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First uploaded July 14, 2019
Updated August 6, 2019
PICKS OF THE MONTH
July 2019 Picks of the Month
Okko's Inn's official movie trailer
Okko's Inn opened July 19 in UK theaters and entered US DVD stores July 2 after its earlier April limited theatrical release.
The movie, based on the series of novels by Hiroko Reijo, is a rare educational sort of juvenile anime with a therapeutic confidence-building message that uses a . . . okay, the most traumatized kid example that fiction can imagine. Of course it doesn't dig deep into the consequences of the kind of trauma presented here―depression, possible suicidal thoughts, deep feelings of aloneness, and so on―, perhaps avoiding that lest it be accused of sensationalism or fail to avoid scaring parents. The premise of the film's story is scary enough. What are we talking about?
Okay. You see, Okko, the main character, is a kid who loses her parents in a horrible car accident. She herself was in that accident, where she was thrown onto the roof of another car and survived.
You know how sweet anime hero/heroine characters look, of course, so you know anime stories can always come up with the most gory of scenes and still produce candy with it. This one, however, uses its candy not for a fun weekend of laughter at the movie house of spilling popcorns but for a story's possible presence in the classroom or, knock on wood, a kid's bedroom (in lieu of a home-visiting shrink).
It's hard enough to grow up in this world of fearsome though harmless spiders and lizards when you don't have parents to run to, even when you have a grandma you now live with who also owns a busy inn. Thankfully, the grandma's inn has friendly kid ghosts in it who sweetly encourage Okko to put her mind to helping at the inn so that she can take over as the inn's keeper in the future.
Thus starts Okko's journey through the classic therapy of serving others and their petty complaints in order to forget one's sorry existence.
Naturally, the story would have to involve a chronology of events for this therapy to succeed. Fortunately, Kitarô Kôsaka (who used to work for Hayao Miyazaki at his Studio Ghibli) is able to effectively manage his director's debut oeuvre's flurry of incidents for an imaginative development. Tiny details are even there to provide support, such as how old the male kid ghost is supposed to be. The film even manages to layer in the virtue of communality among competitors! All this, held together to lead to Okko's not just mastery of her innkeeper chores but also, finally, of herself and her tears.
An anime film on healing set in a spa whose waters are said to have healing properties? Watch it to believe it.
Family Obligations' official movie trailer
Family Obligations. There has always been art laughed at as garbage by many but would later be treated as a gem by some. The world is not poor in artworks dismissed as bad art by its contemporaries and that would accumulate a cult following in the progress of time after.
The small comedy drama that was shown at the Long Island International Film Expo this July that ended up winning in the Best Feature category, Family Obligations, has yet to see if it would be treated by a corner in American film history's future as just that sort of cinematic gem, in its time (present time) looked upon by some of those who saw the film as amateurish crap (while acknowledging possible noble intentions) and then by others as a rare product of sincere, albeit flawed, cinematic storytelling, the LIIFE jury among these latter.
It's a film that should be difficult to either dismiss or embrace. It would be hard for many to accept that it's an Ed Wood sort of oeuvre or anywhere near Tommy Wiseau's The Room. But, as a simple comedy drama, it may be just as hard to conjecture about its potential to become a future cult classic in its genre, the way Blade Runner became such a cult classic in sci-fi cinema (a segment that already has its own cult following). Blade Runner was panned by the critics of its time, then would turn into a cult genre classic in the future. But it was a box office success, in a way that the small, almost parochial Family Obligations can hardly see itself becoming. On the other hand, Family Obligations may become a local (State-level) bomb, as against a hit film, but it's too early to tell if it can potentially be one of the future Showgirls (bomb turned cult film) of comedy drama.
So, Family Obligations may or may not be remembered by future books on comedy dramas. That might depend on what else its filmmaker would bring forth to cinema history, the way Peter Jackson achieved success with the The Lord of the Rings trilogy that would then attain for Heavenly Creatures a cult following thereafter. But Family Obligations can hardly be called a bad or even inferior film for the present, all things considered. Not really. It's not a badly-acted film, and neither is its direction bad. Its story/script and characterization are nothing less than perfect in their grounding, making them far from being like those in that B-thriller that came out last Friday, Dead Water. Its flaw, or what would appear as its flaw, is in its appropriation of elements that we have been told by habit are elements that work against both a cinematic product's production and marketing value. In short, these elements just can't go Hollywood on you much, and may be coming out too artiste for a comedy drama to sport. Let us specify:
Shot with an affordable Blackmagic Cinema Camera, the pocket kind, the film chose to present its moving images with a sort of sepia or brownish filter, creating this murky, muddy finish that Manchester by the Sea could hardly be imagined to have even considered. Furthermore, while moviehouse-friendly with its 2.39:1 aspect ratio, it has its scenes shot with the camera handheld, lazily it seems that the head of its actors would often be cut by the upper frame line. Most disturbing of all, the camera does move too much starting at 1:14:13 and then gets this unexplainable jolt at 1:15:00, as if the cameraman had to squash a mosquito and there was no more digital storage space to afford a reshoot. Most likely to be the most uncomfortable element of all, at least to the common cinema-goer, would be the film's intermittently bad and overall uneven audio; we don't think it's something that an award committee in the sound mixing category would look at pleasantly. In fact, there are all these sorts of bad production choices (or handicaps) that could have some people insisting the film's B-movie tag be downgraded to a Z- one and forthwith.
It also doesn't help the film's (and its production crew's) national image that its press releases or marketing are pushing their film product as a parochial one. The LIIFE itself comes on as a parochial festival concerned with New York City-deriving cinema, its tag as an international film expo often drowned by this former PR.
