August 14, 2018

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

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Sophie Fiennes - 2017
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Bloodlight is a word attributed to the Jamaican musician/production team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare referring to the red light indicating that the recording session is in progress. Bami is a kind of grain used for meals that has a particular kind of versatility in the ways it can be prepared and served. The title is an indication of the structure of Sophie Fiennes documentary that switches between primarily between specially staged performances in Dublin, Ireland, and Jones visiting her family and recording in Jamaica.

Fiennes first gets the viewers' attention with footage of Jones performing "Slave to the Rhythm". Jones is wearing a stylized skull mask and a loose blue blouse of sorts that extends to a billowing cape, over her form fitting corset. This is cut to alternate with footage of Jones performing the song, with a cat-like mask and corset, while spinning a hula hoop at the same time. With her thin, imposing frame and energetic stage act, Jones looks no different that she did at the time that her celebrity made its initial impact in the early Eighties. I wouldn't be surprised if someone like Beyonce was taking notes as Grace Jones hardly looks like someone who just turned 70.

As someone who was only marginally familiar with Jones' music, what is most striking is learning about the autobiographical elements of some of her songs. The family gatherings are in part discussions of the family history, of the prominence of the Jones family in Spanish Town on her father's side, and the notoriety of the Williams family, with Jones' mother considered by her paternal grandfather to be unworthy of Jones' father. There is also much discussion of the impact that Jones' maternal grandfather, known as "Mas P" had on the family.

The structure of the film is not linear. Fiennes cuts from one location to another without titles indicating time or place. As Fiennes explains, primarily in the second of two commentary tracks, the film takes place in a continuous present tense. The viewer fills in some of the details through observation and listening. The shape of the film is in some ways similar to Fiennes' earlier Over your Cities Grass will Grow, about environmental artist Anselm Kiefer which similarly observes Kiefer at work, alternating with footage of his buildings and tunnels, letting the work speak for itself. It was Fiennes documentary on Jones brother, Noel Jones, and his church, Hoover Street Revival (2002) that brought Grace Jones in contact with Sophie Fiennes. That Jones was asked previously to be the subject of a documentary, but would only do so on her terms, was the impetus for this collaboration.

One of the clearest examples of Jones demanding to be taken seriously and perform on her own terms is in a sequence in Paris. She rehearses her disco version of Edith Piaf's "La Vie in Rose" while surrounded by young female dancers, all dressed in white baby doll lingerie. To describe the staging of the musical number as "tacky" would be too kind. Fiennes manages to find in the audience two young girls, clearly bored with the expression of students waiting for a lecture to be over, surrounded by an enthusiastic audience moving in rhythm to the song. Afterwards, Jones expresses her frustration that someone thought that the use of the dancers was an appropriate idea.

Of the two commentary tracks, the first, with Jones, Fiennes and moderator Judith Casselberry, primarily is of interest in amplifying some of Jones' family history. For myself, the second track with Fiennes discussing her working methods with critic Ian Smith was of greater interest. There is also the appearance of Jones and Fiennes at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from last April, with the star even more uninhibited and bawdy than the woman we see on the screen.

August 12, 2018

Coffee Break

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Ahlam Canaan and Sana Jammelieh in In Between (Maysaloun Hamoud - 2017)

August 08, 2018

Street Mobster

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Gendai Yakuza: Hitokiri Yota
Kinji Fukasaku - 1972
Arrow Video BD Region A

The title roughly translates as "Modern Yakuza: Murderous Hoodlum". The title character as played by Bunta Sugawara, is undoubtedly a hoodlum, but arguably is not yakuza, at least not in the classic sense. His character, Okita Isamu, and by extension, Fukasaku, expresses disdain for the ritualized aspects of yakuza life. Unlike the more classic films, no one extends an empty palm as a form of greeting. The viewer sees bandaged hands, but the only moment of cutting a pinkie finger as a sign of contrition is Isamu's impromptu and ultimately futile gesture. There is no honor among thieves here.

The basic narrative outline is familiar, following a gangster's rise and fall. Announcing itself as being a fictionalized account of true events was part of a new trend at the time for yakuza films. Fukasaku, who rewrote the screenplay to help set it apart from similar films, mixes hand-held documentary style filmmaking with dutch angles, freeze frames, and a few highly stylized visual moments. The "true story" aspect is anchored with Isamu's off-screen narration, introducing himself as having been born on August 15, 1945, the same day that Japan officially surrendered on World War II.

Isamu is shown having a difficult childhood, in extreme poverty, with an uncaring mother who primarily earned money as a prostitute in the margins of Tokyo. This is followed by leading a street gang, and imprisonment for killing the member of an established yakuza gang. Isamu could belong to one of the gangs that use legitimate business fronts, with members dressed in uniform black business suits. What keeps him as a perpetual outsider is his attraction to getting into fights with other gang members, especially those he perceives of as arrogant.

