Monday, September 30, 2019

The Climbers

China generally has had friendly relations with Nepal, yet it still has found a way to have a territorial dispute with the smaller nation. The area of contention is majestic Mt. Everest. The truth is, the famous mountain peak really ought to be under the jurisdiction of a free and independent Tibetan government. Regardless, producer Tsui Hark and Wu Jing, the star of the Wolf Warrior franchise will do their best to bolster China’s case with Daniel Lee’s The Climbers, which opens today in IMAX and this Friday on conventional screens.

In 1960, Fang Wuzhou led the first Chinese expedition to successfully summit Everest. Unfortunately, they lost their camera and a good portion of their party along the way, so the international mountaineering establishment (including the Soviets who trained them) did not recognize their claims. For a while, the country went utterly insane with Maoist ideology, but by 1975 they were finally ready to mount another Everest campaign.

Fang will be the assault captain. Xu Ying, his college girlfriend and the love of his life, will serve as director of the meteorological team. Qu Songlin will be the deputy chief of the campaign, but he will have effective operational control (since the top boss is basically a political figure head). Qu was a veteran of the campaign, who has never forgiven Fang for saving his angry, bitter hide, instead of the camera. Jiebu will be the third returning veteran from 1960, who will lead the advance team.

As you would expect from anything Tsui produces, The Climbers has plenty of spectacle. Frankly, he and Lee throw so many avalanches and gale force winds at the mountaineers, it is hard to believe they could possibly have the strength to make it to the summit—and safely come back down again. As most fans of mountaineering and alpinist movies can tell you, the descent is the most dangerous part, but that challenge gets skipped over in the film’s coverage of both campaigns.

The stunt work and visual effects are impressive, but The Climbers is not nearly as engaging as other mountain climbing dramas, such as The Himalayas from South Korea and Climber’s High from Japan, because it lacks a human touch. Granted, it is hard to compete with Hwang Jung-min, who is always an electric screen presence, but the characters in Lee’s film always seem distractingly conscious of their roles striving for greater Chinese glory.

Wu Jing and Zhang Ziyi have decent star-crossed chemistry together, as Fang and Xu, but his strained relationship with Yi Zhang’s Qu comes across as forced, just like their inevitable reconciliation. There are about a dozen other task-fulfilling characters on the expedition, but they are largely indistinguishable from each other. That even includes Yang Guang, who is played by a surprise big name movie star during the epilogue set decades later. However, the most problematic portrayal might be that of the ethnic Tibetan Mudan, whose shared pride in the Chinese milestone will be an insult to most of the occupied Tibetan people.

There are three or four really tremendous hanging-from-the-mountain-face sequences in The Climbers, but the constant jingoistic propaganda often brings the drama to a screeching halt. As an example, much is made of a drive to measure the true altitude of Everest’s summit, but the 1975 measurement merely confirmed the findings of an Indian study conducted in 1955. Given its merits are all visual, The Climbers is probably best seen on IMAX, but anyone interested in the climber’s mindset should rent The Himalayas instead. Recommended only for fans of dangling-from-finger-tips action sequences, The Climbers opens today (9/30) in IMAX, at the AMC Empire and AMC 34th St.

