by Jacob Shoaf
Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) is the more serious counterpart to Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s The Twelve Chairs. Both portray the social effects of the Batista overthrow as relates to bourgeois Cubans (not a phrase you hear terribly often), though Chairs shows the results through both a former aristocrat and a revolutionary, while Memories focuses solely on the former as he interacts with numerous examples of the latter.
In Memories, a fleet of well-to-do Cubans emigrates to avoid the regime change. Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) watches as his (ex)wife and friends leave for Miami. He stays behind to start writing the Great Cuban Novel. This leads to a lot of aimless wandering accompanied by internal monologues describing the state of Cuba as seen through Sergio’s eyes. But since waxing philosophic doesn’t take too much time, he still manages to become involved with Elena (Daisy Granados) who serves as the prototypical daughter of the revolution. She falls out of favor with Sergio and he looks back to a relationship he had with a European girl (and Sergio makes sure to point out that she hails from a developed nation).
Memories gives off a vibe of early Godard (but not quite as frenzied and with less philosophical asides). It was the first Gutiérrez Alea film to be shown in the US, and is also probably the director’s best known film. Through freeze frames, documentary footage, and flashbacks we study not only one man, but an entire culture. Memories isn't just a great Cuban movie. It's a great movie on an international level.
(Note: While there is technically a region 1 DVD of this film, it’s only available in PAL format. So make some friends in Canada or look for it on VHS.)
Monday, December 29, 2008
Friday, December 26, 2008
by Brandon Colvin
Why is Slumdog Millionaire an overrated piece of middlebrow, pseudo-liberal, ultimately despicable crap?
A: It is politically irresponsible.
B: It is stylistically hollow.
C: It is dramatically tactless.
D: It is rife with mind-numbing clichés.
Before you answer, I would like to delve more thoroughly into each option. Sadly, I’ll have to do so without the use of serendipitously garnered information collected throughout my supposedly vibrant, allegedly life-affirming, and decidedly exotic adolescence amongst poverty, violence, and prostitution.
In lieu of such an uplifting circumstance, I’ll be using Roger Ebert’s review of Slumdog Millionaire (which slathers on praise in a manner indicative of much of the critical reception regarding the film) as a periodic springboard to rail against; though, if you’d like, you could read any of the myriad reviews by critics who seem to be consistently enamored with the type of multi-culti, artsy-posturing, issue-sidestepping drivel epitomized by Danny Boyle’s most recent misstep (see: Lou Lumenick, Joe Morgenstern, Ty Burr, Claudia Puig, etc.).
A: At one point in Slumdog Millionaire, protagonist Jamal Malik (played by Dev Patel, amongst others during various stages of youth) comments to a duped American couple, which he and his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal, et al), have just hoodwinked into having their Mercedes jacked, “You wanted to see the real India. This is it,” prompting the American man to self-righteously proclaim, “Well, here’s a taste of the real America, son,” while comically thrusting a wad of cash into Jamal’s hand with condescending glee. The scene casts the Americans as being out of touch with the political and social realities of Jamal’s Mumbai environs – laughably naïve and imbued with an overabundance of suburbanite white guilt. Ironically, this is the exact reaction Slumdog presents to the very same problems.
Repeatedly, Slumdog confronts its audience with images of brutality in an effort to effectively articulate the deplorable conditions of what Ebert calls “the real India,” something that the film’s “universal appeal will present . . . to millions of moviegoers for the first time.” For starters, Jamal’s mother is murdered in an attack on their Muslim slum by Hindu extremists, Jamal and Salim become poverty stricken children living in a garbage dump with the pre-pubescent version of Jamal’s love interest, Latika (Freida Pinto, et al), are then rescued by a corrupt man who basically pimps out children as beggars (blinding some with acid to get more cash) and then later actually pimps out Latika. Of course, there are also the flashily-edited beatings and electrical torture from the police that Jamal endures when he is accused of cheating on the Indian version of the game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” which lends the film its title and gimmicky premise (poor kid wins money because it’s his destiny, overcomes obstacles and gets girl through sheer willpower and cunning, as is related through a series of flashbacks to his rough-and-tumble childhood). Oh, and the gangs. Yeah, there are gangs too. Salim joins one and becomes a homicidal sonuvabitch before redeeming himself through self-sacrifice (duh). Okay, so we’ve got religious violence, poverty, orphans, homelessness, child abuse and mutilation, prostitution, gangs, and police corruption/brutality/they fucking electrocute him with no evidence whatsoever, and how does Slumdog Millionaire propose to solve, alleviate, confront, or even deal with any of these deep, deep social and political horrors? It doesn’t. At all. Jamal just gets 20,000 rupees and Latika’s hot ass, then they do a Bollywood-inspired dance that seems to wash away all of the harshness of the preceding two hours and cement the indestructibility of their romantic connection. The end. The film throws money and a girl at India’s problems, in the spirit of the ignorant American couple.
Is this the “real India” Ebert speaks of? One in which the apotheosis of heroism is Jamal, “who rises from rags to riches on the strength of his lively intelligence?” Sounds more like a Westernized fairy-tale of individualized capitalistic success. While Jamal gets rich, gets kissed, and boogies, the brutal India of the majority of the film is left behind – ignored, unresolved, and ultimately merely a manipulative tool of the filmmakers used to elicit the shock and horror that is the mark of the proverbial serious, Oscar-worthy film about foreign lands (think Last King of Scotland (2006), Babel (2006), Hotel Rwanda (2004), City of God (2002)). The only solution offered by Slumdog Millionaire is, “Hey, um, go on a game show” and be just like Jamal who “improvises his way up through the world and remembers everything he has learned” (Ebert), yadda yadda, good self-sufficient, crafty capitalists always win. And that’s it.
B: Aesthetically, Slumdog comes across as if Boyle, editor Chris Dickens, and usually brilliant cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have done their damndest to design a film like a 17-year-old who just saw his/her first Wong Kar-Wai/Christopher Doyle movie. The major problem with this approach is that nobody but the tandem behind Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) can make those films – everything else appears to be explicit imitation, visual trickery, and immature grasping for the semblance of a valuable style; Slumdog Millionaire is no exception.
Full of camera tricks, canted angles, extreme framings, slow-mo jitters, and slam-bang editing, Slumdog is nothing if not flashy. Ebert describes the film as having “dazzling cinematography, breathless editing, driving music and headlong momentum to explode with narrative force, stirring in a romance at the same time” and considering that I know he has seen Wong Kar-Wai films and understands what meaningful style is, I’m shocked by his lack of critical language. The film’s flamboyance seems to be an attempt to cover up the lack of any real formal inspiration behind Boyle’s choices. Rather than a visual interpretation of the bleary romanticism found at the core of Wong’s signature films, Boyle’s aesthetics exist for their own sake – whiz-banging just to demonstrate their own whiz-bangery. Slumdog’s visual construction is overt: the camera rests in unusual places just to highlight how unusual those places are for camera placement; the film’s extensive use of crosscutting is heavy-handed and a bit elementary, particularly the opening juxtaposition of Jamal’s torture and his appearance on the game show; at other times, the editing structure is more concerned with building to and accentuating a clever transition than actually establishing a narrative flow or tone. Boyle, Dickens, and Mantle miss the point in a major way throughout Slumdog, stringing together a series of would-be-novelties and attention-callers that seem to be chosen for their conspicuousness instead of their potential connection to the film’s thematic concerns or moral ambition (which are questionable in themselves). “But Brandon, isn’t it unrealistic to expect films to always achieve thematic-aesthetic synthesis?” Two things: if they are front-runners for almost every Best Picture award, no, it is not unrealistic, and there are many films released this year that actually do achieve it: Paranoid Park, Flight of the Red Balloon, Ballast, Synecdoche, New York, and Speed Racer, to name a few.
