The Case Against Iñarritu

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The Revenant

On the occasion of tonight’s Academy Awards Ceremony and seeing that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest: The Revenant is expected to take away a substantial amount of wins in major categories including the Best Picture award (this would be his second consecutive win), I’d like to just take a moment to further understand how a filmmaker like Iñarritu managed to position himself at the very top of Hollywood’s hierarchy.

There’s little dispute that the Mexican-born director is a skillful and competent filmmaker. I remember distinctly discovering his films at a young age before going to see Babel (06) at the movies. I was in that delicate period of my life where I was beginning to familiarize myself with the art of filmmaking and like every cinephile at that age, devoured movie after movie. I was slowly forming a critical perspective on movies and was developing a personal taste. Although I was only 13 at the time, Babel was still a hard film to swallow. The third installment of his devastating ‘Death Trilogy’ narrates four tragically interconnected stories in four separate countries drawing a geo-emotional map of ill-fated characters and a series of bizarre turn of events. After seeing several of his films, I was excited to discover a trend of heavy maximalist themes in his work. I took Iñarritu as a fresh voice in my then narrow understanding of cinema and it took some years to make up my mind about his films. Now, nearly a decade later, The Revenant is the talk of the town and I’m still not quite convinced. Even at that time, when Iñarritu was perhaps not the powerhouse Hollywood director he is now, Babel’s cast already included some significant Hollywood personalities including Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael García Bernal (whom Iñarritu had previously worked with in Amores Perros). It was due to this ‘trilogy’ that Iñarritu was allowed to enter Hollywood with full force, capitalizing on his momentum and establish himself as a director within the American movie industry.

babel

Babel

Much of the talk surrounding The Revenant has concerned the film’s unusually harsh production. After years of planning and months of rehearsals, Iñarritu’s team began shooting on location in the Canadian wilderness attempting to capture the natural harshness of their environment. Much of the film’s promotional campaign is tied into that effort of achieving a certain level of authenticity. On one hand, the film mixes raw elements like natural light, extreme locations and performances that at times can be both physically and emotionally draining and at others, hyperbolic garble (Tom Hardy’s constant unintelligible mumbling and grunting particularly comes to mind). On the other hand, scenes where the ghost of Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio’s character) wife appears floating on top of him might come across not just as fake but as stylistically out of place. Other CGI-heavy scenes include DiCaprio falling off a cliff with his computer-generated horse onto a digital tree which looks like it was pulled straight out a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Overall, the mixture of technically masterful camerawork with these artificial elements might sometimes cancel out that immersive experience the filmmakers were striving for. And the brutal authenticity that the film is notorious for gets lost on screen.

The Revenant’s virtuoso, DP Emmanuel Lubezki (aka “El Chivo”), who was a collaborator on Iñarritu’s previous Birdman (’14), is facing his potential third Oscar win in a row after winning Best Cinematography last year for Birdman and the year before for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (’13). His work in both The Revenant and Birdman is undoubtably impressive and often overwhelming. But like his work in Gravity, technical skill and visual effects are most of what his work is about. It’s the cinematography equivalent of acrobatics: incredible and impressive but often not very thought-provoking. Just like his previous film, this is perhaps The Revenant’s most prominent and consistent flaw. In a film that is so much about defying death and survival, instead of emotionally captivating, the effect can be desensitizing and plays more like show-off rather than an ambitious ‘Fitzcarraldo-esque’ fever dream.

Biutiful

Biutiful

As a director who is careful and calculated in constructing distress and is capable of portraying raw emotional violence, Iñarritu has made a long career out of it. For example, his 2010 exhausting melodrama Biutiful depicts the long, slow death of a single dad convincingly portrayed by Javier Bardem. Like most of his films, Biutiful offers compelling emotionally draining performances. At that particular time, Iñarritu was still emerging in today’s mainstream world where the international festival landscape unfairly accepts Latin American directors on the condition that the films must address misery, poverty or violence in their own countries. It seems like Iñarritu has found success in making films that manipulate us into feeling terrible. And even though most times he’s done so successfully, after a while it gets very boring.

