February 07, 2016

Coffee Break

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Jake Gyllenhaal in End of Watch (David Ayer - 2012)

February 04, 2016

Paolo Gioli: The Complete Filmworks

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Paolo Gioli - 1969-2014
Raro Video Region 1 DVD

It's been forty years since I took P. Adams Sitney's class at New York University on what has been called underground, avant-garde, or experimental films. I wish he was around to help me articulate what we have here. Not only does this three disc collection include all of Gioli's films, but there is also an interview, and a short documentary of Gioli trying to duplicate an experiment by Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid film, regarding color perception. There's over eight hours of stuff here, and it is a bit overwhelming to watch even over the course of two days. In Paola Gioli's case, the sometimes misapplied term of "experimental cinema" is appropriate as many of the films were made with in such a way that the results could not be anticipated.

Gioli primarily seems to be interested in the nature of film, specifically the strips of celluloid, how images are recorded and manipulated, as well as how film reacts to different kinds of elements both within and outside of nature. Gioli took up filmmaking after coming to New York City, a young painter, reacting to the explosion of the arts in the late Sixties, and how art and artists informed each other's work. The first film, Tracce di Tracce was created mostly by Gioli's fingerprints painted on the frames to create a series of abstract images. It's the kind of work that evokes Stan Brakhage or Len Lye. Gioli was unaware of Brakhage at the time, but, like Brakhage , most of his work is silent. Gioli's other films have similarities with other filmmakers. In his own way, Gioli makes me think of Ken Jacobs reworking the silent film, Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son. Taking the 1905 film, shot as a series of tableaus, with a stationary camera filming the action from a distance, Jacobs broke down the film into a series of shots, examining the the multiple bits of action within each of the original shots, stretching a five minute short to almost two hours.

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The comparison with Ken Jacobs is not to be taken too closely. What Gioli does, is take film either shot by himself, or from other sources, and in addition to closing in on parts of the original image, will create mirror, reverse or negative images. There are also smaller images inserted within the frame. There are film strips exposed through pin hole cameras, with Gioli's hand used as a shutter. Film strips are also seen traveling unmoored from the sprockets. Gioli also "animates" still photos, sometimes creating little narratives with unrelated shots, as well as using different film formats. Additionally, Gioli would build his own cameras to create films that were independent of exposing film at 18 or 24 frames per second, or restrained by the sprockets in a conventional camera.

The thirty-eight films, all of varying lengths, are grouped together roughly by theme, and techniques explored by Gioli. The DVD set comes with a booklet that includes an essay discussing the history of avant-garde and experimental films in Italy, and Gioli's place within that history, an essay by David Bordwell on what he calls Gioli's "vertical cinema", an interview with Gioli, and notes by Gioli that provide the English language translation of the film titles, and a brief description on how each film was created.

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February 02, 2016

The Beauty Inside

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Byuti Insaideu
Baik - 2015
Well Go USA BD Region A

In its first incarnation, The Beauty Inside was an episodic and interactive program made for Youtube, under the direction of Drake Doremus. The main character, Alex, wakes up every morning to find that he is physically a different person, with a possible change in age, and gender. From what I read about this version, the various actors who portrayed Alex gave the role their own interpretation.

The Korean film version keeps the essential premise, but as part of a narrative story. There are reportedly twenty actors as Woo-jin, some for several scenes, others for just a few seconds, but there the character has some shared mannerisms, providing consistent traits in the various incarnations. Woo-jin is a furniture maker who lives and works alone, his only contacts with the outside world being his mother and his long time friend, Sang-beck. The embrace of the solitary life is challenged upon meeting furniture saleswoman, E-soo. Attraction turns into a few days of dating when Woo-jin appears as a handsome young man. One can stay awake and not change appearances for only a few days. Woo-jin reveals his secret to E-soo. For a while, E-soo seems to be able to live with constant change of identity.

Both E-soo and Woo-jin are 29 years old. There is no discussion, but their relationship is chaste, where sleeping together is no euphemism. The film sidesteps any controversy over such matters as age, gender and race. Woo-jin appears as a European man, a grandmotherly Korean woman, a woman of African descent, and a young boy, among his many entities. One might argue that the relationship is platonic to emphasize the idea of inner beauty. What is interesting to note is that the only versions of Woo-jin that E-soo is seen kissing are played by Koreans, with Woo-jin in female form almost, but not quite pressing lips with E-soo.

I'm not certain about the significance, but both Woo-jin and his mother have their livelihoods based on craftwork. Woo-jin makes one of a kind pieces of furniture, often for customer specifications. The mother sells yarn, and in one scene demonstrates knitting for E-soo.

This is the first feature by Baik following a career of making commercials. There is some visual play, mostly in the use of jump cuts between the different actors as Woo-jin, usually in bridges between scenes. Han Hyo-joo, as E-soo, carries most of the dramatic weight, as has a couple of Best Actress nominations for her performance here. There are some humorous moments, as well as a couple that might tug at the heartstrings. Still, I wish that there was a filmmaker brave enough to address the possibilities and implications that are shied away from here.

