Friday, February 1, 2019

Sundance Film Festival 2019, Thursday 1/31

Hala (Minhal Baig, 2019)

Minhal Baig's film Hala depicts the experiences of a young woman during her senior year of high school in the U.S. Hala is a bright thinker and student, a skater, and a good friend whose day to day decisions are shaped by the framework of her family's Pakistani American experience. Director Baig mentioned at the screening that film is an empathy machine, and indeed numerous scenes are coupled with dramatic soundscapes that heighten the all-or-nothing importance high school experiences are imbued with. Just as an action film goes all in on explosions, or a romcom goes all in on scenes on top of famous landmarks, this film shows how riding the bus on the way to school can be filled with the entire sum total of a high school student's existence. And why not? It's worthwhile to feel the emotions Hala undergoes and witness the way she navigates her life's predicaments while she learns new insights along the way.

Photo by James Wicks, 2019.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sundance Film Festival 2019, Wednesday 1/30

Hail, Satan? (Penny Lane, 2019)

The rapid rise of The Satanic Temple is documented in Penny Lane's incredible and important documentary. Using a light-hearted soundtrack and comical soundbites that bring to light the absurdities of the Christian right in the U.S., the film begins with a publicity stunt the TST initiated in 2013 and traces the growth of the movement to the present. While focusing primarily on the national rise of the TST from the 1950s to the present, we are also allowed access to individual stories, personal accounts of the ways the cultural hegemony of the Christian right ostracized people in the past, and strives to keep the other out by maintaining political power today.

Hail Satan?, 2019

The TST appears to be disruptive because it is cognizantly adding new idols to be placed next to old idols already established and in place. The film makes it painfully obvious that it is hard to let go of cultural artifacts and ideas that are attributed with meaning, and that mockery is uncomfortable for whomever is the recipient. At the end of the day, everyone--regardless of political and religious perspective--who watches it is faced with a choice of working together across ideological lines, or maintaining divisive views accompanied by violence and all of its dark corollaries.

Native Son (Rashid Johnson, 2019)

Rashid Johnson's first film Native Son has one of the best character portrayals of the Sundance Film Festival this year: Ashton Sanders, who plays protagonist Bigger Thomas. Additionally, the editing is unbelievably effective. Certain events are slowed down, allowing contemplation, while narrative economy at other junctures drives the narrative forward at pace. The trust the director has in his ability to allow the story to flow translates, at least in my case, to an audience who is more than willing to trust the storytellers (all of the crew deserves credit for the soundtrack, editing, characterization, costume design...) and go along for the ride. In terms of the adaptation of Richard Wright's great American novel, I wouldn't have minded if more creative license were to be taken to alter plot details so that the story could match the absurdity and tragedy of the present in even more ways. Yet without a doubt, the horror of double consciousness is captured here and the tragedy that Native Son is still relevant today is represented clearly.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Sundance Film Festival 2019, Tuesday 1/29

Director Chinonye Chukwu at Windrider, 2019

Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, 2019)

I loved Clemency, a slow-paced, dark (both thematically and in terms of its over-exposed film), and lucid portrayal of the weight of responsibility on a warden in charge of inmates on death row. The soundscape, mise-en-scène, and editing are superb. Shots early in the film are slightly tilted so that the angles generate tension rather than tranquility as I attempt to depict in these hasty film notes below:

Clemency film notes, 2019

By delving into the life of the warden, portrayed perfectly by Alfre Woodard, and her interaction with activists, lawyers, family members, and an ostensibly falsely accused inmate (Aldis Hodge), the pressure of the prison system in the U.S. is tangible in all of its complexity in terms of race, class, and gender. While an incredibly slow film in comparison with mainstream releases, I hope the topics this narrative suspend find their place in broad dialogue.

Luce (Julius Onah, 2019)

Julius Onah's Luce is an adaptation of a play that portrays an incredibly successful African-American high school student who was adopted from Africa at age 10 by two white parents. The cast is perfect: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. The challenges and privileges each character in the film experience, the messy contradictions each character is caught within, and the way each character walks right up to the line without resolution is worth further contemplation. Poignant and relevant questions will ensure this film sees a wide release even though it is nearly un-classifiable as (all three) a coming-of-age, thriller, and high school film.