But, putting all those elements aside and just going along with where this B-film carries you via its acting and script, especially if you watch this with subtitles (that might make you not notice much the poor audio), we can understand why the 2019 LIIFE jury would end up vouching for this feature over the other five contenders in that category.
For starters, let us tell you that not one in this film's cast and crew has a Wikipedia page, so there you go. And the film itself doesn't have a review by any of the stalwart sites, such as rogerebert.com. Being an art magazine not so crazy about kowtowing to the properly hyped, we gave this curious jewel our eyes, not expecting to be charmed. Luckily, we did end up charmed by the acting and story. Consequently, even by the film's flaws!
Why? Well, primarily because it's one of the quietest comedies we ever saw that still made us laugh over its barrage of awkward moments, even as it's a story about a not-so-young man still hurting from his relationship with his just-deceased father. It turns out that Peter (Chris Mollica) was sort of ignored as a child, at least verbally, by his father who was himself hurting too much from the loss of his wife, hurting too much to notice his own son. No wonder that Peter, who had to go home to Long Island from his work in Queens, New York, for his father's funeral after eight years of absence, wants the sale of the family house over and done with quickly, even if that rush shall be leaving a lot of money on the table. The funny awkward moments, it turns out, are a product of Peter's refusal to communicate any further with anyone, half suspicious or afraid of relationships or friendships and half angry at the mere self-interest of people. When his father's friend-lawyer asks him, "When's the last time you saw him?" . . . Peter answers with, "Has he paid you? What is your fee in all of this?"
All that is to change when he gets a call that leads him to an uncle he didn't know was still alive and to whom he hasn't spoken in years. Turns out his just as unsociable and overly-defensive uncle, whose habit of pushing away people with his language is worse than Peter's, is sick with terminal acute myeloid leukemia, and Peter is forced to consider it his family obligation to be of aid. He befriends, or is forced by circumstances to be friendly towards, an all-too-helpful neighbor of his uncle, who―in the course of events―starts to inadvertently guide him to a proper view of uncles (and challenging fathers). When Peter tells her that he doesn't think his uncle needs him, or "I mean to say I don't think that he wants me," this neighbor of his uncle, Melanie, says, "Probably means that he needs you even more."
So it's a family movie made by a family. Director Kenneth R. Frank and theater-actor-now-film-actor Mollica are childhood friends who decided to put up their childhood dream studio, which they named In the Garage Productions, which would be the producer of Family Obligations. Frank's wife Shawna and Mollica's wife Brett are sisters, both of whom are involved in In the Garage in various capacities, including as editor and sound recording engineer. Frank's and Shawna's daughter plays the child Mia in the film. It's amazing that this project with a $16,000 budget and had only eight days to shoot ended up as a festival favorite. Was there a cult of families in the audience?
Hey, after you get to watch the film, would you still have reservations about the director's talent, a Tisch School of the Arts graduate though he is? If so, go back and watch the ending again, one's satisfaction from which could never be said to be from a fluke of a technique, if you can agree. Better yet, go back to all those bad elements that we mentioned above. After all, that murky brown patina of the lens played its part in transporting us to a world devoid of emotional color and replete with dirty laundry, not-so-hopeful careers, and impending deaths. The camera work that refused to level up to heads also had us looking at objects at the center of the picture, as if it was us ourselves who didn't want to look up at faces for long. When Peter and Melanie started to talk about the planet Venus in front of a telescope, the camera―instead of panning down to the two―allowed 80% of its coverage to be on a blank wall. So, back to the ending. Would you say this is an underrated film with the subtlest of happy endings? Yes.
But maybe it's one of those films that deserve to be underrated or ignored during its time. For maybe it's one that needs to be imperfect, where redoing it to make it look as fine and potentially popular as Manchester by the Sea might have the paralleling potential of ruining that parochial or local charm in it that us aesthetic tourists usually don't mind being troubled with every now and then. Some films are like a not-so-well-cooked brilliant local recipe that a restaurateur might likely have told you to taste, for being a local favorite, with you ending up not forgetting the camaraderie despite the food's bit of funny taste and the restaurateur's initial weirdness, the food turning out to be that not-so-well-done but not-so-bad sort of thing either that you now realize you have come to love and now want to have a go at again, with a smile of gratitude.
As they say in politics, you wouldn't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, the good that would stick in voters' feelings. So, not all good art ought to be perfect to be memorable. And when something becomes memorable to you, we know that that's when you cease to care how popular it has or has still not become. You become that thing's cult follower, without you knowing how many of you there are already.
They Shall Not Grow Old's November 20, 2018-released official movie trailer
They Shall Not Grow Old premiered in the London Film Festival and select UK and Irish theaters in mid-October last year already, and the following month it was aired on BBC Two, during the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918. A limited US theatrical release followed on 17 December, and its happy success at the box office with that venture garnered the film a US wide release schedule for 1 February 2019. Although the film would see consecutive releases in a few more countries in the months following, the Philippines not among them, France waited a long time to release its copy to its theaters. It finally did on the first week of July, 2019. Why? During this week, France heralded the 103rd anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, that's why.
Now, Peter Jackson is known to most of us as the director of the The Lord of the Rings film series and its prequel series The Hobbit. Some would also remember him as the director behind the critically-lauded Heavenly Creatures and the 2005 remake of King Kong. We think, however, that what Jackson achieved with They Shall Not Grow Old, his first documentary film project as a director, should be up there among his masterpiece achievements.
