Monday, July 16, 2012

First Look: Kazik Radwanski's "Tower"

Kazik Radwanski's first full-length feature Tower starring Derek Bogart and Nicole Fairbairn will be having its World Premiere at the 65th Locarno Film Festival in the Filmmakers of the Present Competition.
Here is the synopsis of Tower from the films website:
Tower centers on thirty-four year old man, Derek, who limes at home with his parents in Toronto, Canada. Unlike his married brother who is expecting a baby, Derek is single and without a career. Although he aspires to become a graphic-animator, he works part-time at his uncle's construction company. Late at night he wanders the streety alone and frequents nightclubs in search of companionship. Derek suddenly finds himself in an intimate relationship with a woman he meets, Nicole. When a neighbourhood raccoon becomes a constant nuisance by tearing up his family's garbage, Derek sets out to catch it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Spielberg, Spielberg, Spielberg

"The question isn't to know when Spielberg is the best, but instead to know when Spielberg is the most Spielberg. And there you might find your answer." - Stéphane Delorme

With the new, director-approved digital restoration of Steven Spielberg's 1975 Jaws playing at the Lightbox it's high time to discuss Spielberg over here at Toronto Film Review

Over the recent winter-time two of Spielberg's films were released in theaters in such close successions they might as well have been a double-bill: the B-picture, digital childhood fantasy The Adventures of Tintin and the A-picture, live-action War Horse. Along with J.J. Abrams's ode to Spielberg with Super 8 and Andrew Stanton reaching for the stars with John Carter – Spielberg seems to be now as relevant as ever.

Even the revered French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema recently dedicated an issue to him, Spielberg - Face A Face (N.675) – which includes ten articles* on Spielberg!

Alright, now returning to Jaws, which to discuss: it’s relevant to bring up Carl Gottlieb's book The Jaws Log (which is available by Newmarket Press in a Thirtieth Anniversary Edition). Yes, Jaws made movie history at the time as the highest grossing movie ever. Yes, it established a business model and release pattern for large scale summer movies, that persists to this day, where instead of the usual "platform" pattern in which a film would open in big cities and then roll out into lesser markets, Jaws would open wide, playing on over 500 screens – becoming the first "summer blockbuster." But it's a lot more than that.

During the making of the film, in the industry shift towards the post-studio system filmmaking era, Gottlieb's behind the scenes background information presents what was then a new model of filmmaking. Spielberg, and others, were shooting out on location, using non-professional actors, engaging with new technologies – all of this to create new experiences for the film-going audience. This capturing of the seventies era film industry makes it similar to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. 

The Jaws Log brings up the difficulty the filming crew had with the islanders when they were filming in Martha's Vineyard. Gottlieb also highlights all of the different participants that worked on the film (and in the books new annotations, he writes what they're doing today), showing that it takes a whole community to make a film: from the actors Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss; to the technical crew like the director of photography Bill Butler, the shark designer Joe Alves, editor Verna Fields, music by John Williams et cetera. It's mentioned that even John Millius contributed a couple of lines to the final screenplay, when Quint says, "It'll find him for five, kill him for ten," that was Milius.

Gottlieb not only contributed to the Jaws screenplay, but he also acts in the film as the Aminity Newspaper publisher, Meadows - in the book, there's even some funny pictures of him being knocked off a boat. In The Jaws Log, Gottlieb provides a behind-the-scenes perspective: Jaws first started out as a book by Peter Benchley, which when published would be one of the New York Times best-sellers. Then the producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown purchased the film-rights to the book, which would go to Spielberg, who they have already worked with on The Sugarland Express – a characteristic New Hollywood film where a marginal women and/or couple drives off and hits the road to find a better life (e.g. The Rain People, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore).

As much as it has been said that at the time, the twenty-eight-year-old Spielberg was only interested in making “movies” and to “entertain”: the burden of the past as symbolized by the murderous truck in Duel, the Bonnie and Clyde-like social criticism of Sugarland Express, and in Jaws there is Police Chief Brody’s trouble with dealing with the complexities of the correlation between natural terror and the political and economic realities of Aminity. All of these examples exemplify traits of a director whose aims are more then to “entertain”.

