Search This Blog

Monday, December 31, 2012

Some of My Favorite Films of 2012

In no particular order:

21 Jump Street: (directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller) I had gone into this film thinking it was going to be the TV show told again, with the same characters. Instead, it was so much better. It was new characters, who were put in a " revived cancelled undercover program from the 80's," because "nobody can do anything new." The film was ridiculously hilarious, and I was surprised at how good Channing Tatum was at comedy. The jokes about the cops looking too old for high school, trying new personalities, the expectation that cars should explode on impact and other cop movie cliches, it was all so much fun to watch.

The Central Park Five: (directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon) A documentary about the unlawful imprisonment of five teen boys accused of beating and raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989. It is incredibly sad to watch these boys being manipulated into telling false truths, and the racist witchhunts that the media perpetuated in order to bring the suspects to "justice." It was a devastatingly sad film, but important to watch.

The Avengers: (directed by Joss Whedon) So much fun. I didn't know much about the superheroes going in, because I'm not a comic book fan, but I liked the chemistry between the actors, Joss Whedon's snappy dialogue that was reminiscent of Buffy (Tony Stark: Then tell him to suit up... I'm bringing the party to you. [he and the Leviathan break out of a building and speed away toward the rest of the Avengers] Natasha Romanoff: I, I don't see how that's a party...), the post-credits scene that continues on a minor line said during the final battle, and how awesome Mark Ruffalo was as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, bringing more depth to the character than I've seen before. Afterwards, I did watch Thor, and was surprised to see how unintentionally funny Thor could be in his stoicism and seriousness. I got bored with Iron Man, and I wasn't interested in Captain America. So I probably won't see the individual superhero movies, but would see Avengers 2.

Looper: (directed by Rian Johnson) It was creative and fascinating, with great performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt. It reminded me of Back to the Future, Twelve Monkeys, and The Terminator at times, but I didn't mind. I enjoy science fiction and time travel stories, as well as plotlines that make you think and piece the film together regarding events and alternate futures. I would definitely watch it again.

A Girl and a Gun: (directed by Cathryne Czubek) This was a documentary that I saw at DOC NYC this year, about womens' relationships with guns. It showed a broad pool of women from all over the country who had guns and their personal reasons for owning them. It was very educational and interesting, and I not only learned more about guns from watching it, but enjoyed the storytelling and diverse range of subjects profiled. I know there is a massive push for gun control after Sandy Hook, which I do support. I believe that people should be licensed to carry guns, but also to take psych profiles as so the guns aren't used in a malicious manner, either for hunting or self-defense.

Argo: (directed by Ben Affleck) Fantastic film. I loved the attention to detail, making it look like a period film from 1980. The spy story was thrilling and full of suspense, and even though I knew how the story would end, I was still worried along with the hostages when they were planning their escape and going through customs. Ben Affleck has greatly improved as a director since Gone Baby Gone, and this was an excellent film in the espionage/CIA genre.

Cabin in the Woods: (directed by Drew Goddard) Another film written by Joss Whedon. I liked how it not only played with horror movie cliches, but added a new twist and more depth to why they are being targeted by evil beings. Particular credit goes to Fran Kanz as the dopey stoner who was yet the smartest member of the group, and Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the "puppet masters" of sorts. While the ending was a bit disappointing, I still loved the turn of events when one would think the movie would be over. Really creative and fun to watch.

Dredd: (directed by Pete Travis) This film didn't do very well because of bad marketing, bad association with the Stallone movie, and that Dredd is a British comic book character. But this film, in just an hour and a half, was one of the best films I saw this film, and one of the best I've seen in the sci-fi genre. It is very dark and brutal, Karl Urban does a fantastic job in communicating so much with only a third of his face shown for the entire film, Olivia Thirlby's character expanded from being an apprehensive rookie cop to a badass fighter when her life was at stake, and Lena Headey played a great villain, though I wish her character could have been developed more. The building reminded me of the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, a walled city of cheap apartments, stores, restaurants, and black market businesses, as well as many people of different ethnicities being crammed together in one overpopulated city. Judge Dredd is much like Robocop in tone and style, and I highly recommend it.

Hysteria: (directed by Tanya Wexler) This was a wry and funny little film, clearly not taking itself too seriously, and a little anachronistic, as Maggie Gyllenhaal's character acts more like a modern-day feminist than a woman raised in the 19th century. I liked Hugh Dancy's performance as being a bit of his league, and the way the story unfolded to how the vibrator was invented, whether it really happened that way or not. The film came and went, but it was pleasant to see for an afternoon at the movies.

