Thursday, November 5, 2015

San Diego Asian Film Festival, 2015

At the San Diego Asian Film Festival this year it was excellent to interview Taiwan director Huang Chao-liang 黃朝亮 alongside UCSD Professor Ping-hui Liao after the screening of director Huang's popular film The Wonderful Wedding 大囍臨門 (2015). Afterwards, the generous director took questions from the audience during the Q&A.

... with director Huang Chao-liang 黃朝亮

This year the Taiwan Film Showcase at the San Diego Asian Film Festival boasted seven impressive films. Standouts included:

-- THE KIDS 小孩 Directed by Wei-Shan Yu
-- THANATOS, DRUNK 醉‧生夢死 Directed by Chang Tso-chi
-- & of course THE ASSASSIN 刺客聂隐娘 Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Additional Festival info:
San Diego Asian Film Festival 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Cinema & Taiwan/PRC Cross-Strait Relations

Here is the abstract for my upcoming presentation at the Association for Asian Studies 2016 Conference:

"Psychological Impasse in Cross-Strait Relations: Sympathetic Views of Japan in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Café Lumiere and Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles"

Taiwan and PRC cinema continue to provide fascinating insights into the political and psychological dynamics of cross-strait relations by revealing the tensions, conflicts, fears, and fantasies maintained by residents on both sides. In this analysis, a primary source of tension revolves around recently released historical films that depict Japan prior to 1945: on the one hand, anti-Japanese sentiment in the PRC is present in films such as Back to 1942 (Feng, 2012) which remind one of the anti-Japanese war films in Taiwan released in the 1970s; on the other hand, a complex relationship with the Japanese Colonial era in Taiwan is evident in Cape No. 7 (Wei, 2008) and Kano (Umin Boya, 2014) which demonstrate positive human interactions despite the strictures of the authoritarian colonial regime, revealing “the ambivalent nature of Taiwanese postcoloniality” as Liao Ping-Hui has written. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film Café Lumiere (2003) arguably provides the example par excellence regarding Taiwan’s postcolonial relationship with Japan, as it presents a psychological impasse that must be bridged in order for stable cross-strait relations to be realized. Namely, the film suggests that the two island nations share remarkable similarities, while the mainland is out of the picture. In China, director Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005) depicts both Japan and the mainland as it contemplates both the past and the present. So while the resolution to a number of questions that emerge within this study remain unsolved, significant data is available to us to assess in these cinematic records as the cross-strait drama continues to unfold.

Panel Title: "Divergences and Convergences: Comparative Studies of Contemporary Literature, Film and Theater in PRC and Taiwan"
Conference Dates: March 31-April 3, 2016

Monday, October 12, 2015

Teaching World Cinema with a Transnational Perspective

"World Cinema" is a fairly standard course in universities these days. Yet how does transnational theory and pedagogy inform how "World Cinema" courses can be taught?

This was the the topic of the "Teaching Transnational Cinemas" panel chaired by Iain Smith from the University of Roehampton at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in the spring of 2015. Smith began the session by noting how World Cinema courses are often based on a national model (Japanese film, German film, Nigerian film, etc.) which tends to ignore the interconnections between national traditions. In addition, while the term "transnational" has been theorized (thinking beyond the scope of the nation, considering cross-cultural encounters and racial tensions, etc.), it is important to consider transnational pedagogy--especially since students may struggle without the framework of the national when approaching cinema and cultural flow.

My strategy has been to steer away from focusing primarily on the national model by organizing a World Cinema course by theme--in the cultural studies model which analyzes ethnicity, gender, and class relations--rather than nation. Yet certainly, the nation remains a fixture when considering cultural flow. Each week, students come to class having already prepared contextual summaries of the films that will be screened so that an understanding of time, place, and the importance of the films is in position before we move to thematic concerns.

During weeks 1 and 2 I begin the course with a brief introduction to film narrative and film techniques/aesthetics, since my course is presented as a general education option, primarily to students who are not majors in film studies. Students read Film Art: An Introduction by Bordwell and Thompson which I believe provides an excellent framework from which to discuss and write about the function of film techniques within film compositions.

The rest of the semester is organized by these themes: Identity, Authority, and Poverty.

