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This is Not Berlin

Set in 1986, writer and director Hari Sama’s newest film This is Not Berlin follows Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) a teen trying to find his own place in a world that doesn’t seem to have a place for him. He and his best friend Gera (Jose Antonion Toldano) attend Catholic school in the suburbs of Mexico City. Carlos is disinterested in his soccer friends’ rivalry with another school. Instead he spends his time tinkering with electronics, hanging out with Gera and getting advice from his uncle Esteban (Hari Sama).

One day Gera’s sister Rita (Ximena Romo), the lead singer of a local punk band takes the two friends to a club, as a thank you to Carlos for helping fix her synthesizer. Both Carlos and Gera are thrust into the underworld of Mexico City. The drug and booze fueled scene is where rebellious youths escape for the freedom to express their sexuality. There Carlos meets Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro), a photographer who is attracted to Carlos. Through Nicho, Carlos becomes part of a community of artists whose unconventional forms of artistic expression including outlandish performance art. As Carlos and Gera drift apart and tragedy befalls Carlos’ family, will his newfound rebellion help him find his true self? Or will it keep him away from what truly matters?

Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute

This is Not Berlin is inspired by director Hari Sama’s teenage years in Lomas Verdes, a suburb in Mexico. About the writing process, Sama says “the research took me to painful places of my adolescence but also allowed me to revisit the moments that made me a filmmaker and musician.”

One of my favorite aspects of the film was Sama’s role as Esteban, Carlos’ uncle, mentor and confidante. Esteban seems to be the only one in Carlos’ who truly understands his struggles. They have some wonderful moments together and some deep philosophical discussions.

“Have you ever felt like you want something but there’s something inside you that won’t let you do it? Like a voice that doesn’t shut up and it’s not even yours.” 

“Love is very wacky… but when you find it, when you have that moment of silence with someone… taking that leap is worth it.”

Had the plot shifted and focused more on the friendship with Carlos and Gera with Esteban as the anchor, essentially making in a buddy movie, it would have been a stronger movie. Like Y Tu Mama Tambien but with a much different ending. I was particularly drawn to the theme of loyalty and the difference between those who stick around and those who abandon you when times get tough.

This is Not Berlin is a deep exploration of artistic expression and finding your true self. The opening scene is quite breathtaking. Carlos stands in the middle of a fight between the two rival Catholic school soccer teams. It’s clear that Carlos is lost in the chaos around him. He doesn’t participate in the fight and eventually it overwhelms him. The performance art scenes are quite provocative. I hope we see a lot more from Hari Sama.

This is Not Berlin recently premiered at Sundance and had it’s New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Instant Dreams Poster

Instant Dreams

“The digital dark ages took over our lives…”

Edwin H. Land in The Long Walk

In 1947, Edwin H. Land introduced his invention to the world. The Polaroid camera would revolutionize photography. Inspired by his young daughter, who just couldn’t wait to see a photo that was just taken, Land decided he would develop the technology that would shorten the time gap between the shutter click and the final product. With Polaroid technology it would reduce the time to just one minute.

Fast forward to 1970, when Land was filmed for the short documentary The Long Walk in which he narrates a helicopter tour of several Polaroid facilities in Massachusetts and discusses at length the company’s new technological advancements and his predictions for the future. Land envisioned a day when we would have a portable camera, the size of a wallet, that would be used as regularly as the telephone.

In 2008, the bankrupt Polaroid announced it was no longer producing its trademark film stock. Although Polaroid still exists today, in a new iteration after the brand had been sold, and re-sold, it’s a shadow of its former self. What was once revolutionary is now obsolete in the rapidly changing landscape of the digital age. Have we lost the magic of Polaroid forever?

“It felt like I was confronted with the death of a friend.”

Photographer Stefanie Schneider
Scientists at work on developing Polaroid technology for the Impossible Project

Directed by Willem Baptist, Instant Dreams is a moody and atmospheric eulogy to a lost technology. It’s a quirky documentary that explores the importance of Polaroid as both art and science. The subjects in the film feel the profound loss of Polaroid. Scientist Stephen Herchen can be seen in the film trying to reinvent the lost formula of Polaroid for the Impossible Project. Other subjects include photographer Stefanie Schneider who uses the last of her Polaroid stock to capture her unique aesthetic and Christopher Bonanos, a Polaroid historian.

Instant Dreams captures the essence of Polaroid through its poetic approach in storytelling and visual artistry. If you’re looking for a more traditional documentary on the history of Polaroid, this isn’t it. It does require some patience from the viewer and it won’t be to everyone’s taste. 

Instant Dreams is my cinematic ode to that longing for magic, mystery and a celebration of the dreams of the future that are interwoven with this medium.”

director Willem Baptist

Instant Dreams opens in NYC and L.A. and 10 other North American cities today. Visit the official website for more information.

First Man

First Man

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We’ll never fully realize the level of courage and sacrifice required from the astronauts of those early NASA space missions. They put everything on the line, leaving behind their families and laying down their lives in the name of science and for love of country. It often came at a great cost. And if they were successful and lucky enough to survive their missions, they came back to earth as national heroes, their immortality secured.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Space exploration movies like The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) offer a glimpse into this world. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the latest in a line of space age dramas and it celebrates one of the greatest accomplishments in human history, the moon landing, through the story of one man, astronaut Neil Armstrong.

