Friday, May 30, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Many of you may have seen this by now, in English no less, but this trailer is well worth a look. Looks like a contender to me, and with its December release maybe Fincher will get some love that he should have received for Zodiac. The beginning and end are in Spanish, but the bulk of the trailer has no dialogue or voice over or anything. Enjoy the trailer and your weekends! Plan on seeing a lot more posting here, so please come back and visit every day and keep telling your friends about us!

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Overlooked DVD: "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (Sydney Pollack, 1969)

This week's selection is chosen in honor and memory of director/actor Sydney Pollack who died on Monday at the age of 73. All the best to his friends and family.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

An Unhealthy Body

Shown as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “New Directors/New Films” festival, Michelange Quay’s feature-length fiction film début Eat, for This Is My Body (Mange, ceci est mon corps) was a standout. With this film, the new director Quay draws on influences from Italian neo-realism, with his depiction of the Haitian landscape, peoples and poverty, using both actors and non-actors, while placing these elements firmly within an alluring and poetic dreamscape, and establishing a powerful rhetoric of opposites.

On the narrative level, we are taken on a journey through Haiti, where the island nation itself is the main protagonist of the film, perhaps the “body” that the film’s title refers to. Haiti lays bare its slum quarters, its dried-out rivers, and a landscape where little, if anything, seems to grow. After a lengthy opening shot where the camera flies over this terrain, a compelling soundtrack is introduced, that throughout the film comments upon and challenges the already intriguing imagery. Here, while seeing the images of the not-so-nutritious Haitian landscape, the sounds of a woman giving birth to a child are interwoven, before the images of the birth scene are actually shown. Already, the contrasts between life and death becomes clear, a contrast that stays in focus throughout the film, questioning life and death in a postcolonial and poverty-stricken nation.

A group of young boys walk barefoot from the beach to a villa that might be a boarding school, owned by a French matriarch (Catherine Samie) and her daughter (Sylvie Testud). This house, in all of its isolation from the Haiti that has already been represented (these scenes were actually shot in France) seems like a no-place, where everything can and will be negotiated, and where the roles of the people in the house intertwine and boundaries blur, as the relationships between the two white women and the two black men that live and work in the villa become extremely ambiguous and problematic as the men’s roles interchange between being the lover/ nurse/ servant/, however all the time clearly serving the women’s wants and needs.

As the boys arrive at the villa, the daughter in the house, or Madame as she calls herself, sits with them around a table and expresses her regrets for not having anything to serve them, knowing they are all hungry. Looking at the empty plates distributed on the table in front of them, a most bizarre and beautiful scene starts, as the boys chant “Merci,” encouraged by Madame. Next, as Madame has left the room, a big layer cake placed on the middle of the table dominates the picture. One by one, the perplexed boys dig into the cake and starts eating it, more or more ferociously, until a cake fight breaks out. Ironically, the food that just a second ago was missing, now exists in excess, and while the first situation was responded to with humbleness, the response to the latter develops into nonchalance and total carelessness.

With the almost complete absence of dialogue, and the clashing of aural and optical situations in a series of shorter vignettes that Eat, for This Is My Body is composed of, the film represents a very interesting commentary on post-colonialism and poverty, and Michelange Quay has introduced himself as a fundamentally serious and creative director, in his original way of approaching and tackling a very difficult subject-matter through a highly innovative and humorous style.

by Maria Fosheim Lund

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Friday, May 23, 2008

An Impossible Truth

It may never be made clear how loneliness leads people to become celebrity impersonators who want to live in a commune together in some sort of bizarrely euphoric harmony, but it is this set of circumstances that triggers director Harmony Korine’s new film Mister Lonely. It may also never be made clear why these specific celebrities are the ones that become the focus of the film (if it can be called focused) or what sky diving nuns have much to do with anything, other than creating an outlet for Werner Herzog to emerge as an actor. Korine is admittedly a director drawn purely to images, most commonly images of outcasts, as a Q&A session with the man made clear. Say what you will about the supreme lack of empathy for the suffering of characters, illustrated in his horrific debut feature Gummo (1997) and (for better or worse) the placement of style far ahead of narrative substance, made evident in his provocative entry to the Dogme 95 movement Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), Korine’s cinema of images is in no way perfect and, at least in my mind, clearly still developing, yet each film manages to create some profound images out of seemingly very little. If Mister Lonely is seen as somewhat more commercial than his previous work, it may only be because of star actors (aka- better performances) and a flimsy, while still vital, basis in melodrama. By no means a revelation or utter failure (the two categories critics generally place Korine’s work within) Mister Lonely is an interesting work which fails more than it succeeds, but is very much worth seeing for the way it reflects the mindset of people on the fringe of society and a director who is practically asserting himself, within the film community, much in the same way.

