Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Update No One Has Been Waiting For

Despite the pathetic appearance on my blog, I have been doing a little writing here and there, as well as toiling away trying to find a job (yes, still looking and still failing.) Here is the rundown of the writing:

Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival
Remember MSPIFF? I covered the festival for a few places, tallying up a total of 20 reviews. Fun! I very favorably reviewed Pema Tseden's Old Dog (pictured below), which played early in the fest, and then got to overhear hilarious quibbles with what many thought were unwarranted accolades on my part. I stand by my praise!

Minneapolis Star Tribune - My 100 Word Wonders (sorry, slideshow scrolling to find the actual review required)
City Pages - Slightly More Indulgent Reviews (once again, you'll have to scroll down to find my prose)
Twitch - Free Reign, No Scrolling

I spoke with MN native Billy Rosenberg, producer for The Spectacular Now, for the Walker Art Center, who hosted an early screening of the film with Rosenberg and James Ponsoldt in attendance. 

And I continue to contribute regular reviews for In Review Online

And two entries in our Wong Kar-wai Directrospective:
And at the six month mark, I provided my best of the year so far with other InROers:

I also will have a piece in a new publication coming in October called The Third Rail Quarterly. As of yet, there is no sign that this publication exists, but I will be sure to point it out when it does. I am, of course, on Twitter and Letterboxd, although my activity is anything but prolific or profound. I continue to program, project and make merriment at the Trylon microcinema. Unfortunately, I will not be traveling to any of the IFFs this fall (see lack-of-job lamentations at the top of this page) but as an interesting consolation prize, I will be going to the Orphans Midwest Symposium and covering the activities for Keyframe.

If any of this impresses you, please hire me. XO

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Shane Carruth's UPSTREAM COLOR

(A commission to interview Shane Carruth on his new film Upstream Color fell through earlier this week, leaving me with some useless research and words. In other words, the perfect thing for my blog: shit other people don't want! Upstream Color is now available online via iAmaGPlay, but see it in theaters if you can.)

“But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard.”      —from Walden, Chapter IV “Sounds”
"They could be starlings." Kris and Jeff of Upstream Color.
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is a one-of-a-kind wonder. Modest in means but opulent in delivery, it’s a transcendental blend of science fiction, thriller and romance in the best possible ways. On the surface, the film is about Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young woman who at the beginning of the film suffers a psychological trauma with economic and physical consequences. As if someone hit the reset button on her life without her agreement, Kris starts over and in the aftermath fosters a connection with Jeff (Carruth) who seems to have had a similar experience. Parallel to Kris and Jeff’s developing attachment, the narrative explores the organic agents of cause-and-effect in their relationship: the harvest of psychotropic worms, the transference of DNA from human to pigs, and the spontaneous growth of an exotic flower on the banks of a river. If that sounds elusive, it’s because Upstream Color’s unique development is best experienced without a preconceived notion of plot.

But I already feel like I’ve said too much. Regardless of what you read before seeing Upstream Color, the web of ellipsis and referential sparks will allow for myriad discoveries. Fans of Carruth’s debut feature, Primer, will understand the enthusiasm. Primer, a surprise Grand Jury Prize winner at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, generated a fervent following (check your interwebs) for similar reasons. An indie sci-fi mindbender, Primer was made on a well-documented shoestring that challenges its audiences to intellectually meet it halfway. Those who were willing to do so no doubt found inspiration in its wickedly smart DIY aesthetics—those of Carruth’s filmmaking as well as those of the characters’ who engineer time travel in their garage. But where Primer is a cerebral puzzle locked to left-brain mechanics, Upstream Color forges a far more intuitive path. Although structured on a scientific framework of entanglement, the narrative implies that within the symbiosis of physics is something quite spiritual. The requirement for audiences of Upstream Color is to emotionally meet it halfway.

Free and trapped: the pigs of Upstream Color.
Upstream Color premiered at Sundance earlier this year largely under a cloud of well-controlled secrecy. It had been nine years since Primer, and while the rumor mills and news feeds were churning with Carruth’s activities (including helping Rian Johnson with effects on Looper) there seemed to be nothing in the hopper for finished material. As if stuck in one of his own Primeresque time loops, Carruth fell silent in the years that followed his award winning film. But instead of wiling away his time in hotel rooms and libraries like the characters in his film, he was running the Hollywood treadmill trying to finance his next project, the now fabled and likely shelved A Topiary. When the verbal support—including Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher signing on as producers—failed to produce monetary support, Carruth went the other way and built his film from the ground up, much like Primer but far more refined in almost every aspect.

