Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex-libris-dvd“Frederick Wiseman’s film, Ex Libris – The New York Public Library, goes behind the scenes of one of the greatest knowledge institutions in the world and reveals it as a place of welcome, cultural exchange and learning. With 92 branches throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, the library is a resource for all the inhabitants of this multifaceted and cosmopolitan city, and beyond. The New York Public Library exemplifies the deeply rooted American belief in the individual’s right to know and be informed. It is one of the most democratic institutions in America – everyone is welcome. The Library strives to inspire learning, advance knowledge and strengthen communities.”

Earlier this week I stumble upon this enormous documentary on PBS. If you are into books and libraries, you’ll just love this movie that gives us an extensive tour of the New York Library and demonstrates how dedicated and welcoming the staff of its 92 branches are, what are the challenges they face in order to keep up with the demands and needs of their patrons, and particularly how important libraries can be to foster the diffusion of culture & knowledge as well as artistic creativity. It’s certainly one of the best examples of what an ideal library should be (as I recently discussed).

It is amazing how our local libraries look insignificant and puny in comparison of the behemoth collection and the huge diversity of services offered by the New York Public Library… With 53 millions documents, it is the second largest public library in the U.S. (third largest in the world after the British Library and the Library of Congress). Surprisingly, despite its name, it is a private, non-profit library, but it’s using public/private partnership (and funding) to work in collaboration with local governments (city, state, federal) in providing a large array of services… It is quite interesting (and serendipitous) that, with our imminent provincial elections, a librarian and teacher at the U de M Library Science School has been very recently questioning the commitment of the government in regards of libraries. Will the government create a strategic plan for the development of libraries (like the PLA recently did) ? It is direly needed at a time when the usefulness of libraries (and even our society’s fundamental concepts of knowledge and truth) are being challenged  (NYT, The Guardian) !

Of course, for such an enormous documentary, the reception has been rather mixed (with a critical response at 97%, but with only a 61% audience score, on Rotten Tomatoes) with reviews going from bad (Globe & Mail), to good (Variety) to excellent (The Guardian).

For me it was very interesting to watch and compare (seeing the similarities and differences) our library work here, in relatively small municipal library branches, to what’s done in NYC. However, even with the mastery of legendary documentarist Frederick Wiseman, I do think that 3h17 is really too long for any documentary to keep the attention of the viewers (at least in one sitting)! Many sequences are unnecessarily long. Also someone can get easily annoyed by Wiseman’s “no-comment” documentary style where he just show the scene as it happens without much editing or information (like not telling us who is talking!). In the end, despite those faults, this documentary is definitely worth watching for anyone (with spare time) who’s interested in the realm of books and libraries.

Ex Libris – The New York Public Library : USA, 2017, 197 mins; Dir./Ed./Sound/Prod.: Frederick Wiseman; Phot.: John Davey; Exec. Prod.: Karen Konicek; Cast: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Elvis Costello, Richard Dawkins and the very dedicated staff of all NYL branches. The DVD will be available soon from the producing company, PBS or Amazon (UK / FR). It can also be streamed online (legally?)… stars-3-0

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FFM 2018: Wrap-up

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It has been a good festival this year.

There was no scuffle to get the credentials, no problem with the schedule or screenings and an excellent selection of titles. 

Of course, it could be better. Apparently they brought back the Movie Market (and the press room?). I heard it was on the third floor of the Imperial, but couldn’t find how to get to it… In the past, they were always the practical places to access press information and to be able to screen video on our own schedule. However, what I really miss is the press conferences where we could have direct access to the film crew and cast of the movies in competition. Beside that, for me, the festival is already all I needs it to be.

As long as there’s good movies to watch, people should be happy. At least, as long as there’s Japanese movies, I’ll be happy. Although, come to think of it, the festival deserves a bigger audience. In the past, I used to see lots of people from the local Japanese community, but I saw very few of them this year. Most of the movie I’ve screened this year had barely an audience of a dozen people! Of course, there was absolutely no advertising this year and very little media coverage, so it certainly didn’t helped. And the last couple of years have had a fair share of scheduling and screening problems which might also have discouraged people from attending this year. If there is a festival next year (the same question come back every year lately), this really must be improved.