It’s hard to pin-point exactly what directors are the forbearers for Spielberg: people have brought up Michel Curtiz, David Lean, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, Frank Capra, and Chuck Jones. Though I think it’s rewarding to bring up Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford.

There's the anecdote in Directed by John Ford, where Spielberg talks about visiting Ford at his office, and where they talked briefly, and where Ford pointed to a Western painting and tells him, "When you understand what makes a great Western painting, you'll be a great Western director," and that the horizon  should never be in the exact center of the shot. You can see this influence in how Spielberg has a painterly approach to the frame. You can see some of Hawks in Spielberg, like how in Spielberg's films there is sometimes a light-hearted and comic atmosphere like in the Indiana Jones films and in Always. Though Spielberg has discussed being influenced by Hitchcock on the making of Duel (“What I learned from Hitchcock, was don’t ever let the audience off the hook, be a whore about keeping the audience on the hook as long as possible, before giving them some clue or some kind of relief.”), I mean the Hitchcock parallel more in the way that just like Hitch had his iconographic silhouette, no director today best encapsulates Hollywood other then a cap-and-glasses-wearing Spielberg.

The French film critic Pierre Berthomieu** in a interesting video by the Cinematheque Francaise, argues that when Stanley Kubrick passed away the world-greatest-filmmaker batton was passed down to Spielberg, who would even finish Kubrick’s unrealized A.I.

Spielberg has evolved a lot over the years. Where his early work might be better described as being characterized by spectacle, humor, and adventure. For example, Robert Benayoun’s Positif review of Raiders of the Lost Ark was entitled, Le retour du plaisir [the return of fun] (N.246). There has been a maturation in Spielberg’s films since the eighties and nineties, and in his recent films there is a stronger grappling with what it's like living with the complexities of today, especially in an American context - he shows both fractured identities and fractured politics. Like how in War of the Worlds to discuss 9/11 the films imagery needs to reference WWII to impart a scale of reference, or how Munich is the reverse-shot of Schindler's List, Spielberg at his most interesting seems to reflect what Nicolas Azalbert, characterizes as the post-Daney visuel schizo (Cahiers N.679),
“If the visual (an image as a substitution for an other), obliges us, according to Daney, to search for the non-represented, for the purpose of including it in what we are being shown, the visual, this new realm of images that we are engulfed in (a space within another) forces us now to distinguish these two spaces, the represented and the non-represented, to be then able to show them together.”
* The issue includes: Jean Philippe Tessé on the ideologies in Spielberg’s films, Vincent Malausa on Amblin Entertainment, Florent Guézengar's on Spielberg fantastic visions, Delorme on Spielberg at his most personal in the commercial failures Empire of the Sun, Always and A.I.; Cyril Béghin on Spielberg and WWII, François Truffaut's letters to Marvel Berbert from when he was in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jean-Sébastien Chauvin on Spielberg 2000's work and a review of War Horse; and short-takes by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Jinshi Fugii.
** Berthomieu even made a Spielbergian film, Le Temps des Géants.

Friday, July 6, 2012

"In Search Of Treasures" by Moen Mohamed

In Search Of Treasures by Moen Mohamed
Cinephiles, curators and programmers gather annually in darkened theatres to relish in the abundance of delights offered by one of the world’s most important and treasured film festivals.  Il Cinema Ritrovato is impossible to disappoint.  This year, an unsung master of French cinema was showcased.  How Jean Grémillon could have escaped my attention all these years is a mystery.  And why I never even came across his name in countless readings is an even bigger mystery.  Aside from the various programmes, there are the restorations.  Thus, herein lies the importance and significance of what they do here at the Restoration Laboratory at the Cineteca Bologna.

The length and breadth of the programming is remarkable.  Almost every print is from the national film archive of a country.  In this day and age, when everything has gone digital, these rare 35mm prints, some of which are quite pristine, make the trip amidst the sweltering European summer worth one's while.  But think not that it's all roses and perfume:  the heat in Bologna is akin to punishment - relentless and unbearable.  I drank 1.5 litres of water daily and that was insufficient.  There are projection issues some days; the air-conditioning is not always working in the cinemas - but I tell you, it’s all worth it. And then some. These complaints wither away with just one glance at the programme.