If Upstream appeared seemingly out of nowhere, it was because it was a production so far outside of the Hollywood system, it failed to exist within normal networks. Working as producer, director, writer, composer, cinematographer, editor and actor, Carruth was able to keep the project under wraps until he was ready. When a couple of minute-long teasers arrived online late last year, both fans and the uninitiated were intrigued. Those early glimpses, as well as the eventual full-length trailer, were faithful to the ambiguous, and glorious, mysteries of the film. Carruth has created a multilayered world around Kris and Jeff that is aware of both the macro and the micro of their lives and their relationship. They are connected by an intangible experience (the aforementioned trauma) that they themselves don’t even acknowledge. Their kindred paths create a bond so strong that their individuality starts to blur, but, similarly, their relationship to the world is heightened. When Kris is kept awake at night by a sound, is it because a part of her now flows in the ground water? Does Jeff also hear the resonance of himself there too? Maybe.

An event that speaks with metaphor from Upsteam Color.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden plays a prominent role in the film as a perfunctory tool for mind control, but on closer inspection the book and film share an overall ethos, to the point where you can nearly connect any sentence found in Walden to Upstream Color. Perhaps it’s the underlying transcendental intentions of the film that so easily associate with a text considered a spiritual autobiography. (Here is where I would have asked if Upstream Color was a spiritual autobiography.) There is a shadowy principal character in the film simply referred to in the credits as The Sampler who (among other things) spends his time carefully recording ambient sounds. His obsessive pursuit is none other than recording the language that Thoreau worried that we would forget—a language that is elevated in The Sampler, Kris and Jeff for reasons that are locked inside the enigma of the film.

The film uses an immersive technique of both sight and sound that works emotionally on your subconscious. One of the most striking aspects of the film is the intimacy built not only between the characters, but also within their environment that goes beyond the frame. In a brief, disconnected sequence in the film, an unnamed man keeps replaying a scene with his wife in his head: he is leaving and she is making a sincere attempt reach out. She is going to try harder, and most importantly she loves him. He can’t go back and extend his own openness to her; he leaves; he shuts the door; it’s too late. Even as a minor moment in the film, every ounce of this interaction feels honest. This extends to Kris and Jeff where their convincing amity is constructed with performance, editing and a sound design where every interaction is tethered to the surroundings.

Like Primer did nine years before, Upstream Color will appeal for repeat screenings in order to discover or patch together the answers to its secrets. But defining those answers will be harder than mapping the time sequences in Primer, with many of the emblems of Upstream Color being abstract or obscure. There’s a lot to contemplate, and I’m not entirely sure an analysis can be anything but personal. I left the film thinking about Guinea worms, the relationship that I have been in for over 20 years, economic dependence and corruption, and the life-affirming co-habitation with my dog. Themes and evocations of Upstream Color are scattershot. Revenge, redemption and awakening are all paths Kris travel, but describing the film with those terms is reductive. To go back to Thoreau: “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of our residual statement.” Upstream Color works on a visceral level, inciting something that is not easily explained. And maybe it shouldn’t be.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ready. Set. MSPIFF!

Local movie yokels unite in a grad spectacle of film gluttony! The Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival starts tonight in the winter wonderland that is Minnesota in April. With over 200 films to surf, here are a few recommendations from the peanut gallery called me:

Highly Recommended

Leviathan (USA/France/UK) d. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel Trailer
Friday, April 12, 2:00pm
Sunday, April 14, 10:00pm

Film goes physical...big time

The Last Time I Saw Macao (Portugal/France) d. João Rui Guerra da Mata, João Pedro Rodrigues  Trailer
Friday, April 12, 4:15pm
Sunday, April 14, 2:45pm

Film noir by way of a film essay

Old Dog (China) d. Pema Tseden Trailer
Saturday, April 13, 12:30pm
Wednesday, April 17, 9:30pm

Subtle political protest from Tibet

Student (Kazakhstan) d. Darezhan Omirbayev Trailer
Monday, April 22, 7:00pm
Sunday, April 28, 9:00pm

Bresson meets Dostoyevsky via modern Kazakhstan

The Capsule (Greece) d. Athina Rachel Tsangari Trailer
(screens with F*ck For Forest; don't ask me why, it just does)
Monday, April 22, 9:45pm
Friday, April 26, 10:00pm

Surreal world of feminine rights of passage

Worth Making Time For

Laurence Anyways (Canada/France) d. Xavier Dolan Trailer
Saturday, April 13, 8:00pm
Sunday, April 21, 9:00pm
Love, music and beauty conquers all

Augustine (France) d. Alice Winocour Trailer
Sunday, April 14, 4:45pm
Friday, April 19, 4:20pm
Better than A Dangerous Method

Cutie and the Boxer (USA) d. Zachary Heinzerling Sundance "Meet the Artists" Video
Friday, April 12, 9:45pm
Monday, April 15, 7:00pm
With charisma to burn

Hannah Arendt (Germany/Luxembourg/France) d. Margarethe von Trotta Trailer
Sunday, April 14, 3:15pm
Sunday, April 21, 4:40pm
History dramatically directed (with Barbara Sukowa!)