C: Ever felt the feeling of faux tension? It is powerfully underwhelming. Slumdog Millionaire exploits it to the max: the chase scenes all feel like foregone conclusions, the confrontations are all half-baked, sexuality is basically a non-factor, and the film’s various races against the clock are all protracted to the point of ludicrousness. Any sense of real drama or “headlong momentum” is completely sucked out of Slumdog by its unavoidable transparency. Everyone knows how every scene will conclude because everyone has watched every scene scores of times before. Ebert writes, “The film's surface is so dazzling that you hardly realize how traditional it is underneath.” Maybe it's just me, but I sure realized the fuck out of it. When Jamal encounters his various obstacles, it’s obvious that he will escape by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin. Repeatedly, the film toys with the fact that he might not, but it’s only a ruse, a method of stretching scenes beyond their limit, an attempt to spin a thriller out of a clunker. The apex of the film’s awkward striving for actual intensity comes during the final half hour when the stakes of Jamal’s game show appearance are upped (as if anyone in the theater actually thought he wouldn’t win the full 20,000 rupees or miss out on hooking-up with Latika).
During Slumdog’s supposed climax, Jamal uses his “Phone-A-Friend” lifeline on the last question, hoping to call Salim’s phone for the answer to a question about Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, an event that is hamfistedly foreshadowed in a scene taking place during the boys’ childhood. Frustratingly, Salim gives his phone (the only number Jamal knows) to Latika, knowing that Jamal will call her and get to speak with her – his reason for going on the show in the first place. Jamal does not know this. Latika does not know that she is Jamal’s lifeline. When she steps out of her vehicle to watch Jamal with a crowd of onlookers surrounding the television sets in an electronics store – having escaped with Salim’s help from Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar), her gangster boyfriend and Salim’s underworld boss – she leaves the phone in the car. Jamal calls. The phone rings, and rings, and rings, and rings, and rings, and rings, and rings, endlessly. Oh no, will Latika get to the phone in time? Of course, but only after the game show’s crooked host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), says something to the effect of, “Looks like nobody’s going to answer. You’re on your own” and commands the call to be disconnected. Knowing the rules of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” it’s obvious from the film’s inception that the final question must be resolved by a “Phone-A-Friend” to Latika. From the time early in the film that The Three Musketeers is mentioned, it’s obvious that the final question will be about it. At the moment Salim gives Latika his phone, it’s obvious it will result in a near-disaster of misunderstanding and last-minute rescue. And, as soon as the phone rings, it’s obvious how this rescue will take place. The whole thing ends up being one giant, simplistic fill-in-the-blank, a predestined procedural with no sense of how to proceed tactfully – a statement true of the entirety of Slumdog Millionaire.
D: Sappy. Cheesy. Doughy. Tasteless. The culinary adjectives pile up when considering how indigestible Danny Boyle’s film is. It’s all either bitter tragedies or saccharine platitudes, both being dull and flat to the palate. If Slumdog handles anything in a way that is genuinely fresh or crisp or breathtaking, I sure as hell missed it. Everything in the film feels trite or typically exploitative: the lovesick hero making his picaresque way back to his immaculate damsel, the overzealous police officers who come to sympathy once they let the poor street urchin explain himself, the wayward brother falling into the wrong crowd only to repent via a single sacrificial act, the shocking violence used more for visceral jabs than anything resembling complex storytelling, the persevering orphan who sees the sunshine through the shit and never dips his toe into anything that might make him truly blameworthy, the heartless gangster chauvinist with business ambitions and pockets full of power. Trust me, there are more.
Slumdog’s conclusion is the narrative equivalent of a whipped cream dollop with a cherry on top – weightless, fluffy, and strikingly sugar sweet. Jamal not only gets the girl, manages to save his brother’s dignity, wins a fortune, unites an entire country, transcends class systems, and shows that money comes to those who don’t really want it (he’s in it for the chick, man); he also shakes his ass amidst a sizeable sea of bright-eyed, super-smiley would-be Bollywood extras. The film’s aforementioned coda, feeling like the parodic finale of the much better The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), induced me to laugh out loud – not out of joy or celebratory exuberance as in Judd Apatow’s comedy, but because I thought it had to be a joke. Can anyone really make something that ridiculous and get away with it? Can anyone really think that deserves an Oscar or even a mention among the year’s best films? In Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle has either made a miserable mess of sentiment and unearned optimism or the most straight-faced satire I have ever seen. I highly doubt the latter.
Oh yeah. I forgot the last option. This might make the question a little easier.
E: All of the above.
And if you saw that coming from a mile away, Slumdog Millionaire will make you feel like a damned clairvoyant.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Recently selected as Nathan Lee's #1 film (er, video) of 2008, Jean Luc Godard's minute-long festival trailer (entitled Une Catastrophe) for the 2008 Viennalle kicks it old school in terms of dialectical Russian montage, but it is nevertheless a striking and dashingly original short from JLG. I may not go as far as Nathan in terms of its greatness (it feels a little too much like the opening to Godard's vastly underappreciated Notre Musique to be a full fledged, unique masterpiece), but its definitely worth a (quick) watch nonetheless..
And a quick side note: sorry for the delay in posts. I have been away from the internet for about a week, but should be back full swing henceforth. Brandon breaks down (and takes down) early Oscar favorite Slumdog Millionaire, new contributor Chuck Williamson reviews Fear(s) in the Dark, and I tackle Clint Eastwood's 2008 would-be melodrama dyptych of Changeling and Gran Torino. Plenty of other happenings are sure to come along as well. Out 1 is ready to roll into the new year and we hope you all come along with us! Keep spreading the word! Happy holidays to all, and to all a good night!
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Nearly every ideological or political issue involved in the creation of cinema and the observance of the filmic image falls within the tricky, sticky, convoluted parameters of a single concept: representation. What is being represented on the screen and how and why is it being represented in that particular way? What is the gap between the filmmakers and the subject or object? Whose vantage point occupies the horizontal expanse of the screen and why? Marxists argue that the materialistic dependence of cinema on expensive technology restricts the filmic voice to the “haves.” Feminists demand that the predominant male gaze be challenged by the cultivation of distinctly feminine visual language, unhindered by the repressive traditions of perhaps the most patriarchal of arts. Post-colonial critics harp on the value of minority filmmaking and the implicit representational contrasts between the cinematic perspectives of the ethnically dominant and dominated. And so on...
The debate regarding the political positioning of groups and individuals within the most pervasive, powerful and profitable artistic medium of the past 100 years has been perpetually posited within the confines of dialectical dichotomy: rich v. poor, male v. female, majority v. minority, gay v. straight, etc., the democratic assumption being that one group could never truly or accurately represent the other group – at least not at well as said group could represent itself. What’s missing from the above-stated formula is a sense of cooperation – the type of transcendence across political and cultural boundaries practiced by forward-thinking filmmakers such as Lance Hammer, writer-director-producer-editor of one of the most acclaimed (and rightfully so) American films of 2008: Ballast.
