Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Let the Right One In" & A very very obvious choice....

My friend Ryan G just sent me a message on Facebook telling me that I HAD to go out to see Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In. If you are beginning to despair that this pre-oscar season is looking very very dull, then take his advice.

It would be easy to describe this Swedish film as merely the sum of its parts: Vampires, twelve year olds falling in love, overcoming bullies. I mean for me, I hear that and it is "SAY NO MORE" and I am off to the theater. But this film goes far beyond its synopsis.

Yes, this film is about vampires, but is it a vampire movie? I am a big fan of Vampire movies, and I find that most vampire films fall into two categories: Vampire as erotic object (see Underworld) in which the vampire is a desired higher being, or Vampire as vermin (see 30 Days of Night.... or rather don't see it) in which the vampire is more zombie-like, a monster that needs to be eradicated. There are films that combine both, in the original Blade, the protagonist Blade is on a mission to kill vampires who feed on innocent humans, however Stephen Dorff who plays the villain is about as close as you can get to the sexy vampire. I was always mildly disappointed that he didn't win.

Let the Right One In takes both these categories into consideration. Oscar, in a awkward 12 year old way, is drawn sexually to Eli, the twelve year old vampire who moves into his apartment complex. And yet director Tomas Alfredson does not ignore the monstrous side of Eli: the times in which we see her kill are violent and bloody, her body contorting unnaturally as she feeds, snarling, on her victim's blood.

So yes, the film is a vampire movie.

But the film is also a coming of age / revenge of the nerds type film. Oscar is picked on and learns in the film to stand up for himself. The final scene in which the bullies get what is coming to them is equally bloody and hilarious. And it is also a quiet romance: boy meets girl who changes his life. The film moves slowly and we are able to absorb the romance against a backdrop of snow at a drawn out pace. The film is cute: Twelve year olds!! But it is also extremely disturbing: Who is the old man who lives with Eli? Was he once a boy similar to Oscar? And thus while we root for them to be together, we also wonder if Oscar would be better off without her. This film is both heartwarming and bone-chilling. It is cute and gorey. It is a thriller. It is a romance. It is about coming of age and never coming of age. It is a wonderful friendship and it is also a dangerous potentially addictive deadly relationship.

Any of these themes would produce a good double feature, so you may be surprised that I picked, you guessed it (drumroll please), Interview with a Vampire. This is probably the most obvious choice that could be made based on simply reading both films synopsi. But I am not pairing Interview With a Vampire with LTROI because it is a vampire movie. But because both films use the the idea of the Vampire to create films about broader thenes: Youth, Mortality, Love, Obsession.

In particular, both films star girls who are girls for ever. The idea of never ending youth in a world that grows up despite you and the sexual frustration that underlies both these characters are major themes in both films. Similarly, it would be interesting to add Peter Pan to this mix. In Peter Pan, to never grow old is seen as something to be desired. But unlike in Neverland, both these girls are the only ones in thweir worlds who remain eternal children.

So for all those mid life crisisers out there: it could be worse.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Double Food Features

Check out the new blog for his list of foodie films! Everyone has their favorite: mine is Juzo Itami's 1985 film Tampopo. There are very few films that I think of as "perfect" and this is definately one of them. The video clip above is my favorite scene in the film.
Publish Post

Friday, October 10, 2008

Where in the world is me?

Sorry sorry.... a month long lapse. I APOLOGIZE. The tragedy is, what with work, travel, and the fiscal crisis, i have been resorting to Netflix. And have not seen a new film in over a month. But I have to say the prospect of catching up on all those classics I have never seen is pretty exciting. So for starters: (Melissa, I hear you were sad that I never talk about films you can actually see, well these are all on Netflix!!)

400 Blows - Truffaut - Totally devastating and beautiful masterpiece. I had a similar reaction to this film as I did to Zhang Yimou's classic Raise the Red Lantern. Both films center on protagonists trapped in repressive lives (disfunctional home vs. arranged marraige) and who never truly are able to escape. In particular, both films have last scenes that are visually breathtaking and yet portray such unending tragedy that you are left emotionally drained. Basically, I was moved deeply by both these films but will be happy to see neither again. Though check out the awesome poster above from Posteritati. Polish poster are truly the best.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Dark Knight & The Wild Bunch

By now you have all already seen Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Maybe you've even seen it on Imax. So the question: Does The Dark Knight live up to the hype??

The Answer: Heath Ledger's performance is indeed spectacular. While I thought he was great in Brokeback Mountain, this last performance is in my mind his best. Oscar worthy? Definitely. The film on the other hand?? Sadly, I can not be so enthusiastic. The film is frantic and lacks structure. While individual scenes (mostly with Ledger) are thrilling and seeing the film on IMAX is breathtaking, the film as a whole felt rushed and not well thought out. I would like to credit Nolan with creating chaotic structure to mirror the themes of chaos in the film...but I don't think he really thought through it that far.

