Japan Cuts 2015
July 9-19 at Japan Society
This year’s edition of Japan Cuts marks a few changes for the Japan Society’s yearly showcase of contemporary Japanese film, cutting ties with the New York Asian Film Festival and adding a focus on restorations, documentary, and a new experimental film spotlight screening. The changes are for the best, with the new categories providing the most interesting elements of an always diverse festival, which now swings even more vigorously between the mainstream Japanese film landscape (sometimes a tough find in NYC) and the various currents of the Japanese independent and avant garde world.
Most midlife crises are far less productive than David Thorpe’s. Following a difficult break-up, the filmmaker found himself single in his 40s and newly disgusted by the shrillness of his voice, which he perceived as stereotypically gay. As documented by his film Do I Sound Gay?, he went to a round of speech therapists to try and learn how to “sound straight.” The film, which opens Friday at the IFC Center, tackles the difficult subject of many gay men’s self-loathing and fear of effeminacy, which should be familiar to anyone who’s perused gay personal ads, with a welcome wit. Thorpe talked to George Takei, Dan Savage, Margaret Cho and CNN anchor Don Lemon about the implications of the “gay voice,” but also spoke to linguistics experts and gives a mini-Celluloid Closet lesson in the history of that voice’s association with cinematic villainy.
Prince of Broadway (2008)
Directed by Sean Baker
Many of the most acclaimed micro-budget directors working in America today—Joel Potrykus, Alex Ross Perry, Rick Alverson—create films centered on hostile narcissists. Not Baker. His films look at marginalized communities with a sympathetic eye, aided by the casting of non-professional actors. Here, that eye is turned toward an illegal Ghanaian immigrant who sells counterfeit merchandise and suddenly finds himself forced to care for an 18-month-old. Baker’s shooting places you alongside the characters while his cross-cutting forces examination of how seemingly disparate experiences are shaped by the same system, generating insight through observation and epiphany through experience. Forrest Cardamenis (July 9, 5:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Baker series preceding the theatrical release of Tangerine)
Stations of the Cross
Directed by Dietrich Brüggemann
July 10-16 at Anthology Film Archives
As narrow-minded as the religious oppression it seeks to condemn, Stations of the Cross masks a lurid fascination with martyrdom behind a façade of empathy. German director Dietrich Brüggemann (who co-wrote the 2014 Berlinale prizewinner with his sister Anna) has fashioned a well-orchestrated exercise in minimalism, but it also an airless and manipulative one which is a shame, really, considering the talent and skill on display.
Directed by Carlos Marques-Marcet
Opens July 10 at IFC Center
The 23-minute-long shot that opens 10.000 KM is an unshowy tour-de-force that accomplishes its aim with impressive economy, introducing us to an attractive young couple and setting up their coming separation without ever feeling contrived or expository. It starts with Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) in mid-fuck, capturing the intensity of their physical connection and the teasing ease of their banter as well as the important fact that they’re trying to get pregnant. Then they get out of bed and the camera follows them through their cosy Barcelona apartment as their comfortable morning routine is disrupted by big news: Alex has been offered a year-long photography residency in LA. Initially supportive, then resentful, Sergi sulks while Alex apologizes, tries to justify her desire to have a rewarding career as well as a family, and finally concedes to Sergi’s wishes. By the time he relents, urging her to go, we have a visceral sense of their dynamics.
When Alex and Sergi’s relationship goes long-distance, the film switches to short scenes with frequent cuts to mirror the change in their relationship. But it continues to focus solely on the couple and to show them almost entirely inside their apartments. Those parameters may have been chosen partly to minimize the cost of the film, which director Carlos Marques-Marcet shot on the cheap. But they also keep the focus on the relationship, and on the technology that both keeps the two close and pulls them apart.
Frequent texting, occasional phone calls, and lots of Skyping initially give Alex and Sergi the illusion of living together, kibbitzing as they do domestic chores or falling asleep while gazing at each other’s faces on their laptops. But a sense of melancholy and increasing distance soon seeps in through the cracks, surfacing in her plaintive request that they jump-start a stalled Skype session by talking about “something other than our relationship” or his pique when she drunk-Skypes him giddily, eager to show off her new salsa moves, and forgets to ask about an important exam he took the day before—and failed. The mechanical limitations of the technology can be frustrating too, as their images on each other’s screens freeze, break up into abstract collections of pixilated bits, or disappear altogether with a sad “whoosh.” These failures feel realistic while also functioning as metaphors for the gap between them that, once opened, just keeps getting wider.
The final shot plays over “Veinte Anos,“ a beautiful song about the pain two lovers experience after one falls out of love with the other. With its poignant delicacy and respect for both parties’ feelings, the ballad is a fitting end to a tenderly insightful modern romance.