The docu has been tagged as ground-breaking for the art of historical documentary filmmaking mainly because of its utility of the latest film colorization technology, which starts 25:00 minutes into the narration, continuing on to 1:26:30. But, we think, also for letting the historical footage material create their own drama (the alternative presentation of the subject being to do a feature for dramatization's sake), aided by the use of the aforementioned technology, in widescreen at that, as well as by sound effects here and some voice acting there to put life into the improved footage, and freed from the usual professional narrator's essaying an historical explanation/metanarrative for what was supposedly going on.
But Jackson did not want to do an Apollo 11; he still wanted a narrator or narrators overwhelming the audio side of his film, with the difference that here he used another set of archival material, namely sound recording material that he figured should tell the story in the pictures, culled from the same Imperial War Museum source of his footage and then from BBC interviews. Instead of the usual conscription of a TV or film star's or otherwise a professor's voice, Jackson used the voices of (now likely deceased) soldiers from the recordings to narrate their experience or recollection of the war, from before their departure, to their days at the front, and then after the war. The audio part of the film is just as important as the docu's moving images, for the words here constitute something that a (especially state-funded) production from the past would want to stage-manage for either a political or official take on the subject. What results here is Jackson's personal historiographic stance on World War I, dedicated to his grandfather who fought in it. It looks from behind the shoulders of veteran soldiers and their points of view, in turn introducing a complex brew of late-teen fun, innocence, excitement, followed by numbed shock, horror, confusion, fear, acceptance, and then after-war speechlessness . . . that World War I documentary viewers may not have been exposed to the likes of before. This salute to the archived audio recordings as anecdotal testimonies would lead Jackson to videos that would support those testimonies (such as the ones about the sanitary situation in and around the trenches), but mainly also to letting the words in those testimonies define the film.
For while Jackson is not here making judgments or clichéd tongue-clicking about the film's subject or subjects, thanks to the absence of a professional narrator, and almost contrary to the film trailer's blurbs copy screaming "heart-breaking", "haunting," "a lesson," and so on, he is here riding on the soldiers' (and the common British English language user's) capacity for understating the horrific, even their capacity to make light of it all or to choose to talk more about what was good (the camaraderie and all, or the laughter in the midst of shelling) in order to hide the trauma of fighting in that savage trench war, as well as their capacity to justify their signing up for that "job that needed to be done" in light of all the contemporary pacifism. Now perhaps you can understand Ernest Hemingway when he wrote that flash story that went like "they came over the fence and we potted them on the head again. We all felt topping about it." There in those soldiers' language lies the other rare value we can attach to Jackson's film, a value no amount of technological coloring of any kind for any war documentary subject can manufacture, or one no feature film can appropriate without coming out impolite to the soldiering profession.
True, what erupts from the resultant narrative is also an exposé on the British public's treatment of artillery troop dispatches, involving so many late-teen boy-men, like it was all just a sort of Boy Scout jamboree trip meant to make parents and siblings left at home proud. One footage focused on a poster that would also taunt/shame the male citizen's courage with the words "what did YOU do during the war?" In the end, knowing full well that this was not a war started by the British, we forgive the deception in the leadership's recruitment advertising, check our scoffing at the young men's commoner ignorance, and accept and salute that heroism behind the British English expressions of machismo there hiding heartbreaks or one's possible borderline PTSD. We lean back and listen to the detailing, as if these are words from British great grandpas that just got the globe's attention, especially since they're now here illustrated by moving colored pictures.
Firecrackers' official theatrical trailer
Firecrackers. This award/nomination-winning (Canadian Screen Awards, Stockholm International Film Festival, etc.) debut feature by young Canadian filmmaker Jasmin Mozaffari started its limited theatrical release in the US last July 12, and so might hit your favorite global subscription video-on-demand service provider soon (we hope it does). We had access to a preview of the film, and here are our impressions:
As though on a mission to demystify all those positive, social liberal messages about Canada in such projects as the dystopian television drama The Handmaid's Tale and the 2002 Michael Moore documentary Bowling for Columbine, Mozaffari makes it clear from the very first frames of her film that this Canadian construction of hers has no intention of portraying her country as different from, say, the violent Trump-leaning towns of the USA; perhaps only less violent for having fewer inhabitants. Here in her film is a relatively isolated Ontario town, sparsely populated (albeit not so architecturally dilapidated), inhabited by people who have either accepted their fate as a hopeless lot or own dreams of escaping that very isolation to head on to places with both the garish glory of numbers and the urban tolerance or civility as well as the economic opportunity that probably go with the glory. The latter sort of inhabitants in Mozaffari's fictional town are here represented at their extreme by two women in their late teens, dirty dumb-ass white Lou (Michaela Kurimsky) and her colored friend Chantal (Karena Evans), who present a desperate desire to move to faraway New York, realistically or unrealistically supported by Lou's money saved from a year of working at a motel as a cleaner.
The premise somehow reminds us of that British gem of a film titled Fish Tank, although that Andrea Arnold oeuvre had a different kind of remoteness to its setting, more urban-Marxist in its results, that setting being within the fringes of London merely instead of far away from the megalopolis. Yet somehow the two films have a similar ring to them in their approach to both the reality and illusion of metropolises and the intermittent pangs of being poorly embedded in a site of extreme provincialism (of either the social conservative or neoliberal-economic kind).
Like Arnold's film's protagonist, Mozaffari's lead characters are hardened, daily armed with the defensive-offensive profanities of unprivileged existence. They are not educated and make very dumb mistakes (which mistakes make up the film's entire plot, including ending up being sexually assaulted and exploited), but a twist at the end reveals them to be not so un-clever (and not so unlucky). The firecracker in the title, by the way, may half refer to the slang term, which means a woman who's "feisty, energetic, opinionated, and honest" (Slate.com).
