October 26, 2020

Denver Film Festival - I am Greta

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Nathan Grossman - 2020
Hulu Originals

Following her speech at a United Nations environmental conference in Poland, Greta Thunberg takes a walk with her father. She has been invited as a youth representative following international television coverage of her Friday protests in front of Sweden's Parliament building. As far as Greta is concerned, she goes back to a normal life on Monday following her visit to Poland. As it tuns out, life has other plans. Setting aside the issues regarding climate change and any kind of agenda, I am Greta is also about the weight of celebrity.

I admit to this being an idiosyncratic reaction to Nathan Grossman's documentary and probably one that he never intended. I do not know if Grossman has even seen the documentary short Lonely Boy. That film was about Paul Anka, a popular singer of sixty years ago, post-Elvis, pre-Beatles. The documentary was produced in 1962 in a style then known as cinema verite, with handheld 16mm cameras observing, but not directing the action. The connection between Paul Anka and Greta Thunberg is not all that great in noting that both became internationally famous at the age of fifteen. Both films are about they each handle being in the spotlight. The big difference is that at the time of Lonely Boy, Anka was 20 years old and entrusted much of his future to experienced show business elders. I am Greta follows Ms. Thunberg from her early "strikes" in Sweden that were beginning to attract attention within the country, with her navigating her new found fame mostly on her own, and with certain amount of media savvy to look at celebrity with a suspicious eye.

Greta's father provides a mobile support system, traveling with Greta, acting as an emotional rock when needed, and sometimes acting as the strict parent at other times. At the very least, the film disproves the notion of Ms. Thunberg as the eternal scold, angry at the world for not taking climate change seriously. She does have in infectious laugh, not taking herself seriously, whether it's looking at a photo of herself and the Pope, reading negative Twitter messages, or making a lopsided cake with her mother.

The documentary itself grew out of serendipitous circumstances. Through a friend, Nathan Grossman was made aware of the Swedish school girl who was on a one person crusade. What was originally imagined to be a short, grew as the world took notice and Ms. Thunberg was traveling throughout Europe, with the film ending about a year later with her speech at the United Nations in 2019. What starts out being somewhat fun becomes less so as the schedule becomes more demanding. Added is the realization that no concrete action is taken by any governments, or what progress exists is in small increments. Ultimately, Greta Thunberg would rather be at home with her family than being someone else's photo op.

While I am Greta has currently been on the film festival circuit, it will be publicly available via Hulu in the U.S. in mid-November.

October 25, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Wet Season

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Re Dai Yu
Anthony Chen - 2019
Memento Films

The colors in Wet Season are muted. Mostly shades of blue and gray with some white and beige make up the limited palette. This is Anthony Chen's first film since Ilo Ilo in 2013, which also played at the Denver Film Festival that year. As indicated by the title, it is indeed the rainy season in Singapore, where the film takes place. Some aspects of the film may be confusing to those unfamiliar with some of the politics and culture of Singapore and Malaysia. The main characters experience a sense of displacement, finding themselves in situations they feel they can not control.

The film centers on Ling, a Chinese language teacher in a marriage with an emotionally remote husband. The husband is barely visible in his first appearances, virtually a shadow. Ling is also the main caregiver of her father-in-law, disabled by a stroke. Her high school students are are a classroom of indifferent young men. Ling's attempts to offer a remedial class are rejected by all but one student, Wei Lun. Private tutoring evolves into a more intimate relationship.

Politics are not far away. Ling is Malaysian-Chinese, in communication with her mother who lives far enough away from the government protests televised daily from Malaysia. While Ling's classes in Mandarin are required based on assumed use in business, even the school principal speaks primarily English. Chinese diaspora culture in film is most obvious with Wei Lun's admiration for Jackie Chan and his proficiency in wushu, culminating in a solo display for a school competition. Wei Lun and Ling's father-in-law bond over watching two martial arts films by King Hu, A Touch of Zen and Come Drink with Me on TV, both considered Hong Kong films by a filmmaker who made Taiwan his home.

In an interview, Chen stated: "I explore identity in my films, I explore the definition of what relationships are. I explore how complex relationships are. I’m not here to to dish out simple answers. I like to think of my cinema as a mirror or a certain reflection of life, or a reflection of what we don't want to talk about, or what we don’t want to see, or what we refuse to see. And it makes us think about it."

Rather than exposition, Chen uses visual clues. Driving in a busy street in the main business area, Ling by chance spies her husband with another woman. Ling's dream about a baby crying in her arms connects with the similar sounds made by the father-in-law who now lives in an infantilized state, complete with diapers. Sometimes a single sentence makes a complete commentary. Ling's husband skips out on a family celebration with the claim that he's to play golf with a client. As soon as Ling explains her husband's absence, it is pointed out that it is raining.

