Thursday, May 21, 2009

film review: DEPARTURES

First, I advise all to stay for the end credits because they roll over a scene of the entire ceremonial procedure in one take, culminating what the main character has learned into an art form. The logline reads "Winner of Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, DEPARTURES is a delightful journey into the heartland of Japan as well as an astonishingly beautiful look at a sacred part of Japan's cultural heritage." In essence, what DEPARTURES turns out to be is all about the art of life and living it well.

The established character scene spotlights Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) playing the cello at his job with a symphony orchestra. While most people highly regard symphony musicians as artists, in reality, many are not truly musicians, but technicians trained to produce their instrument's piece from the notes provided. And so, Daigo lives his life this way, doing what is expected and in the process finds it difficult to handle common human interactions such as telling his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) that he lost his job and that be bought an exorbitantly expensive cello without telling her, afraid she would say no. His attempt to empathize with a still-moving octopus Mika brings home for dinner proves clumsy and ineffectual when he tries to release the mollusk off an embankment into the river, killing it in the process. It's not until after the couple moves back to Daigo's hometown where he answers an ad thinking it's a tour guide position when in fact it's a pre undertaker "encoffinment" profession, that he discovers and embraces his inner humaneness. It doesn't come out all at once, but evolves through one of Japan's most accomplished directors, Yojiro Takita's deft intertwining of the film's characters and interactions.

It would have been easy to let Daigo's mentor, the Boss (Tsutomo Yamazaki) become the focus of Daigo's metamorphosis, but like a good seasoning, the Boss is used sparingly, effectively and unsentimentally potent yet providing comic relief starting in the opening scene. His staid outer business demeanor gradually melts away, like the winter scenes into the cherry blossom spring, as he attends to and is surrounded by blooming plants and life-affirming dining experiences. Supporting characters, particularly the women, provide the insights and backstories, confirming the Boss' philosophical views that Fate brought Daigo to his destiny as do the families who are portrayed anything but what an outsider might presume a typical Japanese family would be within today's mix of traditional and unconventional situations.

Eventually, Daigo immerses himself into his calling, showing respectful caring for the deceased and becoming the "tour guide" with an uncanny sensitivity for the ones left behind in need for closure. The childhood cello turns his music from formally trained into spiritual delight, playing under a string of small moments throughout the film that interweave personal history into Daigo's transformation ultimately finding "it really isn't what it is". The cello's major role in the film highlights a music score both sumptuous and sadly beautiful as only a cello can do, encompassing themes of rebirth and reconciliation. Very stirring.

Fortunately, the film, distributed by Regent Releasing, has only been out since October 2008 going on to win an Oscar and subsequently 10 Japan Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, the Grand prix des Ameriques at Montreal World Film Festival, Best Feature at palm Springs International Film Festival, Washington DC International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. It opens in theaters May 29 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, City Cinema 1, 2, 3 and landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 East Houston Street, New York, Los Angeles, San francisco and Chicago followed by a national roll out as I most definitely plan to see it again especially staying for the end credits.

62nd Festival de Cannes 60s Love Fest

Festival de Cannes began May 13 and goes on through May 24. While I did attend the last two years (see Film Festival reViews website for Cannes 2007 and 08) wasn't able to make it there this year but have been keeping up with the updates from a lot of sites including the Festival newsletter that I have been getting all along. There are a few familiar names and directors I've seen and have been following that are in competition.

Big Cannes premiere for director Ang Lee's TAKING WOODSTOCK. The trailer is out and I think it will get the audiences into the theaters just for the nostalgia of the 60s music, counterculture, free love and being a hippie even if you never were one. Jane Campion's BRIGHT STAR on a torrid, romantic interlude between the poet John Keats and a young woman, Fanny, told from her point of view. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz came to cannes with VOLVER in 2006 and are back this year with BROKEN EMBRACES (LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS).

I look forward to Andrea Arnold's film FISH TANK, an intimate family situation about a rebellious teenager having to deal with her mother's new boyfriend. After winning the 2006 Jury Prize with RED ROAD, I met up with Andrea at the New Directors/New Films 2007 and we talked about her twisting, winding way that ends up smack against a wall. I remember seeing her squirm in her seat not knowing how the audience will react to her film. I thought it was intensely gripping as she sets her characters in situations that find a way to go wrong.

The best part of the Marche du Film is the Short Film Corner (added to the Cannes film market in 2003) promoting emerging filmmakers with opportunities to be seen and make professional contacts during Festival de Cannes. Films must be less than 35 minutes, produced after January 2008, not previously screened in the Short Film Corner and only one film per filmmaker per year. Over 1,900 were submitted in four categories: narrative, documentary, animation and experimental mostly from france, U.S and the UK totaling more than 1,400. They digitize the film submissions and are made available for individual or two-person viewing during a two-hour period. There's also a Buyers Corner and three mini screening rooms with seats for 3-9 persons. A great opportunity for an entrepreneurial filmmaker out to get their film in front of the right person. All filmmakers with short films should be there.