Sean Baker’s independent films feature protagonists you don’t normally see on screen: a Chinese delivery guy who sends money back home (Take Out), an elderly woman convinced she’s too old to drive to the store (Starlet), a Ghanaian immigrant who hawks designer knock-offs (Prince of Broadway). Baker’s latest, Tangerine, is about two transgender sex workers, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), who spend Christmas Eve hunting down Sin-Dee’s two-timing boyfriend on Santa Monica Boulevard. Though the stories sound like depressing social-realist works—in some ways that’s not entirely inaccurate—Baker’s work is infused with an infectious humor that brings out the best and worst in each character. Abuzz with positive reviews since its Sundance premiere, where it was revealed the film had been shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, Tangerine redefines contemporary American independent cinema. The film opens July 10 in New York.
Late in Magic Mike XXL, new in theaters, our reunited stripper—excuse me; male entertainer heroes are waiting backstage to perform at the 2015 stripper convention, or as it’s professionally known, “2015 Stripper Convention.” Though the purpose and possible reward for a performance slot at this convention are even vaguer than the rules at a Step Up dance off, the boys want to do their best, and one of them observes their competition performing a hilariously ludicrous stripper re-enactment of Twilight, to delighted shrieks from the crowd. Annoyed and dejected, he reports the vampire routine to his fellow entertainers. They grumble, but one of them concedes: it’s a smart business move. The rest are forced to agree.
I got where they were coming from as a viewer of Magic Mike XXL. To be clear, this movie is not Twilight-style pandering. It is, in fact, a well-assembled, sometimes smart, extremely likable, and oddly respectful good time. But Magic Mike XXL is also an unmistakable case study in giving the audience exactly what they want. Specifically, it gives to whatever audience went into Magic Mike expecting a bawdy stripper revue and disappointed by Steven Soderbergh’s funny and humane but still slightly chilly and more-than-slightly economics-conscious drama. Here is their reward for showing up: a sequel that more or less is the movie that Magic Mike advertised.
A Poem Is a Naked Person
Directed by Les Blank
Opens July 1 at Film Forum
“I seem to gravitate to those things which I felt were beautiful and valuable that I guess a lot of people took for granted because it was all around them. The songs, the way people interrelate with one another, the sincerity of feeling, and people being true to themselves and not being hypocritical… In a family, the feeling of love among various family members. I wanted to document it, record it, in case it changes in the future.”
That was Les Blank in an interview with me a few years ago, on the occasion of a Museum of Modern Art retrospective of his work. And that was Les Blank’s films, celebrations of life in sound and image which—he said in the same conversation while eating squid—became a whole new medium when combined. But that didn’t happen with just anyone shooting, and upon the death of Blank in 2013, film lost another invigorating, original voice, comparable to two other virtuoso cameramen of the moment, Ricky Leacock (who’d passed two years earlier) and the late Albert Maysles. If Leacock and Maysles were better known for photographing better-known performers, Blank was drawn to food, music, and people that maybe didn’t have a high profile, and to fellow feeling wherever he found it.
The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979)
Directed by Kazuhiko Hasegawa
The phrase “the great whatsit” may originate from Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly to refer to a case of deadly radioactive material, but it could also apply to the crazily ambitious narrative of Hasegawa’s similarly nuclear-bomb-related The Man Who Stole the Sun. What is this movie? On one level, it’s a deadpan comedy of terrorism, in which its main character, Makoto (Kenji Sawada), preys on his country’s Hiroshima- and Nagasaki-inspired fears of nuclear annihilation to force the government to fulfill the most trivial of tasks—including allowing the Rolling Stones to play in Japan. But the film is also a Taxi Driver-like character study of a disturbed individual: much of its first hour is devoted to simply observing Makoto painstakingly creating the homemade nuclear bombs that will be his leverage against the government. (Intriguingly, Hasegawa’s film was co-written by Leonard Schrader, brother of Taxi Driver scribe Paul. Artistic sibling rivalry?) And there’s even a thread of Network-style media satire evidenced in the character of radio host Zero Sawai (Kimiko Ikegami), who seems to have no qualms about exploiting Makoto for the sake of higher ratings. Hovering above it all is a police procedural, as detective Yamashita (that legendary icon of gruff machismo Bunta Sugawara) tries to catch this mad maybe-bomber—a man he has, in fact, met before, in the midst of a bus hijacking early on in the film. Whatever The Man Who Stole the Sun is, it’s completely, deliriously unpredictable moment-by-moment—a truly singular work ripe for rediscovery. Kenji Fujishima (July 1, 6pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, as part of the New York Asian Film Festival‘s sidebar tribute to the late Bunta Sugawara)
Directed by Asif Kapadia
Opens July 3
Many music documentaries tend to take a wistful perspective on an artist’s life and work—a sort of good-person-despite-it-all tack that privileges creative genius over complex experience. (It only matters what they say about you, not how you got there.) The subjects in these sorts of films tend to come off as Teflon saints, their flaws rationalized, their edges sanded. Much of this has to do, surely, with interviewees and others not wanting to speak ill of the dead. Yet being raised to the level of a god often does the artist a disservice, leeching them of their humanity, hollowing them out by making them easy sells.