In the early 90s, Hammer began a series of pilgrimages to the Mississippi Delta, having found a landscape and culture of stunning fertility. Between intermittent jobs on large Hollywood productions as an art director and visual effects designer, Hammer, a white southern Californian with an architecture degree, built up a rapport with the predominantly African-American communities in the Delta region, engaging with the particular qualities of the Delta culture and absorbing the mood and tone of the land, eventually deciding to set his long-in-the-making debut feature, Ballast, in the melancholy wintry barrenness of the Delta’s icy floodplains. After scouting the region for locations, Hammer spent two years drafting a meticulous script, but decided from the outset that his extremely personal project, nurtured for over a decade, would be anything but traditional.
Conceptualizing a style influenced by the understated, minimalist work of European auteurs Robert Bresson and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Hammer began organizing his low-budget production around a set of principles: location shooting, natural light, handheld cinematography, no score, and, most importantly, the use of non-professional actors from the Delta region. In interviews, Hammer has repeatedly articulated his belief that a story about the Delta should be told, at least in part, by the people of the Delta, in their own language, a logic which led him to cast a batch of amateurs through local church groups and community centers in Mississippi. During a long rehearsal process, much of Hammer’s script – which focuses on the emotional and personal struggles of a black family in the wake of a tragic suicide – went out the window. Seeking to preserve the unique voice, what he refers to as “the idiom,” of the Delta and its people, Hammer encouraged his actors, especially primaries Michael J. Smith, JimMyron Ross, and Tarra Riggs, to improvise, change, and re-structure scenes and dialogue, blurring the line between subject and creator and enabling the actors to determine to a large extent how their own culture would be represented. Diminishing his own role from totalitarian author to co-creator, Hammer struck a compromise between presenting his own artistic vision and allowing that vision to be molded and altered by the very people he was representing.
Ballast, then, can be viewed as a film in which collaborative, democratic authorship and creative unselfishness enable Lance Hammer, a white, middle-aged, former Hollywood employee, to express himself alongside a black youth from rural Mississippi (Ross), a middle-aged African-American worker at a local utility board (Smith), and a woman born and raised in the Delta (Riggs), all with no previous filmmaking experience, while continually giving them the opportunity to represent their own culture and specific experiences. Hammer’s approach to representation, of stepping away from a story he is unable to truly tell by himself, suggests a politically responsible methodology that ensures the cinematic enfranchisement of his film’s subjects, not mere puppetry. Perhaps now that a black man is directing our predominantly white country’s political narrative (props to Obama) and a white filmmaker has so poignantly captured the predominantly black Delta culture on celluloid – both through intercultural, interracial, gender-inclusive, class-spanning cooperation – the simplistic dialectic of authorship traditionally posed by cultural critics will be muddled, blurred, and hopefully transcended. Idealistic? I’m sure it is. But goddamn, that idealism has produced one helluva fine film in Ballast.
by Brandon Colvin
Monday, December 8, 2008
Alright everyone. Out 1 update time. I am finishing my MA Thesis this week (finally!!!) after which I plan on doing some major catching up on seeing films and reviewing them on here. I have to thank you all for your patience and for sticking with us during this rather crazily busy time. It's the worst time to be overwhelming busy, as I feel like I have missed at last 10 movies I would have liked to write about. Alas, since some films I have already seen are just circulating around the US (Slumdog Millionaire) or haven't opened yet (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), I'll definitely do reviews on those. I may also do catch up reviews on films that have opened already. My perspective is skewed since films often open in New York before the rest of the country...are there any films that are just opening in your city that you would especially like to see reviews of? Anything coming up that you are waiting to hear our thoughts? Requests? Thoughts? Challenges? Let me know and I'll try and get it covered.
Also, since Brandon does not live in New York, we will wait a while to post our Top 10's this year so that as many films as possible can be seen before the lists are finalized. It will probably come in late January..February 1 at the very latest. We may not post as soon as everyone else, but we've got twice the spunk, I guarantee you! I'm already bored with the only 15 different titles appearing on every critics top 10 thus far. Here's hoping the Voice (i.e. Hoberman) and NYT (i.e. Dargis) shake things up a little bit. I expect they will...
Thanks for your patience! I promise to go post crazy in the coming weeks, and hopefully Brandon (and maybe even Jacob and Maria) will be able to get back into the mix.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Here's the official trailer from IFC Films for Che. As you all might remember from my NYFF write-ups (here: a review, here: my festival top 10), I liked this film quite a lot and am really looking forward to revisiting it. I would strongly recommend the road-show version (i.e. the two parts put together) if you have that opportunity. If you need to see it split up (or just don't like sitting in one place for 268 minutes) I would either do the films back to back or, at the most, a night or two apart. And, assuming I don't do a complete 180 (a rare occurrence), this will undoubtedly be in my top 5 or 10 of this year.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Here's an announcement from Ed Howard at Only The Cinema. I'm interested...are you? You should be! If you want to contact Ed, those links are up at his site and I encourage everyone to be regular readers there. It's one of the best blogs out there.
This is an announcement for an upcoming two-week event here at Only The Cinema, and an invitation for others to participate along with me. The Early Hawks Blog-a-Thon will run from Monday, January 12 through Friday, January 23, nearly two weeks of exclusive focus on a classic Hollywood master's early career. Of late, I've been delving further into the work of Howard Hawks, a filmmaker who I've long loved, and who has been worming his way ever deeper into my mind with each further film I see by him. My appreciation of his work began with the moody, evocative Only Angels Have Wings, still one of my favorite Hollywood movies, and each subsequent Hawks film I've watched has confirmed his particular virtues as an artist.
The purpose of this blog-a-thon is to take the next logical step and delve into Hawks' earlier career, which for the purposes of this venture I'm somewhat arbitrarily defining as the films he made before Bringing Up Baby, his first widely famous screwball comedy. I won't be tackling his early silent films myself (except for A Girl In Every Port), but if anyone else would like to write about those films, I'd welcome the contributions. My own work on the blog-a-thon will mostly be limited to the films made between 1930 and 1936, including codirectional efforts where Hawks replaced another director or was himself replaced by studio meddling. I probably won't be revisiting the two films from this period I've already seen, but again any writing from others about either Scarface or Twentieth Century will be very much appreciated.
In general, I'd like this blog-a-thon to be a broad and varied appraisal of Hawks' early work, with reviews of the individual films as well as essays that attempt to put the early period in context as a whole and in relation to the later, better-known films. I suspect there are enough Hawksians out there to generate a lively and prolific blog-a-thon, and I hope to see a lot of cross-talk, debate, and discussion involved in this project. Among other things, I would like to see participants take up the questions and ideas of other contributors as starting points for their own writing. If you'd like to participate, let me know either here or by e-mail, or just write a post on some of these films between January 12-23 and send me the link so I can post it here.
I am announcing this far in advance to give people a chance to locate and see these films, most of which (including all of the silents) are not available on DVD in any form. Of the early 30s films, only Scarface, Twentieth Century, Barbary Coast, and Come and Get It can be found on Region 1 DVD (with links below). All the rest of the sound films (and maybe one or two silents) can be seen via varying but mostly surprisingly good quality bootlegs, available for download in various places. If you have any questions about acquiring these films, please contact me privately.
Below is the list of the films that will be officially considered a part of the blog-a-thon. The films for which I cannot find sources are marked with asterisks (***) following their years, and if anyone can point me to a source for any of these films, it will be greatly appreciated.