Another needed improvement, beside more advertising, would be more screens. The festival could use at least a couple more rooms of the Quartier Latin (if not the entire floor like in the good old years). However, for that to happen, the festival would need more budget. Not to put on lavish parties, but to make sure that all the movies can be screened at least a couple of times. Why not giving the festival a chance and give it again at least some subsidies?

The festival certainly has its share of detractors. People who don’t think it can improve or who want to see something else in its stead. Strangely, most of the criticism seems to come from the anglophone community (for example, the articles in The Gazette appears to be quite hostile). However, I don’t think that the majority of people in or around the local movie industry want the festival to continue in its downward spiral of death. But we don’t want a glamorous festival like Cannes or Toronto either (yeah, it’s nice to see Brad Pitt or the latest blockbuster with its load of stars, but what’s the use if that movie is gonna by in all theatres two weeks later?). Personally, I want a festival where I can see movies I couldn’t see anywhere else. Movies from all around the world. A festival that gives their chances to young or unknown directors, to small productions. A festival that doesn’t exclude stars, but that is not built around them. That’s what the festival was in the past and I think this formula can still works. There is no other festival like this one. And we can still mend its wounds. We must. Of course, every parties will need to water down its position a little. The government (local, provincial or federal) must look past previous disagreements and accept to provide a little help. And Losique needs to let go of his creation and prepare some sort of succession. Pass on the mantle while still remaining in the background to provide his knowledge and wisdom. If he doesn’t do that, the festival will surely die with him… We’ve seen a little improvement this year, so let’s hope it can continue in that direction…

All in all, this year, I’ve succeeded to watch five of the eight Japanese movies. I am pretty happy with this score. The selection included a great variety: a samurai movie, a docudrama-style movie, a comedy, a yakuza movie and a biopic — I wish I could have added to my score card the documentary, the action movie and the scary co-production!  And almost all the titles I’ve seen were good movies — save one which was a disappointment. Beside this last entry, I was able to write seven articles (including five movie comments) about the festival (which represents more articles than La Presse, Le Devoir or The Gazette each wrote about the FFM !).

Please read our other articles on the festival:

Your can also check the review of the Japanese movies at the FFM by Claude R. Blouin (in French: “FFM 2018: Cinq témoins japonais de la condition humaine” on Shomingeki.org)

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The festival’s awards:

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Ready Player One

ReadyPlayerOneIn a dystopian future (Is it? It realistically could be just our future or it could be a “trumpian” future), the reality is too tough to take and people are looking to forget their troubles. What was originally created as a virtual reality game become the perfect source of escapism for the people. In virtual reality they can be whoever or whatever they want! It is based on the novel by Ernest Cline. 

This is a typical fantasy story where the hero (with a group of companions) must find an artifact to save the world from an evil overlord (or a nefarious corporation plotting to control the world). The only difference is that, this time, the artifact is a legendary Easter Egg in a virtual reality video game. It is also a quest to find the heir to the Halliday’s fortune and ownership of the entire virtual world, known as OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). The movie improves on the book by providing a great visual: the part inside the virtual reality (60% of the movie) was created with motion capture CGI. It is certainly not very original, but it’s brilliantly written and well orchestrated.

For me, what makes the movie interesting is that it’s a treasure trove of popular culture references (mostly related to movies and video games) from the 80s (including a few anime like Akira, Dragon Ball, Godzilla, or Gundam !) that plays on the nostalgia of a long gone era. In that aspect, it can particularly appeal to two different audiences: those who grew up in that era (the Millenials or Generation Y) or those who grew up hearing stories from their parents and have a glorified impression of the era (the Generation Z or iGen, Centennials). It is so rich in references that you could see the movie a dozen time and still discover new ones! 

The movie was well received (with a Rotten Tomatoes critical score of 72% and a slightly better audience score of 78%) and did well at the box office (bringing back in revenue three time its budget of $175 millions). Unfortunately, even if it’s directed by Spielberg, it has the usual flaws of most teenage action movies: it offers an heroic but superficial story (and characters) where the exploding action (full of car races, fights and magic!), a shared cultural trivia, visual overload and an expedited storyline replace the depth and richness that usually make truly excellent movies. However, it remains a great and funny movie that celebrate geek culture. It is entertainment at its best. I enjoyed it immensely and, if you are in the right demographic, you will certainly too. stars-3-5

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The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan

Nakimushi_Shottan_no_Kiseki-PosterBased on the true story of Shoji “Crybaby” Segawa, a talented player of shogi, a Japanese variant of chess. After rising quickly in a shore-kai, an organization that supervises professional shogi status, Shoji fails to fulfill the ironclad requirement of reaching the 4th rank by age 26. With the encouragement of his friends, he sets out to achieve the impossible: to be the first amateur to become a shogi professional. (FFM)

WARNING: May contain traces of spoilers! People allergic to the discussion of any plot’s elements before seeing a movie are strongly advised to take the necessary precautions for their safety and should avoid reading further.