The masterpieces, chronologically:
35mm, 1927, France, 90 min, Jean Grémillon
A revelation. A young man, disgusted by his richness and life of comfort, abandons it and lives as a simple villager. Many years later, he is forced by circumstance to return and become the master of his estate, a position he still abhors. With brilliant acting and expert editing, Maldone is one of the most inexplicably unserenaded French films of all time. 

35mm, 1929, France, 73 min, Jean Grémillon
Poetic realism at its shimmering best and a complete knockout. I have never seen anything like this film. An elderly man and his son are hired as keepers of the lighthouse on a remote post surrounded by water, and with no other human contact. Their loved ones are on the mainland. And then, there is a descent into madness. This is a unique film that defies explanations. It must be experienced on the big screen to appreciate its brilliance. Grémillon is a master of atmosphere, movement and lighting. 

DCP, 1929, Italy, 75 min, Mario Camerini
If I were forced to select the best film I saw at the festival, this would be it. One of the last silent films made in Italy, and perhaps the best silent film of Italian cinema, Mario Camerini's Rails has been restored and rediscovered for all to bask in its greatness. Like Sunrise and Sonnenstrahl, Rails was made in between those two. These three films were made by different directors, but are so similar in theme and atmosphere, they feel like a trilogy of sorts. These are the first 10 minutes of the film:  On a dark, rainy night, a young man and woman walk to a run-down hotel, holding each other. They take a room, sit silently and regard each other as if in agreement. The sadness in their eyes is devastating.  The hotel is next to the railway station. The whistle of the train echoes loudly and the wind blows open the window. With stunning close-ups, Camerini lingers on the expressions of his two leads throughout the film, and allows those expressions to convey the state of mind, and not rely on inter-titles.  For me, this is one of the newly rediscovered masterworks of cinema. 

35mm, 1933, Austria, 88 min, Pál Fejös
If Murnau's Sunrise was not made a few years earlier, Sonnenstrahl would probably have been the film in its place. With Gustav Fröhlich (Metropolis) in the lead, the film tells the tale of two lost souls on the streets of Vienna during The Great Depression as they find themselves thrown together.  Opening with a memorable sequence on the contemplation of suicide, we go on a journey of societal necessities, restrictions and conformity. Poetic and tender, Sonnenstrahl reiterates the importance of living life to the fullest. I am now anxiously looking forward to Lonesome, also directed by Pál Fejös.

The rest of my Top 25, chronologically:

35mm, 1912, Sweden, 33 min, Victor Sjöström
One of the best films of the festival is one-hundred years old, made and released in 1912. It is the first film of the great Victor Sjöström. The Gardener is a revelation, even at only 33 minutes. A young couple is separated by the boy's jealous father who has his eye on the young woman. Her father is the gardener (played by Sjöström) who works for the man and tends the roses in their greenhouse. After sending his son away, the boy's father shows his true intentions. And this is just the beginning of the film. Sjöström gives this film everything. After being an outcast of society, to show that she is no longer a good girl, there is a scene of her smoking a cigarette - very subtle for 1912, but revealing. I love that each year Bologna celebrates films from 100 years ago. Next year it’s 1913. I hope I will be around and able to go from 2020 to 2029, when the zenith and twilight years of silent cinema, 1920 to 1929, will be showcased. There will be countless treasures revealed over those 10 years.

35mm, 1928, Great Britain, 93 min, Miles Mander
A beautiful restoration and a superb 35mm mint print of this drama of hypocrisy and devotion. Directed by and starring Miles Mander in a most unflattering role of a hypocritical cad who flirts and cheats on his wife, but cannot bear the thought that she is even friendly with another man. When he decides to leave his wife for a while as she is not getting pregnant, she takes matters into her own hands to provide him with the offspring he so desperately needs. 

35mm, 1930, Germany, 82 min, Alfred Hitchcock
Decades and decades later, when it became en vogue for popular foreign films to be remade in English, Alfred Hitchcock was doing the opposite some 80 years ago.  Shot entirely in German with a complete German cast, Mary is, for me, one of Hitchcock's great early achievements. There is so much of that special Hitchcockian touch in this 80-year old film. Sadly, I was not able to see Murder! (the English version) to compare and contrast. Awash in German Expressionism in terms of style and structure, one is reminded of the early sound films of Fritz Lang.