The Baylock Residence Film Review

The Baylock Residence takes place during The Blitz of the 1940’s. After Susanna Baylock’s (Karen Henson) tragic death her sister, Patricia Woodhouse (Kelly Goudie) visits her home where she meets Annabel Blair (Sarah Wynne Kordas), Susanna’s help. Soon after her arrival Patricia discovers that she has inherited her sisters property. Things pick up rather quickly as some rather unusual events start to unfold.
Historical dramas and documentaries are something I am rather fond of. I love films that take place between the late 1800’s and early to mid 1900’s. When it comes to storytelling these time periods tend to have something very special about them. The Baylock Residence is no exception. As much as I appreciate American Cinema, British films will always have a special place in my heart. The location, wardrobe, and overall feel of this film are beautiful. It’s the perfect mixture of both a historical time period and a classic ghost story.
The overall character and plot development were both enjoyable. Both the set and costume designs look accurate for the time period. The only thing that isn’t accurate is the hair styles. A woman’s hair would be much shorter with more defined curls. I found the hair and make up to be more modern which is very common with the majority of films representing a past decade. A lot of films that deal with the paranormal tend to jump right in and I liked how this film didn’t do that. It doesn’t feel rushed and we get a glimpse into what Susanna’s life was like before her passing.
As I’ve mentioned before I do love this time period. I think it works really well with the story. If this film was set in present day I don’t think it would work nearly as well. It’s nice to see a film that is self aware and takes place in the 1940’s. I found this to be quite refreshing. Overall I liked this film. The characters are quite likable. Once you get further into the film you realize that things aren’t quite with the seem. This isn’t a cut and dry story and that’s what I like about it. My only complaint involves some of the cinematography. I think the film could use a little work in that department. With that being said, I give The Baylock Residence an 8/10. I highly suggest this for those of you who prefer a cohesive storyline over predictable jump scares and cheap tricks.

On the President's Orders (2019) opens Friday

All the more chilling for looking like a well-made thriller On The President's Orders is a warning to the world and the future of what can happen when madness rules a country.

Beginning with a speech from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte where he compares himself favorably to Hitler saying that he would massacre all of the drug addicts in the country like Hitler killed the Jews, the film then shifts to follow a command of police officers who have been tasked with changing the way they are doing things. The public is not happy with a police force that seemed to be out of control and highly corrupt. There are too many people dying in police involved shootings. So a new man is brought in. The film then follows as the police try to change their image and old ways begin to creep back (The higher ups are happy the number of police related deaths are down but unhappy it didn’t bring instant change) and talk of death squads begins to surface.

Slow boiling film makes you think that perhaps we are going to see some sort of change in the madness but as time goes on it becomes clear that any hope for change is not going to come easily. Watching the film I thought it was going to go one way but then I slowly began to realize that we really are in film noir territory and the darkness of men’s souls are still wandering around. There is a reason that one of the people we follow is a man responsible for picking up the bodies of those killed in the madness.

Having watched the film several hours ago I find I am still in a dark place. I feel slightly brutalized. Not from what is shown in the film so much as what the film doesn’t show but implies. As much as I would love to believe that all is skittle and beer and that the people who are tasked with trying to protect us have our best interests at heart. However this film makes clear that isn’t the case.

For me the scariest thing is it shows the dark side of humanity that here in America Trump is trying to harness. Trump has all but called for the same sort of treatment of illegal immigrants and those who aren’t white. He would gladly allow people to kill each other if he knew it would keep him in power and never come back to hurt him. On the other hand I don’t think Duterte really cares and he simply wants those he deems expendable removed.

This film is a stunner. Highly recommended when it opens Friday

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Pedro Almodóvar talks PAIN AND GLORY at the NYFF 2019 on September 29,2019

Pedro Almodóvar accepts the adulation of the audience while in the filmmaker's box

And here is the Q&A that followed the screening

(and apologies about the jitters and picture motion- I was in the next to last row and had to zoom in so the jostling of people going by me seems bigger than it was)

Pedro Almodóvar at The New York Film Festival September 29, 2019

Pedro Almodóvar at the second screening of PAIN AND GLORY
At the On Cinema talk
This is the great director watching the NYFF previews from behind the screen

Nate Hood's 400 words on ZOMBI CHILD (2019) NYFF 2019

Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is the special kind of artistic failure where you can see the reasoning amidst the ruins. All the various pieces are in place for something thought-provoking and challenging, but for whatever reason they fail to fit together. In this case we see a filmmaker attempt to reconcile their primitive transgressive instincts—honed through early experiments in the New French Extremity with explicit erotic dramas like The Pornographer [2001]—with a detached intellectual aloofness. At first the film’s bifurcated narrative compliments this approach, cutting as it does between Haiti in the 1960s and present day France.