And finally, if you made it through all of that hoo-ha, a few films that I am looking forward to seeing (but too lazy to add photos or trailers or times):

  • In the Fog (Russia/Germany/Latvia/Netherlands/Belarus) d. Sergei Loznitsa - First of all, look at those country credits. Second of all, from the director of My Joy.
  • Your Ain't Seen Nothin Yet (France) d. Alain Resnais - It's the second coming of this master filmmaker. Go rent his last two films now!
  • Museum Hours (Austria/USA) d. Jem Cohen - I'll admit, I'm a little bitter about museums these days, but maybe Jem Cohen can snap me out of it via Vienna. 
  • Ceasar Must Die (Italy) d. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani - Julius Caesar in a prison.
  • Persistence of Vision (USA) d. Kevin Sheck - Missed this at VIFF; I like animation and I like obsessions.
If you wanna toss some salad about my recommendations, catch me at the festival - I'll be there. In the meantime, I've got some short but sweet reviews in the Star Tribune and the City Pages of some of these films and more.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Linkdom Hearts: Dream Eaters and Nobodies

We'll see what that title does to my stats and comments. Other than eating bon bons, shoveling snow and getting laid off, here's some other stuff I've done:

Mama on In Review Online
The other Jessica Chastain film that was kicking around earlier this year about two creepy little kids. If you missed it, you didn't miss much. Out on DVD and on various streaming sites in May.

Parker on In Review Online
I like Jason Statham. I want him to make better choices. When will he get that great role in that great film? This is not it. J-Lo costars. Watch Crank or The Transporter instead.

11 Flowers on In Review Online
I had low expectations for this film and I was pleasantly surprised. I have been disappointed in Wang Xiaoshuai's films since Frozen (1997) and So Close to Paradise (1998) set the standards pretty high. Set in the waning days of the Cultural Revolution, 11 Flowers is coming-of-age story that draws heavily on Wang's own life. This film went into limited release last month and should see a home release in June.

Here's a piece that I did for the Walker Art Center on Chris Sullivan and his amazing animated feature Consuming Spirits. I had a great time talking with Chris before his visit to the Walker and then subsequently had a great time hanging out with him. Chris is definitely the guy you want to have around for piano bar karaoke. You can also read my transcription of our rambling discussion here: Chris Sullivan on Michael Jordan, Jean Piaget and The Sapranos.

We also had Bill Morrison and Luther Price in the Walker house earlier this year and I posted these random questionnaires with the two of them here and here. Two more people I feel lucky to have met and hung out with.  

I also traveled to Columbia MO to the True/False Film Festival, but that turned into a little bit of a disaster as the hammer of the Walker lay offs came down in my first day there. So much for that. Maybe I will try again next year.

The Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival (which, to set the record straight, is not in St Paul at all) is less than a month away and I'm gearing up to do some rip-roaring capsules for the Star Tribune as well as the City Pages, if they will have me.

And finally, I am not too proud to broadcast that I'm looking for a job. My dog is trying to make the case for a stay-at-home mom, but that just ain't possible. I'm good at lots of things, but I really like films! Keep me in mind!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My 2012 in Film

I watched 330 films this year, and this is what I have to show for it. God love the the Trylon, the Walker and the Heights for keeping this town interesting film-wise. 

My top 25 films of 2012, within the machine of US distribution, ranked, with a few notes there at the end:

  1. This is Not a Film / Jafar Panahi 
  2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia / Nuri Bilge Ceylan 
  3. Tabu / Miguel Gomes 
  4. Cosmopolis / David Cronenberg 
  5. Neighboring Sounds / Kleber Mendonça Filho 
  6. Attenberg / Athina Rachel Tsangari 
  7. Consuming Spirits / Chris Sullivan 
  8. Deep Blue Sea / Terence Davies 
  9. Let the Bullets Fly / Jiang Wen 
  10. Elena / Andrey Zvyagintsev 
  11. The Day He Arrives / Hong Sang-soo 
  12. Wuthering Heights / Andrea Arnold 
  13. The Turin Horse / Bela Tarr 
  14. The Color Wheel / Alex Ross Perry 
  15. Girl Walk // All Day / Jacob Krupnick 
  16. Damsels in Distress / Whit Stillman
  17. 4:44 Last Days on Earth / Abel Ferrara
  18. The Raid / Gareth Evans 
  19. I Wish / Hirokazu Koreeda 
  20. Post Mortum / Pablo Larrain 
  21. Whore’s Glory / Michael Glowogger 
  22. Killer Joe / William Friedkin 
  23. A Simple Life / Ann Hui 
  24. Two Years at Sea / Ben Rivers 
  25. Miss Bala / Gerardo Naranjo 
(Why 25? Because I hated the idea of not giving those last 5 a mention. I have yet to see Zero Dark Thirty, so take that for what you will; otherwise, I also feel it necessary to state that I didn't fall head over heels with the cinephilia for cinephilia's sake in Holy Motors - as a matter of fact, I found most of it tedious - and nor was I moved by another man-child's kitschy love for himself - I'm talking about Wes, not young Sam - in Moonrise Kingdom. Sorry about that.)

Best viewing 2012, regardless of distribution and release date, alphabetically:

Beautiful 2012 (2012) / Gu Changwei, Ann Hui, Kim Tae-yong, Tsai Ming-liang
Emperor Visits the Hell (2012) / Li Luo
Faust (2011) / Alexander Sokurov
The Gang's All Here (1943) / Busby Berkeley
Grey Matter (2012) / Kivu Ruhorahoza
Guilty of Romance (2011) / Sion Sono
In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire (2012) / Wichanon Somunjarn
The Land of Hope (2012) / Sion Sono
Laurence Anyways (2012) / Xavier Dolan
Leviathan (2012) / Lucien Casting-Taylor, Verena Paravel
Margaret (2011) / Kenneth Lonergan
Mekong Hotel (2012) / Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Memories Look at Me (2012) / Song Fang
Napoleon (1929) / Abel Gance
No (2012) / Pablo Larrain
small roads (2012) / James Benning
Target (2011) / Alexander Zeldovich
Three Sisters (2012) / Wang Bing
The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012) / João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata
When Night Falls (2012) / Ying Liang

And finally, my two most anticipated films for 2013 are Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmasters and Matt Porterfield's I Used to Be Darker.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Links of Limited Posterity

But here they are nonetheless:

Eve Sussman's Cinematic World Without End
I wrote about Eve Sussman's amazing installation piece, whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, which was on view at the Walker Art Center this past summer. Despite the amount of time spent watching this piece, the above is a still I never saw once.

Surreally Yours: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cinematic Journey
The Walker commissioned a piece from Apichatpong for the Walker Channel, entitled Cactus River, and we were also presenting the area premiere of Mekong Hotel. All good excuses to write about one of my favorite filmmakers.

Rise of the Guardians review
Why? Why not. I've been in abstentia from In Review Online, and, although this was a strange way to jump back in, it felt good.

Consuming Spirits review
Chris Sullivan's animated film is some kind of crazy masterpiece. Don't miss it.

Last and probably least, I have an account on Letterboxd.

Happy Holidays! Be back soon with multiple end of the year lists and reviews.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Studio Ghibli at the Lagoon Theater Nov 16-29

There are few films nearer and dearer to my heart than the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli—animated masterpieces bursting with creativity, beauty, action, drama and unadulterated joy. Starting today and running for two weeks, the magic of Studio Ghibli takes over one screen at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis with new 35mm prints of 14 titles.

Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 after the success of Miyazaki’s debut feature Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (a film later adopted into the Ghibili family.) Miyazaki joined forces with fellow animator Isao Takahata and film producer and influential editor of Animage magazine Toshio Suzuki. Although Miyazaki and his beloved Totoro have long been the face of Studio Ghibli with such features as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Takahata has directed his fair share of gentle dramas under the Ghibli name—most notably Grave of the Fireflies (sadly absent from the Lagoon retrospective), Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and the stylized family satire My Neighbors the Yamadas. The series offers a sampling of Miyazaki and Takahata's work, as well as a few other animators who took on directing at Ghibli.

Although I have seen all of these films, some multiple times, I’ve only seen a few on the big screen and I relish the thought of seeing them all over the next two weeks. Below is a detailed schedule of the screenings with information on whether the screenings will be dubbed or subtitled in English. You'll have at least three chances to see each film, and no excuses!