The Road To Glory (1926) ***
Fig Leaves (1926) ***
The Cradle Snatchers (1927) ***
Paid To Love (1927) ***
A Girl In Every Port (1928)
Fazil (1928) ***
The Air Circus (1928, w/ Lewis Seiler) ***
Trent's Last Case (1929) ***
The Dawn Patrol (1930)
The Criminal Code (1931)
The Crowd Roars (1932)
Tiger Shark (1932)
Today We Live (1933)
The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933, w/ W.S. Van Dyke) ***
Viva Villa! (1934, w/ Jack Conway, William Wellman)
Twentieth Century (1934)
Barbary Coast (1935, w/ William Wyler)
Ceiling Zero (1936)
The Road to Glory (1936)
Come and Get It (1936, w/ Richard Rosson, William Wyler)
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
I'm sure most of you have seen this trailer by now, but I wanted to post it in case you hadn't. I am also hoping to hear what you all think of it. Having seen the film already, I have some thoughts about what they are showing and what they aren't, but I don't want to go spoiler-tastic here. Just wondering how it looks from a different perspective... What do you think?
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Good news to report! Brilliante Mendoza's Serbis, one of the most provocative films at this year's New York Film Festival and #7 on my Festival Top 10, has been picked up by Regent Releasing. It will open in New York on
January 16, 2009 (update) January 30 at Cinema Village, a theater I am all too familiar with. I assume that means it will have a limited release in other major markets as well. A lot of critics dismissed the film rather quickly, but I think there is a lot more to it than most are giving it credit for. Moreover, its playfully experiments with a classically melodramatic structure by placing it in a movie theater and creating ruptures in its melodramatic system by featuring a boisterous atmosphere, real sex, family lawsuits, and, yes, even goats. It won't be everybody's cup of tea, but I think, for any adventurous moviegoer, it is well worth checking out if you have the opportunity. Check out the trailer below.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
My thesis and schedule are eating me alive lately. Sorry for having so few reviews up. There are plenty of films I've seen that I want to review, and hopefully will at some point. But for now...let's just roll with a question of the day.
What do you think is the best movie death scene of all time? Oddly, my selection would be from a movie I think is pretty overrated; nevertheless, its murder scene in the woods near the end is one of the most gorgeously shot and amazing sequences in cinematic history. You got it...I pick (off the top of my head) Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist as the film with the best death sequence. Commence with your opinions in the comments...
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Here's a trailer for GB Jones's new film The Lollipop Generation. Jones has been working on the film for over a decade and it is set to make its NY Premiere at The Light Industry on December 16th and 8 PM. More information can be found on Light Industry's site, but, for the sake of clarity, I'll just post the description of the film here so you might have some idea whats going on in the trailer. Maybe it's just because I am currently writing my MA Thesis on pornography (among other things) but this looks fantastic. Hoorah for Super-8!
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
So, I got tagged by Film For The Soul for a new "Alphabet Meme" floating around. Since I just did the Best Picture meme a few weeks ago, I have extended the tag to get Brandon back in the groove and so you all don't hear my same favorite movies over and over. So...yeah...enjoy the list and thanks to Film For The Soul for including us in the action!
Here's the rules...
1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.
2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles.
3. Return of the Jedi belongs under "R," not "S" as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with "S." Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under "R," not "I" as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the LOTR series belong under "L" and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under "C," as that's what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgement to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.
4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."
5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.
A – Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) dir. Robert Bresson
B – Blue Velvet (1986) dir. David Lynch
C – Contempt (1963) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
D – Days of Heaven (1978) dir. Terrence Malick
E – 8 ½ (1963) dir. Federico Fellini
F – Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) dir. Toshio Matsumoto
G – The Godfather (1972) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
H – The Holy Mountain (1973) dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky
I – Inland Empire (2006) dir. David Lynch
J – Juliet of the Spirits (1965) dir. Federico Fellini
K – Killer of Sheep (1977) dir. Charles Burnett
L – Last Year at Marienbad (1961) dir. Alain Resnais
M – The Mirror (1975) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
N – Naked Lunch (1991) dir. David Cronenberg
O – Out of the Past (1947) dir. Jacques Tourneur
P – The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) dir. Carl Th. Dreyer
Q – The Quiet Man (1952) dir. John Ford
R – Raging Bull (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese
S – Stalker (1979) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
T – Taxi Driver (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese
U – United 93 (2006) dir. Paul Greengrass
V – Videodrome (1983) dir. David Cronenberg
W – Winter Light (1962) dir. Ingmar Bergman
X – Seriously? I’m just gonna put this here: Magnolia (1999) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Y – Youth of the Beast (1963) dir. Seijun Suzuki
Z – Zodiac (2007) dir. David Fincher
by Brandon Colvin
Sunday, November 9, 2008
This may not be from his heyday, but Tex Avery could even make awesome Raid commercials...awesome. You can also find his controversial Frito Bandito ads online, but I'll avoid posting those here for any "culturally sensitive" folk out there... :)
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Embedded is an extended trailer for Bruce LaBruce's "post gay zombie movie" Otto; Or, Up With Dead People which opens at the IFC Center this weekend in New York. A better quality trailer can be found on the film's website, but I was always like embedding when possible. For a little more on the film, Nathan Lee has blogged about why the film has been on his mind at WNYC.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Thanks to everyone for voting in our most recent poll regarding which films you are most looking forward to this winter. Its the most votes we have ever had for a poll! Although lots of people are saying this is a weak year for film (and I tend to agree as far as American cinema has gone) but it can turn around very quickly with the release of some of these films this winter, assuming that they don't get pushed back. Now that several other films have popped to prominence, some titles are notably absent, but this covers the bulk of the mainstream fare. I'm not really surprised by the films with the most votes, but was a bit surprised by the lack of votes for several Hollywood films that have some significant buzz. Just says something about our readership...and its something I am quite happy about. Thanks again for voting! On with the results!
Which films that open this winter are you most looking forward to?
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button- 31 (54%)
The Wrestler- 30 (52%)
Milk- 24 (42%)
Che- 20 (35%)
Synedoche, New York- 20 (35%)
The Road- 17 (29%)
W.- 16 (28%)
Australia- 14 (24%)
Quantum of Solace- 12 (21%)
Revolutionary Road- 9 (15%)
Changeling- 8 (14%)
Doubt- 6 (10%)
Frost/Nixon- 6 (10%)
Slumdog Millionaire- 5 (8%)
Valkyrie- 5 (8%)
Total number of votes: 57
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Well, I just haven't the time to write up everything I saw at NYFF. Amidst my attempts I realized that most of the films I was writing about will get released sooner rather than later, and my reviews would all benefit from second screenings. So, instead of attempt to write a bunch of short reviews, I am substituting that for this wrap up list of my favorite films at the festival this year.
As I mentioned in my previous posts, a lot of the films this year seemed middle of the road. There was only one film I felt like I really hated (Tony Manero) although even it has its defenders. Aaron Hillis and Andrew Grant named it their favorite film of the festival. Others I have talked to had a similar response to me. Undoubtedly, it is a divisive film. I found it rather soulless, tepid, cold, and, worst of all, horribly uninteresting. Apparently it is supposed to be a black comedy (as you might assume from the synopsis) but I sure missed the boat on that. I understand that being cold, damp, and unsympathetic is part of the point, as the film reflects suppression of...everything... in the Pinochet era, but all it made me want to do was walk out of the theater.