Much in the same way as Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely works on a scene by scene basis, despite being more invested in its spare narrative. The central celebrity to the film is Michael Jackson (Diego Luna). Though each of the people in the film are merely celebrity impersonators, they do all they can to be the celebrity. Michael is Michael from the time he wakes up in the morning until he goes to bed. The same goes for each of the celebrities Michael encounters when he befriends Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) while performing at a nursing home and is convinced to come and live on a celebrity-impersonator commune in the Scottish Highlands. While some of the celebrities are maintained by overstated gimmicks that limit their growth as characters, Michael and Marilyn open up the understanding that each impersonator is, in fact, a real person aside from the celebrity they represent. There is a beautiful scene when Michael is leaving his apartment and bidding farewell to the space that meant so much to him. This could quickly turn into a terribly comedic moment, allowing us to laugh at Michael for being so “out there”, but the scene is handled with restraint and a delicate grace that shows some real maturity in Korine’s direction. Combine that with some beautiful images of Michael on a clown bike with a toy companion flowing behind and nuns skydiving on a bike without a parachute and there is a strong dialogic link between the characters and images. If Korine can manage to keep this sort of restrained balance throughout the course of an entire film, it will be a terrific achievement.

However, while Mister Lonely is primed to be a meditation on personas and performance in the gossip culture of the 21st century, for the bulk of the film that seemingly major factor is of no particular interest. Rather, the film focuses on antics and events that happen on the commune or with the nuns which, while it may help in signaling the shifting moods of the film, fails to keep Mister Lonely afloat. With very little sense of pace and an oftentimes unempathetic camera, Mister Lonely drags when the free-wheeling attitude of the film collides with some supremely problematic and depressing moments. The multiple scenes of Charlie Chaplin attempting to violently dominate Marilyn Monroe may be uncomfortable, but it would be a venture to call them “successful.” Aside from that, when the impersonators put on a theatrical show for a very small amount of visitors, we are allowed to view the characters as a sideshow attraction which is detrimental in finding a real connection with any characters that will grant the film its melodramatic jump after the show.

Being a sideshow may be a part of the media circus, and certainly people call Michael Jackson a sideshow or freakshow (take your pick). Mister Lonely allows humor to be found in the impersonator’s antics, which is understandable, but when it begins to look down upon the people it is attempting to identify with, the lack of caring highlights the film’s self-absorption and overwhelms any kind of beautiful restraint that was seen in previous scenes. The ending of the narrative takes the right steps in creating some sort of message on discovery of the self and our relationships with “the Real.” This smart, psychoanalytic turn is where Mister Lonely needs to end up, and in that way it is a success, but Korine’s inability to establish a tonal cohesion makes it a confounding viewing experience. There is so much success and failure varying from scene to scene that its hard to discuss where Mister Lonely ends up.

I certainly have no answers and neither does the film (or Korine, for that matter.) But then again, maybe that is what makes Mister Lonely a wonderful conundrum of a film. Just when it seems like new heights of maturity are being reached, “Mister Lonely” moves right back into arrogantly laughing above its subject who are wallowing in misery, a characteristic that haunts Gummo. At the same time, its terrific scenes and wonderful moments, disparate from “the plot” or not, keep the film supremely watchable and, at times, downright enlightening. In its mildly hysterical, viciously cynical conclusion, Mister Lonely scans the world for some kind of frustrating truth that is impossible to fine. Just when things finally seem right and grandeur is within reach, they all turn out wrong. There is not a better summary of Mister Lonely than that.

by James Hansen

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Overlooked DVD: "Flowers of Shanghai" (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1998)

***Sorry about the delay on this post! I have been traveling and was away from computers for a couple days. We'll get back on track with posting these on time next week!***

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg 1925-2008

News broke today that artist Robert Rauschenberg died last night at the age of 82. Rauschenberg's influence on the modern art community is wide ranging and his work incredibly essential. Above is a picture of Rauschenberg's Bed (1955), one of my favorite works of his that I had the privilege of seeing at MoMA last last year. Rauschenberg got his wish to die peacefully in his own bed, so this installation of at what time was his actual bed seems oddly appropriate today. RIP, Bob.