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January 31, 2016

Coffee Break

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Dax Shepard and Tom Arnold in Hit & Run (Dax Shepard & David Palmer - 2012)

January 26, 2016

The Assassin

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Cike Nie Yinniang
Hou Hsiao-Hsien - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

For those who may not have had the opportunity to see The Assassin theatrically, rest assured that the blu-ray keeps the 4:3 aspect ratio, with the exception of the "zither scene". The extraordinary use of color is here as well. Still, there are certain moments which may be lost unless the film is seen on a relatively large screen.

The blu-ray comes with four very short "making of" vignettes which are worth seeing because Hou discusses his intentions when he made the film, as well as his method of filmmaking. Cinematographer Mark Lee, costumer and production designer Hwarng Wern-Ying, and stars Shu Qi and Chang Chen also contribute their thoughts on working with Hou. What makes these bonus features important is that The Assassin needs to be understood and appreciated on its own terms, rather than the genre expectations that usually come with a wuxia film.

Hou undercuts those expectations by keeping the fight scenes brief, and by often filming those scenes from a distance. In a sword fight against several soldiers, Hou has a couple of shots of Shu Qi and her adversaries in medium shots before cutting to a long shot where the characters are barely seen in the distance, the action mostly obscured by trees in the forest. In a duel with a swords woman wearing a gold mask, Hou immediately begins with the two women engaged, sword against sword, jumping into what would be the middle of the scene in traditional narrative filmmaking. There is a little bit of wire work, including a scene with Chang Chen chasing Shu Qi across a roof top, a small nod to the more classic wuxia film.

Hou is known for his long takes. There are a couple of shots where the the camera doesn't move, where the viewer needs to concentrate to notice the movement within the frame. Hou talks about letting nature dictate some of the shots, waiting for the wind to blow, making him akin to David Lean, but on a more intimate scale. One of the advantages of being able to see The Assassin on home video is that allows the viewer the leisure to contemplate the carefully arranged palate of colors, the silk costumes and curtains, and use of light and shadow.

This is Shu Qi's third film with Hou. Mostly dialogue free, and seemingly expressionless, Hou deliberately makes Nie Yinniang enigmatic. It's a fitting performance in a film where family relationships also have much larger political meanings, and where what is unspoken can be more important that what is said.

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January 24, 2016

Coffee Break

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"Jennifer Jason Leigh" in Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson - 2015)

January 21, 2016

Ip Man 3

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Wilson Yip - 2015
Well Go USA Enterainment

I'm not sure how factual Ip Man 3 is beyond the famed martial arts teacher having a school in Hong Kong, taking a young Bruce Lee as his student, and having his his wife die in 1960. The real Ip Man was born in 1893, and would have been 66 or 67 years old in 1959 through 1960 when the film takes place. The charitable thing here is to think of Ip Man 3 as a fictional film with a couple of factoids as well as a handful of facts tossed in.

That said, the pleasure here is watching Donnie Yen in what he claims to be his final martial arts film. Whether it really is or not remains to be seen. That the film is getting a wider theatrical release in the United States gives the audiences anticipating Rogue One: A Star Wars Story the opportunity to see Donnie Yen doing what he does best on the big screen. Yen, a bit past 50 years old, is still remarkable in his athleticism. There's a kind of grace in Yen's movements that makes me think of Gene Kelly. And Yen is so self-confident that he has no problem seen with the noticeably taller Lynn Hung as his wife. Overlook the gimmick that he's about to fight Mike Tyson. Prior to the fight, Yen takes a position with one leg in a crouching position, with another leg extended forward on the floor, holding that position, staying perfectly still. One of the things I like about Donnie Yen is his ability to convey a sense of concentration, of thinking and anticipating his moves, as well as those of his opponents.

Wilson Yip films the martial arts with relatively lengthy shots with two or more fighters within the shots, giving a sense of how the opponents are interacting with each other, as well as a sense of space within the scene. By lengthy, I'm still talking about seconds, but still long enough for the actors to make to make three or four moves, and give the viewer the chance to see each punch, kick or block. Yip's lengthiest shots are relatively elaborate, with the camera completely overhead and moving following Yen and an opponent fighting through hallways and stairs. One would wish that with some of the dazzling cinematography, that Ip Man 3 could be seen in 3D as in Hong Kong, and in March, in mainland China.

Mike Tyson as a badass gangster might have been somewhat more believable had someone covered that tribal tattoo. Overlooking that anachronism, Tyson is impressive punching a speed bag. Yen also gets into a fight in an elevator with a Thai boxer, played by Sarut Khanwilai. If Sarut looks a lot like the most famous martial arts star from Thailand, that's no coincidence, as he's Tony Jaa's stunt double in the film Skin Trade. As Ip Man's friend and rival, Max Zhang's performance here suggests potential for taking some of the roles that would have previously been considered for Yen or Jet Li. Zhang had previously appeared in the most critically acclaimed film about Ip Man, The Grandmaster, along with action director Yuen Woo-Ping.

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