SONGS FROM THE NORTH by Soon-Mi Yoo

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SONGS FROM THE NORTH by Soon-Mi Yoo

“North Korea has always been above me” said Soon-Mi Yoo last Friday night while introducing her first feature film Songs From the North at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. The South Korean-born, U.S-based filmmaker and artist explained how the enigma of North Korea—not exactly the elephant in the room but still awkwardly present—has lingered around the back of South Korea’s mind for generations. Yoo grew up with unclear notions and a vague portrait of what the North really was. The seclusion of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), its constant tension with South Korea and the cultural and economic sanctions and travel restrictions enforced by most of the world positioned the North at a distant and abstract territory  for Yoo. However, due to Yoo’s recent acquisition of a U.S. passport, she ironically had the freedom to fly to the DPRK on three different occasions to complete her film. But it was primarily the overwhelming amount of propaganda, misinformation and a sense of mystery that has not only distorted but reduced North Korea to a mere notion

Yoo’s brief introduction insightfully provided a fair amount of historical context on the political relationships between the two Koreas, past and present and their relationship with rest of the world, emphasizing the role of foreign intervention in the segregation of these two nations, the U.S.’s in particular. More than a historical inquiry about the subject of North Korea, the film plays as a poetic and lyrical examination of Yoo’s own thoughts on this subject. And more than a documentary, it is the careful selection of images of faces, bodies, landscapes, architectural spaces and spectacle that make Songs from the North just beautiful to look at, a well-crafted exploration both unique and subtly subversive.

Songs from the North plays as a very personal meditation. Yoo contrasts images of the Korean war, her own recoded footage, and Korean propaganda movies and some outrageous Korean television specials. The outcome becomes a clashing portrait of a society: their collective dreams of reunification, their nightmares, their government-injected hatred towards the U.S.—the disturbing shots at the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities is particularly disturbing in many ways—and of course their paternal worshiping of the Kim dynasty, whose cult of personality is approaching seventy years in a three-generation lineage.

If we read film as collective memory, or as a recording of collective conciousness, Songs from the North in a way recalls the opening sequence of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, but instead of dealing with the trauma of atomic annihilation, here Yoo deals with people’s trauma of a nation divided by a scarred political and metaphysical border. For many North Koreans, separation was an aggression inflicted by the U.S government. For them, post-war Germany was a cautionary tale and they dreamt of one day reuniting their divided nation.

Yoo’s curiosity about North Korea originates from her father’s own post-war experiences as a left-wing sympathizing student at Seoul National University. She interviews her father —he is the only person formally interviewed in the film—who unlike his Communist colleagues, didn’t migrate North.

After the film, Yoo came out again for a Q&A. A woman in the audience pointed out that there are no interviews with local Koreans and that the film still holds a very Western perspective. In any other case, this would be a valid point to make but I think the mistake was to see the film as a political documentary instead of more of a personal diary and reflection. The film’s strength lies precisely in that it doesn’t force a political assertion. But is it even possible to make a film about North Korea and not have some sort of a political statement? Or is Yoo just asking how should we even portray such a society? Questions still remain on how to deal with North Korea not just culturally or geopolitically— but artistically as well.

Food and Film: The Imaginary Conversations

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My father came to visit me in New York last week. Out one night, after a lovely dinner at Freeman’s we discussed where and why we would take our favorite filmmakers to dinner. Our rules were:

  1. They have to be alive.
  2. The dinner should have nothing to do with their nationality or their movies, it should relate to their character and artistic taste.
  3. The intention of this imaginary dinner is to have an in depth conversation about anything you want while enjoying food and/or drinks.
  4. The place must be in New York City.

Here is what I came up with the places I know…

WOODY ALLEN

Chicken salad sandwich at Eisenberg’s near the Flatiron.

Splash

WERNER HERZOG

Beers at some random pub in East Village.

MARTIN SCORSESE

Lunch at Fanelli’s Cafe in SoHo.

http://www.yelp.com/biz/fanellis-cafe-new-york

PEDRO ALMODOVAR

Vegan sushi at Beyond Sushi in Gramecy.

Home

LENA DUNHAM

Brunch at Cafe Colette in Williamsburg.

http://cafe-colette.com/

NOAH BAUMBACH

Dinner at ABC Kitchen in Union Square.

http://www.abckitchennyc.com/

QUENTIN TARANTINO

Cheeseburgers at Five Guys Burger.

http://www.fiveguys.com/

WES ANDERSON

Dinner at Freeman’s in the Lower East Side.

http://freemansrestaurant.com/

JIM JARMUSCH

Pizza at Artichoke pizza.

http://www.artichokepizza.com/

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI

Espresso at La Colombe in TriBeCa.

http://lacolombe.com/

OLIVER STONE

Argentinian food at Empanada Mama in Alphabet City.

http://www.empmamanyc.com/

DAVID LYNCH

Caviar or desert at The Russian Tea Room in Midtown.

http://russiantearoomnyc.com/

WIM WENDERS

Wine at The Lobby Bar in the Ace Hotel in Midtown.

http://www.acehotel.com/newyork

DAVID CRONENBERG

Dim sum at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown.