Weeks 1-3: Film Narrative and Film Aesthetics
Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
Motorcycle Diaries (Salles, 2004)
In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000)

Weeks 4-8: Identity
Whale Rider (Caro, 2002)
The Lives of Others (von Donnersmarck, 2006) 
Persona (Bergman, 1957)
The Last Train Home (Fan, 2010)
High and Low (Kurosawa, 1963)

Weeks 9-12: Authority
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925)
The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo, 1966)
Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)
Three Times (Hou, 2003)

Weeks 13-15: Poverty

Wasteland (Walker, Harley, Jardim, 2010)
Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)
Biutiful (Iñárritu, 2010)

During class sessions, we discuss the ways film narratives and techniques reveal the unique, particular conditions the characters experience, but as the course progresses we can also see the way globalization links the characters' experiences in interesting ways.

For example, the documentary The Last Train Home (Fan, 2010) shows the global effects of the 2008 stock market crash, while Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) shows the impoverished conditions that followed World War II in Italy. Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997) and Wasteland (Walker, Harley, Jardim, 2010) both represent and critique responses to global ecological dilemmas. The course culminates with a film that projects transnational connectivity and themes. This year students will be watching Biutiful (Iñárritu, 2010) as the course's final film.

This method of organizing the course is under constant revision. If you teach World Cinema or a Transnational Cinema course, I'd be interested in hearing any feedback and/or comments you may have.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fight Club's Representation of Consumer Culture

Fight Club's (Fincher, 1999) depiction of consumer culture remains all too relevant--so in a way, I'm not entirely surprised that the film has moved up on the Top 250 chart from #37, when I wrote my MA thesis on the film ten years ago, to #10, where it is today in 2015. And my college students continue to watch the film and discuss it.

Anyways, here's my dated take on it: "It was on the tip of everyone's tongue, Tyler and I just gave it a name": Fight Club's Representation of Consumer Culture." If you get a chance, let me know what you think of the movie. My goodness, its opening act/exposition is perfect. And it's a great novel too.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Ang Lee on 'The Virgin Spring' & A Comment on Bergman's Trilogy

I have been watching and re-watching Ingmar Bergman over the last week or so, including The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), The Silence (1963), and Autumn Sonata (1978). Here is Director Ang Lee's response to watching Bergman's The Virgin Spring while he was a student in Taipei in 1974:

This interview is included on the Criterion Collection DVD, uploaded here from YouTube.

In response to the perspectives on g/God or who g/God is within Bergman's so-called trilogy, here's my very brief take:

In Through a Glass Darkly god is an illusion encountered by the emotionally unstable (consider for example that only Karin "sees" god). In Winter Light, god is a projection of one's neurotic (Märta's attraction to Pastor Ericsson) or pathological (Pastor Ericsson's understanding of god after his spouse passes away) desire for someone else. In The Silence: god is a projection of one's own desire, whether sensual/emotional (Anna) or logical/intellectual (Ester). In sum, God is silent/does not exist because either the film's characters are sane, they project the idea of God onto others and others are silent, or because their idea of God is tantamount to their own behaviors and they find silence when they are alone. I think there is a two-hour lecture embedded in this summary :), but that's the gist of it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Reticker, 2008): Mini-Film Review

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a powerful documentary that won the 2008 Tribeca Film Fest Best Documentary award, and the reasons it achieved such a positive response have not lost their relevance since that time. The film depicts and recounts harrowing experiences during civil war in the West African Republic of Liberia, and consistently evokes passionate responses from audiences (including students who write about the film in either my World Cinema or World Drama and Poetry courses alongside readings by poet Patricia Jabbeh Wesley).