That being said, I am willing to bet that this film is a moment of great importance in the history of cinema (not merely for its stellar box office performance). The film represents a sea change (well... an attempt at a sea change perhaps...more on that in a sec) in the superhero genre similar to the shift from the traditional western (think John Wayne in Ten Gallon Hat) to the revisionist western (think Clint Eastwood in a slightly less than Ten Gallon Hat). In Dark Knight, Nolan attempts to portray the Super hero as the Anti-Hero. Or perhaps the revisionist super hero?

(spoilers ahead but I mean, you've seen it already right?) So how is this new Batman installment a change for the darker?

First of all, Batman fails. The damsel in distress, played this time around by Maggie Gyllenhaal dies (rumors of her coming back to life as cat woman aside). Batman fails to save her and fails to prevent Harvey Dent from turning into Two-face.

Secondly, the tone of the film and world that serves as a backdrop to the action is distinctly dark. Kudos to Hans Zimmer for creating an eerie often piercing score.

Lastly, Batman becomes "the Dark Knight." By taking the blame for the murders that Harvey Dent committed, he becomes known as a cop killer and a villain. The film ends with now Commissioner Gordon leading his men to hunt Batman down. Not to mention the fact that Batman wiretaps all of Gotham in order to find the joker.

And yet.... he didn't do it. Batman didn't kill those men. He destroys the citywide wiretap after the joker has been found. Frankly, I think Nolan chickened out a bit. In one scene, the Joker gives two boats full of passengers the detonation device to the other boat and says unless one boat blows up the other, both boats will be destroyed. Miraculously no one on either boat destroys the other to save themselves. Human beings turn out to be not so corruptible, cowardly and selfish after all (Maybe I am cynical but I found that scene particularly hard to believe). By stopping short going all the way into the darkness, Nolan fails at his attempt to single-handily change the genre within one film . (perhaps Zack Snyder's The Watchmen will go there).

In Sam Peckinpah's notorious violent film The Wild Bunch (1969), the "heroes" are by no means so clean. They are not thieves with honor, they are cold blooded, bawdy and often downright despicable. They do not rise above the fray (they shoot the lovers that have jilted them, leave less intelligent gang members to die, get drunk and sleep with prostitutes. The world around them is equally harsh. Gone is the western of protecting the women and children, they are as trigger happy as the men. Throughout the film, cruelty and violence are met with laughter by the characters (definitely not he audience). As if this is the only way to accept life in this dog eat dog world.

The Wild Bunch was among the films that signaled a change in the genre.  The west that of J. Wayne was no longer squeaky clean. I think the visual darkness of The Dark Knight and the, albeit unsuccessful, attempts to "smear" the superhero signal a possible sea change in the super hero genre.

From Wikipedia " The violence that was much criticized by critics in 1969 remains controversial. Director Peckinpah noted it was allegoric of the American war against Vietnam, whose violence was nightly televised to American homes at supper time. He tried showing the gun violence commonplace to the historic western frontier period, rebelling against sanitised, bloodless television westerns and films glamorizing gun fights and murder. The point of the film is to take this façade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it so that they are starting to go in the Hollywood television predictable reaction syndrome, and then twist it so that it's not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut . . . It's ugly, brutalizing, and bloody awful; it's not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It's a terrible, ugly thing, and yet there's a certain response that you get from it, an excitement, because we're all violent people."

I think we are ready to see our super heroes be flawed and "two-faced." Is this a reflection of the times in the real world? Our Iraq war versus Peckinpah's Vietnam? Perhaps.  It remains to be seen whether super hero films in the next few years follow down this darker road.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Dave Kehr on The Dark Knight


I will soon post on this film myself (fear not dear readers) but in case you were wondering what Dave Kehr would pair the latest Batman installment with, he chose Dirty Harry. Check it out on his blog.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

British Double Featuring

Thanks to Patrick for pointing out that I am not alone in my double featuring. Sight and Sound magazine this month asked programmers to list their dream double bills. Check it out:

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mummies Always Get the Shaft

Apologies apologies! I have neglected you guys in your hour of need: Summer Movie Season!! I promise that I am in the midst of new exciting posts!!! In the meantime I would like to just say a few words about that poor victim of all film critic's wrath" The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor."