Like Ilo Ilo, Wet Season stars Yeo Yann Yann. At Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards, the equivalent to the Oscars, Wet Season received multiple nominations including direction and screenplay for Anthony Chen. Yeo won the film's sole award for Best Actress.

October 24, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Minari

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Lee Isaac Chung - 2020
A24

Minari is about a Korean-American family in rural Arkansas, in the 1980s. The film was inspired by Chung's own childhood, when his father tried farming with the aim of growing Korean style vegetables for the immigrant market. What is unexpected is that Chung's film does not have the cliches one might expect in a story about Asian immigrants in America, especially in a region one might perceive of as less hospitable. Most of the cultural conflicts happen within the family.

The family has western names. The father, Jacob, is the idealist who puts everything into creating his dream farm. The wife, Monica, is more pragmatic. The children, David and Anne, presumably were both born in the United States based on what's is gleaned from the parents' discussion of the past. The family generally converses in Korean with a smattering of English. The parents also work in a hatchery, dividing baby chickens by sex, the females saved to be someone's future dinner. Monica's mother, Soonja, joins the family to look after the children during the day. Home is an unpromising looking trailer home that leaks during rainstorms, seemingly planted at random in this remote area. The family is a mix of cultural influences - nominally Christian, but choosing a local church rather than a Korean Christian church in a larger town. There is also the regional culture addressed with the use of a professional dowser to irrigate the farm. A slight running gag involves the literal reading of "Mountain Dew". The title refers to a plant, a water celery used for a traditional Korean dish, that successfully grows unattended by a stream near the farm.

The drama, as such, is understated. David has a heart condition, but being six years old, does not let his condition restrain him from vocally rebelling when asked to share his room with his grandmother, culminating in his pulling a prank on her. Jacob takes on an older man, Paul, a Pentecostal Christian given to mystical reveries in the field, conspicuous with his dragging a large cross on Sundays on a country road. Chung sometimes stops the narrative just to allow the viewer to soak in the environment, the greenery that surrounds Jacob. While drawing the attention of the viewer to bucolic scenery, Chung does not use the kind of stylized abstractness that draws attention to itself as in the films of Terrence Malick.

The film stars Steven Yuen as Jacob. Yuen previously starred in Burning, the South Korean film inspired by a short story by Haruki Murakami of the same title and William Faulkner's short story, "Barn Burning". While not a deliberate connection, the tangential relationship is still worth noting. In the previous works, the burnings are the cause of damaged relationships. In Chung's film, the burning is the catalyst for the family to heal, illustrated by the shot of the four closely sleeping together on their living room floor. And while there is some publicity touting Yuen as a possible "Best Actor" contender, I say it is little Alan Kim as David, in an accomplished acting debut, who is the one to watch.

October 23, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Thou Shalt not Hate

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Non odiare
Mauro Mancini - 2020
Menemsha Films

The English translation of the Italian title is "do not hate". The English language title given to the film strikes me as adding an imposing weight, suggesting that the audience is to be given a lesson. Either way, the title is misleading as hate is only part of the story. Mauro Mancini's feature debut is as much about the sins of the father, in this case two fathers, and how the children are impacted. The film was inspired by a news article about a German Jewish doctor who refused to perform an operation when he noticed a Nazi tattoo on his patient. In an interview, Mancini has expressed interest in stories about characters who face an ethical dilemma.

Simone, a surgeon, is rowing on the Timavo River in Trieste. He is parallel to a road where he hears a car crash. He gets out, calls an ambulance, and begins to take steps to save the driver's life. The road is otherwise empty with no other traffic or pedestrians. Simone notices tattoos on the driver clearly signifying his affiliation with neo-Nazis. Simone stops his assistance and simply waits for the ambulance. It is later revealed that Simone is Jewish and the son of a holocaust survivor, a doctor who served as a dentist for German officers while imprisoned in a concentration camp.

The driver's death leaves Simone conflicted between his religious identity and professional duty. There a small explanatory gap, but Simone hires the driver's daughter, Marica, to clean his apartment, presumably as a way of expiating any sense of guilt. Simone eventually finds himself more involved with Marica's family is unexpected ways.