This mixture or presentation of dualities of provincial-female dumbness/smartness, misfortune/luck, also reminds us of another Arnold gem rich in the same, American Honey. But the near-tragedy-freed female protagonist in that film is given a more symbolist manifestation of her liberation than the one gifted the vengeance-leaning protagonists of Fish Tank's and Firecrackers' social realist constructs.
Speaking of vengeance, the final one in Firecrackers is actually ultimately far more tensive than the one in Fish Tank's, which latter was aborted anyway. For if we felt a bit of worry for what might happen to the protagonist of Fish Tank after her getaway/departure, we should worry more for the two protagonists (plus one) of Firecrackers during the credits, for we have actually been left with the idea that the two may still be pursued. The plus one is Lou's younger brother, who is turning more positively gay and innocently out with it at his very young age, unprotected now by her absent sister in that rural environ populated by nearly Trump-like conservative Canadians.
Dragged Across Concrete's official movie trailer
Dragged Across Concrete is a neo-noir crime thriller that hit select Philippine theaters last July 17. It's a film helmed by S. Craig Zahler. And who is S. Craig Zahler, you ask?
First, let us say that it's fitting that American film critic Leonard Matlin regarded Zahler's 2015 debut film Black Tomahawk as a modest feature that "leaves The Hateful Eight in the dust." He added: "It's provocative, original, extremely violent and extremely good."
Fitting, because Zahler could very well be the new Tarantino we've been waiting for, or―okay―the Tarantino variant added to the platter of like-minded film aesthetes who has nevertheless dragged things a tad slower in Dragged Across Concrete, his new and third film, for him to ever be considered a 100% Tarantino clone and a similar box-office-friendly sort of material (Dragged actually bombed at the US box office).
Moving his story a la Reservoir Dogs, but slower, as we said, and quieter, he comes up with something that does seem to quote or allude to scenes from Tarantino's first three films and succeeds in being Tarantinoesque with them, but sans the plasticity of scenes with soundtrack music. Whenever there's music here it's not a soundtrack or score, it's music in the scene; never mind if that's possibly also a smart way of avoiding the payment of royalties.
To others the slowness and quietness in Dragged would already be quite a tall order for a filmmaker to succeed with narratively. But Zahler does seem to have triumphed, in fact quite well, in the cheap-noir genre, ejecting not just the music but even the editing magic in order for the script to shine and be the star, carrying things to noir scriptwriting heaven. In this film, it's as if Zahler has been quite the fan of those Tarantino scenes with the witty dialogues or debates around subjects like hamburgers, God, and tips to waitresses, interspersed by the usual Tarantino-ish violent humor (or humor with the violence). His characters' dialogue lines would even turn essay-like or lawyerly or politician-sounding every now and then, departing from realism, perhaps to underline the fact that the movie is also that, the filmmaker's essay essaying (or mockingly essaying) explanations on a variety of things, as well as the characters' essays about their own roles in those things. Perhaps it's not an accident that detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) has everything measured in percentages: 70% chance of this happening, 50% chance of that succeeding. Ridgeman's partner, meanwhile, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), says "anchovies" every time he needs to say something like "shit," as if that could make things less realist and very formal.
It's also as if Zahler is carrying the word "indie" to a different context, where the indie filmmaker is allowed to drag his film the way he wants it, much like the indie novelist that Zahler also is, independent of the producer who might want to quicken the pace a little for the masses. Is Zahler also trying to highlight the aesthetic reality that the words "thriller" and "suspense" can be realized without the facile tools of editors and music scorers, realized simply through the tool of the plot conflict-maker? That would already be Tarantinoesque in itself. But, unlike Tarantino, he would treat the silences in between the delivered sentences (sometimes bringing in some, uhm, sandwich-eating to accompany such absences) as effective enough tension carriers, aided by actors' method acting, in their own right.
Zahler might even have a better handle on politics than Mr. T. After breezing through Jackie Brown with its black-American woman lead character, Tarantino might have blinked in his handling of Jews in Inglorious Basterds, in which some critics thought he was "turning Jews into Nazis" (according to critic Daniel Mendelsohn's negative take, for instance). Zahler, in contrast, finds it easy to keep his two lead characters' political incorrectness in Dragged at arm's length, seemingly aware that his entire plot's concept does not endorse vigilantism as a profitable venture (a non-endorsement that is already a politically correct position in itself). Well, Bridgeman's vigilantism does turn in profits for his family in the end, albeit at someone's life's expense, but it must be noted that all that was arrived at only under extreme luck (a luck made possible by the black-American character, Henry Jones [Tory Kittles], who gave Bridgeman his word, his promise, or at least some of it).
Zahler displays the same sort of political awareness with Bridgeman's sexism, which actually turns out to be a questionable sort of verbal sexism considering that the cop is married not to a conservative housewife but to a liberal former police detective, Melanie Ridgeman (Laurie Holden), who has only been retired by a permanent injury, the reason why he would be risking his life for her and their daughter after his suspension by Chief Lieutenant Calvert (Don Johnson). And, furthermore, while the script does allow the two lead police characters that verbal sexism we are all familiar with, it does not permit them to be actual misogynists, instead displays quite convincingly their being loving husbands and fathers or lovers without a hint of patriarchic attitude. In one scene, for instance, Lurasetti's girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones) chides his boyfriend cop, "Don't try and bluff somebody who's smarter than you are. Smarter by a yardstick." And even when the two cops have a partially-deaf naked woman in her late-20s under their watch, a woman on whom they demonstrate their self-assigned obligation to lightly torture for information, you can still smell the sympathy. This sympathy finds a parallel in Bridgeman's regard for a trio of young women on a mall escalator wearing sexy shorts, worried for them perhaps as he would be for his daughter. That's not patriarchic sexism, that's just being realistic.