To all those critics who contributed to the film's 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes I would like to ask: "What did you expect??" For all of us who enjoyed the first two mummy movies, the one liners, yaks yakking gags, Brendan Fraser swashbuckling and laughably bad CGI are just what we wanted. Add Jet Li, Anthony Wong and Michelle Yeoh and I am just peachy! Giant CGI terracota army: check! Skeleton army rising from the depths of the great wall to seek revenge: I'm so there.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a summer film and nothing else. It does not strive to be anything but. As a pairing try Richard Brooks western The Professionals starring Lee Marvin. The connection: they are both tons of fun. And when its 95 degrees outside, thats enough.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Encounters at the End of the World" & "The New World"

I have always avoided Werner Herzog (why I do not know) but am a big sucker for all these kinds of Discovery Channel subject matter films (Aliens of the Deep 3D, yeah I saw it [what about it?] ) so went to see Encounters, his latest doc (actually sponsored by the Discovery Channel) about the communities of scientists who work in Antartica. While it would be easy to pair the film with other films like Aliens of the Deep or March of the Penguins Herzog's doc is not just about what is there physically (though the footage in film of underwater dives are mesmerizing and beautiful and would have been enough for me). Herzog tackles, through the film, the nature of exploration itself. He questions this desire to discover and reach all areas of the globe.

The journey also takes him inward as he questions the difference between humans and their animal counterparts: the most hilarious and heartbreaking part of the film features a penguin who rather than head towards the sea, runs off towards the center of the continent and certain death. Is this penguin suicidal? depressed? Or is he too drawn to exploration and adventure? These are the kinds of questions that Herzog poses.

Terrence Malick's The New World, (A masterpeice btw) also goes beyond the simple story of America's discovery to question the nature of exploration. The character of John Smith, played by Colin Farrell, abandons love and happiness for his never ending quest for his "Indies." (spoilers.. sort of) The rocky desolate lands he does discover bring neither glory or satisfaction to him. It is as if the explorer can never be content. And the settlers, dying of starvation in this strange new world embody the struggle of man against nature and the dark underside of new lands. The first settlement that they live in is not a far cry from the city of scientists in Antartica. Both places are muddy, depressing, bare bones places surrounded by beautiful and unforgiving landscapes.

And before I head off for the Fourth of July Weekend, I should report on the backlog of Summer movies I have been seeing:

WALL- E: Pixar is so consistently good that it is more a matter of which film is your favorite. This is probably the darkest Pixar film to date and while the kids in the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, the film really pushes the limits of what a Children's film is. The dystopia in which WALL-E lives is a Earth that is so covered in trash that it has become uninhabitable. If I were to pair this film up I would actually match it with a book : Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay. In Motel, a gimmick by the US post office of free mail for a week has gone awry, burying the entire continent in junk mail and causing the entire US population to die en mass. Years later a group of archaeologists come to excavate the Toot-n C'mon Motel. Their cataloging and complete misunderstanding of the objects they find is a nice pairing with the wonder of WALL-E as he digs through a world of trash gathering precious objects (such as sporks) for his own collection.

Wanted: If you ever wondered how Angelina Jolie + Morgan Freeman + Terrance Stamp could = utter garbage look no further.

Sparrow: Yet another Johnny To Gem. This (musical?) is probably his most beautiful film to date. Definitely one to see in the theaters if you can. Its sort of a Blow Up meets Umbrellas of Cherbourgh meets The Proffesionals.

Now go outside and eat a hot dog.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Even More Surfaces!!! - "Mad Detective" at the New York Asian Film Festival

Remember how hard it was for me to find a pairing for Flight of the Red Balloon (if not see my last post)?? Well I have now a possible candidate for a TRIPLE FEATURE!! Add Johnny To's Mad Detective to the mix:

First off, Johnny To just keeps getting better and better.  Often with Asian directors such as the oft praised Wong Kar Wai, you have to make allowances for overly shmaltzy sequences or unrealistic action scenes as merely the fault of lower production value or loss during translation.  To requires no such excuses.  His genre smashing films are slick, beautiful and most of all, smart (I also find them hilariously funny, but am often alone here).   My favorite is still the 2006 film Exiled (even though it is set in Macau and centered around a group of aging gangsters, it is one of the best Westerns I have seen in a while, if not ever).  

Mad Detective's cinematic craftsmanship is perhaps To's best. The last shot, a birds eye view of a room full of broken mirrors, is a masterpiece*.  It is one of those last shots that manages in one shot to encapsulate the entire conflict/point of the whole film.  In the film, Lau Ching Wan plays Bun, a schizophrenic detective (he has the schizo walk down to a science) who is able to see someone's inner personalities. While the villain appears to Ho, the regular detective, to be just one man, Bun sees that he is in fact seven different people: the glutton (perfect casting of To regular Suet Lam), the violent maniac, the calm controlling female executive etc.

So why add this film to an already complete double feature?? Answer: Another cinematic surface to consider.  In the climactic last scene (no worries, no spoilers here) the audience sees the inner personalities of characters reflected in a wall of mirrors. While in Kung Fu Panda and Flight of the Red Balloon, reflections directly reflected back "reality," in Mad Detective the surface reflects what is hidden.  Here the surfaces drastically changes what is seen.  So is the mirror distorting like a carnival crazy mirror or is the mirror showing what is "real", the inner self??