The film focuses on women who describe the nonviolent strategies they used to demand change from the men in charge and why the existing political paradigm was long overdue for replacement. Solidarity among women of Liberia who oppose civil war, and the objectives for peace that they achieve across seemingly insurmountable gender, generational, ethnic, and party lines are inspirational due to both the sacrifices they endure and the ends they achieve. The story helps one understand the background to the election of Africa's first female president, and it is also a story that will hopefully continue to inspire grassroots efforts wherever the film is screened.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell trailer uploaded to YouTube by "Peace is Loud"

Kurosawa/ J.J. Abrams/ Average Shot Length/ Star Wars

A most likely unoriginal thought that I have had for some time regarding J.J. Abrams Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is that a) Abrams has the most pressure in U.S. pop culture history as far as pleasing fans who love a preexisting franchise goes, and b) his success will possibly be measured by the extent to which he breathes new life into the Star Wars universe while retaining a favorable amount of continuity with the previous films--like popular television shows that are 90% predictable (same characters, stories, settings, etc. which brings back return customers) and 10% original (which leads people to watch the new episode).

One strategy to accomplish this predictable/original balance in Star Wars VII would be to use the same editing strategies (pacing, rhythm, and duration) used in the previous Star Wars films. This would allow the new film to feel the same, even when visually original.

To do so, Abrams could use the same average shot length Lucas used in his films (Star Wars IV: A New Hope: ASL 4.2; Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: ASL 3.8--according to Cinemetrics Lab)...

 ... and/or, he could rewatch the Lucas's inspirational source material to mirror their editing strategies: Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), and others (recognizing films like
John Ford's The Searchers [1956] were also important to Lucas). Doing so would arguably ensure that Abrams' film is one step removed from the source material of the original films, rather than two steps removed if he follows Lucas alone.

Today I watched Ran (Kurosawa, 1985) again and couldn't help but notice that the editing rhythm Kurosawa uses in battle scenes seems especially similar to the Star Wars films (keeping in mind that, as a whole, the ASL of Ran is 10.5 according to Cinemetrics Lab). 

And maybe Abrams has already used this strategy of rewatching Kurosawa, the great master's, films. The image below, which concludes Ran, seems strikingly similar to me when compared with the new Star Wars trailer's image of a crashed Star Destroyer, albeit mirrored images of each other visually in terms of positive and negative space.

Concluding image in Ran: an army marches towards screen right

 Screenshot from the new Star Wars VII trailer: a landspeeder moves towards screen right

... talking Hou Hsiao-Hsien in the LAist

A few months ago I was pleased to be quoted in Carmen Tse's article "Don't Miss Your Chance To See The 'Dreamlike' Films Of Taiwan's Greatest Director" in the LAist.

Tse's article nicely outlines the career and global influence of Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Hidden Fortress (Kurosawa, 1958): Mini-Film Review

Kurosawa's historical film The Hidden Fortress is remembered as "the film that inspired George Lucas's Star Wars" (Janus Films DVD cover), which is definitely evident in terms of its narrative; although, Lucas perhaps found more inspiration for his jedi characters in Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). The narrative traces a wise general (Toshiro Mifune) as he leads a stranded princess (Misa Uehara) through enemy territory back to her homeland. Both figures are disguised to avoid detection. The film features grand scale confrontations between warring factions and wide open vistas, but such scenes are presented with moderation which serves to retain their impact in a film that focuses on the private interaction among its main characters.

Remarkably, the main characters are not the general and the princess, but two weak-willed imbeciles who comically derail their plans. By emphasizing the discord that accompanies even a few participants when they try to accomplish a goal, the film represents just how complicated it is to achieve broad-scale objectives when temptation, discord, and personal desires can derail even the most straight-forward of plans. Why display such pitiable characters so primarily? Maybe it's because that is the way we are: both clever at times, and stupid at times (a point presented nicely, although in a different context entirely, in this Jon Ronson TED talk). It's hard to admit that we can be our own worst enemy and far from the ideal heroes epic films typically foreground.

The Hidden Fortress (Kurosawa, 1958)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien at the San Diego MOPA, May 2015

It was a great experience to be part of two question and answer sessions with Dr. Brian Hu following the screening of films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien at the San Diego Museum of Photography on May 28th and 30th. Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien recently won the 2015 Best Director award for The Assassin 刺客聶隱娘 at the Cannes Film Festival.

San Diego MOPA will present special screenings of three HHH films

The film schedule is presented below, and link to the event can be located here.