Not to be missed: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away, My Neighbors the Yamadas, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles
Fri, Nov 16, 2:00, 4:30, 7:00 and 9:30pm
Sun, Nov 18, 5:00pm

If I had to choose one film in this series to see, it would be Nausicaa: one of my favorite Miyazaki films that begs to be seen on larger-than-life format. The story itself is a vivid and harrowing portrayal of the ecological concerns that would be echoed 13 years later in Princess Mononoke. In a post-apocalyptic setting, the young princess Nausicaa puts everything on the line to keep the natural balance between the Toxic Jungle and her own Valley of the Wind. Tragically edited and dubbed when it was originally released in the US in the 80s, Nausicaa has since made a comeback in its original form and is largely seen as one of Miyazaki's greatest films. Do not miss this opportunity to see this gorgeous and heartfelt film in all its splendor—the perfect film to kick off the series!   

Spirited Away (2001) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles
Sat, Nov 17, Noon, 2:30 and 7:30pm
Sun, Nov 18, 2:30 and 7:30pm

Spirited Away was the film to bring Miyazaki's artistry to a much wider audience worldwide. As with many of his other films, Miyazaki bucks the subconscious assumptions in regards to the notion of 'hero' and casts Chihiro, a young waifish girl, in the position to save her parents and restore harmony in the spirit world. When she and her parents take a wrong turn, they are suddenly trapped in a realm of ghosts (which is all of the sudden reminding me of Murakami's Cat Town.) The potpourri of fantastical characters are some of Miyazaki's best, including a giant and temperamental baby named Boh, who helps Chihiro in her uphill battle to make it home.

Howl's Moving Castle (2004) directed by Hayao Miyazak

All screenings in English
Sat, Nov 17, 5:00 and 10:00pm
Sun, Nov 18, Noon and 10:00pm

Based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle was rescued by Miyazaki when director Mamoru Hosoda pulled out as director. The fact that it is not Miyazaki's own source material nor his own project may point to some of the reasons that Howl's is not one of his best. The images are nonetheless beautifully and imaginatively drawn, and this is especially the case for the lumbering, breathing castle of the title. As Miyazaki's unintended follow-up to Spirited Away, it received a full-fledged US release including the well rounded English language dub used for this screening.

Pom Poko (1994) directed by Isao Takahata

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles
Mon, Nov 19, 2:00 and 7:00pm
Tue, Nov 20, 2:00 and 7:00pm

Takahata's adorable yet sobering story is a cautionary anthropomorphic tale that taps into the folklore of the tanuki, or raccoon dog, a mischievous and absentminded critter with the ability to shapeshift. (One of the legendary traits of the tanuki include large testicles that symbolize financial luck—no, I'm not joking—and Takahata has worked this into his character designs of the cuddly little devils.) These modern era takunis in Pom Poko are facing a cultural crisis as they slowly start to lose their will to transform and as humans encroach upon their native land. The tanukis decide its time to fight back, but it might be too late.

My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) directed by Isao Takahata

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles
Mon, Nov 19, 4:30 and 9:30pm
Tues, Nov 20, 4:30 and 9:30pm

More than anything, I love the simplistic and expressive character designs found in My Neighbors the Yamadas. The Yamadas is less of a feature length film with a full narrative arch than a string of vignettes focusing on the daily lives of this six member family: mother, father, grandmother, 13 year-old son, 5 year-old daughter and family dog Pochi. Despite being a satire on family life, Takahata's portrait is both acutely aware and poignantly honest. Like most films in this series, this  incredibly charming and infectious film has something to offer everyone regardless of age.

Ponyo (2008) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

All screenings in English
Wed, Nov 21, 2:00 and 7:00pm
Thurs, Nov 22, 2:00 and 7:00pm

Miyazaki's most recent film is also purportedly his last (although we've heard that before.) Made for and based on his grandson, Ponyo strays away from the epic gravitas of a film like Princess Mononoke but it is nonetheless a visual, if not slightly saccharine-coated, treat. Taking a cue from the everlasting mermaid myth, the story follows Ponyo, an earnest and joyful goldfish who, after drinking the blood of a human boy, falls in love and wants to become a two legged creature herself. The plot spirals into multiple side and sub plots, but culminated in the most amazing rip-roaring sea storm you are likely to see, animated or otherwise. The English dub is fine, but unfortunately a little overacted by the young star voice actors. But don't let that stop you: Ponyo is a feast for the eyeballs.
Castle in the Sky (1986) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles 
Wed, Nov 21, 4:15 and 9:15pm
Thurs, Nov 22, 4:15 and 9:15pm

Miyazaki's first official film under the Ghibli umbrella is a worthy follow-up to Nausicaa. A full-on fantasy adventure, Castle in the Sky tells the story of Sheeta and Pazu who join forces in search for a long lost city in the sky called Laputa. Drawing inspiration from the story of Gulliver's Travels and the landscape of a Welsh mining town Miyazaki had visited, the film explores the power of myth with lush visuals and rich storytelling. Castle in the Sky was Miyazaki's first collaboration with composer Joe Hisaishi, who has scored every Ghibili film since.