Simone's deceased father makes his presence known through scenes that take place in his dark, cluttered house that is up for sale. Simone talks about his father to Marica, stating he would never have made the choice to provide medical care even as a Nazi prisoner. The father's house provides a visual contrast to Simone's apartment, light filled and orderly. While Simone may think he is clear in his self-knowledge, there is the suggestion that unexpected circumstances can lead to, if not a complete change, than a modification of beliefs. In the introductory scene, Mancini makes use of direct overhead shots, what might be called a god's (or God's) eye view of Simone and Trieste.

Most of the film is carried by Alessandro Gassmann as Simone. Those who have followed the more classic Italian cinema may notice a resemblance to his father, Vittorio Gassman (don't ask me why there is different spelling of the family name). It is a very controlled performance of a character who would rather observe than act, who would rather be as unobtrusive as possible unless there is no other choice. While Mancini admirably keeps any messaging from being heavy handed, he also errs in being a bit too cautious. The film opens with a scene of young Simone and his father, outside by a river. Simone is to choose one kitten from a box, the others to be drowned. While the scene shows Simone's first situation of having to choose life or death for someone else, there is no sense of the weight of such decision making, if not at during his youth, than as a memory that informs Simone's sense of ethics as a doctor. The ultimate effect is a that of a film that wants to say something important, but wants to say it as politely as possible.

October 22, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Ema

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Pablo Larrain - 2019
Music Box Films

Ema the film and Ema the title character are both unclassifiable. The film begins as a domestic drama, has a major dance set-piece about midway, finally resolving (maybe) the several messy relationships that are part of Ema's orbit. The opening shot is of a street light on fire. Later it is understood that this was the work of Ema with a flame thrower. The shot encapsulates the self-contradictions of the character. The small fires that Ema starts are always controlled, always confined to a limited space. Yet, Ema does refuses to be controlled by anything outside herself, be it laws, social codes, or other people.

Even the conversations only provide partial information. Taking place in Valparaiso, Ema and her husband, choreographer Gaston, are seeing their own relationship deteriorate following their returning of their adopted son to child services. The seven year old boy, Polo, had lit a fire burning Ema's sister's face, as well as locking a cat in the freezer. And yet, Ema wants to reclaim Polo. Gaston is creating a dance piece based based in part of folklorico, using both trained and "street" dancers. Gaston in accused of being a cultural tourist. Ema leaves with her small gang of female friends to dance to reggaeton in a neighborhood park. There is cultural snobbery as Gaston calls reggaeton "prison music". While hiding her role in setting a car ablaze, Ema the fire starter begins a relationship with the fireman, Anibal, who extinguishes the flames. Every relationship is combustible.

Ema is basically a showcase for actress Mariana Di Girolamo. Ema is a force of nature who refuses to deal with anyone else other than her own terms. Ema almost invents herself with her combed back, platinum hair, ears pierced with what look like long needles, and androgynous appearance. There is a scene with the dancers performing in front of footage of the sun with its solar flares. Ema is like a fiery planet with anyone nearby virtually wilting from the heat. This would include Gael Garcia Bernal as Gaston, unable to leave this love-hate relationship.

On the face of it, Ema would seem like an extreme break from Larrain's previous film, Jackie, about Jacqueline Kennedy immediately after the assassination of President John Kennedy. Both films are centered on female protagonists who respond to in their own ways to the expectations of others. There is the need to control one's own personal narrative, be it on the world stage as in Jackie or within one's own local circle as in Ema. While Jackie, the film and the woman, are both more conventional, Ema and Ema confront the viewer with a challenge. The conflict between "high art" and "low art" is just one way that Larrain confronts alleged points of opposition, viewing the world in terms of a binary framework. Ema's life and expression as an artist is messy, but it is a mess that she acknowledges and comes to terms with.

October 06, 2020

Outside the Law

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Tod Browning - 1920
Kino Classics BD Region A

Outside the Law marked the second time Lon Chaney worked with Tod Browning. While Chaney's name is the one still recognizable for contemporary viewers, he is not the star here. It was Priscilla Dean who initially had here name dominating the posters at the time of the initial release. When the film was re-released about five years later, Chaney had become the main attraction. Here he has a supporting role, actually two, a demonstration primarily of his ability with make-up.

Taking place in San Francisco, a prominent former gangster, Madden, is mentored in Confucian studies as a way of going straight. He is accompanied by his daughter, Molly. The hoodlum, "Black Mike" Sylva has a plan to pin a cop killing on Madden and convince Molly to go back to the criminal life. Along with Molly's boyfriend, "Dapper Bill", they steal the jewels from a society woman. Molly and Bill first plan to double-cross Mike for the jewels but eventually have a change of heart and plan to go straight. Mike has his own plans.