In fact, the film's story presents another woman character, named Kelly Summer (Jennifer Carpenter), who is forced to go back to work in a bank by her misogynistic husband unable to get a better job, a bank that would soon be robbed by a three-man gang led by one Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann). Summer does obey her husband after he allows her to touch their baby through the gap in their apartment's chained door, thereafter getting on a non-sexist bus where the men don't give up their seats to unseated women anymore. Later on in the story, Summer would be forced by another man (the tough lead criminal) to shoot Lurasetti . . . because the man is unable to get to this cop and shoot him himself.
The conservatism of the policemen in this film are in fact portrayed as silly, with the script extending it to cover even an accompanying intolerance towards cellphones!
In a movie season where we are witnessing real endorsements of vigilantism, like Shaft (the 2019 version with its own load of "shaft"-obsessed patriarchy) and the B-movie vigilante film Hollow Point (what a title, haha!), you'd find Zahler allowing himself the same sort of provocations, presenting arguments that would make Rodrigo Duterte smile, but with the difference that Zahler would also give us serious contending elements from the black-American and aging-white positions of poverty. You'd ask yourself if the quasi-vigilantist probing in the film doesn't look more like a thing from a Democratic Party primary debate. True, the script does offer quite intelligent questions about the laws' effectiveness/efficiency in the curbing of, say, the illegal drug trade, with everything measured in percentages of probability by Gibson's character that would please a Bato dela (or de la) Rosa. And it should matter a lot that Bridgeman has a daughter who, although nervously saying she's fine after having been harassed for the fifth time by young black men in their neighborhood (the only sort of neighborhood Bridgeman's salary could afford), has to be protected in every way possible, at whatever cost, by him. But . . . when Bridgeman tells his partner he wants to avoid any long-term damage such incidents might have on her daughter, is he thinking about keeping her from someday becoming a full-blown racist and possible racist vigilante? And as for Bridgeman's and Lurasetti's quasi-vigilantism that we've been talking about, take note that their jump into what seems as outright vigilantism after their suspension . . . is still only half so, the initial motive for their pursuit of the small gang in the narrative having been more financial than anything, no different from the motive of the two black-American small-role criminals (Kittles as Johns and Michael Jai White as Biscuit) hired by the three-man gang in the film's progress. These filial motives can be contrasted with the simple hate of the sociopaths that comprise the three-man gang, one of whom has a penchant for robbing immigrants of their relatively small change.
So, Dragged Across Concrete could be one of those non-partisan, almost progressivist social realist films that would seriously challenge, in its case via black humor, both American Republicans and Democrats to sit together to solve this one hell of a gigantic social problem called Urban Crime, if these parties can ever put aside their corrupt or partisan agendas even for a moment. The script critiques here a landscape of both conservative self-concern and liberal empathy facades ("the day men started saying 'we're pregnant' when their wives were," says Lurasetti), which both fail at resolving the biggest problems of their country. Put aside their corrupt or partisan agendas for a moment, did we say? Fat chance, that. And thus the Zahlerian cynicism.
Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein's official movie trailer
Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein. This Netflix short film, which premiered on the over-the-top media services provider last July 16, comes out as a mockumentary, therefore comedic in its intent. But as if in cognizance of the fact that comedies, much more than dramas perhaps, are centered on their actors' abilities, the short film, while conveniently using an actor from another Netflix project, Stranger Things, also used this actor's real name, David Harbour, for the mockumentary's lead character and then this character's supposed father and grandfather. That made the film appear as though a project that Netflix intended also for the shelf where its roster of stand-up comedy specials perch.
So it's a David Harbour comedy special, then, written by comedy writer and producer John Levenstein (Arrested Development, Silicon Valley, Illegally Yours). Kudos to Harbour for being a revelation to the comedy world, and then to the other comedy actors supporting him, among them Mary Woronov (Night of the Comet; Eating Raoul), Heather Lawless (Be Kind Rewind; The Campaign; The Heart, She Holler), Michael Lerner (Barton Fink; Elf), Marion van Cuyck (PENIS; Baskets; Good Game), O-Lan Jones (Community), Lidia Porto (Get Shorty; American Housewife; Horrible Bosses 2; Idiocracy), and Randolph Thompson (Serious Music; Salem Rogers).
But this Harbour-anchored comedy's discourse wouldn't have the actor just standing in front of a mic. He sits, walks all over the room, enters, exits, lies down on a table or lab bed, climbs up a stage, jumps off that stage, and so on. But as a film narrative, this short comedy piece is one that's unique; because while it's one of those comedies that's a little difficult to grasp, it has here been made perfect for and by its packed conciseness. And aware that it's also a mockumentary, it knows it has to mock something for a point. So it ridicules old playhouse television mannerisms ("I remembah"), even old television's lighting and image resolution and color. Hooray to online HD TV! But, finally, it's a film meant to mock the ego of old, prideful artistes.
In the end, it's this ego that becomes the real monster in the film's narrative, becoming more monstrous when it gets insecure towards its protégé (played by Russian-Canadian actor Alex Ozerov) and then points to another (in this case, the young woman executive producer played by comedian Kate Berlant) as the real monster. Sounds familiar?
In the age of political performance artists like Donald Trump and people in the arts like Harvey Weinstein, this is an opportune subtle comedy project about the Frankensteins our various cultures have created for our time's art.
Jonathan Benitez. Mangrove Swamp. 2019. Acrylic on canvas that premiered at the Puerto Princesa City Hall during a three-man show for the July 2019 launching of the Balayong Festival. 37" x 27".