But I digress. After the break, I'm going to be a list-a-holic to at least put the films into some sort of category. I know I am short changing many of them that deserve write ups, but I promise to give them when the films gain wide releases. I'll only list films (besides the top 10) that I have yet to write about. Maybe it will build some anticipation for later reviews.
Thanks to everyone for their patience and for reading these NYFF posts. The festival was a great experience and, assuming I'm in New York next year, I'll be back with a new strategy for trying to write about as many films as possible! Special thanks to Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience and Nathan Lee for talking to me at press screenings.
Top notch films: Wendy and Lucy, The Wrestler, The Headless Woman
Films with issues that are still worth seeing: 24 City, Serbis, Four Nights With Anna (despite its overwhelmingly egregious score), Gomorrah, Mock Up On Mu, Tokyo Sonata
Films with too many issues to overcome: The Windmill Movie, Tony Manero, I'm Gonna Explode, Changeling
My NYFF Top 10
1. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/France/Italy/Spain)
2. Che (Steven Soderbergh, Mexico/USA)
3. Afterschool (Antonio Campos, USA)
4. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
5. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)
6. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, France/USA)
7. Serbis (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines/France)
8. Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK)
9. Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy, Germany/Kazakhstan/Poland/Russia/Switzerland)
10. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, Italy)
Thursday, October 23, 2008
by James Hansen
Ever since Ed Halter ever so briefly mentioned the video in his 2007 Year in Experimental Film article for The Village Voice, I have been looking forward to Jennifer Montgomery’s Deliver, an all-female video “remake” (really an inversion) of Deliverance. Although Deliverance was popularized by the classic 1972 film, Montgomery makes it clear that it is not the film, but the book that is her main source of inspiration.
My guess is the near sell out at Deliver’s world premiere at BAM had more to do with John Boorman’s Deliverance (the film) than with James Dickey’s Deliverance (the book), not that it matters all that much. However, the people expecting a Hollywood-esque estrogen driven remake of Deliverance were likely disappointed and will continue to be as Deliver makes the small rounds to other experimental film venues across the country. Deliver is deeply problematic, just as it is meant to be. But, if you ask me, it is fascinating, frustrating, and thrilling, in its own distanced way, all at once.
Montgomery, a terrific, award winning video artist, (her recent work Notes on the Death of Kodachrome (1990-2006) was shown at the 2008 Whitney Biennial) is obviously not interested in the action aspects that dominate Deliverance and make it what ends up being (for better or, if you agree with Montgomery and myself, worse.) Deliver is undeniably more interested in social construction and the overriding forces that shape historical identities. Despite being shot in high def video (Montgomery’s prior work has very predominantly been shot on Super 8), it has the same personal extension and feeling that has been a highlight of her past work. It is ripe with contradictions and paradoxes, particularly in the pivotal rape scene, which will dominate any discussion of the video.
While plenty of people will undoubtedly strike Deliver down for various choices that it makes (assuming people unfamiliar with Montgomery will stick with it once they realize this is not a Hollywood action remake), each choice adds to the video’s identity and manage to confound pretty much every issue that Dickey’s novel and Boorman’s film proposes. In attempting to reconstruct and question the cultural history of a classic literary and filmic text, not to mention gender, homosexuality, and sexual violence, Montgomery forces Deliver to confront a lot in a short amount of time. That it feels like a totally completed work-in-progress goes to show the ever-contracting depths to which Montgomery’s art, highlighted in Deliver, reaches.
I plan on writing about this with some more specific analysis in the future, but I have a word limit writing for The Film Experience this week, so this is all you get for now! I am, however, posting it here before it goes up there tomorrow morning. That's true dedication for you all! And, in case I have provoked you and you are in the Chicago area, Deliver will show at the Chicago Underground Film Festival next weekend. I'm randomly in Chicago next weekend and may revisit this if I can find the time. See you there?
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Monday, October 20, 2008
One more apology for being so slow my final two NYFF posts. They are in the works! Promise! I am swamped this week, but will try and finish them up for all of you. I just don't want to leave out the titles that I find of interest. Perseverance is key! On the other hand, I have double blogging duty this week. I am guest blogging at The Film Experience this week while my friend Nathaniel R is out of town. If you don't visit there already, be sure to do so to see my stuff, along with several other guests, this week.
Friday, October 17, 2008
People are apparently thinking about Best Picture a lot these days. In my last post, I briefly went over what I thought a Best Picture movie was and voila! Awards Daily has an entry where they asked critics how they define Best Picture. It's worth taking a look at for all of those who are interested. I am particularly intrigued by the long response by Scott Foundas who really works through lots of the issues. Similar to what I was doing, except Foundas-style. (I typically like Foundas, for the record, and agree with a lot of what he says. My guess is if you don't like him to start with, you won't like the response much. Either way, though, I think it most fully incorporates everything that Oscars and awards shows are about. He's asking for a beating posting that on Awards Daily though...)
Thursday, October 16, 2008
I sort of tagged myself to this meme, at the request of MovieMan at The Dancing Image, which started at Filmcability. Basically, you are supposed to go through every year since the Oscars have been awarded and make your selection for what should win Best Picture. Although Filmcability and The Dancing Image decided to revoke all rules for selection, I have chosen not to do so, although, admittedly, every once in a while, I break the own rules I am about to explain. (And just to tout my record for a moment, I actually have seen every film that won Best Picture. It's a project started in high school that I tore through for a while and then slowed down. Last summer I watched Platoon and only recently watched Wings to complete the list! And, from the looks of this list, I sure don't agree with the winners very often. I also learned that I really really love David Cronenberg...in case you didn't know.)
I think of the Best Picture Oscar as an American film award. It's by no means to discredit it, but when I think "Oscar" Godard doesn't really come to mind. Neither, for that matter, does straight-up experimental film. A film like Ernie Gehr's Side/Walk/Shuttle would easily be my favorite film of 1991, but should it be the Best Picture? If it is accepted in the mainstream can is still be avant-garde? I was getting myself bogged down in a hurry, so I just decided no avant-garde. Unless I felt like I should change my mind...
Anyways, I felt like I should stick with "American" movies. I'm in the clear now, right? Unfortunately, this gets more complicated with American releases from English speaking "foreign" directors and when Hollywood produces work from foreign directors. How do I decide what is American or what isn't? I just can't keep things simple. My mind only got more twisted from here, so I finally just said forget it. If it's American-enough, I let it slide. I am sure there more more issues with release years and I may have flubbed up when this films would have been valid for Oscars in the first place, but let's overlook that for now.
Maybe in the future I'll continue this rather productive meme by selecting foreign films and experimental films from each year. That will lead my mind to a whole variety of other problems with naming them, but I'll save those matters for a later time. Now that I have bored everyone with this meandering, here is my list.
