They want me dead,” Aurora says with a loaded sense bitter acceptance. When Pilar finds Aurora’s phone in her refrigerator, it is indeed a sign of not only her approaching senility but her giving up on the rules of this mortal world.

Gomes toys with perceptions constantly. Though Aurora seems to only treat Santa with paranoia, both Santa and Pilar are up to seeking out and bringing back a man Aurora mentions on her death bed: Gian Luca Ventura. It would seem this was Aurora’s true love. Though he too seems to have lost his mind, this is the man who will so vividly tell the second half of Tabu, taking place sometime 50 years earlier, when a younger version of he (Carloto Cotta) and Aurora shared an intense affair in the heat of the jungle. Reel3_3GpAurora_19001713When old Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) speaks, he again enhances what Aurora said about dreams not being like life. However, Gomes indulges in this fantastical second part of Tabu with poetic whimsy. The lush black and white cinematography and intimate academy aspect ratio constantly enhance the filmmaker’s utter delight in the medium, beyond the relevance of whether this story may be true or not. Through the staging of the action, costumes and period music that includes a Portuguese version of “Be My Baby,” the viewer cannot help but feel swept away.

Gomes is still not above showing a sensitive awareness to the limits of both cinema and memory when it comes to dialogue in this last hour of the film, however. There is none. This story of Young Aurora and Young Ventura is all told in a voice-over narration by the elder Ventura, who makes no effort to reproduce the exact words between the characters, even though we still hear sound effects and music. Instead, though the actors’ mouths move in many scenes, no one ever utters a word. Tabu_Gomes_04It’s as if the actual words exchanged were lost in time, and all Ventura can muster are the ideas of what was said, adding to the haze of this “memory.” It’s probably truer to memory than most other alleged memories, however, because of this vagueness. But this is also a defiant statement against the cynicism of today’s idea of film trying to make everything seem so “realistic” with digital effects and 3-D, inviting the suspension of disbelief so characteristic of cinema and its classical techniques found in editing and image alone.

Throughout Tabu Gomes reveals a keen awareness of the limits of cinema and how embedded the memories of dreams are in the structure of the art form.  From his choice to omit dialogue in the film’s last hour to the manner he frames the opening and closing of a door in an early scene, as if the door’s action is a wipe cut, do not call anything Gomes does in this film shallow or superfluous. tabu31Ultimately, Gomes makes no more a poetic choice than to feature much of the action in Tabu in the wild of the jungle (albeit through the eyes of invaders trying to tame the land by bringing their comforts of home there, from music to swimming pools). However, there exists nothing more primal and awesome and humbling a thing than the living landscape of the jungle, a grand symbolic stand-in for the unconscious. With Tabu, one should prepare for an intense journey into the primal as Gomes masterfully exploits the narrative elements of cinema to transcend the limits of story-telling. With Tabu, Gomes raises film to the art form it deserves to be.

Hans Morgenstern

Tabu is in Portuguese with English subtitles, runs 118 minutes and is not rated (though this is a film for adults). It premieres in South Florida on Friday, Jan. 18, at 9 p.m. and plays through Jan. 23, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The theater hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

Up-date: Tabu also premieres in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso, in Fort Lauderdale, Friday, Jan. 18, at 8 p.m. and plays there through Jan. 24.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives exists in that all too rare world of pure cinema: A place where images and their associative relationship, through editing and even pacing, or how long the camera lingers on a vision, invites deeper meanings. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an expert at this. The Thai director has shown more maturity with every film, and Uncle Boonmee continues this growth.

Weerasethakul’s films have always been meditative. He allows scenes and images to breath with much patience, opening the audience to informed personal breakthroughs. His films are a guide to the experience the viewer brings to the cinema screen, as the projected image, I have always believed, is best appreciated as a mirror of sorts. It seems Weerasethakul feels the same way. In his 2004 movie Tropical Malady (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the movie on Amazon.com) he has the main actor stare and flirt with the audience during the opening credits. In the commentary of that DVD, he says this is in order to invite the audience into the movie.

As great and typical a Weerasethakulian experience that is Tropical Malady, the director had several movies to grow from there. Compared to Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady is ham-fisted. Boonmee shows a much greater trust in the audience. The camera lingers much less, and Weerasethakul’s lens has grown more focused. All the while the director leaves those entrancing spaces that invite the audience to inform the images.

