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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.


March, 2017

"T2 - Trainspotting" boggles the mind

Danny Boyle’s new film "T2 Trainspotting" is a flamboyant hoot. Just check out this trailer! (There are more on the film's FB page.)

“Shoo-er yu cunt unnerstanna wurrud th’r sane mowust uh th’tame…” – but it doesn’t matter that much. Boyle delights in tropes of his 1996 cult film, and in the complicated relationships among the surviving troupe of low-lifes fans will remember from the original. The success of exuberant, flashy, utterly watchable “T2” is in part that Boyle doesn’t seek to imitate, but to surpass. He does so, creating a gripping, funny, violent, vulgar, trashily intellectual piece of post-modern filmmaking.

“First there was an opportunity, then there was a betrayal.” That’s the theme in a nutshell. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to his hometown after a 20-year absence and at once confronts long-postponed consequences of his past. One by one, we are re-introduced to Mark, Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Martin) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), as their stories intersect. Sparks fly – and blood, and other fluids, but I don’t want to spoil the astonishing fun of it all.

The film is visually arresting: fast, loud, kaleidoscopic, and often incomprehensible despite the floating subtitles that appear at the start, an ironic nod to the complaints of non-Scottish audiences about “the language barrier” in T1. I had a brief hope the titles would run throughout, but no; once they disappear you’re on your own to make sense of the story by riveting your attention to the action and vivid settings.

Kid videos and snips from the original film create an almost poignant sense of the passage of time. All of the characters in their unique ways deal with being suddenly middle-aged, and the world they live in has definitely moved forward as well. Some time sequences get confusing. For instance, at the end of a knock-down bar-fight between Mark and Sick Man, Mark walks away from the pool table without a scratch on him, as Sick Man sits on a bench at the side of the room. The floor is spotless, not a trace of upturned furniture or shattered glass. Is this a jump ahead (or back) in time? Or is it Boyle poking fun at the trope of the barroom brawl? Probably the latter, but one grins a little uncertainly.

Another question: has celebrity ruined Ewan McGregor? I hate to ask, because I love Ewan McGregor – who doesn’t? But of the four characters (a fifth, Tommy McKenzie, played by Kevin Kidd, dies in the first movie but makes an appearance in a flashback), McGregor stands out, and not in a good way. His screen presence is self-conscious and faintly unconvincing, as if he barely had his lines memorized. I noticed this quality in him in his recent appearance on Stephen Colbert: like a man talking to himself in the mirror.  I wonder what’s going on.

Anyway, if you are a T1 fan, don’t miss T2. Or even if you never saw the original, you'll find everything you need in this “sequel.” Take it as a cartoon, a send-up of itself, a mockumentary about a generation of Edinburgh’s heroin underground facing mid-life crisis. It’s funny, memorable, and cathartic – a must see for your inner demons.

April, 2014

los posibles (dance film review)

Featured at the Northwest Film Forum's "Pulsos Latinos" film festival, "los posibles" is a production of Grupo KM29, a genre-bending Argentinian arts organization, and "La Union de los Rios," a film production brainchild of Agustina Llambi Campbell, Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui and Santiago Mitre. Some readers may remember last year's fascinating and much-accoladed "El Estudiante" at the Film Forum, also directed by this team.

"los posibles" is an unforgettable synthesis of dance and movement, original live music, stunningly effective photography and camera work, and a riveting ensemble of male dancers. In its utter originality, devotion to male energy and physicality, and eroticism, it bears some comparison to Fassbinder's controversial but arguably masterful "Querelle" -- not in terms of content or even style, but in both films' success in creating an otherworldy, almost hypnotic world where speech and storyline are transcended by a language of movement and relationship.

"los posibles" moves through a succession of "beats" or movements, starting with a somber, shadowy space almost devoid of scale and shape, where male figures prowl, emerge, disappear, return, engage, disengage, touch, look, submit and transfigure in what suggests the silent, erotic dance of a cruise park or under-the-highway trysting point where language and identity are non-existent: movement or the absence thereof are the prime medium. The actual "KM29" on National Route 3 outside of Buenos Aires is such a place, apparently: a kind of no-man's-land beyond the rules and conventions of the Federal Capitol, where boundaries blur and a kind of dangerous, erotic, subversive anarchy holds.