The yakuza films in general are about masculine societies. Isamu steps into contemporary Tokyo of 1972 after several years in prison, noting the influence of "hippie culture" with men with long hair looking similar to girls. One might argue that the yakuza films, and the existence of the yakuza, are a reflection of crisis of masculinity following Japan's defeat, a sense of humiliation that was previously unknown to the country. Isamu chooses to live in a way that he is always physically asserting himself, and his sense of being a man. His one relationship with a woman is with a prostitute that he raped and sold to a brothel prior to his imprisonment. His sense of entitlement to be with other women conflicts with his pained sense of loyalty to her. Isamu's uncompromising sense of self ultimately leads to his inevitable violent death.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Tom Mes, helping to position Street Mobster within the careers of Kinji Fukusaku and Bunta Sugawara. Mes also talks about actor Noboru Ando's early life in crime, with his acting career taking place following six years in prison. Close-ups of Ando show a knife scar on his left cheek. Mes also discusses how Street Mobster marked a change in yakuza films from the "romantic chivalry" series that frequently starred Ken Takakura, the type that Paul Schrader cited when introducing the genre to U.S. cinephiles. There is also a booklet with notes by Jasper Sharp that is of interest for going into more detail on Sugawara's life and early acting career.

August 05, 2018

Coffee Break

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Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey in Irrational Man (Woody Allen - 2015)

August 02, 2018

The Great Game

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Le Grand Jeu
Nicolas Pariser. - 2015
Icarus Films / Distrib Films

Everything about The Great Game is muted. Not only the blues and oranges that dominate the images, but also the unheard bits of dialogue, and the action. A politician is murdered, hit by a car. What we see is a partial view of the politician walking out of the frame, followed by the car. But the viewer only hears the thud of the car, followed by the sight of loose newspaper pages fluttering in the aftermath.

The central character, Pierre Blum, is a failed novelist, described as distant, remote in his relationships. Whether the film is intended to reflect Blum's view of the world as seen by others, I can not say. There are some intriguing ideas here, although I suspect Pariser's debut film may be too cerebral even for those who have immersed themselves the films of Eric Rohmer, or more recently, Eugene Green.

Blum has been enlisted by power broker to anonymously write a book designed to provoke political discourse in France, as well as affect the career of a political rival. The publication turns out to not only be provocative, but life threatening for Blum, his patron, and various people in Blum's life. Maybe its very well hidden from the public, but it was hard for me to imagine similar kind of machinations among such firebrands as Ann Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza.

This is one of the films I wish I could have liked better, primarily because of the cast. Those who follow French cinema would be more than familiar with Melvil Poupard, here as Blum, and Andre Dussollier as Paskin, the power broker. Clemente Poesy appears as the possible romantic interest for Blum who finds herself emotionally and politically compromised. Nicolas Pariser won the Louis Delluc Prize for Best First Film in 2015. After festival screenings, this film is now getting a U.S. release on home video formats.

July 31, 2018

Lou Andreas-Salome: The Audacity to be Free

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Cordula Kablitz-Post - 2016
Cinema Libre Studio R1 DVD

This is an intimate biography of a woman perhaps more famous now for her various liaisons than for her novels or philosophical works. The film jumps between two threads, of Andreas-Salome narrating her memoirs to the man who would eventually save her surviving writings, and the years between childhood in St. Petersburg, Russia, and her first meetings with Sigmund Freud. What would be the film's present tense is in the immediate aftermath of Hitler's book burning and ban on art and literature deemed decadent, as well as the practice of psychoanalysis in 1933. The past is primarily the last quarter of the 19th Century, with the restrictive Russian childhood giving way to a more free form existence primarily in Germany, as Andreas-Salome has varying relationships with Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as less famous men.

I am unable to vouch for the historical veracity of the film, but counting on absolute accuracy in any biographical film is a foolish endeavor. What is probably of greater interest is of how Andreas-Salome lived her life as much on her own terms as possible. This meant her choice of being in committed, though platonic relationships with some men, while sexually involved with others. The film shows how Andreas-Salome navigated through the various social and familial expectations that were placed on her, as well as how her writings inspired both men and women regarding a woman's role in society.

Kablitz-Post does make the interesting choice of establishing several of the film's settings by inserting her characters in period postcards. Less successful for me is the literal representation of God as seen in a childhood memory, with fluffy white hair and long beard. Perhaps it can be argued that this is how a child might imagine God, yet it strikes me as problematic considering that Andreas-Salome spent her life questioning various aspects of Christianity, even as a child. There is also a scene where the very earnest Rilke, now a successful poet, tries to woo his muse by telling her that he can not sleep, breathe or basically exist without her as a permanent part of his life. I was ready for Rilke to burst into song with the old Barry Manilow hit, "Can't Smile without You".

The home video version comes with an interview with Kablitz-Post. This is her first narrative film following several documentaries, primarily for German television. I'm intrigued that one of Kablitz-Post's previous films is about the iconic German New Wave star, Nina Hagen, although others, I am certain, would be eager to see the documentary on actor Helmut Berger.

July 29, 2018

Coffee Break

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Pierre Etaix and an unidentified actor in Yoyo (Pierre Etaix - 1965)