DCP, 1930, France, 114 min, Augusto Genina
Louise Brooks pays the price for being beautiful and for wanting both worlds - glamour and fame; love and family.  Beautifully restored by the Bologna laboratory and screened in the Piazza with a full orchestra, Prix de beauté makes excellent use of Miss Brooks' talent.

35mm, 1931, Japan, 56 min, Heinosuke Gosho
Deftly balancing comedy with social realism, The Neighbour’s Wife and Mine gently observes a traditional Japanese marriage. Every time you get the impression it is a comedy, you are quickly reminded it isn't by a quick gesture. The plot is simple - a playwright struggling with writer's block goes next door to investigate some very loud jazz music. He takes a very long time to return and his wife begins to worry, and with reason. After seeing only three of Heinosuke Gosho's films, I am certain a retrospective of his oeuvre will yield many treasures.

35mm, 1932, Japan, 88 min, Yasujiro Shimazu
Josef von Sternberg's great classic, The Docks of New York (1928) is reworked, scripted and transplanted to Yokohama. It is amazing how completely Japanized the film is. A sailor saves a suicidal woman from drowning and this begins their strange and dangerous affair of dependency. I am keen on learning more about Yasujiro Shimazu. He, like many of his contemporaries, never loses focus on the main elements of the story. And he knows how to direct his actors. It is important to note that The Docks of New York was named Best Foreign Film released in Japan in 1929 by Kinema Junpo. Another important note is that both Heinosuke Gosho and Keisuke Kinoshita worked as Yasujiro Shimazu's assistants before embarking on their own very successful careers.

35mm, 1932, Japan, 54 min, Eizo Tanaka
A young couple is married, they go on their honeymoon. Soon after, she becomes ill and he goes off on a trip. While he is away, his family, fearing the scandal of the young wife’s previous relationship with a man, uses the pretext of infection and sends her away to her accepting parents. A simple story but studied with such precision that makes it stand out. This is yet another gem from the retrospective on early Japanese sound films.

35mm, 1932, USA, 80 min, Raoul Walsh
A young Joan Bennett stars as the wild and outspoken woman who lives in the woods (untamed California) and is relentlessly pursued by not one or two, but by four different men. One of whom is a young and dashing Ralph Bellamy. Three of them covet her body and one, her heart. Alas, the one who covets her heart must hang! Wild Girl deserves to be heralded as one of Raoul Walsh’s best films.

35mm, 1933, Holland, 30 min, Joris Ivens
A superb 35mm print of one of the all-time great short films. Programmed as part of the films on The Great Depression, what Joris Ivens achieved in just 30 minutes is outstanding. In the face of abject poverty and total economic collapse, the Zuider Zee project (farming new land for Holland), is akin to restarting life on earth. What is special about this film is how Ivens intelligently blends the footage of the construction with the politics of economics and the plight of human suffering during The Great Depression. Ivens shows the tragedy of class realities, starvation of millions while vulgar waste of priceless grain continues.

35mm, 1933, USA, 71 min, Frank Borzage
Set in the ghetto of the homeless, Hooverville, the narrative is almost fairytale-like. Loretta Young (very, very young indeed) and Spencer Tracy play a couple thrown together by circumstances, when even getting food thrown to pigeons was one's way of surviving. A woman who is willing to give everything to stay with the man she loves. A man who refuses to compromise when it comes to any kind of affection. Man’s Castle is a standout from the retrospective of films on The Great Depression.  It also makes me want to discover more films of Frank Borzage.

35mm, 1933, France, 99 min, Julien Duvivier
Julien Duvivier's highly stylized policier is way ahead of its time. It took me by surprise. Based on the novel by Georges Simenon (La nuit du carrefour), we know whodunit from the start. There are no twists and turns, but the direction and the way the screenplay undulates is a twist in its own execution.  At the beginning, the film is told from the police's perspective. Then, it becomes the wrongfully accused man's story. Then, it is owned by the actual sickly criminal, played with ferocity by the magnetic Valéry Inkijinoff, who has more dimensions to his character than everyone else. His arrogance, anger at his illness and verbal jousting with the police are something to behold. Poignant is his obsesssion with a neighbour who sings (not unlike Edith Piaf) a song of remorse, lost love and grief.