Dust in the Wind (1986) Thursday, May 28, 2015 | 7pm
Daughter of the Nile (1987) Friday, May 29, 2015 | 7pm
Millennium Mambo (2001) Saturday, May 30, 2015 | 7pm

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Taiwan Film in Retrospect: Home Sweet Home Panel & Screening

It was a pleasure presenting at the University of Southern California as part of a panel on Friday, May 1st, on Bai Jingrui's film Home Sweet Home 家在台北 (1970). A screening of the film followed the panel presentations, and the event included a special appearance by actress Gui Ya-lei 歸亞蕾 and scriptwriter Chang Yung-hsiang 張永祥.

When The East Meets the West: Taiwan Film in Retrospect

The panel was moderated by Dominic Cheung (USC). Panel presenters included, in order of their presentations: Michael Berry (UC Santa Barbara), James Wicks, Brian Bernards (USC), and Akira Lippit (USC).

Prof. Akira Lippit (pictured) concluded the panel with a wonderful commentary on transnational cinema, a theme that connected the presentations by Michael Berry, James Wicks, and Brian Bernards.

 Award-winning actor Gui Ya-lei 歸亞蕾 attended the event

Taiwan scriptwriter extraordinaire Chang Yung-hsiang 張永祥

Saturday, March 28, 2015

SCMS Conference Notes, Saturday 3/28

Saturday afternoon I attended panels P8 "Decolonial Approaches to Feminist Film Theory" and Q10 "East Asia on the Move: Cinematic Transnationalism and East Asia" during the SCMS conference.

"Decolonial Approaches to Feminist Film Theory" contained numerous original and inspiring concepts; here I would like to note a few ideas that will likely influence my approach to filmic texts in the future. The panel members challenged the audience to consider how established hierarchies, positioned by the "certainty of signs," might be repositioned by considering depictions of organic relationships (Krista Lynes, Concordia University) and even scenes in which female figures are represented as not achieving the goals they set out to accomplish within fictional narrative films (Chair Jamie Rogers, UC Irvine). In addition, a decolonial feminist approach might highlight the ways that docudramas represent the complicity between patriarchy and national law (Gohar Siddiqui, University of Wisconsin-Platteville), and in the case of a recent documentary from India, how both the neo-liberal script and the right-wing nationalist script work to limit the mobility of women (Soumitree Gupta, Carroll College).

East Asia on the Move Panel, SCMS 2015

"East Asia on the Move: Cinematic Transnationalism and East Asia" considered how Hollywood "Shanghai films" of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Shanghai Express (Sternberg, 1932), might offer, contrary to readings of such films that maintain a West/East binary, the possibility for an alternative space of femininity and romance (Ying Xiao, University of Florida). Man Fung Yip's fascinating recent work fills a "blindspot" in scholarship by focusing on the mass-production of B-quality ninja films in Hong Kong during the 1980s, while chair Namhee Han concluded the panel by discussing how digitized colonial-era films in Korea have been inserted into recent Korean productions to create a sense of authenticity while, at the same time, digital re-creations of colonial-era films have also found their way into mainstream productions. Sangjoon Lee, from Nanyang Technological University, framed and contextualized the articles in a sophisticated manner that nicely rounded out the discussion.

Friday, March 27, 2015

SCMS Conference Notes, Friday 3/27

Since I teach the standard undergraduate film course "World Cinema" and use a transnational theoretical approach in my courses and writings, I was particularly keen on attending Friday's "L5 Workshop: Teaching Transnational Cinemas" and the "M16 Workshop: The “World Cinema” Turn in Film Studies." Both sessions were memorable and thought-provoking, ensuring that attendees will be considering new ideas and rethinking old ones.

"Teaching Transnational Cinemas," Sponsored by the Transnational Cinemas
Scholarly Interest Group and the Teaching Committee

"Teaching Transnational Cinemas" was chaired by Iain Smith from the University of Roehampton. He began the session by noting how "World Cinema" courses are often based on a national model (Japanese film, German film, Nigerian film, etc.) which tends to ignore the interconnections between national traditions. In addition, while the term "transnational" has been theorized (thinking beyond the scope of the nation, considering cross-cultural encounters and racial tensions, etc.), it is time to consider transnational pedagogy--especially since students may struggle without the framework of the national when approaching cinema and cultural flow.

