November 24, 2014

Touch of the Light

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Ni guang fei xiang
Chang Jung-chi - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Like the use of color in the film, any drama in Touch of the Light is muted. Based on part of the life of blind pianist Huang Yu-siang, there are no crushing lows or overly triumphant highs. There is an ebb and flow of small obstacles and modest victories, giving the story some more of a sense of reality.

Chang and Huang knew each other at the university they were attending in Taipei. A documentary short made by Chang of Huang was seen by Wong Kar-wai who encouraged Chang to make a feature. The film is about Huang's first year away from home, with both the challenge of being the first blind piano student in Taiwan's university system, as well as learning how to live somewhat independently. The story is given a dramatic framework by cross-cutting with a story about a young woman, Jie, who has all but given up on her dreams of being a professional dancer, slogging through life working at a juice stand. The blind pianist and the aspiring dancer meet when Huang is spotted having difficulties crossing a busy intersection. While there is no romance, at least in the traditional sense, the low-wattage sparks between Huang and actress Sandrine Pinna seem to have been enough to help the film's commercial viability in Asia.

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From the little in English that I've been able to read, the inclusion of Jie was not the only fictionalized part of Huang's life as portrayed in the film. What does seem truthful is Huang's reluctance to participate in competitions, where the students demonstrate their musical abilities in the form of small ensembles. That reluctance stems from both the assumption stated by some that have Huang winning as a kind of compensation for being, as well as the self-doubts created by overhearing that assumption expressed. Not stated in the film, but known to that Taiwanese audience, is that Huang has validated himself as a professional musician.

Chang does makes some interesting choices visually, using out of focus shots to convey Huang's visual impairment, as well as use of sound which for Huang was highly developed, be it the tinkling of ice, the rumbling of motors, or scratching the surface of a wall. Quick shots of hands and legs emphasis life as a tactile experience. One humorous scene has Huang playing a percussive version of "Flight of the Bumblebee" by tapping against his mouth and teeth. Huang also contributed to the film's score. Someone in Taiwan was observant of Hollywood's habit of awarding Oscars to movies about the physically challenged, with Touch of the Light offered as the Foreign Language Film submission last year.

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November 22, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 - Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter


David Zellner - 2014

Though Alexander Payne's relation to this film was as Executive Producer, Kumiko might be seen as something of a companion piece to his own Nebraska. Both are road trip films with people certain of the prize at the end of their destination, no matter how unrealistic it may seem, no matter what doubts others express, no matter what obstacles seem to get in the way. As humorous as the premise may seem, about a Japanese woman convinced of the reality of a scene of buried money in the Coen Brothers' Fargo, this is not played for laughs, although there are some moments of humor.

Rinko Kukuchi's Kumiko is an aging "office lady" in Tokyo. By aging, she is twenty-nine and single when most women in that position have left by twenty-five and are married. The lowest in the pecking order, Kumiko is the one to get tea for the boss and go on errands on his behalf. You can tell by looking at her face, and disheveled appearance, that life has beaten her up. Kumiko would rather be alone in her cramped apartment with her pet rabbit, Bunzo, than be out in the world.

The discovery of a worn VHS tape of Fargo with its announcement at the beginning that the film is a true story are all Kumiko needs to inspire her quest which brings her to snowy Minnesota, with her collection of maps. When Kumiko arrives in Minneapolis, the 1965 song, "Dream", by Pete Drake is on the soundtrack. The song itself, with Drake's "talking" steel guitar, sounds like something from another world, metallic and distorted. But there are parts of the movie that suggested to me that Kumiko's life was weaving in and out of dreams, without any kinds of the usual visual cues that announce themselves, but with certain details that seem out of place.

When Kumiko's boss has, what is in his mind, a friendly discussion about Kumiko's career, the options presented are the most traditional choices. Kumiko responds about making her own path. In a way that's as indirect as Kumiko's path, the film is about both dreams and tenacity. Where it lends itself also to being understood as some kind of fairy tale is in Kumiko's identifiable red hooded jacket. There is no big, bad wolf, although there is one possibly wild dog.

Where there is humor, it is often found in static camera shots, with Kikuchi's actions within the frame, simply observing her, and letting the action speak for itself. The observational humor also extends to some cultural misunderstandings with a couple of Minnesotans trying to help Kumiko. And as wry as these moments are, it gives way to a smile at a satisfying ending.

November 21, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 - The Patent Wars


Hannah Leonie Prinzler - 2014

Another documentary that's a first person journey, though without the sense of humor of, say, Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. From the discovery that a human gene can be patented, and what that means, to travels from Germany, to the U.S. and India.