35mm, 1933, Japan, 51 min, Yasujiro Ozu
I believe this may be one of Ozu's most overlooked films, if such a thing was possible. This gorgeous 35mm print from the archives was a treat on the last day of the festival. Scandal, truth and social realism are at the centre of this 51 minute film. A younger brother and older sister live together, with the sister taking care of the brother as he studies. He finds out that she may not be as good as she seems. The three scenes of confrontation are among the best Ozu has mounted. A Woman of Tokyo is expertly edited and superbly acted, with the sublime Kinuyo Tanaka in one of the lead roles.

35mm, 1937, France, 93 min, Jean Grémillon
Jean Gabin stars as the titular Ladykiller and one expects him to make women swoon and pant throughout the film. Not under the auspices of Grémillon. In fact, the opposite happens. Jean Gabin is reduced to a vulnerable fool so hopelessly and uncompromisingly in love, one wonders where this film is headed. It is a performance and character from Gabin I have never seen. He is reduced to almost nothing. What is different here is that he is not clueless. He knows he is being played with, but he cannot curb the avalanche of emotions, nor his obvious obedience.

35mm, 1947, USA, 102 min, Raoul Walsh
Judith Anderson and Teresa Wright steal the show in this gem from Raoul Walsh. Robert Mitchum is a man haunted by childhood nightmares and cannot understand why he was adopted in a family that is beset with a legacy of hate and death. The key to the mystery is held firmly by Judith Anderson in a completely different performance that rivals her own Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca). Tragedy, remorse, revenge and a child's destiny all intertwined to create this wonderful concoction of classic Hollywood. Pursued is my personal favourite of the Walsh films I have seen so far.

35mm, 1948, France, 103 min, Jean Grémillon
Grémillon is a master of setting and atmosphere.  Nothing seems forced or fake in his films.  He has complete control of his material.  The scintillatingly scandalous Suzy Delair (Quai des Orfèvres) plays that sort of woman who is entangled in an affair of sex and materialism with a fishmonger.  He brings this worldly and carefree woman to his very small village where there is more than enough going on already. Dark family secrets; a self-sacrificial hunchback; a seemingly sickly man who is the illegitimate son of the count’s father; a naughty yet victimized Suzy Delair; the unwilling count of the manor who is never without his conspicuous white leggings. A delectable recipe?  Indeed. 

DCP, 1954, Indonesia, 101 min, Usmar Ismail
The aftermath of the Indonesian republican revolution which ended Dutch rule, and destroyed the administration of the Dutch East Indies, is explored in this passionate film about a new country, completely lost. This new society of angry and disillusioned young people is faced with the question:  Is this what we fought for? After The Curfew is not a big film about exciting, revolutionary skirmishes, but it is an intimate portrayal of a young man, and the challenges he faces after the revolution. He is a conflicted ex-revolutionary, trying to find his way in their newly created world.  Digitally reconstructed at the Bologna laboratory, using damaged 35mm prints, painstakingly restored frame by frame, After The Curfew is an important classic of Indonesian cinema. Kudos to Martin Scorsese (Chairman of the World Cinema Foundation) and his team for having selected this film for restoration. His advisory team includes, Abbas Kiarostami, Fatih Akin, Wong Kar-wai, Abderrahmane Sissako, Ermanno Olmi and many others. They are doing important work by creating a film preservation consciousness in developing countries, so that these countries can preserve their cinematic treasures, thus creating an international archive of restored classics to be seen and studied by generations to come. The World Cinema Foundation is the kind of organization that makes a significant contribution to the great heritage of international cinema.  Regretfully, I was not able to see Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (India 1948), also restored by the World Cinema Foundation and screened at the festival.