Chaney appears through most of the film as "Black Mike". He was 37 at the time but looks much older here. There is no special make-up or physical defects. Chaney also takes on the role of Ah Wing, a student of the Confucian teacher. It's really more of a caricature with what I have to reluctantly describe as "chink eyes". As film historian Anthony Slide points out in his commentary track, it is a small role that Chaney did not have to play. According to IMDb, it was actually some of the footage of Chaney as Ah Wing that was trimmed prior to the re-release. Slide provides no additional information but it could well be that Chaney took on this second role simply to display his talent for disguise.

Why Browning's films remain of interest is because of his interest in outsiders, people living in the margins be they circus performers or criminals. Adding color here is a character named "Humpy", with the uncredited four foot, two inch, John George. Also uncredited are three young Chinese-American actresses, sisters, with Anna May Wong just a few years from her own stardom. While most of the film was shot on a studio set Chinatown in addition to the interiors, there is some footage taken in San Francisco. While one can charitably discount some aspects of Outside the Law as being part of the time when the film was produced, the sub-plot involving a little boy who makes friends with "Dapper Bill" and Molly is overly sentimental. When Molly sees the shadow of a kite's crossbar which resembles a basic crucifix, Browning overly underlines that image with multiple shots.

Anthony Slide points out that the final confrontation between "Black Mike" and his gang against "Dapper Bill and Molly was considered one of the most violent set pieces of its time. According to IMDb, it took two weeks to film. Chaney appears in both of his roles although his character are placed in different spaces. "Dapper Bill" looks the worse for wear with torn clothing and a bloodied face.

The blu-ray was sourced from a 4K restoration of the re-release print although there is visible deterioration in some scenes. Slide mentions that the original version was tinted. The blu-ray also includes the alternate ending which deletes that final fight. There is also comparison footage with the 16mm version of the film. While Slide speaks glowingly of Priscilla Dean, I don't share his enthusiasm. She strikes me as being dowdy in comparison to the three year younger Gloria Swanson, Cecil B. DeMille's star at that time. Dean, like her co-star and husband at the time, Wheeler Oakman, both professionally saw their fortunes fade when Hollywood transitioned to sound. Oakman was able to continue with bit parts through 1948. Dean was in a handful of poverty row talkies before retiring from acting at 36.

October 01, 2020

Denver Film Festival - The Line-Up

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Cinema going as most of us knew it has changed. Even with theaters in some parts of the country open, there seems to be hesitation about going back due to health concerns. After cancellations of some film festivals, festival season has returned. Toronto did have a mix of theatrical and virtual screenings. After dealing with the various uncertainties plus factoring current local health mandates, the Denver Film Festival will return, albeit totally virtual, and lower key.

The current line-up is somewhat different as there are no obvious Oscar bait titles. Also missing are the handful of classic films. If there are any celebrities, they will probably be appearing via Zoom. No "Red Carpet" events meaning that I will be watching films at home, making every screening a beige carpet event. The film festival's artwork this year includes a picture of a bunch of television sets, signifying how the films will be seen. I assume most people will actually be watching on big wide screen sets rather than those in the picture that remind me of my youth when early cinephilia was developed watching everything in black and white on nineteen inch (if that big) screens on television sets from long gone brands like Admiral and Philco. To its credit, Denver Film, the festival's home organization, has its own platform to allow the streaming of films via Apple TV and Roku.

At this point, I have no idea what films I will cover, though they will mostly be narrative. Of most interest to me is Christian Petzold's Undine. Also, there is Under the Open Sky by Miwa Nishikawa. I am admittedly not enthusiastic about seeing the newest film by Hong Sangsoo as he has gone to a familiar template too many times. Of more interest to me is Emma Seligman's debut comic feature, Shiva Baby - shiva being the name for the formal Jewish period of mourning. I will probably take a look at Minari by Lee Isaac Chung. The Korean-American filmmaker was born in Denver. His film, starring Steven Yuen, has been picked up by A24, the indie label du jour. In some cases, I may just dive in with little or no idea about the film or the filmmaker.

The festival will run from October 22 through November 8. While some films will be available to be streamed for a period of days with the option of screening within a 48 hour period, other films will only be available on specific days and times. Other restrictions may apply for anyone not based within Colorado. There are also limits as to how many people can watch some of the films which is in part why the festival schedule has been stretched out beyond its usual twelve days. How this will work out is the big question mark for the festival organizers. For the audience, some may gripe that its not the same as dealing with the crowds that clog the Sie Film Centers lobby, but others I suspect will welcome the festival as a much needed distraction from an even more contentious Presidential election.

The full festival schedule is here.