The history of patents begins with inventions - the lightbulb, the telephone, and somehow evolved into bits and pieces of nature, genes and seeds being the most common. The impact of a particular gene patented meant that a woman with a certain kind of cancer can only have a test available by the one company that has patented the gene, and if not covered by her insurance company, would have to pay a hefty fee for that test.

In India, there is the fight not only to farm certain kinds of rice, but also inexpensive ways to employ technology to do farming. There are also visits to those organizations that attempt to work on behalf of the common good, be it in terms of making information available, or in some way circumventing corporate greed.

A bit closer to home, James Dyson, he of the vacuum cleaners that carry his name, discusses the extraordinary amount of money he spent to patent his devices, as well as money spent on a patent infringement by Hoover.

Thought provoking stuff, to be sure. But there were times when I would have like some of the Teutonic sternness to have be modified with a little bit of Yankee humor.

November 20, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 - Norway


Yiannis Veslemes - 2014
Horsefly Productions

If you only have time in your life to see one disco vampire movie in this lifetime, Norway is the one to see.

I'm pretty certain that not all Greek films are as idiosyncratic as the ones lately making the festival circuit and the occasional stateside release. Norway exists in a hazy space somewhere between Dogtooth and its offsprings, and the spare change fantasies of Edgar G. Ulmer. There's no denying that the opening travel of Zano, the vampire, is composed of shots of a model train set, or that Athens is first seen as a series of cutout skyscrapers, but that is part of the charm.

With his blond shag haircut and droopy mustache, Zano looks like an aging rocker. Rather than wait for the elusive Jimmy the Gravedigger, Zano shows up at the Disco Zardoz, a neighborhood dive really, where he begins one very long night, lead by the dark, attractive Alice to an unexpected place.

That the film takes place in a city called Athens is as close to reality as it gets here. Zano finds another vampire, a cadaver thin junkie, who has forsaken blood for heroin. Characters bleed yellow or blue. Zano is taken to do what is described as a job, to bestow eternal life on one very old man, but even vampires, or at least this one, has standards.

Even though Zano mentions that the story takes place in 1984, the year is no more literal than Athens, mostly a collection of empty buildings and a nightlife of punks, drunks, and the down and out. As Zano, Vangelis Mourikis hardly looks like the classic vampire, not thin, and certainly not elegant in his manners. And unlike the vampires that stand still and glower, Zano just wants to boogie, ideally with any reasonably attractive girl that might be available. Even when there is no music, Zano can't stop bopping away. Call it "Saturday Night Fever Dream".

Veslemes is smart enough to not stretch things out further than needed. Even at less than seventy-five minutes, this nighttime journey is on the leisurely side. While there is some adherence to vampire lore, genre purists might be taken aback when Zano has a taste of soup spiced with garlic. This is not your daddy's vampire movie, although between giving the vampire legend new twists with films like The Lost Boys, or giving an old chestnut new life, with rock soundtracks for Nosferatu provides some kind of context for the kind of liberties Veslemes takes with Norway. Suffice to say this is one strange, little film.

November 19, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 - Man from Reno


Dave Boyle - 2014
Eleven Arts

It's an American independent film, and not one of those so-called indies from a studio. Most of the dialogue is in Japanese. As far as genres go, I think it safe to describe this as neo-noir. And it works.

Maybe one of the things in favor of Man from Reno is that it takes just enough visual and narrative elements from classic noir without any obvious kinds of homages that some filmmakers employ, the kind that tell the "knowing" film viewer that the director has seen Out of the Past, Detour or has read the collected works of Cornell Woolrich. On the other hand, I would be surprised if Dave Boyle and co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman weren't familiar with the films and writers often cited.

Still, it is probably fitting that much of the story takes place in San Francisco, home of The Maltese Falcon. San Francisco alternates with the fictional San Marco County, the kind of place past by if you're driving between the bay area and Nevada. Sheriff Paul Del Moral is driving on an empty road, in fog so thick you can barely see anything in front of your nose. After checking out what appears to be an abandoned town car, Del Moral accidentally strikes down a man walking on the road. The man is taken to the local hospital, only to disappear. In the meantime, Japanese mystery writer, Aki, tiring of her popular series of novels about Inspector Tanabe, does her own disappearing act, leaving Tokyo for San Francisco, meeting old friends, and plotting the end of her fictional creation. Del Moral and Aki are connected by a series of initially unrelated events, with Aki finding herself as a protagonist in her own real life mystery. Among the things to ponder is a suitcase with a head . . . of lettuce.

As the film progresses, it becomes a story of multiple hidden identities, eventually veering into an unexpected ending. Would the film have worked as well had many of the characters not been Japanese, or had everyone speaking English? I can't answer that except that we would have missed one funny scene with Aki and a friend discussing how Americans mispronounce Japanese words (and yeah, I'm guilty). What is refreshing is to have a film with the kind of racial and ethnic mix usually not seen in most American films.