I am sure there are others that I've seen that I enjoyed, but I don't remember. I don't really have any worst films that I feel like listing, because I don't want to dwell on something that wasn't good.

There are other films that came out this year that I'd like to see, like Robot and Frank, The Raid: Redemption, Middle of Nowhere, Zero Dark Thirty, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Rust and Bone.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Through a friend's recommendation, I decided to watch Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) today, the last in Park Chan-wook's "revenge" trilogy, following Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). I have seen Oldboy, and thought it was a great film, a complete mindtrip with a messed-up ending. Lady Vengeance, while being brutal in nature, differentiated itself by combining the brutality with a wry sense of humor, different for a horror film based on a revenge plot. I have not seen Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, so I don't have any comparison.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance follows the story of Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae), an ex-convict wrongly imprisoned for the death of a five-year old boy. She had been a young girl at the time, and the story was a media sensation, so she was imprisoned for 13 years. For her duration, she plotted her revenge on the real murderer. But because she had been a model prisoner, with a kind, giving demeanor, she was released early, and thanks to her good deeds for former prisoners, whether it be donating a kidney or poisoning the prison bully, she had a network of support in order to find the killer. And shedding her innocent appearance, Geum-ja dons red eyeshadow (a stunning color scheme against her pale skin and black hair), pumps, and form-fitting dresses, becoming "Lady Vengeance."

What I truly enjoyed about the film was its dark sense of humor alongside the theme of revenge, regarding Geum-ja's former prisoners. There is a robber couple, whose female half laments that "they should have couples' prisons!" to which her mate responds, "Then it would be paradise, not jail!" A bullheaded inmate who uses a meek woman as her "prison bitch" gets her rightful comeuppance. A former prisoner now creates statues of a woman holding the decapitated head of her man, a popular item for order, with pictures included to design a particular man's face. The scenes are shot and edited in a colorful manner, jumping from present to past in a bizarre manner, a radical change from the solitude and morose air that was Oldboy.

The introduction of Geum-ja's daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), adopted as a baby from an Australian couple after Geum-ja's imprisonment, is also unintentionally funny as a pest to her biological mother, tagging along with her and adjusting to life in Seoul and the Korean language after having grown up in Sydney. There is a particularly wonderful scene in which Geum-ja and Jenny are saying goodbye to one another, while a voiceover translates their words between Korean and English. It was really quite inventive, and a bridge between a mother and daughter's language barrier.

A minor nitpick is while the daughter is supposed to be Australian-raised and cannot speak Korean, a Korean actress was chosen for the role, with accent and fluency in the language, so the casting choice didn't make sense. I suppose it was easier to find a local actress than look for a Korean-Australian child actress, but it still stuck out. But a freeze-frame of Jenny's method of convincing her parents to let her go to Seoul via threat of suicide was hilarious in a sick and bizarre manner.

What was unique about the film was that while Geum-ja finds the killer (Choi Min-sik, the hero of Oldboy), she doesn't handle him the way the viewer would think. After the build-up for her quest for revenge, it at first seems like it's too soon for her to find and capture the killer. But when uncovering a disturbing past about him, she takes advantage of it to exact a more sinister, yet fitting revenge. Part of her revenge plot involves a scene detailing his crimes that most likely will be left out of the upcoming American remake of this film (starring Charlize Theron), or heavily sanitized. However difficult this portion of the film was to watch, I was glad it unfolded that way, and became a deeper film overall than just one woman's quest for vengeance.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a very interesting film, not because it raises any questions about revenge and its consequences, but because it is able to take dark material seriously, yet treat other scenes with a knowing humor that undercuts the brutality. It has a magnificent color scheme, and isn't bound by its horror genre to be gloomy and disturbing. It is available on Netflix, and is definitely worth seeing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Debt

I do not watch spy films too often, though there are ones that I really enjoy and appreciate. The Saint. Munich. Spy Game. The Jason Bourne series. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Ronin. But one of the best spy films I have ever seen came out last year, with little notice. The Debt, directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), was a fantastic thriller about three Mossad agents in the 1960s who capture a Nazi war criminal to bring him to justice, and the fallout from their actions thirty years on. The film was a remake of an Israeli film of the same title from 2007, directed by Assaf Bernstein and starring Gila Almagor.