P.S.  If you are not feeling the triple feature another possible pairing for this film would be the Hal Hartley 2001 film No Such Thing (ok actually spoilers this time). In Hartley's film (also known as Monster), the monster is only destroyed by convincing him that he does not exist. This is done through a series of small mirrors and lenses that reflect light and his image (or lack of?) back towards him.  Here the surface's reflection actually destroys a character.

* Double Feature of films with Amazing last shots: Mad Detective and Tom Tykwer's Heaven (2002)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Kung Fu Panda" & "Flight of the Red Balloon"

I have wanted to write about Hou Hsiao Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon for some time.  I knew the idea that I wanted to use to connect the film to its pair (see below) but I could not think of a film that shared this idea (if you have better suggestions I would be glad to hear them!).  In Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou brings his ever steady gaze to a small family in Paris made up of Puppet theater artist Juliet Binoche, her son and the Chinese nanny who takes care of him.  The film is worth seeing if only for Binoche, whose performance as a loving and creative single mother verging on a mental breakdown is real and nuanced.  

The criticism of Hou's work has often been that his films don't go anywhere and are boring. That too often, his camera merely documents.  His cinema is the cinema of flies on walls and therefore not worth watching.  While it is true that conventional plots and three act structure do not appear in Hou's Work, I thoroughly reject this criticism.  

Yes, Hou does not often pass judgement on his characters or inject his own opinions into their lives.   Yet it is clear in Flight of the Red Balloon, that Hou is aware of the fact that the director and camera is a lens through which we see the world that is presented and that watching a film of a family is not the same as being a literal fly on the wall.  Shot after shot involve action that is seen reflected in mirrors, or through glass.  Whether that be a mirror, a car window or the window of a restaurant.  The action occurs through the filtering of different surfaces, leaving the audience with the question of how the filtering has affected what we see.  How does the surface change our perception?  

So while the film is still quiet like his earlier works (check out Millennium Mambo, my personal fave), it is almost as if he is addressing this constant criticism of his work and presenting many different lenses.  However, these lenses do not necessarily create different opinions.  Ultimately it is as if Hou is saying, no matter how much the camera moves and how much is reflected and filtered, the action does not change and it is the audience who should interpret what occurs.

So how in the world does Hou Hsiao Hsien, darling of the independent international cinema world connect to Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and the 60 Million $$ opening weekend film that is Kung Fu Panda?  In many ways, it doesn't at all.  I can't even say that Kung Fu Panda is a particularly good film.  Certain scenes, especially one in which Po the Panda, voiced by Jack Black, and Master Sifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman, fight over one last dumpling, are whimsical and well drawn, but for the most part the film is just a nice way to spend a hot summer afternoon.  Seeing films like Kung Fu Panda make you realize just how amazing Pixar is (I am really looking forward to WALL-e later this month).

I had pretty much shelved writing about Flight of the Red Balloon by the time I went in to see Kung Fu Panda so imagine my surprise to find a meditation (well sort of, in a kids movie big lesson kind of way) on the idea of surface and perception!!  (SPOILERS AHEAD!!)  In one crucial scene Po opens the infamous dragon scroll only to find it blank(!!!).  The magical secrets of kung fu are in reality only a piece of shiny paper.  This is of course, a disappointment, but not unpredictably, Po realizes by seeing his reflection in the shiny paper that he already has all the skills he needs to succeed.  The message here is simple and heartwarming: you are what you are and that is all you need to be.

Here, the crucial surface produces a simple reflection.  The reflection does not lie or distort. And yet, this simple reflection is the key to the message of the film.   The exact and undistorted reflection of the reality Po already knows is what changes everything.  So the surface even though it changes nothing, changes everything (so in Flight of the Red Balloon, is there in fact a change in our perception after viewing he undistorted reflection?). 

I sincerely doubt that the directors of Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson) were thinking about the effects of cinematic surfaces when creating Kung Fu Panda, but the wonderful thing about film is the ability of two completely different films to unconsciously inform the other.  So when you walk out of Kung Fu Panda, don' be too disappointed, I'm sure you were just watching it to compare it to Fight of the Red Balloon later. :P 

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"The Forbidden Kingdom" & "Kill Bill Vol.1"

Yes, the pairing of Martial Arts powerhouses Jet Li and Jackie Chan is extremely gimmicky. And yet, as a kung fu movie fan, I have to admit that seeing the pair fight each other on screen was exhilarating and fulfilled a dream I did not realize I had. The Forbidden Kingdom features Chan as a drunken immortal, an homage to his earlier Drunken Master films, and Li as a fighting monk, a nod to his roots in the famous Once Upon a Time in China series (he even gets to exercise his substantial and underused comedic acting chops as he doubles as the character of the Monkey King). After enduring so many mediocre Li and Chan films in the past few years (Shanghai Knights, Cradle to the Grave... to name two) it is a relief to see director Rob Minkoff letting his two stars do what they do best. In essence, The Forbidden Kingdom sees the return of two great masters of the kung fu genre to their roots. The following video from the (my new favorite film site) really sums it up:

However, as happy as I was to see this return to form, the film will probably bore anyone who does not still live with their parents. If Praying Mantice style vs. Tiger style does not intrigue you/ make you smile gleefully, go see Iron Man (which by the way is 15 dollars well spent [$10 for the movie $5 for the slushy]); for The Forbidden Kingdom is truly a film made for fans. Not only are the characters nods to themselves and the roles that made them, but the entire story is about a fan who saves the day for his heroes.