This is a great feel-good movie based on the autobiographical book about the incredible career of Shoji Segawa, a Shōgi player. Shōgi  (将棋 / “The game of generals”) is a Japanese strategy board game very similar to chess (as you have a king, surrounded by his gold generals, his silver generals, rook and bishop, knights, lances and finally pawns pieces). We often see this type of “sport competition” story (where sport is often replaced by any possible type of occupation) in manga or anime (the best similar example is Hikaru no Go manga by Yumi Hotta & Takeshi Obata, which is about Go, but there are plenty of manga about shōgi like March Comes in Like a Lion) but it is rare to see this type of story in a live-action movie.

The movie has a strong cast of stars, so it is not surprising that the acting is quite good (although I’ve notice poor performances in the case of some minor characters). The photography is good enough (it’s not always optimum, but I guess it’s due to the attempt to give the picture a look of the 70s or 80s). The storytelling is, however, excellent considering that it is not easy to make such a subject interesting and to keep the attention of the audience while showing two guys sweating over a board game! The upbeat music and some comedic devices are very helpful for that.

Shoji Segawa (nicknamed Shottan) is a shy, introverted boy who has been interested in playing shōgi since elementary school. Encouraged by his school teacher and his father (Jun Kunimura), he improves his skill playing against his neighbour Yuya. They both go to a shōgi dojo where they are tutored by the local master (Issey Ogata). He is known for sometime crying after a game (hence the other nickname of “crybaby”). Learning that you can become a paid professional player of shōgi, Shottan (Ryuhei Matsuda) decide to apply to the shore-kai (the Japan shōgi Association’s apprentice school) but he doesn’t give his all and fails to reach the 4-dan level by age 26. A good part of the movie is dedicated to showing him agonizing over his chance of success (despite being a little overconfident) and over his failures. He finds himself in his late 20s, with no high school diploma, no job and becomes depressed. He eventually finds a salaryman job, but keeps playing shōgi for pleasure. He becomes quite skilled as an amateur player and, eventually in his 30s, gets some fame as the amateur who keep beating professionals (a miracle record of 17 wins and 5 losses!). He then starts fighting for the JSA to give him a second chance at becoming professional…

Strangely, nowhere in the movie they talk about the rules or strategy of the shōgi game. I guess, if the movie is solely aimed at a domestic Japanese audience, they assume that everyone know them. Anyway, the knowledge of the game is totally irrelevant to the story. The movie is more about fighting for your dream, learning the discipline (not being too distracted) and to play for the right reasons (not to win but just for the pleasure of it). It is interesting to note that the director, Toshiaki Toyoda, attempted himself to become a professional player when he was younger.

All in all, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan is an upbeat biopic that provide a very good entertainment. Well worth watching.

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡 / Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki): Japan, 2018, 127 mins; Dir./Scr.: Toshiaki Toyoda (based on the autobiographical novel of Shoji Segawa); Phot.: Norimichi Kasamatsu, Kôji Naoi; Ed.: Masaki Murakami; Prod.: Ryo Otaki, Kyôichi Mori; Cast: Ryûhei Matsuda (Shoji), Yôjirô Noda (Yuya), Shota Sometani, Kento Nagayama, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Ryusuke Komakine, Hirofumi Arai, Takako Matsu, Issey Ogata, Kaoru Kobayashi, Jun Miho, Jun Kunimura.