From here, as the twilight gradually brightens, the men leap to an open floor where a complex web of action and interaction unfolds. The camera follows particular dancers and clusters, illuminating fragments of stories within a surrounding vortex of outsiders, observers, invaders, and newly-germinating stories.

Fernando Lockett and Pablo Parra insert their cameras like knowing and well-practiced eyes amidst the deceptively improvised-looking choreography and the stark industrial sets. The original score played live by Ramiro Cairo, is penetrating, primal, and supportive of the dancers; it permeates the space of the film without crowding the performers who share it -- a perfect synchronicity of genres.

At a mid-point of the film, the camera tantalizes with an ambiguous glimpse as from the wings of a major opera or concert hall: rising ranks of red-velvet seats, pillars, gilt arcades, and one of the few glimpses of vivid color in the otherwise pale palette of greys and browns.

"Ah," this viewer thought, "now we will see the performance in a live theater."

But no: this film, and the KM29 project as a whole, does not appear to take an interest in the concert venues of the Federal Capitol. Viewers instead are  drawn into the dark, ambiguous spaces between and behind the facades of mainstream culture, where danger and eros and experimentation cohabitate in joyful irreverence.

In the final trope of the film an outlier, a solo dancer who has circled and watched and remained apart from the evolution of the dance, finally finds his groove and earns his place among the clan of men. Here, as elsewhere, the film reveals an aspect of its work: the use of arts and community to lift up and unite outliers of society: the poor, the despised, the ignored, and to show the amazing,  revolutionizing power of eros and expressive freedom to transform and uplift humankind.

The film is one of a kind, and will hopefully return to NW Film Forum or SIFF and garner a larger audience than the woefully small crowd at NWFF on April 26, 2014. Those present witnessed a rare work of revolutionary collaboration among genres of film, music, movement and performance, alongside a social element (see KM29DANZA on the website) that seeks to empower and motivate street youth through  opportunities and training in performance arts.

See the film trailer here.

Ficha técnica y artística
Argentina - 2013 – 50 minutos – Color – HD

Dirección: Santiago Mitre – Juan Onofri Barbato
Producción: La Unión de los Ríos – Km29 – Alta Definición Argentina
Con el apoyo de: Instituto Cultural de la Provincia de Buenos Aires – Teatro Argentino de La Plata – Universidad del Cine.
Coreografía: Km29
Fotografía y Cámara: Fernando Lockett
Fotografía y Cámara adicional: Pablo Parra
Producción Ejecutiva: Agustina Llambí Campbell
Sonido: Santiago Fumagalli
Escenografía e iluminación: Matías Sendón
Montaje: Delfina Castagnino – Susana Leunda
Música: Ramiro Cairo
Asistente de Dirección: Juan Schnitman – Marina Sarmiento
Jefatura de Producción: Martin Feldman
Coordinadora de Producción: Giselle Lozano
Vestuario: Km29 - Carolina Sosa Loyola

Interpretada por: Lucas Araujo – Jonathan Da Rosa – Jonathan Carrasco – Daniel Leguizamón – Alejandro Alvarenga – Alfonso Baron – Pablo Kun Castro

January 2012

Why Hugo Stinks

Despite fawning reviews and a Golden Globe award, Martin Scorsese's indigestible blob of treacle stinks. Not one frame of this bloated, purposeless film has a gram of authentic charm. That won’t stop the Academy of Motion Picture blah blah blah from heaping praises on it.

The child actors, preciously over-dressed and made up, look like pampered dogs going through their show routines. Every moment the camera lingers on those pretty little faces betrays the heavy hand of their handlers, presumably starting with Scorsese, who seems to have as much chemistry with kids as he does with wives.