The film centers around Micheal Angarano, who plays a nerdy Boston Kung Fu fan who gets improbably transported into the world that he worships. The boy becomes man/kung fu master plot is predictable, but nevertheless warms your heart; for a fan is necessarily the little guy, the worshipper or groupie. And to see the little guy become what he has always dreamt of being is a plot that never gets old.

It is this idea of the fan as hero which led me to pair the film with Kill Bill Vol. 1. Quentin Tarantino is (despite what you may think of him), the film fan (cult film fan would perhaps be a better description) made good. And no film of his better shows off his fan-ness than Kill Bill Volume 1. In the first 30 seconds of the film alone you are treated to a Klingon Proverb and an homage to the Godard Film Band of Outsiders (blech!). Tarantino is the film junkie actually allowed behind the camera (for better or worse in some cases but I'll save that discussion for another time.) The casting of Gordon Lui (of 36 chambers fame) in the film is no coincidence. Wouldn't we all, if given the opportunity to work with our idols, take the chance? Tarantino is a man, similar to Angarano's character in The Forbidden Kingdom, who is allowed to play in the land he has worshiped. In this case the world of film. Viewed through this lens, Kill Bill Vol 1. does not dissapoint, there is black and white, split screen, anime, saturated color (subtitles even!!). There are few style stones left unturned.

That is not to say the film is a stylistic mess. Tarantino successfully pays homage without losing the film's individual identity, embodied by revenge minded Uma Thurman. Somehow all the quirky parts taken from other films blend together to become more than the sum of their parts. They become Tarantino style. Fan boy enters hero's world and becomes his own man. Lets hear it for the little guy!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Quick Note from the New York Polish Film Festival

Work in the "real" world is keeping me away from the theaters this week so look out for a return to double-featuring next week. Just to tie you over (you millions of readers.. hi Dad...hi Mom...) here is a quick dispatch from last week's Polish Film Fest:

Aria Diva (Dir Agnieszka Smoczyska) 2007: Smoczyska is a student at the Andrzej Wajda school of filmaking and her short film is proof that she has learned well. Shorts are incredibly hard to do and often feel forced and studenty (or like sped up melodramatic low budget features), but Aria Diva starring the truly divaesque Katarzyna Figura as a famous Opera singer who has a fling with her housewife neighbor, does not need any excuses. I look forward to seeing Smoczyska's first feature.

Summer Love
(dir Piotr Uklański) 2007: If you ever see this film and understand it, shoot me an email. The first "Polish Western" features Polish actors speaking in english (say "Lets cut him off at the pass" in a Polish accent.) Add to that a sex scene in which the couple spell out the word "sex" with their bodies on the floor Busby Berkeley Style and a scene where a man lights a pile of gunpowder on his head and you have Summer Love. I have the sneaking suspicion that the film is brilliant, but I really couldn't say why (I can't even explain the plot to you). But any film that features Val Kilmer as a corpse who gets tomatoes squished into his eyes must be brilliant.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Dispatches from the Tribeca Film Festival - "Theater of War" & "Children of Men"

In times of war, how much responsibility does a director have to incorporate the world around him into the world that he creates in his art? This is one of the central questions that emerges from John Walter's documentary "Theater of War." The doc itself follows a production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage" that was put on by the Public theater starring Meryl Streep. Interspersed between shots of rehearsal are interviews with Streep, playwright Tony Kushner (who adapted the play for the production) and Brecht's daughter, as well as segments on the life of Brecht himself (the film is a good study in why directors [esp documentary filmmakers] should not edit their own work as some of the interspersions detract from the film as a whole [I must keep it in!!! Its my favorite!!!]. That being said, Public Theater Artistic director Oskar Eutis riding his bicycle cigar in hand is a moment that should be interspersed into all films.)

The play was put on in 2006 and the film is just coming out this year, so both had to come to terms with creating art on war in a time of war. Walter's does not shirk this responsibility, showing the anti-war protests that happened during the plays rehearsal as well as drawing parallels between the Iraq War climate and the WWII climate that produced the original "Mother Courage." These parallels are not heavy handed (Speaking of which, Michael Moore was at the screening). Walter's antiwar slant comes out of Brecht's work (Mother Courage loses everything to the war) and the Public theater's production rather than out of his own ideology. It is refreshing to see a documentary that does not sidestep the fact that we are currently at war but also does not barge into the topic and preach to the audience. Nicole Kidman said famously after September 11th that art is important but Walters goes deeper and explores how art is necessarily changed by war (Streep, in one segment, discusses how being in the play is her way of dealing with her frustration about the war).