Screened at the Cineplex Quartier Latin 13 (Thu. 8/30 at 21:30) as part of the “Focus on World Cinema” program of the 42nd Montreal World Film Festival. There was a little more than half-a-dozen people in the theatre. stars-3-5

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Think Again, Junpei

JunpeiThinkAgain-posterJunpei, 21, is a lower-ranking yakuza. One day, his boss assigns him the mission to kill a high-ranking yakuza of a rival group. Junpei, who wants to be recognized by his clan, agrees. Junpei meets OL Kana and they spend the night together. He evokes with her the task that awaits her, and she is both worried and excited. She stays with him for three days until he carries out his mission. (FFM)

WARNING: May contain traces of spoilers! People allergic to the discussion of any plot’s elements before seeing a movie are strongly advised to take the necessary precautions for their safety and should avoid reading further.

This is a good movie for the younger crowd. It’s a yakuza movie with an existentialist tone. I don’t have anything bad to say on this movie: the photography is nice and clean, the acting is good, the storytelling fluid, the music is catchy and support well the story. However, I feel that there is something missing. It has all the looks of a feel-good movie and yet it ends badly for the main character (not surprising in a yakuza movie after all).

Junpei is a young wanna-be yakuza. He worships his aniki (“big brother”) and would do anything for him. However, he has a good nature, too good for him, as he likes to help people and has strong principles. In order to help a friend who has been wronged by a real-estate agency, he pays them a visit and play the tough yakuza. Unfortunately, the place is ran by a rival group. This initiative probably displeased his big boss because, not long after, he is asked to make a hit against a rival boss with little chance of survival. He is given money and told to enjoy himself for the three days before the scheduled hit.

A young woman working at the real-estate agency, Kana, noticed him and is impressed by his guts and looks. They hook up, make love — and fall in love. He goes back to his hometown to see his mother, they help a homeless man, etc. During all that time, Kana is tweeting (or using some equivalent app) their every moves, they every mood, and the tweetosphere is reacting, pondering weather killing people is bad (who still order hits on their competition, anyway?), how romantic they are, that they should forget the hit and elope, will Junpei survives the hit, etc. They plan to leave for a tropical island after it. Junpei goes ahead with the plan, because he is too loyal to avoid his responsibilities, even if he was told that his boss was using him to get promoted…

However, the boy Junpei is now a man. A good man who does the right thing (for a yakuza). He loves a woman. He takes his own decision. He has nothing to regret. In three days he has lived a whole life, more than many could boast for their entire existence. What is to live, but to live fully? And yet it feels sad. What a waste, some could say. But a yakuza’s story has an inescapable end. Is there a point to all of this?

I really enjoyed this philosophical yakuza movie. It’s both entertaining and food for thoughts, particularly for the younger generation who still have a life to live! It is well worth watching.

Think Again, Junpei (純平、考え直せ / Junpei, Kangae Naose): Japan, 2018, 95 mins; Dir.: Toshiyuki  Morioka; Scr.: Rumi Kakuta, Teru Kimura, Nami Kikkawa (based on a novel by Hideo Okuda); Phot: Shinji Kugimiya; Ed.: Naoki Watanabe; Prod.: Yukihiko Yamaguchi, Haruo Umekawa; Cast: Kisetsu Fujiwara, Shuhei Nomura, Yurina Yanagi, Reiko Kataoka, Manaka Kinoshita, Katsuya Maiguma, Suzuka Morita.

Screened at the Cinema Imperial (Thu. 8/30 at 16:30) as part of the “World Great” (Out of Competition) program of the 42nd Montreal World Film Festival. There was a little more than a dozen people in the theatre (but I was told that there was about fifty people in the previous day’s screening). stars-3-0

[ AsianWiki / IMDb /  Official  / Youtube ]

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Winchester

Winchester-DvdI am not a big fan of horror movies but I like Helen Mirren. So I watched the movie with the expectation that I would not like it. It is not a bad movie after all. Not a great movie, but a good entertainment nonetheless. 

The heiress (Helen Mirren) of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co is cursed and haunted by the spirits of all the people killed with a Winchester rifle. To appease their spirits and help them moving on she built for each of them a replica of the room where they were killed so her mansion is in constant construction, resulting in a huge building that doesn’t make much sense. The board of the company think she’s crazy and hires a doctor (Jason Clarke) to evaluate her mental state. He was himself widowed and almost killed in an incident involving a Winchester rifle and became addicted to laudanum as a result. Of course, the moment of his arrival at the mansion coincide with the appearance of an evil and vengeful spirit seeking pay back on the Winchester family! Will the rational mind of the doctor let himself be convinced and help fight against the murderous supernatural forces at play? Or is it all the result of the convergence of natural events and the power of suggestion of their own minds?  