First Man follows the story of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from the death of his young daughter, to his extensive training and his two biggest missions: Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The story is equally split between Armstrong’s time at NASA and his work with his fellow astronauts and engineers and his home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his two sons. The film is just as much a space exploration story as it is  a character study of a complicated man who suffered a tragic loss and struggles to connect with his family. Much time is given to Janet whom, one might be able to argue, is just as courageous as her husband. She has to deal with the stress of not only her husband’s dangerous missions but also his emotional unavailability. In addition she has to keep up her strength to raise her two boys while also being strong for the other astronaut’s wives who inevitably suffer great tragedies of their own.

Ryan Gosling does a marvelous job as the subdued and introspective Neil Armstrong. However I think Claire Foy has the breakout performance as his long-suffering wife Janet. She brings an intensity that not only matches beautifully with Gosling’s performance but also stands on its own. Technically the female parts are far outnumbered by the male but Foy’s performance claims so much of our attention that it feels more like its equally divided than one sided. I wouldn’t be surprised if come award season Foy will be recognized for her performance. Another counterbalance to Armstrong’s character is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. Buzz is the outspoken, opinionated and charismatic astronaut, the complete opposite of Neil. I love their scenes together. Jason Clarke, who plays the doomed astronaut Ed White, is very well suited for his character and for mid-20th century parts. He just has that look that works. I was happy to see one of my personal faves Ethan Embry in a small role as space engineer and astronaut Pete Conrad.

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First Man must be seen on the big screen for the full impact. I watched it at my local IMAX theater after having missed an opportunity to see this at TIFF. The technical advancements in filmmaking contribute to powerful and awe inspiring depictions of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions. I love how the film lingers on the moon landing, providing the original audio for those first crucial and historic moments but we also spend time in Armstrong’s personal bubble as he takes in his surroundings and taps into some of the emotion he’s been trying to suppress. The Gemini 8 scene was my favorite. It felt so realistic, almost as if I was in the space shuttle with the astronauts. We get a sense of how much power is needed and how many things have to go exactly right to thrust these astronauts into space.

 

 

 

First Man is a technical marvel in filmmaking that puts the audience in the spacecraft and on the moon for a thrilling experience.  It’s also a reserved yet poignant character study of a man on the brink of a great achievement who is struggling with his own demons. It deals with an important subject seriously but never becomes cheesy or pretentious. A must see.

TIFF Review: Colette

Colette

by Raquel Stecher

Colette
dir. Wash Westmoreland
starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough,

Review:

Colette was a woman ahead of her time.

Wash Westmoreland’s biopic follows Colette (Keira Knightley) from the age of 18 to 34; the pivotal years when she was married to writer Henry Gauthier-Villars, also known by his nom de plume Willy (Dominic West). Colette starts her married life as a dutiful wife, helping Willy out with his business which involves hiring writers to create stories to be published under his name. Willy is a complete cad, spending the family finances on prostitutes, in gambling dens and treating others to expensive meals. When Colette tries her hand at some writing to help Willy out, the Claudine novels are born. Published under Willy’s name and not hers, these stories become the toast of Paris. As Colette begins to discover her authentic self, Willy finds himself losing control over her. We follow Colette’s trajectory from spunky country girl to fully realized woman and creator. She comes into her sexuality discovering her physical attraction to women. As Colette and Willy’s relationship falls apart, she falls for Missy (Denise Gough), a woman defying society by presenting as a man. Through her personal and professional relationship with Missy, Colette blossoms and finds the strength within herself to live courageously.

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”

The first line of Claudine are repeated throughout the film as a declaration of identity. And that is what this film, a story about discovering your true self.  Colette is a superb character study exploring gender dynamics and politics within the confines of deeply entrenched double standards. The real life Colette challenged sexual norms while finding her agency. Her message of female empowerment is desperately needed today.

 

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The idea to bringing Colette to the big screen came from Colette herself. In conversation at the Colette press conference at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Westmoreland said he and the late Richard Glatzer found Colette’s story to be  “a compelling narrative of a woman creating while a man was taking credit.”

As someone who loves a good period piece, Colette was rich in period detail. The cast wore real costumes of the era and scenes were shot in historic buildings. This imbued the film with a great sense of place and time. The part Colette fits Keira Knightley, no stranger to period pieces, like a glove. At the press conference she proclaimed, “I stood very tall when I played Colette. She was a maverick.” Colette is quite bold for a period piece. Comparing it with the relatively tame period pieces of previous decades, this movie demonstrates that you can still tell a story about the past that is provocative and interesting to contemporary viewers. Westmoreland went on to say, “for a long time period pieces have gotten a reputation for being a kind of safer genre. But I think at the moment there is something happening with period pieces that are radicalizing.”

Westmoreland found many parallels to Colette’s turn-of-the-century France with modern day. It was an era when people were questioning gender roles and women were demanding more access to power.  Westmoreland collaborated with screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who added the necessary female insights needed for the script. Actress Denise Gough called the casting one of the most progressive that she’d ever been involved with. Westmoreland went on to say:

 “With the casting we tried an approach that I don’t believe has really been tried before of having a very inclusive cast. We have trans men playing cisgender characters. We have trans women playing cisgender women. We have an out lesbian actor playing heterosexual. We have our gay actor playing someone who said he was heterosexual, we’re not quite sure. And we have Asian British actors playing characters who were historically white. We have a black actor playing someone who in history was white. And guess what? It all works. And these have been sacred rules for so long…. Colette broke a lot of rules so we though we should too.” – Wash Westmoreland

 

 

 

Colette is in select theaters starting today.

I attended a press and industry screening as well as the press conference for Colette at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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