Alphonso Cuarón "Children of Men" (2006) is another film that is closely tied to the current climate (note that it was released the year "Mother Courage" was performed). Cuarón wrote this film based on the novel of the same name by P.D. James and I think it is safe to assume that his interpretation of James' dystopia was affected by the way he sees the current state of the world (see video later in post).

That is not to say that the film, divorced from its historical context could not stand on its own, but in our current climate, graphic images of bombs going off in coffee shops, overcrowded refuge camps and rampant distrust and imprisonment of immigrants hit particularly close to home. In fact, as great a film as I think "Children of Men" is, I do not think I can ever see it again. I have never been as shook up by a movie. It is not a film for the faint of heart. Of course, it takes place in a fictional time, in a world where children are no longer born. But once you accept that one difference: no children, the world of the film seems a little to real. There are moments when blood spatters the camera lens, our eye into the world. It is as if Cuarón is saying "YOU ARE HERE." If ever a movie could give you PTSD, this is the one. Though I do wonder about how much my own reaction is based on the times. Would a 1950's viewer or a viewer 50 years from now be as affected? If a director is responsible for understanding and the war around them and its affect on their art, how much are we, the viewer, responsible for being conscious of how the war affects our viewing?

I normally just add video to give you a taste of the film, but the video above, which focuses on the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki discusses how he strove to make the war seem "real" using lighting, style and editing.

Other Films in Brief:

"Fighter" (Natasha Arthy) 2007 : The Turkish "Bend it like Beckham". Predictable but fun. Very well filmed fight scenes, a treat for Kung Fu Fans. Congrats to Omar, a stuntman from the film who sat behind me at the screening.

"Everywhere at Once" (Holly Fisher & Peter Lindbergh) 2008 : If you like French impressionist film, see this movie. If you have a history of falling asleep in movies, skip it. That being said, Lindbergh's photographs are beautiful and everything remotely involving Milla Jovovich is awesome. Seriously, who need Maya Deren or experimental film when you have this:

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Dispatches from the Tribeca Film Festival: "Lost. Indulgence" & "Il Deserto Rosso"

Zhang Yibai's "Lost. Indulgence" and Michelangelo Antonioni's "Il Deserto Rosso" (the Red desert) is not an obvious pairing. I was very tempted to pair "Lost. Indulgence" with the recent Jia Zhang Ke film "Still Life" (which was one of my top five movies of last year). Both "Still Life" and "Lost Indulgence" are films made in China seemingly with the blessing of the Chinese Government. But unlike the slew of recent Chinese government sponsored films that star the entire Peoples Liberation Army in period garb fighting in slow motion to unify and glorify China, these films are quiet and often devastating looks at the lives of ordinary Chinese people.

I find it surprising that both these films seem to have made it easily through the notorious Chinese censors. Through these two films we see a China that allows women to be placed into servitude to pay off debts, veterinarian clinics in which workers pay for each death of an animal and the staggering bulldozing pace of change in China.

"Lost. Indulgence" takes place in an factory town, and follows the lives of a family after the father, a taxi driver, drives his cab into the Yangtse river. The mystery surrounding his death and the role that a prostitute, who was riding in the car and who is taken in by the family, had in his death, drive the drama of the entire film. Like in "Still Life" and indeed in real life, do not expect any of the mystery to clear or for characters to rise above their situations. If there is any lesson to be gleaned from these two excellent Chinese films it is that life goes on. Still life is right.

So why then choose another film entirely to pair with "Lost. Indulgence?" Why "Il Deserto Rosso?" Antonioni's "Il Deserto Rosso" is a film about the industrial landscape and its effect on those who reside in it. Antonioni waited to make his first color film and "Il Dessert Rosso is the fruit of that patience. Every color is meticulously chosen: Sulphur yellows pour out of factories, banisters are bright blue. In Antonioni's film the landscape is very much a character, if anything it is the villain, poisoning the landscape and the mind of Monica Vitti (the film would make a great pairing with Todd Haynes' "Safe" in which the environment is the omnipresent villain).

In "Lost. Indulgence" the industrial complex is less of character and more of a stifling backdrop. It is this world that all the characters live in and yet seek to leave. The industrial city allows them to survive (the mother works in the factory and met the father there) but the son seeks a simpler, more idyllic, life. So while the landscape is not overtly a villain it is something to escape from nonetheless. Both films seek to come to terms with changing landscapes. Both films examine the effect of the industrialization of a landscape on ordinary people and their attempts to fit themselves into these quickly changing worlds. The son in "Lost. Indulgence" creates a miniature plaster reproduction of the entire city. He stares at it, trying to take in the entirety of his world and landscape. This vignette mirrors the audience's experience of watching the film: as much as these two films are studies of characters, they are also studies of worlds.