So far that’s all I got.

Please feel free to suggest your own imaginary dinner.

Bon appétit!

Cosmopolis and the Specter of Capitalism

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“A specter is haunting the world. The specter of Capitalism” these words are lid in a big screen somewhere in Times Square as the young billionaire Eric Packer drives through an anarchist protests with his limousine. That is one of the haunting scenes from the new David Cronenberg film starring Robert Pattinson as Eric Packer. The film takes place mostly in Packer’s white stretch limo where he embarks on an odyssey across midtown Manhattan to get a haircut. In his journey he encounters several obstructions: various traffic jams caused by a presidential visit to the city, anti-capitalists protesters, and a Muslim rapper’s funeral procession. During his voyage he also encounters several meetings with various women whom he has sexual relations with, his daily check-up doctor and his wife. In his limo, he has computers were he starts loosing millions of dollars by betting against the yen currency. The currency speculation is parallel to his self-destruction.

Cronenberg portrays an image of the 1% that is alien to the reality that surrounds it. A speculator that is so loyal to capital that it will go down with it to the very end. A 1% so bizarre that seems almost non-human (at one point the doctor tells Eric that his prostate is asymmetrical). For Eric, money is an abstraction. Cronenberg creates a world not so different from our own where the idea of capital has become more of an intellectual reality as opposed to a more tangible material. A world where a billionaire like Eric Packer can gain and loose millions of dollars without actually producing anything. Eric Packer embodies the self-destructive tendency of Capitalism. The ruin is inevitable.

The dialogue is cold and surreal. The casting of Robert Pattinson has some consequences; the character comes across convincingly enough to make you realize he is playing another kind of blood-sucking vampire. However, Mr Pattinson fails to deliver the sense of power that his character possesses. The choice for Mr. Pattinson is clearly understood as a charismatic choice and a commercial strategy. Nonetheless, the film does not lack originality and manages to pick your mind and imagination for 109 minutes. It’s definitely worth the watch and worth the time.

Film or Digital?…It Doesn’t Really Matter.

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For the last few years, the ongoing debate within the movie-making industry has revolved around the artistic competition between the photochemical process of film and digital filmmaking. The debate of film versus digital has been shaped in many ways: as an old generation versus a new generation, as the privileged elite versus the independent underground, as an exclusive tool versus a more democratized artform, as a nostalgic view on reality versus a fresh new modern view…etc. The main theme, however, is that our technological field is dramatically changing, thus the industry is also changing. So what kind of space does the new filmmaker occupy in today’s cultural context? The answer is ambiguous. There are too many factors and too many problems that are yet too be solved. We can’t even solve the problem of digital preservation when we haven’t even experienced it on a large scale. The discussion -like the art-form itself- is still young and still in the early stages of the developing process. Yes, we are developing new and more convenient cameras and operating gear but the films are not getting better. There are more films, more submissions to festivals, more screenplays and more technology but the films remain in the same artistic quality or perhaps worse. We as filmmakers have an unbelievable opportunity to make films. A few years ago, we could say that we had great ideas for films but we couldn’t make them because “the big studios wouldn’t let us”. Now we have a camera, a laptop and Vimeo or whatever. Yet we -and of course, I include myself- don’t make better films. We have finally reached a point where our technologies have surpassed our own creative capability. Online social networks like Twitter or Facebook are amazing platforms for organizing and communicating yet we use 90% of it for the most idiotic things. The same phenomenon happens in filmmaking. The responsibility is now focused on creativity and originality. It all comes down to a good story. We all have a pen and a paper but we don’t all write the best stories. There is still work to be done. We should undoubtedly embrace the opportunities new advancements in lenses and camera science have given us but we have a larger responsibility not to forget what we fundamentally are: storytellers.

Unlike others, I don’t believe the photochemical process will disappear, I still think we will have people shooting in 16 or 35 ten or twenty years from now. But the production of mainstream film prints will inevitably shrink sooner than expected. In the 1980s when VHS first hit the public market, futurist predicted the end of the movie theater yet here we are almost twenty years later waiting in lines to see new movies. The photochemical process is in decline, but that is certainly not correlative -or at least shouldn’t be- with the decline of cinema. It all depends on the filmmaker, not the camera. So if the question is still “film or video?” the answer should still be “it doesn’t really matter”.