I had been interested in this film when I saw the trailer, but the film's release was pushed back, and by the time it came out I had forgotten about it. I rented it this month, and it's an excellent film with a lot of suspense, and a very intelligent and complex female lead in the character of Rachel Singer, portrayed by Jessica Chastain (in the 1965 scenes) and Helen Mirren (in the 1997 scenes). Both actresses carry this elegant grace and quiet intelligence to them that fully develops the character, making both an admirable person and deeply vulnerable. In the 1960s scenes, young Rachel is very serious and dedicated to her work as a Mossad agent, whose fragile beauty is a deception for her quick Krav Maga moves and inner quest for vengeance.

The story shifts between the past and present, as the former agents are honored through a book by Rachel's daughter for their valiant work in capturing this notorious criminal named Dieter Vogel, nicknamed the "Surgeon of Birkenau" for his horrifying medical "experiments" on Jewish prisoners during WWII. The secrecy and stress of agent life has taken a toll on Rachel's life, as she is an emotionally removed person. In the party scenes for her daughter's book, she is polite but reticent, as if there but not truly present, for reasons related to the capture that are revealed later on.

In the past, the agents, Rachel (Chastain), David Peretz ( Sam Worthington), and Stefan (Martin Csokas) go undercover into East Berlin, and Rachel and David pose as a married German couple. Rachel implements herself into Vogel's OB-GYN practice by playing a patient undergoing a routine gynecological exam. She, in those scenes, is both vulnerable and in control of the situation. Vulnerable because she is a patient and allowing the doctor to examine her genitals, but in control because she is playing an innocent housewife, and can ask pointed questions and take secret photos without suspicion, using her locket as a camera. And given how the agents were children during WWII and most likely lost family members in the Holocaust, the mission is incredibly emotionally driven, posing a threat to let resentment get in the way of objective orders. As through a conversation between Rachel and Stefan about David and the Holocaust:

Stefan: I spent two years with him and I don't know him. Nobody knows him. He's alone.
Rachel: What about family? (Stefan doesn't answer and Rachel realizes what he means) All of them?
Stefan: All of them. Maybe it's not always a blessing to survive.

A standout scene involves a border crossing at a Berlin transit station, closed but guarded by the Stasi, the East German secret police (watch The Lives of Others for a detailed understanding of their story). As trains pass, timing is everything, and the agents are meticulous in knowing exactly when to move, and how to maneuver pass the policemen. It is a scene that takes its time in building, and it's spy scenes like this in films that makes me feel like an agent myself, my heart beating along with the agents onscreen. While I knew the agents would survive (as they appear in the film thirty years later), it's still an excellent moment of suspense.

A flaw to the film is that while I found the character of Rachel fascinating, I had trouble telling the male agents apart, and remembering their names, both when they were young and when they were middle-aged. They didn't leave much an impression on me, because they seemed more like generic male agents, while Rachel, besides being a woman, had the contradictory nature that I noted before. The film centers on her, and it was due to the talents of the writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, and the actresses Chastain and Mirren, that made Rachel a memorable and excellent character.

Another problem that I had was that whereas the characters were Israeli, they were played by Anglo actors from England, America, Australia, and New Zealand. While I know that Israeli people have Eastern European roots from immigrating to Israel after WWII, and could have Ashkenazim Jewish features, it was a little distracting seeing obviously English, Christian-looking people putting on Israeli accents to play these characters. But that was a minor nitpick.

I highly recommend this film. It is an intelligent spy film that got little attention when it was released, and continues in the tradition of spy films that are complex and that raise issues of the consequences of vengeance (much like Munich did), as well as featuring a heroine who isn't a super-spy a la Evelyn Salt or Sydney Bristow (as much as I liked Salt and Alias). The film is streaming on Youtube, and is well worth a watch.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Needle Through Brick

At the Museum of the Moving Image this month, I attended a screening of the 2009 documentary Needle Through Brick, directed by Patrick Daly, about Chinese kung fu masters who immigrated to East Malaysia following the Cultural Revolution, and are working day jobs while struggling to pass on their legacy to a new generation, who are less likely to learn traditional kung fu in favor of the acrobatics of wushu or the immediacy of video games. It was only an hour long, and was an insightful film that showed kung fu masters as not as the wise old men speaking in proverbs in the mountains as movies would have you believe, but just average men working jobs like selling shoes and landscaping and cooking in restaurants, all the while focused on maintaining a powerful art form.

At the Moving Image museum, the film was introduced by its composer,  Gil Talmi, who spoke of the film's origins. Patrick Daly was studying traditional Kung Fu with a master for a year in Borneo, East Malaysia, and had gained the trust of masters who wanted their stories to be heard. While martial arts for centuries was always seen as a family and military practice, never one to be taught to the general public or outsiders, the masters realized that a worldwide audience would see their art, and reduce its chances of being lost forever. It was a relationship between filmmakers and the masters of mutual interest and respect that led to this small yet remarkable film.