One final note...I have decided to not italicize the titles because it would take a long time to highlight each of them and select it. Oh formatting. You are such a pain sometimes. And if anyone knows how to make italics from Word/Pages transfer to Blogger, please God send me an email and let me know. :)
1927- Sunrise (FW Murnau)
1928- The Wind (Victor Sjostrom)
1929- Pandora’s Box (GW Pabst)
1930- All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone)
1931- City Lights (Charles Chaplin)
1932- Freaks (Tod Browning)
1933- King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest Schoedsack)
1934- It Happened One Night (Frank Capra)
1935- A Night At The Opera (Sam Wood)
1936- Modern Times (Charles Chaplin)
1937- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (William Cottrell & Wilfred Jackson)
1938- The Citadel (King Vidor)
1939- The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming)
1940- His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)
1941- Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
1942- Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
1943- Red Hot Riding Hood (Tex Avery)
1944- Hail The Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges)
1945- Topaz (Dave Tatsuno)
1946- It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
1947- Out of the Past (Jacques Torneur)
1948- Letter From An Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls)
1949- Porky in Wackyland (Robert Clampett)
1950- Rabbit of Seville (Chuck Jones)
1951- The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
1952- Singin’ In The Rain (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen)
1953- Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)
1954- Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)
1955- The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
1956- The Searchers (John Ford)
1957- Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
1958- Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
1959- Shadows (John Cassavetes)
1960- The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
1961- Something Wild (Jack Garfein)
1962- Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
1963- Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller)
1964- The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies (Ray Dennis Steckler) or Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick)
1965- Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer)
1966- Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol & Paul Morissey)
1967- Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
1968- 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
1969- Salesman (Albert & David Maysles)
1970- Zabriskie Point (Michaelangelo Antonioni)
1971- Punishment Park (Peter Watkins)
1972- Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank)
1973- Badlands (Terence Malick)
1974- A Woman Under The Influence (John Cassavetes)
1975- Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
1976- Carrie (Brian De Palma)
1977- Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
1978- Halloween (John Carpenter)
1979- Alien (Ridley Scott)
1980- Atlantic City (Louis Malle)
1981- Blow Out (Brian De Palma)
1982- The Thing (John Carpenter)
1983- Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
1984- Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch)
1985- Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston)
1986- Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
1987- The Brave Little Toaster (Jerry Rees)
1988- Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg)
1989- Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh)
1990- GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)
1991- My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)
1992- The Crying Game (Neil Jordan)
1993- Blue (Derek Jarman)...avant garde, I know I know...or Naked (Mike Leigh)
1994- Hoop Dreams (Steve James)
1995- Toy Story (John Lasseter)
1996- Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen)
1997- Crash (David Cronenberg)
1998- The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick)
1999- Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
2000- Traffic (Steven Soderbergh)
2001- Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
2002- Spider (David Cronenberg)
2003- Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
2004- Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood) or Primer (Shane Carruth)
2005- A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)
2006- Inland Empire (David Lynch) or Borat (Larry Charles)
2007- There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Wow...this took a long time to put together. Although I don't wish this kind of pain on anyone I tag the following people if they dare take up the task. And since I was working on this, you can push back my final NYFF entries to Friday and Sunday (most likely.) We'll see if I can stick to any kind of a schedule. Oh yeah, and if you wonder why I didn't select something feel free to bring it up, as I may have overlooked the films. I was using Wikipedia's pages for American films of each year so I think I got most of them, but I could always miss something. Thanks for reading!
Nathaniel R. at The Film Experience
Jeremy at Moon in the Gutter
Ibetolis at Film For The Soul
Adam at DVD Panache
Jacob W. at Mad Crazy Movie House
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
La Cienega (The Swamp), the solid debut feature from Argentine writer-director Lucrecia Martel, immediately shows the strengths that Martel has continued to develop ever since. Driven by its moody ambiance and ever-present atmospheric sounds, La Cienega flows from moment to moment and scene to scene. The film becomes increasingly overwhelming in its propensity to leave characters, and the audience, wandering for answers: a trait that, up to this point, has defined all of Martel’s underseen and divisive works. Although it is her “weakest” feature in my mind (she has only made three and each one has been better than the last), this is a dynamic debut and showcases an assured, still developing talent. Plus, for those looking a place to start, you might as well start from the beginning and get caught up with this fresh voice in international film.
Note: Martel’s most recent feature “The Headless Woman” was shown at the New York Film Festival and has yet to receive distribution. When/if it does, I will be sure to let everyone know. My take on it and the other big name NYFF movies should be posted Wednesday or Thursday. A wrap up entry with a festival top 5 (or 10) should be posted Saturday or Sunday. Stay tuned!
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Is anyone more familiar with these musicians or artists than I am? Looks to be one of the truly unique horror movie experiences ("midwestern horror" at that) you'll find in New York this fall. The film screens at Anthology Film Archives on October 16th at 9 and 11 PM.
DECAMPMENT from ADULT. on Vimeo.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Most of the reports out of Cannes this year said it wasn’t such a strong year for film. While many big name directors were present, they were turning in middle of the road work, neither masterpieces or disasters. With over half of the NYFF films coming from Cannes, I was hoping to find that most critics were giving the festival a hard time. That with high expectations come slight disappointments and they things were blown a little out of proportion. Nevertheless, I have been having a similar NYFF experience and, with only one week of screenings left, it seems like things won’t change too much. It isn’t that most of the films are bad; it’s just that they have only been good, not great. But, as NYFF selection committee member Jim Hoberman reported, a festival can only be as strong as what is out there. What’s out there, so far, are a lot of good movies, a couple great ones, and a lot of technically accomplished films with some severe issues. I always try and be fair when it comes to expectations, and, considering how little I have known in advance about the films that were screening, I think I’ve given all these films a fair shake. Granted, a lot of the films I’ll complain about are better than most of what I’ve seen this year (it’s been a weak year, eh?) so I’ll be sure and call myself out on unfairness when/if I see the films a second time come their wide release.
Let’s start with the good stuff.
One of the few all out, balls to wall triumphs thus far has been Steven Soderbergh’s 262 minute, two part Che, a film greeted at Cannes, and now in New York, with violently mixed reactions. For the life of me, I straight up don’t know how or why anyone would HATE Che. And while the few lukewarm reactions I have read are perfectly sensible, but they seem to have complaints that have nothing to do with the film. (Glenn Kenny recently wrote about Che and his biggest movie-response pet peeve being when people complain whether films make them care or not. I agree with him, but the reaction that really chides me the most is when people reject the film asking why it was made. This necessity complaint drives me right up a wall and is one I have heard quite a bit regarding Che from plenty of critics I admire.)
So why do I love Che? Technical accomplishments aside (I can’t say anything more, or say it better, than Amy Taubin did in the most recent Film Comment) Che is likely the only film at NYFF that works within the confines of genre and not only reworks them (as did Afterschool, The Class, Gomorrah, A Christmas Tale, Serbis, Hunger, I’m Gonna Explode, and, to a lesser extent, Changeling, and The Wrestler) but also restructures, resituates, and reconceptualizes each genre as well. What makes Che so dynamic is the genre triptych it works under. Che reframes the biopic within the action genre (The Argentine- part one) and thriller (Guerilla- part two), and uses these techniques as a way to problematize and challenge the person, icon, and symbol that is its protagonist. The elliptical, distanced storytelling, especially in The Argentine, recalls Malick’s best work. Che doesn’t ask for the audience to root for Che, but only to exist and flow moment to moment with the events in the film. Many critics have complained that this distance from the characters makes the film tedious, boring, uncaptivating, and unwatchable. This response really baffles me. Che, and its incredibly nuanced camerawork, keep this distance precisely so the audience can hold its own position within the film and the dialectical debate created between the two parts. It is as if we can only drop in on key moments and can only be so close to the action, the characters, and the historicized world of Cuba and Bolivia. This position is affirmed by Mr. Soderbergh when, in a post-film press conference, he stated, “I’m obviously not a communist...there was no place for me to exist in Che’s world.” The artist, and even the audience, can only get so close to that world, that history, that icon. This is an idea that, and one executed on every level, that of all the biopics ever made, only Che seems to comprehend.