The difference between "World Cinema" and "Transnational Cinema" was one of many topics addressed during the workshop. All presenters, as well as audience contributors, brought up practical concerns (such as which films to select) and strategies (such as teaching "World Cinema" in a comparative manner by studing film genres-- see the work of William Costanzo). I felt inspired by the discussion and ideas presented, and hope to write a future blog post on the way/s I use transnational theory in the classroom to both contribute to this discussion as well as listen to critique.

"The “World Cinema” Turn in Film Studies" workshop
sponsored by the Transnational Cinemas Scholarly Interest Group

Following the Transnational Cinema's panel was the "M16 Workshop: The “World Cinema” Turn in Film Studies." Unfortunately, neither Dudley Andrew nor Jean Ma could attend; however, the discussion got off to a wonderful start as co-chairs David Richler and Malini Guha of Carleton University questioned the ubiquity of the term "World Cinema" and its designation oftentimes as a "Non-Western" marketing term, thus re-inscribing the "West and the Rest" dichotomy. In contrast, the term "transnational" has been lauded as a term superior to the "postcolonial," and yet is the term not subsumed by "world" as in "World Cinema," and does it lead to universalizing analyses?

Workshop discussants introduced such topics as film festivals (as both locations of reception and production) that retain a western bias, the notion of "new waves" and their relation to national film traditions, the use of the term "cosmopolitan" cinema (based, at least pedagogically, on promoting empathy as a way for students to approach films alongside an absence of pre-conceptions), and the ways in which postcolonial theory (and in a very welcome turn, the work of Edward Said as discussed by Luca Caminati) can allow one to locate and identify geopolitical links in cinema. (Unfortunately, I must add, I had to slip out of the panel before hearing all audience feedback and their questions to the presenters--but as evidenced here, there is still much to consider!).

Also of note: Thursday's panel, H17 "Reimagining Sinophone Cultures through the Lens of Cold War Cinemas," included a stunning presentation by Ting-Wu Cho on exploitation films from Taiwan entitled: "“Taiwan Pulp!: Subversive Pleasure at the Neoliberalist Turn? (1970s–1980s).” The presentation, and hopefully subsequent publication, will undoubtedly contribute to a clearer and more rich understanding of Taiwan's transition from 1970s to 1980s film by considering exploitation films and their relationship to the national imaginary.

Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, 2015

This year it has been excellent to attend the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Montreal, Canada. While I am not presenting this year, I am grateful to gain new insights by studying the work of scholars and colleagues who have prepared an astounding 485 panels. This year I intend to focus on panels that discuss Transnational Film theory and East Asian cinemas and I will update this blog throughout the week.

I was very pleased to see my recent book, Transnational Representations: The State of Taiwan Film in the 1960s and 1970s available at the Columbia University Press/ Hong Kong University Press table in the exhibition hall this year.

Flying in to Montreal, March 2015

Downtown Montreal near the conference location

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Destin Daniel Cretton: Writer's Symposium 2015

Director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton presented at the Writer's Symposium here in San Diego, California on Wednesday 2/25 at 7pm. During his interview with Dr. Karl Martin, the PLNU graduate and director of Short Term 12 and I am Not a Hipster graciously and thoroughly commented on:

documentary filmmaking: "making a documentary is similar to the process of researching for a fictional film"

film adaptation: "it felt boring to adapt my short "Short Term 12"--and even like plagiarism--into a feature film" without making it into something new

budget limitations:"constraints spark creativity"

screenwriting: "the purpose of every word is to put a picture into someone's brain"

capturing actors: following the actor's lead until it is " be in the moment"

 Short Term 12 (Cretton, 2013)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Chinese Mayor (Hao Zhou, 2014): Mini-Film Review

A standout film for me at Sundance '15 was The Chinese Mayor (see Sundance link here and imdb. link here). This documentary presents an inside look at, with unbelievable access to, the life of the mayor of Datong, China. The mayor, Geng Yanbo, deals with many problems in his city of 3.5 million people, including the fact that it is the most polluted city in China according to the film, but primarily focuses on the demolition of more that 100,000 homes--and the relocation of their residents--in order to make way for the re-construction of the city's ancient wall in order to attract tourists, promote Chinese culture, and improve the economy.