The speed and agility that these masters maintained was sharp and inspiring to see. They truly possessed their essence of chi, with a calmness that commanded respect. One of the masters said, "It's not just about fighting, it's a way of life. It's spiritual, it's physical, it's everything." And I agree with his statement. Martial arts is a practice that is popularized through action films, seen as only a means of attack or an act of violence. But when seeing artists practice their form individually with ritualized movements and steps, it reminded me to maintain my practice in dance and martial arts, because the peace that comes from practicing classic movements centers me, and I grow as a student when I learn the basics.

At times, the masters sounded like crabby old men when talking about young kids favoring wushu over traditional martial arts. The film intercuts this with students flying and twisting through the air in acrobatics that would be seen in a tricking video or a Jet Li film. I myself have taken a wushu class, and found it exciting and a lot of fun, a combination of beautiful movement with explosive acrobatics. As kung fu has an almost endless amount of forms due to combining styles and modern interpretations, I feel it is important that a student does learn the traditional form while also studying styles that are more suited to their personality or interests. I took Wing Chun because I wanted to learn more self-defense moves, and was breaking the habits that I had learned from Muay Thai, like positioning of stances, punches, and kicks. Similarly, I enjoy taking dance classes because I love different forms of movement and challenging my body to take on unfamiliar positions and steps. In that case, I take classes in ballet as a ground root for other dance styles, like hip-hop, modern, and jazz.

Another one of the masters said "Learning Kung Fu is like studying. You need to gather your information slowly, then you can achieve greatness." For true practitioners of dance and martial arts, learning slowly is a process that can be frustrating, but ultimately rewarding when you apply your lessons to advance further than you thought you could. When I first studied Muay Thai, I was frustrated because I wanted to throw punches and kicks with speed and power, like the advanced students. I would miss my mark, or would just be messy. I didn't want to be slow, because I didn't want to slow down others, and didn't want to progress slowly. I had to focus on technique, and the slower applications of the movements, as well as think about my body mechanically rather than focusing on the end result. From that practice, I did become more skilled because I maintained a deeper focus and serenity rather than just wanting to fight, and improved my punches and kicks as a student, feeling relieved that I was getting over the hump of not advancing. While I have not practiced Muay Thai in over a year, I was still able to take what I studied and compare my training to my classes in kung fu, and, most recently, samurai swordfighting. I am a novice in all of these forms, but I enjoy learning and studying, and growing not just as an physical artist, but also in confidence and maturity and maintaining a calm center when life feels stressful.

This film can be found on Hulu to watch, and I recommend just taking an hour out of your day to listen to the stories of these masters who only want to ensure that their traditional art form is not lost in a rapidly changing modern world.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012 DOC NYC - Treva Wurmfeld's Shepard & Dark

A friendship in letters, Treva Wurmfeld’s Shepard & Dark is an insightful documentary about the relationship between playwright/actor Sam Shepard and photographer/writer Johnny Dark, and their project publishing a book of their letters of correspondence over nearly fifty years, since they met in Greenwich Village.  Their relationship is complicated, as Sam Shepard’s ego and self-identity as a lone cowboy overshadows Dark’s homebody sensibility and penchant for quiet ways of life. Most likely, one leaves the film inspired by Dark’s passion for living a solitary and peaceful life, while being turned off by Shepard’s posturing and inconsideration towards Dark as a friend.

Shepard, due to a dislike of flying, drives all over the country to his engagements and jobs, enjoying the open road and balancing between enjoying solitude, but also getting used to being without companionship, since breaking up with his partner Jessica Lange of 26 years. Dark, working at a deli in a New Mexico supermarket, prefers to live at home with his two dogs, and see as few people as possible. “I don’t like knowing people,” he jokes.

The two display a warmth together as old friends that is jovial to watch, despite their personality differences. Shepard, in his 60s, shows the wear and tear on his face, with hints of having been a lean, handsome man in his youth. Dark has a sharp wit that just slips in unexpectedly, looking more of the sidekick, yet more grounded and stronger than Shepard is.

Personally, it was very enjoyable to watch Dark unveil his hobby as an archivist, with bookshelves full of binders labeling letters, photographs, and videos that date back to the 1960s, with an expansive archival history of his life as an artist. As an amateur archivist myself, it gave me great pleasure and inspiration to see a kindred spirit onscreen.