Leading me to believe that I might be insane (although it's something I've noticed for a while), I constantly love uber-art house fair that most others dismiss. Anytime I hear "Cannes walk-out champ" (as Jim Hoberman called Pedro Costa's incredible Colossal Youth) my ears tend to perk up. Antonio Campas’s Afterschool, a film greeted with very hostile reactions at the festival, may not have been the walkout champion, but it appears to be the most aggressively disliked at the festival (other than maybe A Bullet In The Head, a film I have yet to see, and Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman. I'll have more to say about the Martel in my next post.) I was talking the film up immediately after its press screening, but, other than Mike D’Angelo and Dennis Lim, I haven’t read, or heard, (m)any positive reviews of the film. I can understand complaints to some extent. Afterschool is, without a doubt, ruthless, risky, cold, and bold. Still, detractors are dismissing the film far too quickly in labeling Campos a mini-Michael Haneke with some Gus Van Sant thrown in. While these comparisons are fair, and, to my mind, positive, they quickly abandon the originality of Campos’s use of alternative media and some down right amazing camerawork. Oh, but that’s pretentious, right? Too ambitious for its own good? Slant goes so far to call Campos a “borderline con artist” (they lump in Lucrecia Martel as well.) Well, haters, I’m sorry if Afterschool is full of mundane characters and preoccupations. Sure, the camerawork “calls attention to itself”, but who can complain when it is done at such a high level? Or is that precisely why there have been so many complaints? Is it really so egregious today to display some ambition today? Maybe the film is shallow compared to best Haneke or Van Sant films, but I don’t think so. It works within a category that either of those great directors have yet to confront. Afterschool isn’t just another movie about postmodern alienation and voyeurism, although it is about those things too. What Afterschool displays is a digital world so full of “real” images that the borders of reality and fantasy have almost completely broke down. The struggle to differentiate between the two creeps into every facet of life. Afterschool is beautifully rendered and each subject is handled with a muted delicacy that makes the film, despite its obvious ambition, so authentic.
Speaking of films that a lot of people think is ambitious but, unfortunately, takes a third-act turn to the typical, Turner Award winning video artist Steve McQueen’s Camera d’Or winning film Hunger has some really incredible images, some great, tough scenes, but its last third keeps the film out of masterpiece territory. Hunger tells, or, more appropriately, shows in great detail, the story of IRA member Bobby Sands who wages a hunger strike to improve living conditions among fellow prisoners. Hunger is sharp and precise throughout in highlighting how the prisoners live and survive. There are some really brutal scenes that aren’t for the faint of heart, most of which come in the first and last third of the movie. What comprises the middle is essentially two scenes, which are the two best in the entire film. One is a soon-to-be-famous 25 minute long scene (done almost completely in one shot...the use of cigarettes blew me away); a fierce debate between Sands and his priest discussing the meaning, purpose, and decision to pursue the hunger strike. This is followed by an very long shot of a guard sweeping the hallway clean of the urine that is dumped underneath the doors of the prisoner’s cells. These two scenes together are totally electrifying, and I have to be truthful here in saying that I thought that point was the end of the film. One super long, but extremely riveting scene followed by an incredible metaphorical shot. It’s all I needed and wanted. Not kidding, I wrote in my notebook “What a fucking incredible last shot.” Maybe I was thinking that I was in a Bela Tarr movie and got too hopeful in thinking that we wouldn’t see the hunger strike. That it was about the why more than the gruesome how. Given the importance of showing the beatings and abuse in the first part, I thought it had made the point. We know, at this point, that Sands will not falter. That he will go through with the strike and die for this cause. If it ended there, Hunger would likely be one of my favorites of the year. But it continues on to show, in even more precisely gruesome detail, Sands’s deterioration and death. Hunger loses some emotion and narrative drive in the last third and starts feeling a little too much like The Passion of the Christ rather than the unique and biting critique that the first two sections display. There are scenes and images from Hunger that I won’t soon forget (and it’s still a very good movie), but I’ll remember just as strongly the slight frustration I have knowing how great the film could have been.
Similarly frustrating, but even moreso, is the Israeli animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Waltz With Bashir follows director Ari Folman’s journey to recover his suppressed memories from the 1982 war with Lebanon. From stories and personal testimony, the film locates these memories and presents them within the scope of what Folma calls “the historical imagination.” I have always been a fan of infusing animation into other filmic forms and how important this can be for showcasing that animation isn’t just something for children. Waltz With Bashir sounded like a huge step in the right direction and, for a lot of the film, it seems to be. Even though I found the much of the film not all that enthralling or meandering, what made it interesting was the animation and the experimenting with different colors (and entirely different color pallets) for returning memories and dream sequences. The lively and distinct colorizations create a distinction between all these different aspects of memory and history. I’ll feel like to much of a spoil sport if I go into much detail here (I’ll have more to say when the films gets it wide release) but I really believe that the final sequence undercuts the entire process and progress that Waltz With Bashir tries to make. What is this sequence doing in here? Why did they choose to show it this way? While it doesn’t remove or change what Folman is trying to say, this last sequence is a total reversal and blatant contradiction of the importance of how it should be said. And, for a film so invested in its technique, this is a gigantic and unforgivable misstep.
But at least I have feelings about that, right? The same can’t be said for my reaction to Chouga, a film from “Kazakh master director Darezhan Omirbayev”. I put that in quotes because I don’t know this director and can’t confirm his mastery. Chouga, a very truncated version of Anna Karenina, shows strong formal elements and has some interesting ideas, but I just can’t work up a reaction. It seems like a perfectly acceptable movie that probably loses a lot in translation. It feels a little flat and has some long lifeless sections, but there are some nice scenes and moments that make the film worth seeing, if only to say you saw a Kazakh movie this year.
You saw a Kazakh movie this year, you say? Haha! I saw two! And if you only see one, it should be Tulpan. “Kazakh master documentarian” Sergei Dvortsevoy’s first feature film Tulpan won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes this year, which was a good sign going in, and I have to say if his earlier work is anything like this then I definitely need to see them. Tulpan tells the story of Asa, a young man who recently completed his naval service and returns to the Kazakh steppe to live with his sister and her herdsman husband. Although Asa dreams of having a herd of his own, he must marry before this can happen. Unfortunately, in the desolate steppe, there aren’t many women around. The only one is Tulpan, but she doesn’t like Asa because of his big ears. Asa refuses to give up on his dream. This is a nice little description and hints at some of the comedy infused throughout the entirety of the film. With some really great performances, particularly by Asa’s boob-loving friend Bali, it’s easy to invest in the people that Dvortsevoy’s film presents. Moreover, the real images that are captured are breathtaking and oftentimes funny. (Tulpan was shot in a very remote section of Kazakhstan called Betpak Dalla.) A dog sits with lightning striking in the background. Dust storms arise in the middle of herding. A ram enters a shack to give solace to a weakened man. A sheep struggles to give birth. There is much more to the images than mere description can provide (the scene with the lamb’s birth is the most important scene in the film) but they all match one another to make one hell of a debut feature. Dvortsevoy’s combination of fiction and reality is fresh. No matter the kind of film he makes, Dvortsevoy is a filmmaker to watch, and Tulpan is a film you should see.
by James Hansen
Friday, October 3, 2008
Thanks to everyone for voting in our most recent poll selecting your favorite Darren Aronofsky film so far. The poll was inspired by Aronofsky's soon to be released new film The Wrestler, which is the Closing Night film at this year's New York Film Festival. I saw the film this week and, to really get the buzz really going, I have to say that The Wrestler is his most simple, straight-forward film but also his strongest. (Note that I voted for Pi in the poll as I find Requiem to be a one-time, one-trick pony and The Fountain totally ridiculous. I'm not saying that to knock The Wrestler though. Just admitting that I have liked simple more than flashy Aronofsky, and that trend for me here.) I'll save further analysis and discussion for my NYFF write-up and for when the film opens in wide release December 19th. I don't want to raise everyone's expectations too much, but The Wrestler is, without a doubt, one of the strongest American movies this year and should be a sure-fire Oscar contender.