The Haiti segments are a loose retelling of the story of Clairvius Narcisse, one of the only people credibly alleged with becoming a real-life zombie. These sequences are an absolute marvel, dwelling on the minutiae of the Haitian vodou rituals required to create, maintain, and control zombies as forced laborers in sugarcane fields. Bonello’s constant use of dimly lit close-ups creates a claustrophobic aesthetic that evokes the early zombie horror films of Victor Halperin and Jacques Tourneur without stealing from them. But these are intercut with mind-numbingly tedious scenes of schoolgirl drama at the Parisian Légion d’honneur boarding school where a lovesick teenager named Fanny (Louise Labeque) convinces her new Haitian immigrant friend Mélissa (Wislanda Louima) to help her steal the heart of a boy she loves. In between literal lectures about French liberalism and history, of course. Bonelle bashes us over the head with the intellectual rationale for the film: the Western exploitation of Third World narratives of tragedy and suffering. Narcisse’s captivity makes clear the capitalist origins of the modern zombie myth born from the transatlantic slave trade—black people are kidnapped, enslaved, and forced to work the rest of their lives producing sugarcane. Meanwhile Fanny’s motives to appropriate vodou are as vapid and hollow as her pathetic attempts at poignancy in her midnight meetings with her secret literary sorority.

The problem is these boarding school sequences can’t seem to commit themselves to any singular purpose, switching between bitchy classmate intrigue, lurid sexual daydreams, and over-padded character moments such as Fanny, Mélissa, and their friends reciting an entire rap song in a single static take. By the time it finally builds to something in the last twenty minutes—Possessions! Black magic! Baron Samedi in all his glory!—we’ve long lost our patience and interest.

Rating: 4/10

College Behind Bars (2019) NYFF 2019

College Behind Bars is a very good look at the Bard University program that gives inmates in the New York prison system a chance at a college education. Over the course of four episodes the series follows several inmates over the course of the studies and we get to see them and the changes becoming better educated has on their lives in prison and hopefully outside.

I need to make a full disclosure at the start, I was given the four episodes to watch about three weeks before they premiered at the NYFF where they are running in marathon screenings. I am not sure how those seeing the film reacted to the film when it was run as a four hour movie, but my attempt to do that failed about ten or twenty minutes into the second episode. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the material, rather I felt that I needed to take time to process what I was seeing. Watching it all in one shot made it start to compress a bit, things began to run together. When the feeling came on I stopped and I walked away and finished the second episode several hours later and then I spaced out the remaining two episodes over the next two days. I mention the need to space things out because as good as the series is, and it’s a great series, the basic idea of the film runs very close to several other documentaries that talk about the life changing effect prison programs have on inmates lives. Honestly we’ve seen this before and watching the film in a block the film flattens and it can make you wonder why this is four hours. I stopped the marathon when I realized I had almost two and a half hours to go.

But College Behind Bars transcends the “been here and done that” feeling because the length of time allows us to really and truly see the difference the education makes in the lives of the inmates. We really see the men and women change over time. We are on the journey with them and not jumping through mere feel good moments. Additionally we get more details. We really get to know the people being profiled. And most importantly we become more solidly informed about the issues concerning providing programs like this. Having four hours to explore the people and issues results in something truly special.

And I’m glad I got to see it in pieces. I’m glad I got to ponder what I was seeing instead of being overwhelmed. I know had I seen this at one of the public screenings I simply would have been overwhelmed, all the information both personal and sociological would have crushed me making any sort of post screening discussion difficult.

Ultimately College Behind Bars is a great series. In this age where we are trying to reform criminal justice this series must be part of the discussion

The series screens again at the NYFF on September 30 (Tickets here)
It will air on PBS November 25 and 26.

Free Time (2019) NYFF 2019

I'm not sure it's really possible to review Manny Kirchheimer FREE TIME. It's not that there is anything wrong with the film, rather whether you like it or not will be determined entirely by whether you click with it or not,. It is very much like his DREAM OF A CITY which played at last year's New York Film Festival.