The adult actors show calculated mastery of film and TV conventions, telegraphing their intentions to an audience the director assumes is so deadened and starved by contemporary culture as to be impervious to any but the most belabored semaphores. Ben Kingsley seems to be perpetually watching himself in the mirror; Sacha Baron Cohen’s wooden station master looks terrified of losing his mustache; Ray Winstone, the evil-incarnate uncle, finds one note and toots it like a bratty 5-year-old with a kazoo.

The repetitive musical score grinds familiar grooves: tinkling chimes for magic, throbbing legato in the heart-warming bits, pizzicatos of excitement for moments like the chase scene with the Doberman pinscher in the mall – sorry, train station. Sentiment like this is available in a gingerbread box with built-in digitized Christmas carols -- a fair description of this film as a whole.

As warm-hearted and uplifting as a prostitute in fairy-tale drag, Hugo screams "fake me" while wriggling seductively through its 3-D effects. The faux Belle Epoch décor and costumes pander to that peculiarly American yearning for the fake that drives hordes to palaces of banality like Disney World and Las Vegas. Over-engineered set pieces and badly-directed actors seem rented from a literary/cinematic chop-shop: great ideas from literature (and the decent book by Brian Selznick) have been stolen, dismantled, and repackaged as trivial bon-bons.

Hugo is a huge, steaming plate of candy-crap dolloped with sugar sauce. Underneath, it’s an over-lingering glimpse of American movie-making that celebrates excess and mocks its audience's ever-rising threshold for mediocrity. Whether there was any shred of redeeming originality or humility before the end of this overblown sugar-puff of a movie, or not, I cannot say, as I left well before it ended, clutching my friend's elbow, fearing for our souls. If it got better before the end, well, good for Mr. Scorsese, and exc-u-use me!

Sadly, the fact that Hugo stinks is exactly why it is likely to garner the biggest, loudest, smelliest blasts of praise at the Academy awards. It's a pile of crap, but to Americans inured to the self-congratulatory Hollywood blockbuster assembly-line, it's a piece of cake. So let those eat it who will; I will happily gnaw bread.

Chaplin's Tramp is King 

"Simplicity is a difficult thing to achieve": The Films of Charlie Chaplin"
April 15-21, 2011 at SIFF Cinema.
The Charlie Chaplin Film Festival closed Thursday night at SIFF Cinema. A week ago, with little fanfare, it opened to a small but excited crowd, among them young devotees in Chaplinesque attire and moustaches, 20-ish couples, middle-aged folk, elders, and single odd-balls like this writer - an approximate cross-section of Charlie Chaplin's 21st century following. 
As the audience dwindled through the week, the significance of his oeuvre seemed only to grow. In 2011, more than three decades after Charlie Chaplin's death and 122 years after his birth, "Charles the Silent" reigns over a threadbare kingdom. Still a name and figure almost anyone can recognize, Chaplin's genius gets lip service even as his legacy fades in the imagination of a generation and an era. People think they know Chaplin: the little man with the funny walk and the top hat and cane. In today's America, to know a little is to know it all, but a closer look at Chaplin reveals depths beyond the scope of casual acquaintance. Everyone knows who he is, but few know him for what he is.
SIFF's high-quality prints and large screen brought him vividly to life across the decades of his evolution, evoking laughter, awe, and tears even from viewers like myself seeing some of the films for the dozenth time. Full-screen, Chaplin can be painfully accessible, cracking us up while breaking our hearts with his loves and hopes and dashed dreams, his deceits and humiliations. If the Self is King, Chaplin is Jester, mocking our delusions of grandeur and importance, laying bare our pettiness and frailty. The Little Tramp disarms the ego with laughter; in laughter is humility, and brief liberation from the chains of self-interest.
Chaplin drives us to laughter, then slaps us back to our senses with harsh truth, challenging not only the tyrants in our own hearts but those in the world at large, whatever their sizes and disguises. The fickle millionaire in City Lights who embraces the Tramp when drunk and rejects him when sober prefigures today's billionaire bailouts as taxpayers stretch their shrinking dollars. The lust for "a mountain of gold" in The Gold Rush drives men to betrayal -- Madoff, anyone? -- while the humble working man of Modern Times first figuratively, then literally, plays a cog in the machine, chewed up and spat out at will by competing demands of industry and labor. "Pathetic little tramps" today no less than in the turbulent 1930's are shouting for justice from Madison to Damascus.
No film more poignantly lends voice to the powerless than The Great Dictator, where Chaplin's social idealism soars in "the little barber's" final oration. Whatever its flaws may be of sentimentality or hyperbole -- and one may find such "flaws" throughout Chaplin's work if one wishes -- that scene must be the bravest 4 1/2 minutes in cinematic history.
The irony of the King of Silent Comedy speaking truth from his throne, the screen, holds no trace of cynicism. "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor," says the humble barber, and goes on with exquisite rhetoric to exhort soldiers and citizens to rise against their oppressors: "You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power." If only our leaders could invoke democracy with such sincere passion.
Chaplin broke his silence to challenge us with this message, but our deafness may be incurable. It is no coincidence that the last word of the film is a command to "listen." In the final seconds of the film, Paulette Goddard's Hannah, her spirit and hopes crushed by oppression, does hear; in a stunning apotheosis we see her uplifted against an open sky, a goddess of liberty. Read the speech and listen to a complete audio recording here.
Read it and weep, for in this age of pomposity and deception, where plain truth stumbles like a humble prospector through a blizzard of lies, we drift ever further from the vision of Chaplin's controversial masterpiece. A thoughtful look back at the King of Silence and his long creative journey was an eye-opening, ear-opening experience for the devoted or curious few who made it to SIFF's Chaplin Festival. If you missed it, well, there's always DVD, or god help us, YouTube.