Other films in brief:

Idiots and Angels
: George Plympton. I am not really sure that Plympton's work is able to carry a feature length format. Then again it was late, I was tired. I much preferred his short "Guard Dog."

Guest of Cindy Sherman
: Paul H-O & Tom Donahue. This is a film made by and about the ex boyfriend of artist Cindy Sherman who found himself completely overshadowed by her and decided to make a film about it. The sad thing was, after the film was over, I wanted to go out and see more Cindy Sherman, and still could not come up with any reason why I should care about her ex-boyfriend.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dispatches from the Tribeca Film Festival – " Toby Dammit" & "The Beyond"

My first reaction while watching Frederico Fellini's "Toby Dammit" was "oh no I am going to hate this movie." The film (that appeared to share the same makeup team as "Beetlejuice" [double feature?]) is full of seemingly nonsensical images: people with paper mask faces; packs of sunglass wearing nuns; a cardboard chef on the side of the road holding a basket. I felt the need to treat these images as symbols and decode them (what does it all mean ?!?!) and I was all ready to slot the film into the category of: needs to be seen more than once to be understood at all, (not that the "ring"esque little girl as devil would have encouraged future viewings on my part, I am a total wimp when it comes to horror).

As a rule, I am not a fan of films that force the audience to work hard and uncode some "deep hidden meaning (DHM). Good films do gain from repeated viewings but a good film should not need to be repeated. So I was worried that despite how much I love Terrance Stamp, this film was going to disappoint. And yet as the film continued I realized that my initial reaction of frustration and confusion was in fact all part of the grand master Fellini plan.

I once had a dream that my face was being smothered by a pillow and I could not move my head to avoid being suffocated. I tried and tried to turn my head but no matter what, lack of air and panic ensued. This is what the world of Fellini's "Toby Dammit" is like. For much of the film, Dammit is trapped driving around a strange town, unable to find his way back to Rome (turns out not all roads lead there). No matter what he does, he cannot escape.

The frustration that Toby feels is not unlike my initial frustration at trying to decode the film's images. All through the first half of the film I was trying to decipher and keep note of various images and characters in case they were to return later. But that is just what Fellini wants you to do, to try to make sense of that which is nonsense. Like Toby, we are trying to find roads where there are none. The nuns, the chef, these are all red herrings. Fellini has created an unsolvable maze for the viewer that mirrors the maze that Toby tries to navigate. So in a way, we feel what Toby feels.

(note: Spoilers Ahead) In "The Beyond," Lucio Fulci does not try to bait us with red herrings to get us to feel boxed in, and yet the world he creates is eerily similar in feel to the world that Toby is trapped in. Fulci, through the narrative, simply shows us the horrors of the place ( a hotel that is actually a gate to the underworld oh no!). He is telling a story in a more traditional way in comparison to Fellini. The hell that he shows us is a world in which no matter where you turn, you are faced with the same view. The protagonists find themselves surrounded on all sides by the same painting never to see or find an escape ever again. This place is a hell that battles the world of "Toby Dammit" for the title of worst and most inescapable prison on earth. Even though Fulci simply tells us the story and does not provide us with the "feel" of the place, can we say that this place is any less scary? These are two similar situations, presented very differently in terms of filmic style by two different directors, that end up, perhaps, not so far from each other in the end (both have me hiding under bed covers).

Other Tribeca screenings In brief:

"Night Tide"/ "Picnic"
(Curtis Harrington) - Surprise visit from Dennis Hopper! Pity that they got the reels in the wrong order (!!!). I was distracted.

"Three Kingdoms" - (Daniel Lee) All over the place. Should have picked one kingdom.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The Fall" & "Goodbye Lenin"

I admit it freely: I did not like Pan's Labyrinth. I was disappointed by the effects which I found sparse, and by the black and white simplicity of the film's story (fascists are bad bad bad!!!). I bring this up only because when Tarsem Singh's "The Fall" is released on May 9th, comparisons between the two films will inevitably be drawn. Both star a young female fatherless protagonist who escapes into a fantasy world. Unlike Pan's Labyrinth, however, the fantasy world of "The Fall" is lush and vibrant. If there is anything to be said about Singh, it is that he has a wonderful eye. Even in the "real" world of the film, simple objects such as oranges and blocks of ice are lingered upon and presented as beautiful objects. (The film would work well in a pairing with any of the recent visually opulent Zhang Yimo films.) So Pan/ Fall double feature (sorry Guillermo).

What is so refreshing about "The Fall," visuals aside, is that characters are not clear cut (with the exception of the aptly named Governor Odious). And that through the characters, larger issues about the the nature of fantasy are raised. Roy, who tells the story to the girl, Alexandria, is a jilted lover who befriends her and tells her a fantastic story full of bandits, rare butterflies and mysterious shamans. In her eyes (a perspective we share for much of the film) he is the hero, "the black bandit" and a substitute father figure. Yet at the same time as he spins these tales his thoughts are only on his own suicide and he takes advantage of Alexandria's innocence; conning her into bringing him morphine. He uses the fantasy to get what he wants in the "real" world. While for her the fantasy is healing the wounds her father's death has left, for Roy, the fantasy is merely a means to an end (the end to be precise). The same story serves two very different purposes.