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Sponsored By Digitized Capitalism

While educating his younger brother, Speed, about the pseudo-spiritual relationship between car and driver, Rex Racer (Scott Porter) drops the line, “The car is a living, breathing thing.” This blended approach to mechanization and organic existence presents a useful ideological foundation for untangling the aesthetics and politics of Speed Racer, the Wachowski Brothers’ most recent exploration of their favorite topic: the dynamic between man and machine. A stylistically bold film, Speed Racer displays a world in which even emotions are computerized (in the romantic scenes, watch the lights morph into little hearts), in which all people are digitally-enhanced, but in which the mechanized individual must still struggle against the even more constricting clockwork of corporatism. In a globalized landscape of shiny plastic, Speed (Emile Hirsch) battles for the rights of the rugged all-American individual, decked out in 1950s retro-futurism and carrying a chip on his shoulder for the lost family-oriented, grassroots ideal. More than just a racer, Speed is a Bull Moose capitalist.

Admittedly, Speed Racer’s plot does contain some divots, but these sometimes not-so-minor flub ups are essentially insignificant. Concentrating on technical flaws in a film about generalized mythologies and broad thematic strokes is a fruitless endeavor. Speed, a terrible student and excellent daydreamer, learns to race from his brother. His dad, Pops (John Goodman), owns an independent racing company. Speed’s mother, Mom (Susan Sarandon) is caring and perfect, and blah, blah blah. For those who didn’t catch that, his parents don’t even have real names. Can it get more archetypal? His brother dies, possibly trying to take down the pesky racing-industrial complex. Speed fills his shoes, becoming a prodigy. Courted by Royalton (Roger Allam), a corporate mega-badass, to race for his company, Speed must make the decision to grow cynical and give into the system, or fight for family, pride, and fair-dealing individualism. Guess which one he chooses.

Keeping with its origins as a Japanese anime program (called Mach GoGoGo and later adapted for US audiences), Speed Racer exudes a distinctly presentational style that combines elements of numerous genres (slapstick, action, martial arts, political-ish thriller, animation) and eschews any pretensions to emotional or narrative “realism.” Speed’s brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his chimp, the aptly named Chim Chim, provide ridiculous comic relief throughout the film (as if it needed it) and Christina Ricci adds to the film’s superficial ethos as Speed’s foxy and spunky love interest, Trixie, diversifying (or derailing, as some might say) the film’s tone. One of the most befuddling criticisms that I’ve consistently found regarding the film typically attacks it for basically being a light, sparkly mess. However, I don’t think Speed Racer ever truly aspires to be more than a big blob of bubblegum, nor do I think it ever could be, without eliminating its very essence. Everyone seems to be forgetting just how delicious bubblegum is, especially when you’re not expecting steak. Speed Racer is certainly an exercise in whiz-bangery, but it’s an exercise I haven’t seen before and it’s an exercise that actually creates a world in which such an approach is valid.

Essential to the world of Speed Racer is its brave interpretation of cinematic space and time. Consistently throughout the film, the digitally-enhanced editing of Roger Barton and Zach Staenberg violates preconceptions about staging, camera motion, and narrative structure. Repeatedly, flying head zoom through the frame, overlapping with others, unattached, freely navigating the physics of the screen. This creates a unique aesthetic that ratchets Bergman’s spacing in Persona (1966) to even more surreal heights, particularly during a scene in which Royalton connives with Mr. Musha (Hiroyuki Sanada) to screw over Speed and Racer X (Matthew Fox), a mysterious masked figure who works for the CIB (Corporate Investigation Bureau?). This same kinetic use of heads and dismembered parts defines the racing sequences, in which the faces of announcers punctuate the scenes with a strange visual uniqueness, opening up unexplored spatial dimensions.