His records are not only of his letters with Shepard, but also detail his relationship with his late wife, Scarlett, whose daughter O-Lan Jones married Shepard, and had a son with him. This family suffers a tremendous blow when Scarlett suffers a brain injury and her fight to heal leaves the family in difficult straits. The situation gets worse when Shepard not only leaves his wife for Lange, but abandons his 12-yr old son as well, leaving Dark act as father figure for him. Before, I was not a fan of Sam Shepard, despite enjoying his writing, because I felt his lone cowboy/rebel badass image was a concocted image of an artist’s idea of being cool, much like the romanticized images of Beat poets or jazz musicians or bikers. But upon this knowledge of his absolute selfishness, plus being more attracted to Hollywood and celebrity than being with his family, made me disgusted by him.

Dark was a more interesting figure because he was less pretentious, and didn’t have a need to become famous. He was an artist and an archivist for his own pleasures, not to appeal to a culture’s idea of what “cool” is. He is slightly eccentric, but very likable and amiable.

The film is a small venture, understanding the complications between two lifelong friends, between an extrovert (Shepard) and an introvert (Dark). It isn’t a particularly memorable film, but Dark proves to be an interesting character that sticks more in one’s mind than Shepard’s, despite his celebrity.

2012 DOC NYC - Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon's The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five, a documentary about the Central Park Jogger case of 1989 and the ramifications of racial profiling against its wrongly imprisoned convicts, has recently run into more controversy. The film, directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, has been under fire with the New York City government. The City has issued a subpoena against the production company, claiming illegal possession of footage which would offer in evidence in favor of the charges that the convicts were not only innocent, but mislead and misled into making false confessions. As the former convicts are now suing the city for wrongful imprisonment and racial discrimination, this footage would serve as greater ammunition against the city's offenses. The film is a devastating look at police investigations that target minority youth, and the justice system which decides in favor of their imprisonment, robbing the youth of opportunities and chances to be well-adjusted, successful citizens.

In 1989 New York City, racially-motivated violence swept the airwaves. With high-profile cases such as the 1984 Bernard Goetz shooting of teenage muggers in the subway, the 1986 beating death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, and the 1989 shooting death of Yusuf Hawkins, the city was seen as a war zone. Crime was at an all-time high, and the police and Mayor Ed Koch were under enormous pressure to maintain order. It would take the near death of an upper-class white woman and the arrest of five teenage boys from Harlem to declare “justice” being served in the eyes of law enforcement.

The film builds up to the case slowly, through a series of events. The subjects, now men close to age 40, spoke about being average teen boys growing up in Harlem, living good lives. One night, they decided to hang out in Central Park with twenty other teenage boys, and getting caught up in petty violence along the way. But in the park, a young jogger, a 28-year old investment banker named Trisha Meili, was viciously beaten and raped, barely alive when she was discovered.  The boys, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, were brought down to the police station, under the guise of the police just “wanting to ask them a few questions,” “and You’ll be home in no time." But after hours of questioning , and two days of sleep deprivation, the police were tricking them into false confessions with lines like “Just tell us the truth and you can go home.” One of the men poignantly stated, “I went to the precinct, and I came home 13 years later.”

The scenes where the men remember the manipulation and their fear as innocent teen boys not understanding the justice system are tragic to watch. The shakiness in their eyes and bodies is palpable, and their hopes that it can all be over are dashed as the media pounced on the story. Their methods included publishing the underage suspects’ names (while withholding the victim’s name), calling for the death penalty on these children, and using language like “wolf pack,” comparing young black youth to animals. The bloodlust was disgusting, and raises images of lynchings from decades past. The race was on to implicate suspects who dared to injure an upper-class white woman, while ignoring similar cases where the victims and assailants were not white or lived in a lower-income neighborhood.

Despite mounting DNA evidence and inconsistent stories that proved that the boys were innocent, the trial still found the boys guilty, as a way of wrapping up the case and scoring a win for the justice system. Meanwhile, the true assailant, Matias Reyes, who had raped several women on the Upper East Side before attacking Meili, was still active for years as a rapist/murderer before being sent to prison, and admitting in 2002 to his part in the Central Park Jogger case. While the former convicted boys were now free of their charges, it still wouldn’t bring back their youth and lost years spent serving a sentence for a crime they didn’t commit.