Now on with the poll results! It was surprising to me how well The Fountain did in the poll (almost pulling a major upset!) Apparently many of them film's (small number of) advocates are dedicated readers here! Or am I just being mean? Do more people out there like The Fountain than I think? Even though I don't like that film at all, I'm glad you are all here reading and voting! We had one big time lover and hater of Aronofsky, which are always fun votes to see as well. Anyways, I'll stop explaining the results. You can see them yourself after the break.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DARREN ARONOFSKY FILM THUS FAR?
Pi- 8 (20%)
Requiem for a Dream- 16 (41%)
The Fountain- 13 (33%)
I don't like any of them- 1 (2%)
I love all of them- 1 (2%)
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
I was going to write an opening to talk about the 46th Annual New York Film Festival and to put it in some sort of framework. How the festival runs from September 26- October 12 and how the screening schedule and tickets can be found online. How Lincoln Center is under construction and how awesome seeing these films at a gigantic, classic theater like the Ziegfeld will be. (Most of the press screenings are at the Walter Reade Theater which is damn good in my book. Luckily, we got to see Che at Ziegfeld, so I can say first hand that the Ziegfeld owns.) How 16 of the 28 films selected come from the Cannes Film Festival, and ponder why so many people see this as a bad thing. How the press screenings are a totally different festival experience, and how lucky I am to be a part of the experience to begin with. Alas, it seems like most of the coverage is saying the same thing and since I am late in writing about some of these films (a few have already shown at the festival and are not showing again), I figure I might as well just write about the movies and save my ruminations on the festival for my festival wrap up entry. Let’s do that, eh?
As I am late into writing, I’m not going to go through the films in the order I saw them, which was my original plan. This first entry has a film I saw on the first day of screenings, nearly two weeks ago, and a film I literally saw today. While these films do have a common characteristic, don’t expect it from future entries. At four films, France has the most films of any country at the festival this year, so when I started writing it seemed appropriate to write about them together. I’ll try and create a flow between the films in future entries, but the broad taste in world cinema that the New York Film Festival displays it becomes increasingly difficult. So, let’s just talk about the movies. There are some good ones, maybe some great ones, and, sure enough, some films that I didn’t/won’t respond to. Still, it’s a lot of fun to stumble into a theater at 10 AM trying to remember which films it is I am about to see. (Seriously. I went into a screening last week knowing that there was something I meant to see. I thought it was Hong Sang Soo’s Night and Day. Then starts the Mexican teen crime-ish film I’m Gonna Explode. Not exactly the same thing. Everything is a blur!) Anyways, I promised not to blab and now I’m doing just that. On with the movies!
Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the Opening Night Selection of the 46th New York Film Festival and winner of the Palm d’Or at this years Cannes Film Festival, reworks the typical classroom drama in a very refined way yet remains just as crowd pleasing as the ever popular, sentimental American classroom film. Starring a real teacher with his actual students all from the same school in France, teachers, students, and administration all play fictionalized versions of themselves that is enhanced by Cantet’s handheld digital camerawork. Although The Class creates an insane amount of nervously excitable classroom energy, a truly magnificent achievement, it is safe and breezy even in the most dire of situations. While the film’s inspired fact/fiction hybrid makes everything more authentic, even in the film’s most heavily scripted situations, The Class is a little too self-satisfied to be as affective in really analyzing the never-changing problems of globalization, cultural diversity, and power “between the walls” (the original French title of the film and the autobiography on which it is based) of a school. This makes it sound like I didn’t like The Class very much, which, believe it or not, is far from the truth. There is just a difference between the inciting and provocative foreign films that I tend to prefer and ones that are a little more standard are are highly likely to be Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees. The Class is France’s Official Entry for the Oscars with good reason. Still, I wish it would have taken more risks given its subject matter and willingness to experiment with this genre.
The same could be said for Arnuad Desplechin’s latest film A Christmas Tale, a showcase of top notch filmmaking and acting, but ultimately disappointing in that it isn’t nearly as interesting or complex (at least on first viewing) as the other Desplechin films I have seen. Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is the family matriarch whose comically separated family is forced to reunite when she announces her life threatening illness. Inevitably, this event conjures up unhappy memories of the death of their young brother Joseph who died of leukemia when he was six. Fear not, French comedy lovers! This sweeping 150 minute film is full of life, spunk, and Bravura that crowds will eat up. Despite all it has going for it, A Christmas Tale is relatively slight. One character asks the question “Who has time to take life experience seriously?” With it playful mood and wild shifts in tone, addressed directly in its oftentimes brilliant score, A Christmas Tale wants to lighten the aura of death and enjoy the memories and experiences that each of us has. It is all too typical material for Desplechin to take on and is less focused in its fancy-free attitude to sustain itself for the lengthy running time. A Christmas Tale features, without a doubt, great filmmaking and acting. It’s just that when you expect gold and get myrhh, it can be a little disappointing.
Still, Desplechin’s film is a masterpiece compared to Agnes Jaoui’s Let It Rain, a film that desperately wants to be funny, only in the most human of ways. Let It Rain, as well as Jaoui’s 2005 feature Talk To Me (that, for the record, I also found vastly overrated), will satisfy the 50+ crowd, but I think most everyone else will find it inane. I don’t want to be too snarky here, but I think if you close your eyes and imagine a typical, petty French family comedy then you would likely imagine everything that happens in Let It Rain. The film does have some very honest, well done moments, most of which involve Mimouna Hadji, the only non-professional actress in the cast who plays the family’s maid and is Jaoui’s family’s maid in real life. Still, Let It Rain confronts many issues in this very tactical screenplay, but is mostly dull and rarely comes across as authentic.
So, is all lost for French cinema at this year’s film festival? Just when it looked like there would be no great French film this year, Olivier Assayas sweeps in to save the day with his magnificent Summer Hours, another French family film (can there ever be too many???) but the only full-fledged drama of the bunch. Assayas, ever the modernist, penned the script shortly before the death of his mother and admits that the film probably wouldn’t have been written post-her death. Although this extratextual bit of information doesn’t necessarily give the film more emotional weight, Summer Hours still seems more significant given that fact. Evaluating the value and worth of historical family objects, Assayas says that he wanted to reformulate the family genre by changing the focus from how to acquire certain things from family histories into how we let go and get rid of these objects. Ravishing filmmaking and cinematography aside, Summer Hours is quietly devastating and extraordinarily powerful in the way it shapes each character and highlights the difficult problems each has with family in a globalized modern world. However, Summer Hours makes clear that no matter how far you are away from where you come from, the separated loneliness can be felt just as strongly at home. Moreover, the film reflects the changing moods, attitudes, and memories of different eras and generations within given spaces. Just like a gallery space (Summer Hours was commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay), the space of the home can shift just as dramatically depending on who and what is in it. Summer Hours is not to be missed.
by James Hansen