Mangrove Swamp; Evergreen; Via Cruz; Memory of Departure and Arrival. Remember the coining of something called Process Art in the mid-sixties? From one critical angle all art is a kind of process art. But if Process Art was established to emphasize process as a big part of an artwork's being, sometimes for it to become the bigger part of the end artwork (even while that artwork exists to the viewer as an already finished product), then we could say that Process Art was indeed a necessary movement, just as Conceptualism was for its own arguments.
The nice thing about Process Art, along with Action Painting, was that it led us to ask questions about the point of the process, or, to put it in another way, the point behind what one was doing. That looking for the point in what one is "doing" would not only refer to the plan of what one intends to produce but also to the process of producing that product. So, in that sense, one could say that even pattern painting is a kind of (sometimes apolitical) process art, just as photorealism and hyperrealism are in their own way. One could also say that Marxist criticism is a kind of looking at all art as process art embedded in their respective processes of production and distribution.
There's a lot of art being produced today that seem to have lost the point behind their production. There are even practitioners of photorealism who seem ignorant of the point from where Photorealism sprung forth. Thus, last June, we were happy to witness (at Eskinita Gallery) a Hyperrealist work by Aleah Rose Angeles titled Evergreen that seemed to demonstrate a full understanding of what Hyperrealism has always been about, as "the simulation of something which never really existed" (Jean Baudrillard). Yes, you can add this to our June picks list.
Aleah Rose Angeles. Evergreen. 2019. oil on vanvas. 10" x 8".
So, indeed, the point behind the process must flaunt itself, or must be advertised as a necessary part of another point or intent; in short, that process point must be known. Unless we are to immerse ourselves in such art as apolitical or non-allusionistic pattern painting or otherwise derivative Jackson Pollock drip painting, both of which carry an already too obvious point.
Now, Benitez's Mangrove Swamp may look a lot like a black and white Pollock mural and may even share the same concerns with lines and patterns as many of Pollock's works, but remember that this was produced via the process of realism. However, it also becomes interesting that the realism here does not look like it's intent at presenting a scene with people in it, so that it becomes a kind of pattern painting, too, its lack of a regular or repetitive pattern notwithstanding. One might even recall Cezanne's pioneering effort to liberate figures from all sorts of social context, all in the service of geometric patterns and their distribution on the pictorial plane, an effort that Picasso et al. sought to do Cezanne one better with.
But if we are to view Benitez's work as that, as a Pollock-leaning or Cezannist project, we would be losing sight of the fact that the artist has been producing art through this decade that subsumed the human figure in mythical nature, producing reconfigurations of those human figures' context so that their original existences as urban entities can become mere human entities at the mercy of nature, as it were. Bearing that in mind, we can now perhaps say that Mangrove Swamp is Benitez's continuation of his early efforts, this time not with an immersion of a drawn figure in shapes of nature but with the immersion of his new image's viewer (you and us) in that image. And since that immersion may be better served by patterns and shapes the viewing eye can get lost in, the artist must pick a sight with those patterns and then get rid of the color in order to generate an instantaneous question as to what the patterns are of. And when the viewer recognizes the image after a second, or after looking at the title card on the wall, he/she would at the same time be embraced by the realization of where he/she just got himself/herself lost in, and he/she becomes one of Benitez's urban figures now soaked in the foliage of God's nature.
But notice also that this is purportedly an image of a mangrove swamp, and in our age we know that mangrove swamps can both be natural and man-made (man-farmed). Is this Benitez's next level of argument about "nature"? That while nature is God-made (Bathala-made), humankind can contribute its part via re-makings (or enhancements) of it, just as the Pollocks of the world are re-makers of natural elements (lines, shapes, color fields, etc. as emotional or contextual stimuli) and the realists of the world the same?
But what of this re-making? Notice the fact that Benitez's piece is also a meticulous rendering of a myriad of patterns that create that swamp view now swamping our vision with an infinity. The process, then, acquires its own part in the overall point. The process of recreating those number of patterns that make up a whole can be deemed as a devotion, a prayer of gratitude, one's going through a sort of painstaking rosary towards a God-given gift. We recall a similar kind of painstaking process as prayer in another work we saw last June (at Altro Mondo's backroom show) by Iggy Rodriguez titled Via Cruz. Go ahead, add this one to our June picks list as well.
Iggy Rodriguez. Via Cruz. 2019, pen and ink on paper. 44" x 59".
We salute Benitez for creating a party of a vision with Mangrove Swamp, one that while friendly to traditional tenets of aestheticism (this would be nice behind a black sofa in a black and white room) pushes both a point of process popular nowadays (oh, wow, what labor!) and a context for that point deeper than what's popular. Here, we recall another piece we saw, also at Altro Mondo during the July group exhibition there titled Refractions; the piece, which could be our #7b pick of the month, was a painting by Jay Ragma, titled Memory of Departure and Arrival, which, while there sporting a title that seemed prideful of a process, referred to that process as a memory, as if mindful of the fact that what we were now seeing in front of us on the gallery wall was an already finished aesthetic and static construct. It was now begging us to consider as well the art in the process qua party to the construct.
Jay Ragma. Memory of Departure and Arrival. 2019. acrylic on canvas. 48" x 36".
Alwin Reamillo. Ang Rockenroll Piano ni Lee Wen. Bricolage during the artist's June-July 2019 Pian o Fort e show, displayed in front of paintings of the simultaneously-showing Transcendence group show, at the Main Gallery of Altro Mondo Creative Space. "Deconstructed" in-disuse piano, cable-reel ends/wheels, fishnet rubber floaters, connecting steel cables, light, toy-piano lids, transferred images, glass vials, plywood, and plastic plants. Dimensions variable.