35mm, 1954, Italy, 92 min, Luigi Zampa
After the very successful retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2011, and seeing all of his classic films, I didn't think there were any other major films by Luigi Zampa to be discovered. I was wrong. Set in Rome 1935, a young girl is pushed into work that relies completely on her physical beauty. She is seduced, betrayed, compromised and finally becomes a prostitute. But she becomes a prostitute of her own volition, not because she is a poor victim. All of this happens in the first 30 minutes. Then the real trouble begins. Highly stylized, which is unusual for Zampa, La Romana is very blunt in its sexuality and frank discussions on matters of sex and prostitution. 

35mm, 1957, USA, 127 min, Raoul Walsh
This film probably shouldn't work as well as it does, but Walsh creates such compelling character who keeps you to the end of their arduous journey. These are not quite likeable characters. Even Sidney Poitier comes across as slightly rough. At the onset of the civil war, a southern belle discovers publicly that she was borne of a Negro slave, and suddenly finds herself an outcast as a new slave because of her ‘tainted blood’. The woman decides to live as a white person, without identifying with the real slaves. For her, it is about survival and she doesn’t make it easy for anyone to like her, except the imperious and determined Clark Gable – plantation master, slave-owner and ex-slave trader with a whole lot of guilty conscience. 

DCP, 1960, India, 126 min, Ritwik Ghatak
Of the many restorations at the festival, this is the most stunning of them all.  It retains that unique film-like quality that is so very difficult to reproduce even with the most pristine digitizing.  Amidst the melodrama of a struggling family and the suffering daughter, we experience a lyrical tale of self-sacrifice and resilience. There is such poetry and movement in the images and sounds that one is enraptured by the beauty of the images and devastated by the suffering. The opening shot of a tree is perhaps the most sublime shot of a tree that I have ever seen. It is not hard to see why The Cloud-Capped Star is considered one of the greatest films in all of Indian cinema.

HD, 1961, France, 53 min, Mario Ruspoli
Long overdue for rediscovery, this film should be regarded as a classic of direct cinema and a pioneer work. In what may be the first film to be shot in an mental institution, with many sessions of patients and doctors, it does not feel like a documentary (as Jean-Paul Sartre said of the film), but it demands that the audience look at mental illness as if we are experiencing it ourselves. 

35mm, 1965, Italy, 84 min, Elio Piccon
A rare discovery. It is noted in the programme book that Elio Piccon is one of the most overlooked Italian filmmakers, and it is obvious why. Part fiction, part ethnographical documentary, this film is brutal and demanding. It was dismissed upon release and largely forgotten. With echoes of Las Hurdes and Araya, coupled with a loose narrative, The Anti-Miracle is simply miraculous. Elio Piccon moves to this very remote village and lived there for months before shooting. Over the course of a year, whilst still living there, he films the inhabitants as they tell and act out their own stories, in their dialect. The clearing of a large marshland by hand in the dry season to create a river to await the rainy season in order for eel-fishing to resume, is an astounding feat of labour. 

Other noteworthy favourites, chronologically:

PADRE (rediscovered and restored)
35mm, 1912, Italy, 44 min, Giovanni Pastrone

35mm, 1916, USA, 70 min, Rex Ingram

35mm, 1916, USA, 54 min, Raoul Walsh

THE IMMIGRANT (restoration)
DCP, 1917, USA, 24 min, Charles Chaplin

EASY STREET (restoration)
DCP, 1917, USA, 26 min, Charles Chaplin

35mm, 1929, Great Britain, 70 min, Henrik Galeen

35mm, 1932, USA, 80 min, Raoul Walsh

35mm, 1936, USSR, 99 min, Ivan Pyr'ev

35mm, 1937, France, 99 min, Jean Grémillon

35mm, 1944, USSR, 100 min, Ivan Pyr'ev

JUNE 6TH AT DAWN (restoration)
35mm, 1945, France, 56 min, Jean Grémillon

35mm, 1955, USA, 103 min, Robert Aldrich

POINT BLANK (restoration)
35mm, 1967, USA, 92 min, John Boorman

TESS (restoration)
DCP, 1979, Great Britain, 171 min, Roman Polanski

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Restoration, Director’s Cut)
DCP, 1984, USA, 250 min, Sergio Leone

Until 2013…