The film is incredibly sad to watch, and painful to see innocent children being abused in the press, manipulated by a racist justice system, and having their lives ruined, not just by a corrupt police investigation, but by Matias Reyes, who stole their youth and nearly murdered an innocent woman. It was a tragic and horrible case for all the victims involved, and an example of the dangers of public witchhunts in order to fulfill a societal need to “get the bad guy” and continue on with life.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Dumb Girl of Portici

As part of MoMA's Tenth Annual To Save and Project Festival, the silent film, The Dumb Girl of Portici, was screened. This film, an historical epic directed by pioneer feminist filmmaker Lois Weber and starring the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova in her only feature film appearance, was an adaption of the 1828 opera La Muette de Portici, by Daniel Auber, a historical re-telling of the uprising of peasants in 1647 Naples against Spanish rule. The piece introduced dance into opera using a mute heroine, whose lack of words are replaced by vibrant and emotional movement.

The film was designed as both a historical drama on a grand scale for 1916 (this also being the time of D.W. Griffith epic films like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance), and a star vehicle for Anna Pavlova, considered to be one of the finest ballerinas in the history of dance, and an exquisite artist in her own right. The film opens with Pavlova dancing en pointe, occasionally being supported by an "invisible" man hidden against the black background. It didn't have much to do with the rest of the film, just a treat for the audience coming to see the great ballerina for the first time on screen.

The opera's plot, at the heart of it, centers Pavlova as Fenella, a poor mute Italian woman, who falls in love with a Spanish nobleman that poses as a fisherman, and ultimately betrays her in order to maintain control of her people. The plot gets complicated, but Pavlova displayed both a moon-eyed fragility, and a wildness that exemplified her creative spirit and cosmopolitan worldliness. She was truly a magnetic star to behold.

However, while Pavlova was an exceptional dancer, she falls into the cliches of silent film acting, by overacting with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions that were sometimes unintentionally hilarious. It was understandable because she was playing a mute woman, with no title cards to display her dialogue, but it resulted in Pavlova waving her body all about wildly, looking more insane, than finding more subtle ways to express emotion through dance.

The film took major chances in staging the riots of the Neapolitian peasants against their Spanish rulers, with a grand finale that MoMA compared Weber's direction of action sequences to be a predecessor to Kathyrn Bigelow. It was wonderful to see hordes of extras playing peasants that were storming the scenes, stabbing one another with swords, falling off of balconies, and taking back their rightful land. Again, the acting can be more influenced by overdramatic theater styles, like extended moaning while dying, and swords clearly going under a victim's arm than through them. But it was the early days of silent film, and The Dumb Girl of Portici was a monumental film that was a landmark for a woman director, a showcase for an unforgettable star, and was a treasure of the Wild West-like days of silent filmmaking, where anything was possible.

2012 DOC NYC - Beth Toni Kruvant's David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure

 How does a Jewish rock musician go from touring the world with his funky, blues-inspired band, who can count Dr. John and Bob Dylan amongst his friends, to giving up performing and, twenty years later, running a small violin shop in Wilmington, DE? It’s a story that is touched by a passionate love for music and creative journeys, and Beth Toni Kruvant's David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure profiles a musician who culled from his influences to play music that fused rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, and country, blending music in a way that celebrates the close ties of many genres, as well as the incredible talents of many diverse artists.

David Bromberg was born in Philadelphia, came up in Tarrytown, NY, and initially taught himself to play the guitar, much to his father’s disapproval of a musician’s life, for personal reasons that Bromberg did not learn until his father was dying. In addition, he became proficient on the fiddle and many styles of the guitar. He got into the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s while attending Columbia, and refined his guitar technique with Reverend Gary Davis, a blues and gospel singer. Bromberg not only learned how to play blues guitar from him, but also learned about the style of phrasing from the gospel church, telling stories and captivating an audience while shaping music in time, a practice he would take in his live concerts.

As Bromberg assembled his band, he collaborated with many other artists. George Harrison co-wrote “The Hold-Up” on Bromberg’s first album, a jaunty folk song with trumpets about a robbery. When hearing his music, it’s listening to lengthy stories while being amazed by the talent that Bromberg surrounds himself with. The 1970s were a glorious time for music, where musicians collaborated closely with one another, crossing genres, and supporting each other in a drive to entertain audiences and have fun with playing music. Vince Gill, interviewed as he recorded a duet for Bromberg’s 2011 album Use Me, said of him “A Jewish man from the Northeast playing bluegrass would be a stretch, so to speak, but I learned that it wasn’t.” These are artists who are true to what they do, and it is more satisfying to hear that than artists who claim to be about the music, but are more attracted to celebrity or excessive rock star lives.