Ang Rockenroll Piano ni Lee Wen. Before Alwin Reamillo's Pian o Fort e show closed on the night of July 15, we thought we'd give it a revisit . . . because we couldn't resist taking a second look at that Reamillo bricolage piece in the show that already got our attention last June. This second take led us to have this piece in our July-picks list.
The piece was titled Ang Rockenroll Piano ni Lee Wen, representative of the artist's series of "rockenroll pianos," essentially pianos on/with wheels. Whatever those other rockenroll pianos have to say, and we've read some concerning what they are supposedly about, we had this current iteration in front of us there emphasizing a number of concerns in the Reamillo lexicon that did result in a high impact upon our senses, if only because these concerns were there removed from the more complex set of contexts present in those other versions. Although supposedly a part of a mother installation called After Ang Parola scattered on the floor in the Main Gallery of Altro Mondo, this piece could be regarded as an independent unit. Its independence was notable for its more abstract focus, despite being dedicated to the performance artist Lee Wen (who recently passed), compared to the more political focus of the three other pianos in the mother installation.
First, it was a piano. But it was a piano on wheels, there intent on stating its having come from somewhere and already with a desire to move on sooner or later. Despite that statement about its mobility or rambling nature, it nonetheless counter-stated the heaviness of its being parked there, static in its visible weight in a present circumstance. We noticed, however, that its wheels were from cable reels, implying not only an ability to travel physically but also virtually via cable-transported images or sounds.
This piano was truly a rebel fantasia. It was also a fantasy. While boasting about its heaviness, its cable-spool wheels seemed to also want to wheel the piano around and then hang it by cable to float in the air, suspended like cables. More ironic than that were the fishnet floaters that surrounded the piano's body and internal organs, seemingly bent at floating all that heaviness in whatever floodwater the piano may find itself in.
Was this piano also a fishing boat, a fisher of sorts fishing for listeners in the night, thus its central lightbulb? And its music? Well, its music, parked in that Altro Mondo port, was visited by moths (made from toy piano lids hinged together). The moths flaunted map-wings (wings sporting maps), implying travels of their own within a city.
But was this travelling piano really just an expression of abstract actions? If so, why were its wheels travelling with vials of medicinal herbs? Was its music (along with its herbs' possible aroma) actually one intent at healing?
And what was that thing atop the instrument doing, working as an accompanying (or as an accompaniment) matchbox (of the popular Guitar brand), and with a marble lurking inside it? Was this matchbox there to keep the light (and the rebel music) burning lest some rogue wind kill the piano music's brightness? Or was it a match that could burn the piano's music anytime, like a Soviet spy's poison hidden in a lapel, for use in case the spy or penetrator-musician is caught? And if it was an accompaniment to the piano while not exactly the guitar that its brand name promised it was, then why did a matchbox take that role that only a musical instrument can provide? Should a match be considered a musical instrument, too, given that it can emit a sound during its use, just as the piano can inspire a flame during its singing? Would that piano's music have been a candle to a flame? What sort of flame? Was this matchbox also there to remind Reamillo of that time in his childhood when he almost accidentally burned his family's piano factory? If also the last, then it was also an accompanying caveat for the artist or viewer not to lose his/her marbles, there to act like Jose Rizal's mother's warning concerning the moth and the flame, the allegory that she told to the young Rizal so that the latter would eschew martyrdom within the adventures of his heroics.
In our current unfortunate art scene where it seems a child can be an expert, it's refreshing to see a mature piece define the difference between good art and merely good artisanship.
detail shots of the piece
Red Joan's official trailer
Red Joan was released in the UK last April yet, had a limited release in Canada last May, and was already shown in some European countries and Australia between May and June. But it only showed up on screens in Germany, Greece, Argentina, and Singapore this month and has yet to be scheduled for release in the US; so, while hoping it'll likewise come to our shores and soon, here's how our July preview of the film went:
One thing to remember―this is a spy film based on a novel that was based on (or "inspired by") the life of Melita Norwood. The Melita in the film is named Joan Stanley, a Physics major at Cambridge University who got involved with Communists (not with Communism, an ideology about which Joan has a lot of questions, to the dismay of her Communist friends and boyfriend). After graduation she acquires a secretary's job at Tube Alloys, a secret institution in which she, as clerk and a Physics graduate with an automatic grasp of the science being researched there, had both understanding of and access to the classified information kept there concerning the development of a nuclear bomb. After seeing the reel film on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans, however, she gives in to pressure from her friend Communists to help them smuggle documents from Tube Alloys to the Soviet Union, purportedly―as per her defense after her arrest―from a need to level the field of nuclear arms ownership and thus force détente (not necessarily using that word) and avoid further "containment" of the USSR by the Americans in the post-World War II Cold War (not necessarily articulating it that way). She is arrested only in her old age with the charge of non-adherence to the Official Secrets Act, is promptly interrogated and then exposed in the media.
Melita Norwood's story does not exactly fit into the film's essaying a desire for its Norwood mutant in the person of Stanley. For starters, Norwood was a Latin and Logic major at the University College of Southampton, not a Physics major at Cambridge. True, she got a job as a clerk at a research group called British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in 1932 and was eventually promoted as secretary to G.L. Bailey, head of a department at BNFMRA and a member of the advisory committee of the Tube Alloys programme. Like Stanley, Norwood was raised by a left-leaning father (Norwood's father published a workers' newspaper). But Stanley's mother is not mentioned in the film, and Norwood's mother joined the UK's Co-operative Party. Norwood herself married a Communist in 1935, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936, and was not an unwitting spy for the Communist cause, having joined the NKVD in 1937. After her media exposure in 1999 at the age of 87, she explained her activity not in the direction of Stanley's alibi but thusly: "I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service."