The Dark Knight Trilogy: comic book movies for those who don’t like comic books

It is very common that in many money-making franchises, the third part is most likely going to turn out to be the weakest. Keeping that in mind, Christopher Nolan, DC Comics, Warner Bros and the filmmakers of “The Dark Knight” trilogy have all made a respectful attempt to produce a superhero movie that would satisfy both comic-book goers and perhaps -I would dare to say- a more “sophisticated” audience. When Batman Begins was first released in 2005, lines went around the block but it was the massive success of Mr. Nolan’s second Batman film, “The Dark Knight” that really brought a world wide positive reception that made the film the twelfth highest grossing film in history. “The Dark Knight” crossed the billion dollar mark and was honored by the Academy thanks to Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. Four years later and last week, “The Dark Knight Rises” opened world wide.

The film is flawed but it has great action moments, thrilling scenes and a mind blowing climax. The first half is sublime, great introduction of new characters, great set-ups and a well-thought out break into the second act. This film -just like the previous ones- has almost successfully attempted to depict Batman in a more human and naturalistic way. In today’s sociopolitical context one can believe it could actually happen: an eccentric multimillionaire tries to help stop crime masking himself at night as a vigilante while an underground -literally- terrorist group try to destroy the country’s most corrupt city. In a superhero film that is completely acceptable and believable. The film locks your attention during the first act of the film right up until the “all is lost” moment. Once the moment passes, the film gets a little too overindulgent and excessive. A flawed film is more or less like very good sex: it takes a very long time to climax and that is just what happens during the last half of act two of The Dark Knight Rises. But just like good sex, The Dark Knight Rises has a rewarding ending. After two hours of twists, plot points, exhausting action scenes, melodramatic dialogues and a handful of smart lines, it ends with a resolution that is such a bombardment of information that it almost literally and forcefully  blows your mind. Despite The Dark Knight Rises’ limitations it still remains part of the only film trilogy that does true justice to the Batman legacy.

The Tim Burton films were fun, the Joel Schumacher films were abominable and the Nolan films reach a superior level of decency. Batman has always been an interesting character for comic books but an even more interesting character for film, unlike other superheroes he lacks the prefix “super” which gives him supernatural powers, his secret identity is Bruce Wayne who is very relatable as a human being – but not as a taxpayer- his relationship with his parents, his moral and ethical codes, his love-hate relationship with Gotham City and his solitaire love life makes him sympathetic and agreeable. His method is respectful: he confronts his fears by becoming them and he confronts his enemies by outsmarting them. Of course, unlike us and Peter Parker he doesn’t have to worry about rent but he is relatable nonetheless. I think it’s safe to say that the only in-depth cinematic portrayal of the Batman/Wayne character that can stand alone as a film independent from the comic book is Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Trilogy”. If the filmmakers and producers would like to keep the trilogy in the same level as other memorable film trilogies like “Star Wars”, “Lord of the Rings” or “Alien” they must not make a fourth Dark Knight. It had a good run, an interesting approach, a decent ending and an even better title.

HBO’s “Girls”: the voice of a generation? No…but that’s ok.

“I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” Hannah says to her parents: “Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” Lena Dunham, the creator and writer of the freshly started HBO series plays the role of Hannah Horvath, an aspiring writer who is dealing with what feels like a never-ending transition into adulthood. It’s that strange period when one is not quite an adult but no longer a teenager. Some have perceived the series’ portrayal of American female youth as another post-graduate and whiny coming of age tale and even though it may feel like it at times, the series itself contains a level of originality, imaginative and sophistication often missed in most Hollywood portrayals of young Americans today. It’s not the anti-Sex in the City but the series functions in a very similar way: a group of friends who constantly deal with each others personal problems while at the same time shaping each other as women. The characters are well developed and they all feel strangely familiar, you’ve probably met the kind before in a party somewhere in Williamsburg or in some gallery opening in Chelsea. The reason it feels strange it’s because these kind of characters are rarely portrayed on screen. The fact that the show is written and directed by someone like Lena Dunham who invests her own experiences into the show, gives it a fresh new personality. The absurdity of problems and the dramatic impulsive spontaneity of situations give the series a comedic touch that sometimes even echoes a Woody Allanesque style that can only belong in New York City. The topic of sex is recurring in the show and it is often caricatured into the extreme making it embarrassingly funny. Visually, the show has a particularly interesting style. The colorful yet minimalist aesthetics of the show have already been established in Dunham’s last critically acclaimed feature “Tiny Furniture”. In fact, most of the characters are all based on the same ones from the film. Lena Dunham has already proven herself as an auteur and has even stirred debate in the web on her new show on HBO. All of this at the age of 26. Perhaps she is not the voice of our generation…but that’s alright, it looks like we’ll defiantly be seeing more of her in the future, possibly even at the 2012 Emmys, but who knows? After one season successfully finished, I believe Dunham’s best work is yet to come.