It is quite an interesting take on the legend of the Winchester mansion and of Sarah Winchester. I also like the way they used other events of the era to add to the story, so it is really based on “real” events. After all, the mansion is well known for being the most haunted building in America. The storytelling is good and managed to follow the Todorov definition of the fantastic genre (if the characters seem to believe in the supernatural aspects, at least the viewers are well aware of the possible rational explanations for them). The acting is respectable, and the visuals are good considering that this is a very low budget production (shot in Australia for $3.5 million). So it is nothing to get excited about (besides the cheap scary tactics), but it is still worth watching. Although the reception was not very good (the critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes was 14%, with an audience score of 35%) the movie still managed to make over ten times its production cost at the box office! stars-3-0

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Samurai’s Promise

Chiri_Tsubaki-posterShinbei is exiled from his clan for investigating its activities too closely. Eight years later, when Shinbei’s dying wife pleads with him to go to help his former best friend, Umeme, he returns to the clan. Infighting has produced turmoil within the clan, allowing Shinbei to discover the truth behind incidents involving his wife and his friend. Confronting Umeme, he understands the reason for his wife’s last wish. (FFM)

This is a very good movie. Its most noticeable aspect is that it offers an excellent photography (which is not surprising since director Kimura acted as his own photography director, a job he has hold many times for other directors like Kinji Fukasaku, Yasuo Furuhata, or Shin’ichirô Sawai). He made great use of the superb location in the Toyama Prefecture (anciently the Etchû province) showing as backdrop the fantastic landscape of the Hida mountains in the Northern Japanese Alps. 

Another aspect that I quickly noticed was that the music was unfortunately very annoying. They used a soundtrack of classical music (which first accords sounded like The Godfather’s music by Nino Rota), playing it again and again recurrently. I think that, for a jidaigeki (samurai movie), a soundtrack of traditional Japanese music would have been better…

Shinbei (Jun’ichi Okada) is exiled from the clan after denouncing as corrupt a high-ranking officer of the clan — who is later mysteriously murdered leaving all the suspicion of culpability on Shinbei. Both Shinbei and his friend Uneme (Hidetoshi Nishijima) were courting Shino (Kumido Aso), but when Uneme’s family denies him the permission to wed Shino, she goes with Shinbei instead. The harsh condition of their exile put a toll on Shino’s health who eventually dies. She makes Shinbei promise to continue living, to go back to their village to observe the camellia falling in spring and to reconcile and help Uneme. When he tries to clear his name and find out the real assassin, he gets entangled in the complex politics of the clan…

Samurai’s Promise is a beautiful and interesting samurai movie. It has a smooth storytelling, although it is sometimes difficult (at the beginning) to understand who’s who and figure out all the plots and politics at play. The acting is good, and particularly the nice realistic combat scenes. It must not have been easy considering the fact that there was many fights in the rain or snow and that the dialogues were using an old form of Japanese. 

Of course, we should expect nothing less from such a veteran director. During his sixty-year career, Daisaku Kimura worked on over fifty films and won many awards. He started his career as camera assistant on Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (1958). He worked five years with him (on movies like Yojimbo and Sanjuro) and he learned a lot during this time. Eventually, he cames to direct his own movies (Mt. Tsurugidake in 2009 and Climbing to Spring in 2014), mostly about mountain climbing. Samurai’s promise is his first jidaigeki and he made it as a tribute to Kurosawa. It is a beautiful and authentic movie, well worth watching. These days we don’t see much movies like this…

Samurai’s Promise (散り椿 / Chiri Tsubaki / lit. “Falling Camellia”): Japan, 2018, 111 mins; Dir./Phot.: Daisaku Kimura; Scr.: Takashi Koizumi (based on the novel by Rin Hamuro); Ed.: Tomoni Kikuchi; Mus.: Takashi Kako; Prod.: Yoshihiro Sato. Cast: Jun’ichi Okada, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Haru Kuroki, Hirofumi Arai, Kyôko Yoshine, Sosuke Ikematsu, Kumido Aso, Naoto Ogata.

Screened as opening movie (in the “World Competition” program) of the 42nd Montreal World Film Festival (at the Cinema Imperial on Thursday August 23, 2018 at 19:00). stars-3-5

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