Thanapat Saisaymar plays Boonmee, a farmer in his last days due to kidney failure. Though his days are numbered, this sets him up with a unique opportunity to reflect on not only his current life, but the cycle of lives that informs this old soul. You know he is near death when the ghost of his deceased wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) appears at the dining room table as Boonmee eats with his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). Huay has been dead 19 years, and Boonmee has not seen her since. As the film goes by, and he gets closer to death, she becomes more solid and explains to him “Ghosts aren’t attached to places but to people.”

The wonderful monkey wrench in all this is the fact that Tong and Jen also respond to her presence and interact with her as plainly as another flesh and blood person in their presence, though they do refer to her as a ghost.  Weerasethakul is not offering a fever dream of a character approaching the abyss. This is a film about transcendence.

Complicating matters even more at the dinner place is a second, even stranger apparition. Boonmee’s long-lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), has returned from the jungle that surrounds the farm in the form of a creature not too different from the mythic Sasquatch but with glowing red eyes.

He emerges out of the shadows from the stairs leading up to the dining table. A scene that Weerasethakul could have played for cheap fright is instead offered with incongruous mystery, giving a sensation of surrealism instead of terror. It feels like a scene from a David Lynch movie if Lynch had a lighter heart.

The creature soon introduces himself, and tells a tale of how he slipped away from civilization to become one with nature. As Boonsong tells his story, Weerasethakul plays with something he has also grown more crafty with over the years: sound design. He augments Boonsong’s story with an odd throbbing noise, not too different from the sound one might hear when covering the ears to only hearing the echoing of their own heartbeat. It’s a sonic theme that recurs a few more times in the movie signaling moments of transcendence in the story, and it again recalls Lynch who also uses sound in unsettling and oblique ways in his films.

Boonmee certainly feels like a transcendental experience, and it is thanks to the deliberate and daring pace of the film, not to mention Weerasethakul’s inclination to defy real world rules. He does this simply. In what seems like arbitrary images, he captures the everyday with more power than mainstream movies, which prefer to shove narrative and conflicts and character types down the viewer’s throat.

Like a great painting or a great song, his film defies written description. His movies exist in and of themselves. They are meant to be experienced. They activate the mind on a near subconscious level.

Watching his films allows for an entrancing experience, should one invite the film in through the eyes and not over-think what one might perceive to be Weerasethakul’s intentions. Recalling one of his movie’s is like remembering a vivid dream, and the best cinema is indeed dreamlike. Dreams are said to be the symbolic interpretations of the life you lead, and like a dream, this movie invites the viewer to fill the amorphous spaces with their own experiences. This is a gift beyond measure. Walking out of the movie house after a film like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is like waking from a deep trance and experiencing the world with supreme awareness.

It’s great to see this Palme d’Or winner from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival finally made it to Miami thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Catch it tonight or tomorrow or Tuesday night. Those are the only chances you will have to see this masterpiece.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opens tonight and plays through Apr. 5 exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I was composing my list of top 20 films of 2010 for the annual “Film Comment” reader’s poll and Criterion DVD contest, a tradition I have participated in since 2005, when I decided to look into why Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has yet to see release in the US. I had read great things about the movie since its screening for Western audiences at Cannes last year (the director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is Thai). Plus, I loved the poetry of his 2008 film Syndromes and a Century, which I first read about in a lengthy article on the director in “Film Comment.” I seem to be the first person to “like” the fact that Amazon has created a page for the blu-ray version of this film, so it seems to be far from finding distribution in the US.

During my search for this film on-line, I happened upon the official trailer with English subs. In only two-and-half minutes, this little teaser for the film seems to capture the poetry of Weerasethakul’s craft. View it here:

I am tempted to include the trailer alone in my top 20. What is this film about? Well, on the surface, it seems to explore that burning existential theme of mortality. The subject heads to the Thai countryside to die after learning he has acute kidney failure. While there, he explores his primordial surroundings only to encounter his past lives. But as with the films of Weerasethakul, there are so many more layers. His films seem to activate multiple levels of consciousness in the viewer. They unfold in a place somewhere beyond straight narrative. By not trying to mimic the “real world” as most mainstream films do, Weerasethakul’s cinema works on a more vibrant level of existence. In effect, I have never felt more alive and aware while watching one of his movies, which draws repeated viewings like a well-crafted music album invites repeated listens. I hope to finally see this movie in some form in the US. I will keep you up-dated.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)