It is because of the casting that Man from Reno features actors who would more typically be relegated to supporting roles, especially Pepe Serna as Del Moral. Ayako Fujitani plays Aki, the thirty-something writer fleeing from celebrity into a trap she could never imagine. Kazuki Kitamura portrays Aki's mysterious lover, and I had forgotten that I had seen him previously in the two Thermae Romae films. What is also nice is that Boyle's characters seem reasonably realistic, when too many filmmakers confuse quirkiness or eccentricities as originality. Man from Reno has rightly proven itself to be a crowd pleaser in previous film festivals, and is well worth seeking out.

November 18, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 - Thou wast Mild and Lovely

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Josephine Decker - 2014
Cinelicious Pics

Considering the hubbub over Christopher Nolan's sound mix for Interstellar, anyone who was upset by that film's use of occasionally inaudible dialogue would best avoid Josephine Decker's work here. As for something resembling a straightforward narrative, you won't find that here either, as some bits and pieces of information are left out, especially in the ending, which producer Laura Heberton assured the festival audience, was deliberately ambiguous.

And I felt like I knew less about the main character, a young woman named Sarah, when the film ended. Her voiceover narration mentions a lover, no name, or even gender, is mentioned. The camera wanders around the small farm Sarah calls home, with a close up of a threatening dog. Sarah appears to be in her late teens Tossing a headless chicken with an older, bearded man, it turns out that the two are father and daughter. A man named Akin is the hired hand, although the father, Jeremiah, doesn't have much faith in his abilities to do the work. Not much about Akin is revealed, although it is indicated that he failed in some kind of venture involving beer hops. Although it is mentioned that Akin is married, he can't keep himself from spying on Sarah through a partially opened door, wearing just her bra and panties.

But what is really onscreen are hints of a story. Whatever tension is between Sarah and Jeremiah is ratcheted by Akin's presence. There is a mention of previous hired hands having dissatisfied Jeremiah, making one wonder if anything more suspicious had happened in the past. As the film progresses, Decker demands that the viewer fill in the blanks. Those seeking fully explanations will no doubt be frustrated, as the film concluded with as many questions as answers.

The discordant music by Mary Herron and Jeff Young reminded me of the kind of music associated with the Kronos Quartet, music composed by Penderecki being a more famous example. Out of left field is a brief moment of Betty Hutton singing "Murder, He Says", from the movie of the same name. And the song is a giveaway to what will later happen. But I would also like to think that George Marshall's comedy with naive Fred MacMurray stumbling upon the farm belonging to a lunatic family with a comely daughter provided some of the inspiration as much as the oft-stated, and more culturally respectable East of Eden. More accurately, thou wast wild and lovely.

November 17, 2014

Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 - An Evening with Lawrence Jordan

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"Larry Jordan is a determined explorer who has changed the direction of his film work a number of times. Starting with psychodramas, he has gone through very personal family-oriented films and on to highly accomplished animated collages, notably Duo Concertantes"
Sheldon Renan - from An Introduction to the American Underground Film (1967)

And maybe I'm alone on this, but I wish that the program of Jordan's films, presented last night at the Sie Film Center, had offered a broader scope of his work. The only break from the animated collages was the inclusion of Water Light, made from three rolls of 16mm Kodachrome shot during Jordan's time in the Merchant Marines, around 1953, of his ship following a storm.

Jordan and Stan Brakhage were friends from their time at Denver's South High School. It was fitting that Jordan be a recipient of the Starz Film Festival "Stan Brakhage Vision Award".

The films, including a restored version of Our Lady of the Sphere showed something of an evolution of Jordan's work. Basically using a visual non sequitur of a rolling ball, or circus artistes appearing in seemingly at random in Victorian era engravings, Jordan would take some of the same visual ideas and use them in a variety of artwork, Persian or Indian, and add more cut outs, with ever increasing complexity.

A light Q & A session followed the screening, with Jordan mentioning the visual influences of Max Ernst and Georges Melies, and the pride of having Our Lady of the Sphere added to the National Film Registry in 2010. Jordan also mentioned that even with recurring visual motifs, there was no intended meaning, and everything was up to the viewer's interpretation.

Most of the films shown were made after Renan's brief portrait of Jordan was published. One might write things off to a colder than normal November here in Denver, but it struck me that at the time Renan's book was published, there was a much more active interest in non-narrative films almost fifty years ago, even from a casual audience. The last time I saw any of these films was essentially in a classroom in New York City, almost forty years ago. I liked the idea of seeing this work on a bigger screen with more comfortable seating, especially the complete Solar Sight trilogy.