(note: spoilers ahead) In one scene, when Alexandria has finally realized that Roy means to kill himself and he has realized the pain he has caused her by using her, Roy begins to kill off the characters in the story. All of them die valiantly; sacrificing themselves so that Alexandria can continue. They all commit suicide in ways deemed acceptable and heroic. One blows himself up along with hundreds of enemy soldiers, one shields Alexandria from arrows with his own body. It is as if Roy is justifying the idea of suicide through the fantasy. But who is Roy justifying the idea to? Is this a message that Alexandria needs to hear or that he needs to? Thus we are faced with the question of who the fantasy benefits: the storyteller or the listener? Who is the fantasy for?

Another film that confronts these same issues is "Goodbye Lenin". In the film, the character of Alex, his mother having been in a coma though the collapse of the Berlin wall, constructs in her bedroom a mini socialist museum. He tries to ensure that she never has to go though the potentially deadly shock of realizing that the wall has fallen. The fantasy he creates is ironically the mundane. His fantasy protects her from the fantastic: the massive historical and cultural changes around them (pickles from Holland!). But is it simply his fear of shocking her that drives his creation of the fantasy? Or is he driven by guilt as he was the one who had caused her initial heart attack? Just as with "The Fall," the question remains as to who the fantasy is for? Who needs the fantasy? The creator? The listener? Neither of these films answer these questions. Which is just fine. I appreciate that I am left wondering…and imagining.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"We are Wizards" & "Intimate Lighting"

I recently attended a screening of Josh Koury's doc "We are Wizards" at Anthology , thanks to "Wizard's" composer Stan Oh, a familiar face to the patrons of Posteritati (even New Yorkers with the most enviable day jobs have secret "real" jobs and talents). The film does for Harry Potter Fans what the 1997 Doc "Trekkies" did for, well… trekkies. Instead of Star Trek themed dentists, there are 7 year old Wizard Rockers, bloggers turned Potter historians and, of course, Harry and the Potters. On a side note, fellow Anarchist Cinema fans will be pleasantly surprised to see appearances by MIT Media Studies expert Henry Jenkins (author of "What Made Pistachio Nuts").

In finding the perfect double feature pairing for "Wizards," a Trekkie Potter fan mania documentary double feature would be a good, though obvious choice. Riffing on the idea of fandom and obsession another pairing could be Wizards / Les Enfants du Paradis or a Wizards / Diva (recently restored and screened at Film Forum). But "Wizards" although a film about fans is less about the mania and the far out and more about the "normal". Koury does not portray his characters as two dimensional oddballs, he shows them as what they are: regular (often lovable) people who just happen to love Harry Potter.

This nuanced 3D view of the subject is no small feat. In documentaries especially it is easy to fall into the trap of portraying the subject as some kind of exotic other: "Look at him, he's so weird!?!? Isn't this bizarre?!??!." These kinds of films have always made me uncomfortable. It is akin to seeing someone picked on in middle school and not having the power/ courage to do anything about it. Does one laugh? Should one laugh? (check out a film called "The Cruise," a doc about a guide on a gray line tour bus. The film's subject clearly has a few screws loose and the film does a good job of walking the fine line of judging and understanding him. Funny enough, Bennett Miller, the director of the film, went on the write and direct "Capote." Now there is a double feature!)

A good example of films that have made me uncomfortable for all the reasons above is Milos Forman's early film Cerný Petr (Black Peter). Peter, a fictitious character, fails miserably to function in regular daily life. Forman does not try to understand Peter, he is presented as only awkwardness. We see only the sides of him that make us laugh at him. On the flipside, Forman's Czech contemporary, Ivan Passer, in his film "Intimate Lighting" shows us the daily goings on of one family of musicians with a unique warmth. We follow the family, much as a documentary does, from family dinners, to old fashioned exercise routines, to drunken romps and back to family dinners. There are moments where family members behave inappropriately or do things that would, if seen out of context, appear ridiculous and silly, but these are merely moments in a much larger picture. In the last scene (don't worry this won't spoil the film), the family attempts to drink a toast but the drink they are drinking has congealed. They stand there, their heads tilted back, waiting for the pudding like substance to make its way down into their mouths. The audience laughs, but we have grown to love the characters throughout the film and we are not judging. We are merely enjoying another moment with them. The film is not named "Intimate Lighting" by accident, and by the end I felt draped in the slow sunny glow that fills the film. So no, there are no fans, or wizards in "Intimate Lighting," but the two films share a warmth and an understanding that characters are people too.