Luce, 2019

Sundance Film Festival 2019, Monday 1/28

Bedlam (Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, 2019)

Bedlam covers the disastrous management of mental illness in the U.S today. Director Ken Rosenberg mentioned before the film that when he set out to document this crisis, he did not know that he would be a participant in the narrative. Yet indeed, mental health issues impacted his older sister and thus the director's participation in his subject matter directly. This story of the U.S. mentally ill begins with the housing of patients in state-funded asylums and "progresses" to today when these citizens are on living in the streets, filling ER beds, incarcerated, or living at home under the full-time care of families. We have an epidemic on our hands.

Bedlam, 2019

This Is Personal (Amy Berg, 2019)

Amy Berg's latest documentary describes the woman's march movement from 2016-18 and outlines the work of two incredible activists Tamika D. Mallory, and Erika Andiola. Berg deftly interweaves the local narratives alongside the national narrative in a way that is both informative and personal. The documentary allows Mallory and Andiola's stories to move from 2D internet click-bait to 3D personalities. The ending of the narrative oddly focuses on one particular issue at the expense of the entire story, so my guess will be that the doc will be re-edited before release. I hope This is Personal receives widespread attention.

This is Personal, 2019

The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, 2019)

Jennifer Kent's revenge thriller, almost universally characterized as brutal, is set during British-colonialism in Tasmania. The protagonist Clare's family is murdered in an almost unfathomably disturbing way. Although the story develops slowly (there is no narrative economy in the vein of Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse), each detail justifies Clare's desire to track down and kill each of the perpetrators. Like Kent's 2014 film The Babadook, the rhythm of the editing is singular to the director's vision to the joy or dismay of her audience, depending on their preference. And once again, clear thematic elements, in this case including the savagery of colonization and the need for inter-racial harmony, guide the story to its conclusion.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Deng Nan-guang's 8mm Movies (Deng,1935-1941): Mini-Film Review

Deng Nan-guang (1907-1971) was a well-regarded photographer in both pre- and post- colonized Taiwan who shot home movies that offer a candid portrayal of Taiwan life. The silent films recorded in Deng Nan-guang's 鄧南光 8mm Movies 家庭電影 (Deng 鄧南光,1935-1941) show Taiwan under Japanese rule: a leisurely afternoon spent fishing, Tamsui (淡水, Danshui), a school event at a local kindergarten with his son in attendance, a parade, and also scenes along the coast of Japan.

Taiwan's stunning tropical beaches and verdant mountain ranges are renowned. What is remarkable to see here is that all of the island looked like this at one time. Deng's images of Danshui remind me that Taipei once looked like Kenting. What a cool thing it is to see that here. Of course, the material condition and political situation at the time these images were made is powerful as well.

Deng Nan-guang's 8mm Movies x Wami Wang with Improvised Original Music on YouTube

For my complete list of Taiwan Cinema Toolkit film reviews, click this link here.

William Finnegan Discusses Kelly Slater's Wave Pool

An excellent video on the current state of surfing embedded from The New Yorker:

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Big Wednesday: 40th Anniversary Screening at Bird's Surf Shed

On July 28th, 2018 Bird's Surf Shed hosted a surf film screening so surfer's could come out of the woodwork, hoot and holler at the screen, and have a great time together. Proceeds supported the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center.

PT and Ian Cains at Bird's Surf Shed

In addition to watching Big Wednesday (Milius, 1978), stunt doubles were there to talk story: Ian Cairns and Peter Townend--surfing icons in their own right. Ira Opper shared behind-the-scenes photographs, and co-writer Dennis Aaberg narrated a video about the making of the movie. Pre-screening activities, music (the Wrinkled Teenagers!) and story, took around two hours so I actually left at the intermission before the film started, but I've seen it before and look forward to seeing it again after this experience.