Beyond the Narrative

I like to find the most innovative filmmakers taking risks and finding their own cutting edge and the most recent podcast on Film Festival reViews EPISODE 65 Top Notch Filmmaking includes a couple more conversations from BE FILM: The Undergound Film Festival. Just an amazing group of films and filmmakers that kept my attention even weeks after the festival ended. Tim and Mike Rauch are animators behind GERMANS IN THE WOODS. Their illustrative style matches the animation with a rhythm and pace of an orchestrated composition, getting the nuances of physical gestures perfectly in sync with the grain in the voice. Other animation artists challenged them on how they were going to create complex camera movements and getting in on the subject from all angles. Amazing deft work of very talented directing, illustrators as directors of photography - I was hooked on every scene. Check out their website at Rauch Bros. Animation Their most recent film Q&A, another remarkable, three minute brain whoo that won Best in Show at ASIFA East will be at the ANNECY in France, June 8 through 13. I find their Rauch Brothers blog quite interesting, too.

Fearless filmmakers Mark du Pace, Matt Okterberg and Elliott Jokelson of Ghost Robot describe their technique used to create a spec ad for the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival (June 11 through 14, 2009, Manchester, TN) as a stratelstencil animation procedure which involves removing the negative space of an illustration enabling you to see the animation move in time and space. Their energy level rises not only from talking about the collaboration efforts and logistics involved but from the artistic and artisan aspect in making the 3D film look really beautiful and natural without resorting to cheap CGI tricks. The process took about three months to complete with thirteen people spending weeks cutting out each one of the 1,336 frames by hand then mounted on and shot with a special-constructed 3D camera rig.

Their collaborations take them where few traditional filmmakers attempt to go and that's just about every visual media market from award-winning theatrical feature films most recently AGAINST THE CURRENT that premiered at Sundance this year and directed by Peter Callahan who along with editor, Michael Taylor, I met at Sundance in 2008. The film just won the Special Jury Award at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. Past films include CHOKING MAN, THE HAWK IS DYING and one of my favorites, THE STATION AGENT and their most recent feature documentary, CROPSEY premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. Their work includes 3D music videos and commercials, video games, interactive shorts, magazine covers and websites and can be seen in movie theaters, art galleries and museums, local and international film festivals like Sundance, Tribeca and BE FILM The Underground Film Festival where collaborator Encyclopedia Pictura's Bjork film WANDERLUST won the 3D category. 

Ghost Robot was founded in 2005 with award-winning work across all platforms as well as all virtual spaces on the Internet. On their website they invite visitors to call, email or swing by their studio at 25 Howard Street, Third Floor to learn more. Maybe I'll do that. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

BE FILM Is A Festival to Watch

During film festivals, I gather recorded conversations throughout my stay and then put them into a podcast creating a non linear piece where each show feels like a short film sans the visual part. So, being present as film festival podcaster at BE FILM The Underground Film Festival for the entire festival schedule was a first time for me - there's a first time for everything - everyone's still a virgin at something. It presented a challenge, however, to be present as part of the festival team, set up before the screenings, meet and record conversations with filmmakers, industry and film supporters, watch the films, get home and edit the recording making it sound somewhat balanced and then get it out before having to be at the next screening location and do it all over again. The pace was hectic yet I didn't miss any of the short films because they were just sooo good. As mentioned in my first podcast, I was a virgin at watching 3D films, not sure why probably I just wasn't interested in the Hollywood hype and didn't know very much about the technology. Being the first established film festival in the U.S. to have enough stereoscopic films in competition is an outstanding achievement and surely will put BE FILM on the map of film festivals to watch and for filmmakers to submit their films. 

Having been around the film festival block, I see a lot of high points and pitfalls when it comes to running one and experienced what it's like at the forefront of the pre festival film search and submissions when I worked for Catherine Wyler, artistic director for the High Falls Film Festival. While BE FILM is already established as one of the best short film festivals on the East Coast, the submissions increased as it did after several years with many films eventually getting nominated for Academy Awards. Not a bad reputation to have. But then founder and executive director Laurence Asseraf along with programming director, Dimitris Athos decided to up the ante with a category first and their search for 3D indie films from around the world grew into a monumental task for all involved. Filmmakers sent their films in every kind of format known, technical professionals from Dolby Production Services and Heavy Light Digital came in with their projection equipment and system set ups that had not been invented before and the New York Stereoscopic Society - an assorted collection of scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, pioneering souls - collaborated with their combined knowledge and came out in full support Opening Night celebrating an achievement at finally having a competitive platform for 3D indie films. Necessity is the mother of invention? That's what made it so exciting, especially for me because I knew what was going on behind the scenes. The focus was deadline driven where that extra ounce of adrenalin kicks in, they worked nonstop to get it right before a seated audience who waited in anticipation with their 3D glasses on. We were not disappointed. Only after the house lights go on that they realize their being at the forefront of a breakthrough taking technology to the next level, pushing science to the limit where they hadn't gone before. Ideas are already in the works for BE FILM next year as are filmmakers planning their next film in 3D.