April, 2011

"Unmistaken Child" 

Nati Baratz, Writer/Director/Producer
Ilil Alexander, Producer/Co-writer
Arik Bernstein, Producer

If you have the slightest interest in Buddhism, anthropology, or on-the-edge filmmaking, you should not miss this marvelous film.

Neither Roger Ebert's inanely dismissive review nor Stephen Holden's more nuanced discussion acknowledges this film's incredible achievement: documenting and participating in the discovery of a deceased Lama's spiritual successor according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The filmmakers must have begun their years-long journey with the same tenuous uncertainty and dogged commitment as the monk Tenzin Zopa, whose quest for the reincarnation of his spiritual master rests on sheer faith and sense of duty. Neither the monk nor the film-makers could have known how the journey would end, and that is one of the marvels of this crisply edited, stunning documentary: it undertakes the same risky journey as its subject, and, like the young monk, is transformed by the process.

The film we watch for the first half or so of the movie is not the same film we see by the end. Just as the monk and those he meets are transformed by their success in choosing the "unmistaken child," the film changes over time. Better cameras improve the image quality by the second or third year of the process (new grant money, perhaps?) The Israeli filmmakers seem ever more integrated into the communities they observe, their camera witnessing intimate moments of family life, the testing of the chosen boy, monastic traditions and rituals such as the hair-snipping and naming by the Dalai Lama, and the child's celebratory return to the monastery.

Ebert and Holden both underestimate the emotional and spiritual impact of this excellent film. Ebert displays astonishing provincialism in his critique: "I know I am expected to believe the tenets of a religion on the basis of faith, not common sense, but during this film, I found that very difficult. How reliable are wind directions, the interpretation of ashes and astrological readings? Would you give over your son on such a basis? Would you trust such a chosen one as your spiritual leader?"

Ebert's questions miss the point laughably. A documentary on Christian priesthood might arouse some astonishment at a faith that practices daily miraculous "transubstantiation" of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of a 2,000-year-old martyr. "Unmistaken Child" does not rationalize, explain, or ask us to accept anything. It allows us to witness an ancient spiritual tradition through the journey of faith of a humble man and to judge for ourselves the fruits of his work. Through his eyes and experiences, presented with humility and authenticity, we observe a spiritual quest suffused with beauty, mystery, emotion, sacrifice, and finally transcendence. What more could one ask of a spiritual experience? What more could one ask of a cinematic experience?

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