Red Joan cannot be seen as a biographical film. Nor can its claim-cum-disclaimer "inspired by a true story" be read as an effort at speculative fiction proposing an alternate history, for that filmic effort would have to name its lead character Melita Norwood, not Joan Stanley. What it is is a proposition that says this: Norwood's inadvertent global achievement by her treasonous act was in creating an international system of nuclear stalemates that then led, as per Stanley's claim, to intra-national détente and even entente cordiale-like treaties. The only problem with Norwood was she was a spy and a Communist, thus a traitor not only to a country but to a global economic system and to the ideology of free societies. If she was a different sort of personality, then, let's say a Joan Stanley, her achievement just might have been seen as that, an achievement, if not during her time, then later. The 87-year-old Stanley does state to her lawyer-son her having been proved right by history.
The film is not an outstanding cinematic achievement, in the way outstanding cinematic achievements go. It is quite an ordinary-looking one that looks more like a low-budget made-for-TV picture that's nevertheless well-made using the 35 mm stock with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. But it's acted superiorly in by Judi Dench as the older Stanley and Sophie Cookson as the young Stanley. What its drama gives is a satisfactory flurry of demonstrated sexism and Stanley's smile-sporting cruising through it, and then, finally, a story of acquired power emanating from a woman operating with a combination of knowledge and naïveté, instinct and awareness. In one scene she contributes a solution to a scientific problem, but the film implies that she probably wasn't given any credit for it. Later, the film assumes that a sexist treatment of women secretaries of weapons scientists has its advantages―one, women would not be suspected of anything, and two, women who would do treasonous acts would also not be given credit for the treason (it's the male boss who would be suspected of the crime and arrested).
We didn't get to read the novel by Jennie Rooney, but if the film's script by Lindsay Shapero veered too much from it, then it must be commended for the thesis which goes thus: if the threat of the destruction of the world would have to come from men seeking unique power, its saving grace might just be in a woman who would recognize full well, both from her heart as much as from her mind, the dictum about absolute power certain to corrupt the owner of that power absolutely. For had the United States been the sole owner of nuclear weapons, using our hindsight, God knows what atrocities and imperialist whims it would have been able to exact upon the world during its streak, more lethal perhaps than what US corporations' greed activated throughout the world from the '60s to more recently in the Middle East.
But neither must this film's thesis be regarded as solely a "what if" speculation on the US's past, asking solely what might have happened had that country been the only owners of nuclear weapons; it must also be seen as pointing to the same continuing hunger today, in many nations and their leaders, for technological advantage in weaponry (not just of the nuclear kind). Technological advantage in weaponry has, after all, been the implementing vehicle for all sorts of expansionist ideology, whether from a neo-conservative one, an alt-right one, an Islamist one, or communist. So, whether this hunger derives from the dining tables of Washington, the spearmint tea rooms of Tehran or Jerusalem, or a posh dimsum hall within Zhongnanhai contemplating a collection of nine-dash lines, make note of the fact that the frequenters of those halls would mostly be men.
Breaker's official trailer
Breaker is the story of J.C. Murray, a young man dishonorably discharged from military service after less than six months and who, before this, figured in a road accident that left him despised, alone, lost, and consequently troubled or angry within the zone of his small community, his dysfunctional family, and his guilt-ridden psyche. It's important to know that Murray is not troubled by events that occurred during his stint in the military. His is a different kind of PTSD.
It's also important that the events in the film all happen to Murray in the prairie landscape where his fate landed him: it's a sort of landscape that alternately gives one a feeling of freedom at best and a feeling of distant isolation within a vast prison. A constantly visible horizon backgrounding the vastness provides that dual freedom/isolation experience, and it may be imagined that this dual emotion rests in all the individuals who inhabit this place, probably daily. But the beautiful and at the same time depressing sound of poverty-stricken country and western is here made manifest in its cinematographic version, not in the songs version that first-time feature film director Wade Jackson tries to keep absent from the soundtrack (in one scene, Murray turns off the country music-playing car radio that his mother turned on).
Breaker is a debuting filmmaker's feature about recklessness and the accidents of life. It's also about family and the availability of forgiveness or lack thereof. It's about the problems of men and animals, as well as people's love and disregard for horses' existence. Finally, it's about the art of breaking horses, the taming of them, the building of friendships with them, as an allegory for the wildness in people made reasonable by their acknowledgment of the possible presence of goodness coming from someone out there, one ideally not trying to show power over another via a continuing rain of smart-alecky advice. That acknowledgment might be hard to arrive at if rare in a country of mostly self-concerned daily win-seekers who have likewise become users and haters.
In the end, Breaker is a unique sort of feel-good film that tells the story of a troubled sinner who has been given, yes, a "break" by the same fates that assigned him this god-forsaken birthplace. He is introduced by a tragically "broken-hearted" lone rancher to stud-breaking, from which he would be broken himself by the ensuing revelations that function as the throat lump-inducing hug that he sorely needed, that coming from no less than the least likely person to give him that kind of hug. All these are delivered to us through a quiet, minimal directorial hand that makes for a standout country film. Without quoting anything Biblical, it becomes a story about a salvation, a revelation, and J.C.'s second coming as a savior himself.
So, let us correct ourselves. This is not just a movie about J.C. Murray. The end sequences shows us the many Murrays of the world and how they can be broken and saved by society, not left alone or dishonorably discharged from erstwhile friendships and family. [d]
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