Porco Rosso (1992) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles
Fri, Nov 23:  at 4:30 and 9:15pm
Sun, Nov 25, 4:30pm

Miyazaki’s sixth feature has a little bit of everything—history, action, adventure, humor, charm, nostalgia, romance, imagination—but lacks the unbridled fantasy that he is best known for in films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Spirited Away. Firmly grounded in a specific time and place, the story unapologetically indulges simultaneously in adult sentimentality right alongside youthful thrills. Porco may be uncharacteristically conservative, but it has visual vitality that has become Miyazaki’s trademark. Set between the two World Wars, Porco Rosso is a flying ace who makes his home with his seaplane on a picturesque island off the coast of Croatia. Once a fighter named Marco with the Italian army, he has since quit the army and lives as a pig under the famed moniker Porco Rosso—the Red Pig, an obvious reference to the Red Baron.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Fri, Nov 23, Noon and 2:30pm In English
Fri, Nov 23, 7:00pm In Japanese with English subtitles
Sat, Nov 24, 2:30pm In English
Sat, Nov 24, 7:00pm In Japanese with English subtitles
Sun, Nov 25, 2:30pm In English
Sun, Nov 25, 9:15pm In Japanese with English subtitles

There is a lot of love for Totoro in the world, but I'm still convinced that no one loves Totoro more than me. This incredibly endearing film is a pleasure that I don't feel the least bit guilty about. And regardless of multiple viewings, it never fails to move me with its effortless honesty and exuberance for life. A father and his two daughters move to a house closer to where their mother is recovering in a hospital. In the forest near their new home, the two young girls discover a tree where a small, medium and large totoro live. The elusive and playful creatures emerge to help the girls with their anxieties about their ill mother, busy father and an uncertain future. Totoro is a film for all ages, and the Lagoon offers both the English dub version as well as the subtitled version. 

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles
Sat, Nov 24, Noon and 7:00pm
Sun, Nov 25, Noon and 7:00pm

Years before Harry Potter re-imagined the wizardry of flying on a broomstick, there was Kiki. A witch in training, Kiki sets off alone for a required one year apprenticeship with the aid of her flying broom and her quick-witted black cat. Using her flying skills, Kiki develops a delivery service to earn a living and a little respect from her new neighbors. A heartwarming coming of age story, Kiki's Delivery Service was a huge success in Japan, further adding to Ghibili and Miyazaki dynasty.

The Cat Returns (2002) directed by Hiroyuki Morita

All screenings in English
Mon, Nov 26, 2:30 and 7:00pm
Tues, Nov 27, 2:30 and 7:00pm

The Cat Returns, directed by animating veteran Hiroyuki Morita, is adapted from Aoi Hiiragi's manga about a schoolgirl's adventures in the drama of a hidden cat world. Haru is a girl who one day saves the life of a cat while on her way to school. The cat is Lune, Prince of the Cat Kingdom, who takes Haru to the Kingdom of Cats to thank her. And so I find myself back in something like Murakami's Cat Town, where Haru is trapped, unable to return to the human world. This is another film in the series that retains its English dub from theatrical release that includes Anne Hathaway, Andy Richter, Tim Curry, Peter Boyle, and Elliott Gould.

Whisper of the Heart (1995) directed by Yoshifumi Kondō

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles
Mon, Nov 26, 4:30 and 9:00pm
Tues, Nov 27, 4:30 and 9:00pm

Written by animation master Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his protégé Yoshifumi Kondo, this film is a simple story about falling in love and learning to believe in yourself. If that sounds a little too cliched, think again—this is exactly the kind of narrative that Ghibli turns into gold with the kind of sincerity that makes you blush. Suzuku is a shy and self-conscious girl who harbors big dreams. Invisible her family when she probably needs them the most, Suzuku finds a kindred spirit in the boisterous dreamer Seiji.

Princess Mononoke (1997) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles
Wed, Nov 28, 1:45 and 7:00pm
Thurs, Nov 29, 1:45 and 7:00pm

Certainly one of Miyazaki's best films and also one of his darkest. Princess Mononoke is a heartbreaking parable about the damage that humans have done to the natural world, spun into an incredible period adventure of mythic grandeur. Rife with violence and conflict, Princess Mononoke was to be Miyazaki's final statement as an animator. That, of course, didn't happen, as Miyazaki would break out of retirement for three subsequent films, but Mononoke is nevertheless a bold punctuation point. Ashitaka, cursed by a demon, sets off to find a cure and to "see with eyes unclouded." What he finds is a land in turmoil that has pitted humans against nature, and, as a result, nature against humans.