Made up entirely of silent footage shot by Kierchheimer and Walter Hess between 1958 and 1960 the film is simply a portrait of life on the streets of New York City. There is no plot, there are simply images set to music with sound effects added.  It is life happening before us from various vantage points.

Will you like it? I have no clue. If you liked the earlier DREAM OF A CITY this is a must. If you didn't stay away.  For me this worked, like the earlier film,  in fits and starts. Personally I love that the film exists as a record of old New York.

FREE TIME World Premiered at the NYFF earlier today and plays again tomorrow. For more information and ticket go here.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Pictures from Martin Scorsese's On Cinema talk at the NYFF 2019

Martin Scorsese gave an ON Cinema talk at the New York Film Festival this afternoon.  I know Lincoln Center will be posting it on line, but I just wanted to say some things. It was very good and very funny.  Scorsese and Kent Jones started talking about Hugo Haas and his one of a kind films, then moved on to Ari Aster and HEREDITARY  and Joanna Hogg whose ARCHIPELAGO at first confounded him (he shut it off 20 minutes in). It was funny and gloriously unexpected with only one or two mentions of his own films. You'll want to see it when it posts.

And now some pictures from the talk

Looking over his hit list

Glass Cabin Short Film Review

Scarlett (Revell Carpenter) an experienced tennis player has a brief encounter with the caretaker of the glass cabin (David Mar Stefansson) she’s staying in. Although he seems friendly enough, something about him just doesn’t seem right. Are her fears of his intentions irrational or does she have cause for concern?
Glass Cabin isn’t your traditional thriller. It isn’t about fictional creatures or the boogeyman. Its about the meeting of two human beings and what happens when you’re alone. This is a scenario that could happen to anyone. We all know that the monster under your bed isn’t real, but humans do exist and they are everywhere. I found it quite fascinating that the majority of this project had no music. I think if it had it would have been far too distracting. The music that is used is very dark yet beautiful. String instruments can produce some of the most terrifying sounds in cinema. This was a brilliant decision.
It is very rare that I find a story that can survive without proper character development. This is a perfect example of how a writer can create a story about a character that we know nothing about, yet we are invested in the tale being told and how it ends. This short is 14 minutes and 51 seconds in length. There wasn’t a single moment that was wasted and I think that takes a lot of raw talent and intuition.
If you’re looking for a short that values its time and uses a realistic situation to trigger your own fears then Glass Cabin is for you. I give this story a 10/10. I am giving it this score for its originality, proper time management, and ability to create a reaction from its audience. Glass Cabin was written and directed by Can Türedi. Executive Produced by Maya Korn, and Produced by Luca Marcovici.

Ariela Rubin on Bacurau (2019) NYFF 2019

Bacurau is a Brazilian movie about a small town in Brazil, which isn't even listed on the map. It has a close knit community. The film starts with a death in the community and everyone coming together. We meet the sleazy corrupt mayor who the town hates and who is trying to get reelected by bribing the community with expired food and drugs that don’t have labels on them. We see several people putting something in their mouth, which I assume is drugs, but I'm not sure I know the point of this. Shortly after, the town's water truck arrives with bullet holes, horses from a farm nearby run into town, cell phone coverage stops working, and people start turning up dead. We soon find that a group of American foreigners are killing them for fun.

 This is a messed up film. It's a violent film. So many questions are left unanswered. I saw this movie because of the hype and it winning the grand jury prize at Cannes, but I really don't understand how it won that award. Maybe some people might like this movie, but it wasn't my thing.

BACURAU plays October 1 and 2 at NYFF. For more information and tickets go here.

Three Great Actors -NYFF 2019

This is my favorite pictureof Pesci, Pacino and DeNiro at IRISHMAN  press conference. Yes I know it's included in the Pacino/DeNiro group of pictures I posted but I love it so much had to highlight it

Group Shots from the NYFF 2019 press conference for THE IRISHMAN

Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro at the NYFF 2019 press conference for THE IRISHMAN

I'm posting the pictures of Pacino and DeNiro together because the ones of them together came out best