The film is co-written by Zhao Qi, of The Last Train Home and China Heavyweight acclaim, and follows the mayor over two years. When I had a chance to ask Zhao Qi about the film, he stated that the filmmakers were pleased to find a politician who seemed very honest and one who would allow them to film behind closed-doors (although the film also repeatedly shows moments when the filmmakers are told to leave certain rooms).

The Chinese Mayor writer Zhao Qi during the post-screening Q&A at Sundance

But the mayor is not the film's only subject: numerous residents both pro- and anti- Mayor Geng loom into the picture, enabling us to see frustration and corruption alongside hope and good-intentions. The final 5 minutes of the film are astounding and glib--an almost-behind-the-scenes look within a very much behind-the-scenes documentary, ensuring the documentary is memorable. Still, I would say that it does not quite pack the narrative punch of Zhao Qi's previous work, perhaps because it appeals much more to those who focus on Chinese politics rather than a general audience.

The film won the "World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Unparalleled Access" at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Sundance Film Fest, Thurs. & Fri. (1/29-30), Post 3

Independent Cinema:
changing the world with cameras instead of a guns
-- an idea adapted from How to Change the World --

Thursday the 29th included one of my absolute favorite films of the festival: Turbo Kid (2015) directed by the brother-sister duo Anouk and Yoann-Karl Whissell and François Simard. Turbo Kid is a bloodbath film overflowing with 80s nostalgia in the best sense (of both bloodbath films and 80s nostalgia). It does so with genuine aplomb, absent of mockery, just pure blissful 80s films re-imagined yet in the spirit of The Goonies (Donner, 1985) and Mad Max (Miller, 1979). I posted the (graphic) youtube official trailer at the bottom of this post.

I am Michael director Kelly, actor James Franco, and crew at Sundance

I Am Michael premiered on the evening of the 29th. It is a solid film by new and promising director Justin Kelly, starring James Franco, Emma Roberts (in a minor role), and Zachary Quinto. The film's story is controversial and well known, yet the film is also noteworthy in part due to its editing techniques. One example: in a shot-reverse shot exchange between Franco and Quinto in a restaurant, the framing is such that each close-up depicts the conversant's face eying the edge of the frame while the majority of the screen is comprised of the space is behind him.

Shot A: Franco speaks to Quinto (a majority of the shot is the space behind him)


Shot B: Quinto responds to Franco (a majority of the shot is the space behind him)

The technique requires shifting ones eyes to the opposite side of the screen in order to follow the character's expressions. Rather than appearing gimmicky or trite, the technique places the audience cinematicly into the expansive head-space of each character. It is a mind expanding move that feels fresh and original. And Franco is absolutely fantastic in this role.

On Friday the 28th I concluded my festival experience with three documentaries. The Amina Profile (2014), directed by Sophie Deraspe, depicts the "Gay Girl in Damascus" blogger hoax of a few years ago when a female blogger from Syria turned out to be someone else entirely. The film sustains good questions about online virtual identities and the damage they cause by drawing attention away from important issues.

How To Change The World (Rothwell, 2015) is an oral history of Greenpeace's genesis presented with a goldmine of archival footage. And third, at a Windrider Forum event I saw Dancing in Jaffa by director Hilla Medalia. This 2013 documentary endearingly depicts both Arab and Jewish Israeli children in Jaffa who learn to accept and trust one another by dancing together in a competition. All films were attended by their directors who graciously responded to audience questions. While not my favorite films in terms of presentation and interest, all three docs were informative.

Turbo Kid Official YouTube Trailer

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Sundance Film Fest, Tues. & Wed (1/27-28), Post 2

A highlight of Tuesday the 27th at Sundance--after the "Shorts Program 3" (I love shorts at Sundance)--was certainly the premier of Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Zhao, 2015) attended by producer Forest Whitaker. I also had a chance to catch a midnight screening of the jocund western with Michael Fassbender, Slow West (Maclean, 2015).

Songs My Brothers Taught Me Director Chloé Zhao and Actors John Reddy and Jashaun St. John 
(I happily/randomly ran into the director and actors on the street for this pic)

Songs my Brothers Taught Me is a coming of age story about a brother and sister on a Lakota reservation. A film which took director Chloé Zhao four years from writing to release, it represents the tension between a strong desire to leave and an intimate connection to a landscape that makes departure nearly impossible. And if you want to witness a pitch-perfect ending, this film has it--a deft combination of voice-over and imagery of the wind moving dust over the land.