Only Yesterday (1991) directed by Isao Takahata

All screenings in Japanese with English subtitles
Wed, Nov 28, 4:30 and 9:45pm
Thurs, Nov 29, 4:30 and 9:45pm

Takahata's follow-up feature to his devastating Graveyard of Fireflies is dramatic wonder that falls well outside of what most considered "anime" in 1991. Moving back and forth from the present in 1982 to Taeko's girlhood in 1966, this poetic animated film (loosely translated as Memories of Falling Teardrops in Japanese) captures the grave and magical essence of childhood defined by schoolgirl crushes, a changing body, the stern judgments of others and the occasional simple pleasures of life. Takahata's film is also a glimpse at the difficult road for girls and women who do not conform to the well-behaved, studious model of proper femininity.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


There is an introspective pall hanging over Memories Look at Me that goes naturally with the thematic territory of visiting home as an adult. But Song Fang’s debut feature tackles the mixture of nostalgia, sadness, and regret with a very easy to swallow tenderness, worlds away from exaggerated bromides of middle-aged self pity. Using the comfort of her own family—mother, father, and older brother—Song scripts a documentary out of a visit to her parents' home in Nanjing. Her outward concern for their physical health is matched by their oblique inquiry to her unmarried status. Painted with the cool tones of ambient light, the film is a slow train of casual conversation and delicate confessions that all carry a substantial emotional vibration.

Song Fang, who both stars and directs, will look familiar from her role in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2008 Parisian rondeau Flight of the Red Balloon where she stars opposite Juliette Binoche as a filmmaker working as a nanny. Born in China, she studied film first in Brussels and then in Beijing. There might be something prophetic about being cast by Hou, but there is also something very prescient in catching the eye of Mainland master Jia Zhangke, who produced Memories under the wing of his production company Xstream. Song, already a young director that seems to be working in an inner circle, has created a film that rubs elbows with the fiercely independent work of Chinese director Liu Jiayin and the grand mono no aware elegance of Yasujiro Ozu. This caliber of names is simply a testament to how special a film this is.

This unaffected film slides comfortably into a modern depiction of filial piety in a society where Confucius is little more than an apparition. Although she inspects her parent’s lives as a visitor, Song also cleans her father’s ears and plucks her mother’s eyebrows as if she has always been their caretaker. There is a unique generosity with the time that everyone takes in listing to one another—a quality mirrored in the patience of the camera. The finality of life and the struggle to make the most of the time left gently leaves an impression on every scene. When Song suddenly starts crying, her mother asks, “What’s on your mind?” She replies that she’s not sure, even though it is perfectly clear she is thinking bout her parents’ eventual death. To the film's credit, the implication is there without diving headlong into melodrama.

Memories Look at Me is an unpretentious film, shot almost entirely inside one apartment with static middle range shots, and sparsely lit beyond ambient lighting. Despite its modest attributes it is already pulling down awards, earning Best First Feature Award at the Locarno International Film Festival earlier this year. In Vancouver, it was nominated for the Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema, but came up short to the experimental narrative of Emperor Visits the Hell. It is also receiving praise at the New York Film Festival and Busan International Film Festival where it recently screened. One can only hope that this healthy festival attention will bring it further recognition and possible distribution, especially in the States. Without a new feature from Jia or Liu, Song Fang’s moving film fills a low-key void in what we are seeing from the Mainland this year.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