In 1980, after ten years of touring and recording albums, Bromberg was burnt out.  Because he loved music so much, he wanted to preserve his sanity and stay focused at home. In an interview from that time, he said “Nobody ever holds a gun to your head and says ‘Go on the road.’ And I’d get to the point where I’d go, ‘Oh God, I hate it out here, I’m going crazy, this is awful.’” It was a healthy decision for Bromberg to leave, and he and his wife, singer/artist Nancy Josephson, raised their family in Wilmington, DE.

In 2002, Bromberg and Josephson opened a violin sales and repair shop, and it’s here where Bromberg’s expansive love for music is further developed and cherished. It is really wonderful to see Bromberg speak so knowledgably about the craft and history of violins, and beaming as he watches a customer play them beautifully. Bromberg owns the largest American violin collection in the world, and the shop is clearly is his safe place in the world. He says of it “I love my shop. I get up in the morning, go down to the shop, day after day. And the grind is difficult. And when I was touring, the grind was difficult.” It’s a good kind of grind, less taxing than when he toured for many years with little breaks. The shop is his other life, separate from his music career.

Bromberg has worked to revitalize Wilmington’s urban economic growth through the arts, being considered the “cultural ambassador.” According to city officials, he has been a major component to bring Wilmington back to its former glory. He and Josephson donated funds to rebuild the Queen Theatre, creating a beautiful space for the cultural arts, and he has made a performing comeback with friends like Dr. John and the late Levon Helm. He also performs regularly at the New World Café at the Queen Theater, in a weekly jam session with many other local musicians, continuing his tradition of simply enjoying music as a collaborative community.

David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure is a wonderful little film about how much fun music can be. I personally enjoyed it because my father is a major music aficionado, particularly 1970s rock bands who blended genres and worked together a lot, without too much ego getting in the way, and his record collection is of many well-known and obscure rock bands whose music had a richness and creativity that is hard to find today, but well worth it when you do.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The 2012 Korean American New York Film Festival

The Korean-American Film Festival New York had its fifth annual showcase of the best in Korean-American films at Anthology Film Archives from June 6-10, 2012. The film festival  celebrates the diversity of life amongst Korean people, whether it is young American kids, older generations, culture clashes, or simply films made by Korean-Americans starring non-Korean actors. I had fun attending the film last year, and wrote about it extensively, especially about a documentary centering on a brother-sister murderous pair, the ramifications of the 1992 L.A. riots on the Korean community, and the intensely personal stories of Korean comfort women during WWII. While I didn’t have the opportunity to attend many screenings, I am reporting on my favorite short films, and the documentary Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, which I will report on next.

The Shorts Selection had many gems within its package. As I also work for Dance Films Association, as an archivist who assists in development and other administrative duties, and always am on the lookout for quality dance films, I chose to highlight Pyeunghun Baik's film I Am a Tree, a stunningly beautiful portrait of a tree spirit dancing out of trees cut down to be manufactured into objects, the spirit flowing away into the wind  for a new tree to inhabit.

Fractured, by Terry Sasaki (password Sasaki for the Vimeo link) explores the warmth and symbiotic relationship of a doctor and patient, healing one another, only to subvert the expectations in a shockingly sad way. If anyone has seen Shutter Island, they can imagine what happens next. I was completely stunned by the twist ending.

Korean School Rejects, by Peter Yun, was a lot of fun to watch. Two teenage boys learn Korean to pick up local girls, and a lot of mistranslations and awkwardness ensues. It was much lighter after the first couple of films, and was an innocent coming-of-age teen film, like a slice of life rather than teaching a larger life lesson.

Like Sugar on the Tip of My Lips, by Minji Kang, was very heartfelt and touching, exploring the co-dependent relationship between two sisters. Susi is blind, and has always relied on her older sister Laura's guidance and faith in her. Now Susi has her first date, and Laura must prepare a beauty ritual for her while learning to let her go in the world, as a young and mature woman. It had this delicacy to it that held me in suspension, imagining what it must feel like to be blind and have complete faith in another person that they are telling the truth.

Mountain of June, by Do-yeon kim, was a sweet animated film whose style was reminiscent of the 1982 animated short The Snowman, with breezy colors and the nostalgic happiness of old memories. A little boy and his father go hiking in the mountains, and they share food, breathe in the fresh air, greet fellow hikers, and just enjoy the tranquility of nature.