On Wednesday the 28th it was fun to be sitting nearby James Franco during Listen to Me Marlon (Riley, 2014), an outstanding documentary about the life of Marlon Brando. The film is narrated, incredibly, by Brando by using tapes the famous actor recorded during his lifetime. With archival research and images set into place, the film tells the story of Brando in a moving, lively way. It will certainly be well-received on Showtime, the film's distributor.

Don Verdean writers: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, and cast:
Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Jemaine Clement, Danny McBride, Will Forte, Leslie Bibb  

The 28th also included the incisive mainland Chinese documentary The Chinese Mayor (Hao Zhou, 2014), which I would like to devote a full post to at a later time, and concluded with Don Verdean (Hess, 2015), which was somewhere between a comedy and a drama, but always marvelous when Jemaine Clement was on the screen.
Getting an autograph from Writer/Director Rodrigo Garcia of
Last Days in the Desert

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sundance Film Fest, Monday (1/26), Post 1

This year I have the pleasure of again teaching a 1-unit class here at Sundance. Three students and I could not have had a better film to kick-off to the week than seeing Last Days in the Desert (Garcia, 2015) which premiered last night and was then presented again Monday morning. The film depicts a holy man who is trying to communicate with an absent father. I highly recommend this film which is both beautifully shot (by Emmanuel Lubezki) and scored, and stars Ewan McGregor who plays both Christ and the demon who tests him.

Afterwards, we attended a special hour long Q and A, at the Windrider Forum, with writer and director of Last Days, Rodrigo Garcia.

In the afternoon we watched a series of animation shorts entitled "Animation Spotlight" at Yarrow Theater. Since 60 short films were selected this year out of 8000 submissions, its impossible to watch a shorts program and not be blown away. Beach Flags by Sarah Saidan, which depicts an Iranian lifeguard who learns about herself by helping another, and the kinetic Palm Rot by Ryan Gillis stood out to me.

Last Days in the Desert post-screening QandA with Rodrigo Garcia, Ewan McGregor & Tye Sheridan

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Edge of Heaven (Akin, 2007): Mini-Film Review

The Edge of Heaven, which is in German, Turkish, and English, is often cited as a transnational film for good reason--it presents multiple depictions of travel, border crossings, and images of planes loading and unloading (in this case, unforgettable) cargo. In addition to the imagery, the dialogue illustrates what it's like to have one foot in two different states:
Bookseller: What's your occupation?
Nejat: I'm a professor of German in Germany.
Bookseller: That would be funny if a Turkish professor of German from Germany ends up in a German bookshop in Turkey... That fits!

Yet on the whole, rather than revealing global connectivity, the film is memorable for it's representations of disconnect. By presenting miscommunications, mis-recognitions, and inequalities that result from international policies, the film shows that transnational interconnections that should bring people closer together--such as those celebrated in trade, media, and transportation advertisements--remain hindered by income inequality, psychological burdens, and that age-old nemesis: poor timing. Perhaps the most memorable critique occurs at the ending: the credits roll before all of the conflicts set into motion have been resolved, suspending the film's narratives indefinitely.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inherent Vice (Anderson, 2014): Mini-Film Review

Inherent Vice (Anderson, 2014) wheels its way into one's unconscious by presenting a sprawling 1970 Los Angeles cityscape, a memorable conversation between Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) and Wolfmann mid-way through the film, and a long take in Doc's place once he is reunited with Shasta. Yet it does so slowly. Anderson seems to miss the opportunity to fully punctuate its episodic structure with music and b-films as Thomas Pynchon does in his book, and its voice-over narration is at times free from the humor, critique, and psychedelic bizarre-ity of the novel, but the movie is successful by steering clear of an array of gimmicks such as cliché first-person drug-trip point-of-view shots. In the book Doc gets to a point where it's not really who he is after, but what he is after. It's a straightforward distinction that the film pleasantly and consistently gets right.

Inherent Vice Official Trailer.