VIFF 2012: Jang Kun-jae's SLEEPLESS NIGHT

After the wave of New Korean Cinema hit the world like a slap from the back of a hand in the late 90s and early 00s, certain expectations were set from the most prominent films to rise from that era. South Korean film, even in its most subtle form, became the cinema with big shoulders, represented in the slick action, emblematic vengeance, soju swagger, unapologetic brutality, and brash humor. For this reason, an assured yet unadorned drama like Jang Kun-jae’s Sleepless Night is actually more surprising than the latest go-for-broke revenge flick to come down the pike. 
The film opens in a small town at night, where the sound of the crickets is louder than the teenagers horsing around on the sidewalk. We finally settle on our protagonists, a couple sitting in front of the TV, each enjoying a glass of beer, chatting about their day. They sit close in a tiny love seat barely meant for two; he has his shirt off, she has her pants off. He mentions that he has agreed to work on Sunday as a requested favor to his supervisor; she’s concerned, only because it seems he’s being taken advantage of; he considers it, and realizes that she is probably right.
The couple, married for two years, has an ease with each other that is instantly endearing. He works in a factory, she’s a yoga instructor, and their companionship, which dominates the short but sweet 65-minute anti-drama, exudes authenticity. The snapshot of their relationship, as they face the pressures of parenthood and the realities of their income, is unapologetically sprinkled with their mutual adoration and consideration for each other. As clichéd as that sounds in writing, it feels wholly unconventional on the screen.
Sleepless Night is Jung’s first film since winning the Dragons and Tigers Award in Vancouver three years ago for his debut Eighteen, a film that also gives careful consideration to the veracity of its characters. Sleepless Night is similarly slight by design, where excessiveness is simply not in its vocabulary. The drama, modest as it is, occasionally segues into fantasy without warning—a skip of the needle into a parallel universe where the couple’s simple and happy lives are disrupted by the melodrama that the film so effortlessly eschews. By introducing scenes where they argue and bicker, Jang is not only pointing out the avoided potential within their marriage, but also the avoided potential within his own film.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Society has a way of demanding that we find our career path early and stick to it, not only as a definition of character but also a bogus demarcation of success. Sigríður Níelsdóttir, a woman who started making music at the age of 70 to become something of a phenomenon, tosses that conventional idea right out the window. Armed with a mighty Casio keyboard, a dual cassette deck recording and dubbing system, and the same noisemakers everyone else has in their house, this plucky septuagenarian set up her studio in her kitchen and started her musical career with nothing else in mind other than the infectious joy of creating.

And as if reading our minds, the lyrics in the song that opens Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigríður Níelsdóttir announces, “That’s right. It’s never too late to start doing what you want.” A resident of Iceland, by way of Germany and Denmark, Níelsdóttir created 59 CDs and over 600 songs between the ages of 70 and 77 with little training. Although she studied piano for three years, she readily admits that she can’t read music, and that she has to edit out her mistakes. “That’s cheating, isn’t it?” she laughs. By the time we see Níelsdóttir pull her doily off her keyboard for a demonstration and show us her array of clever sound makers—recorded by plugging a mic into that dual cassette recorder—the film’s work is done. We are charmed. We are inspired.

Unfortunately, the film coasts on this irresistible personality and fails to draw out the storyline that hovers just below the surface. There are a fair amount of bells and whistles employed, namely hand drawn collages assembled into stop motion animation theatrics, but it feels like a diversion from the innate charisma of the subject. Hidden within the questions never asked are clues to why, at the age of 70, this idiosyncratic woman became absorbed in making music.

Directed by three musicians who forged a friendship with Níelsdóttir before deciding to shoot this humble and impressionistic portrait, Grandma Lo-fi is less of an in depth tell-all of a cult musical wonder than it is an inventive tribute to a late-in-life artist who passed away last year. In keeping with the analogue textures of Níelsdóttir music, the doc was shot primarily on Super 8 and 16mm, embellished with a conscious flicker and grain that comes with the format.

The music in question has a naïve magic combined with compulsive creation ala Wesley Willis. But unlike Willis, Níelsdóttir has a much more varied palette tapping into her Casio’s endless combinations of canned rhythms, beats and sounds and layered with a mix of her own vocals, sounds of her own invention, as well as ambient recordings from her everyday life. All of this gets dubbed and edited on cassette and mastered on CD, at which point Níelsdóttir creates handmade covers, and delivers to the record store. And it is very clear that she lives for every minute of it.

Interspersed throughout the film’s short 62 minutes are a number of Icelandic musicians who step in front of the camera to either sing to or play along with one of Níelsdóttir’s tune. And although we don’t see Björk or Sigur Rós, the musicians and bands nonetheless represent a sort of who’s who of indie Icelandic music: Sin Fang, múm, FM Belfast, Mr. Silla, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Mugison, and Kría Brekkan—all a testament to grandma lo-fi’s status in this influential bubble of society.

Níelsdóttir’s celebrity is never quantified, but it resides in the individuals that discovered her unassuming creativity, one person at a time. Its viral proliferation was no doubt as DIY as her art and music, relying on a more physical social network like good old fashioned word-of-mouth. At one point she looks at the camera and says, “Do you know how to make campfire sounds?” Even in the off chance that we might know, Níelsdóttir intends to share her own personal triumph with everyone. Although Grandma Lo-fi parries with more style than substance, there is nonetheless a feeling of gratitude in having been introduced to this unique and heartening individual, even if it is just a handshake.