Play Things, by Mike Cook, had a deeper message, about how weapons are popularized as toys and breed violence, but I mostly enjoyed the heavy metal song by John Zorn that was choreographed to the rapid etchings of the Lego shapeshifting forms, and its opening unintelligible blather sounded a lot like the Tasmanian Devil

The Kook, by Gregory Mitnick and Nat Livingston Johnson, was chilling. More so because from the first frame on, I immediately recognized it as a film about the Heaven's Gate cult, who committed a mass suicide in 1997 because of a belief that they would transcend their Earthly bodies and live in space. The Kook borrows from that, with the cult members wearing sweatsuits, bright white sneakers, and a belief in an alien leader named Do that they will be on their journey soon. I was tense, wondering what the filmmakers would do with this real-life story. They crafted it into a wonderful science-fiction short about a cult member who uncovers something fishy about Do, yet is still  brainwashed enough to think it couldn't possibly be anything other than what she trusts to be real. The film doesn't insult the intelligence of cult members, as the members are, while naive, truly innocent people who want to believe in a higher power. The film has won awards at many film festivals across the country, and recently ran at Slamdance. Though I felt nervous watching the film, it was absolutely excellent, one of the best of the evening.

The Problem of Gravity, by Trevor Zhou, was very sweet and playful. Plain and simple: a little boy is fascinated by flight, and he uses his creativity, research, and imagination to make himself fly for real.

Friday, January 13, 2012

“The Interrupters” Wins Big at Cinema Eye Honors

| January 12, 2012 | 0 Comments

Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz's "The Interrupters"

The 5th Annual Cinema Eye Honors, a celebration of the best in documentary film, was held last night at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. The ceremony was relaxed and fun, more a coming together of great artists in the documentary field than a narrow competition for awards. Hosted by filmmakers A.J. Schnack (“Kurt Cobain About a Son”) and Esther Robinson (“A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory”), the ceremony handed out awards but also paid tribute to landmark filmmakers such as Frederick Wiseman, for his 1967 film “Titicut Follies,” and the duo of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, for their “Paradise Lost” trilogy and the landmark efforts in justice that it helped to bring about.

Both of the top prizes, Outstanding Achievement in Direction and Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking, went to Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s “The Interrupters.” A film that has appeared on many film critics’ “best of 2011″ lists, it is a gripping look at three community activists known as Violence Interrupters who work to end street violence in their Chicago neighborhoods.

The first ever Hell Yeah award was given to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, most notably because the human rights advocacy sparked by their “Paradise Lost” films led to three innocent men–the West Memphis Three–being released after serving years in prison for the deaths of three children. The surprise presenter was one of those men, Jason Baldwin, who had a casual warmth and a relaxed, open smile. For somebody who had spent many years behind bars for a crime that he did not commit, he did not show any resentment, just a desire to enjoy life and see the world. Baldwin made a poignant statement that when he was released from prison, he enjoyed getting to know Berlinger and Sinofsky as real people, meeting their families, no longer being filmmaker and subject, but now equal friends. “The Paradise Lost” films were noted by the filmmakers as an example of documentary filmmaking making a real difference.

Some winners were predictable in an understandable way. For Nonfiction Short Filmmaking, the award went to Tim Hetherington’s “Diary.” A noted photojournalist, Hetherington was killed in the Libyan conflict in April. His mother accepted on his behalf.

Mike Mills’s “Beginners” won for the Heterodox Award, which recognizes a narrative film that is influenced by documentary filmmaking styles. Of the five nominees, it was the only relatively mainstream film, compared to smaller films like “My Joy” and “The Mill and the Cross.”

Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies," 1967

Frederick Wiseman was presented with the Legacy Award for “Titicut Follies,” a look at the harsh life inside a state prison in Massachusetts. Wiseman’s film oeuvre has spanned the range from ballet to boxing to the Air Force to state politics. The award was created to honor past documentaries that were landmark influences for many future filmmakers, fulfilling an achievement in artistry and nonfiction storytelling. Wiseman spoke eloquently, stating that “Making these movies is a great adventure. I’m extremely pleased and proud to have this award for this first film I did.”

A small moment that was a personal standout occurred when Cindy Meehl and her crew won the Audience Choice Prize for “Buck,” a documentary about a cowboy and his deep relationship with horses. “It takes a lot of women to make a film about a cowboy,” commented one of the filmmakers.

The other winners were as follows:

Outstanding Achievement in Production:

Gian-Piero Ringel and Wim Wenders, “Pina”

Outstanding Achievement in Editing

Gregers Sall and Chris King, “Senna”

Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography

Danfung Dennis, “Hell and Back Again”

Spotlight Award

Tatiana Huezo Sánchez, “The Tiniest Place”

Outstanding Achievement in an Original Music Score

John Kusiak, “Tabloid”

Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design and Animation

Rob Feng and Jeremy Landman, “Tabloid”

Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film

Clio Barnard, “The Arbor”

This coverage was originally posted on Cinespect.