Additionally, the film breaks the sacred 180º rule multiple numerous times with its rapid 360º editing, including the dialogue between Speed and Royalton in which Royalton explains the corporate hand that guides the results of the Grand Prix: the biggest race of them all. Incessant zooms and whip-pans further complicate the spatial design of Speed Racer, depicting space as malleable and shortened, tapping into the flashy bombast of the film’s outlandish source material and recreating the visual compaction of comic book frames. Temporally, persistent flashbacks and flash-forwards confuse and stretch the simplistic plot into an arc that, while not always effective, is surely experimental by Hollywood blockbuster standards. Stylistically, the Wachowskis deserve an A for effort.

All of the film’s experimentation is made possible by its extensive use of CGI, which, when mixed with live-action elements, forms an aesthetic scheme that echoes the film’s admittedly half-baked thematic concerns. Where does life end and technology begin? Should people strive for mechanized accuracy? Is there room for the strong individual in the calculated determinism of systematized, mechanized corporate control? The film answers these questions with a romantic idealization of triumphant conservatism that seems to take a page out of the books of Ayn Rand or the political philosophies of Teddy Roosevelt. Contrary to the claims of “Neo-Leftism” hurled at the film by some critics, Speed Racer proposes a value system that, while being anti-corporate, speaks nothing of collectivism or equality. Speed is the amazing savior of the film, a powerful, exceptional individual fighting for his family, his pride, and his livelihood. He harps on the importance of fairness (the film’s final frame features the phrase “cheaters never prosper”), but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Speed is an unashamed competitor. He is the capitalist ideal of up-front competition, stating at one point, “You’ve gotta win if you want to keep driving.” These political values, however, are far from unusual by Hollywood standards, where morally-sound capitalists abound in surprising numbers. Speed’s views are almost a return to the default archetype of heroism, which is somewhat refreshing at this point.

Miraculously changing the game with his ethos of hard work, individualism, and family, Speed’s actions prompt the phrase, “It’s a whole new world,” from a populace inspired by his zeitgeist-influenced return to traditional capitalist values. It’s telling that his pre-race snack is a homemade PB&J rather than the decadent, elitist champagne of his evil corporate counterparts. The loss of the transcendental power of live action in Speed Racer’s visual approach is almost fitting, considering Speed’s politics, which view the film’s corporate environment as soulless and false. If anything, the film, like Speed, attempts to remind us that people are living, breathing things, even if their surroundings are slick, shiny, plastic and over-determined. But damn, those cars do look pretty cool, especially when they do flips.

by Brandon Colvin
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Overlooked DVD #1: "Blood Tea and Red String"

Here's a new, and more simple, series from Out 1. Every Tuesday, one of us will present a film that is, more or less, widely available on DVD that we think is overlooked and worth checking out. There won't be a review or anything (unless you all really want them.) But this is another good way for us to recommend some lesser known films that we really like and that, hopefully, you will too.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

How Does This Exist?

I promise more posts to be on there way! Term papers have been taking up the bulk of my time these last couple weeks, which has limited posting. However, this is the last week for papers so expect a lot of posts in the coming weeks! Thanks for your patience and please keep coming back!

In the meantime, sometimes you see trailers that just make you wonder "How does this exist?" This is one of those trailers...

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Friday, May 2, 2008

This Pie Is Stale

Stale as week old pie, Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights lacks all the luster expected from the top notch director. His first film set in the United States (and in the English language), Wong sets out to make a Wong-style American romance road movie. While the intentions may be good and the film’s heart is certainly in the right place, nothing comes across effectively. From the awkward pauses in dialogue to distractingly tangential segments, My Blueberry Nights and its many elements never add up.

Having just broke up with her boyfriend, Elizabeth (Norah Jones) meets Jeremy (Jude Law) who runs a homy diner in New York City. Here starts the in your face metaphors that pound their way through My Blueberry Nights. Jeremy keeps keys that patrons leave in the diner so that the doors always have a chance to be reopened. He offers Elizabeth a piece a blueberry pie, the most neglected pie in the diner. It is not that the pie is no good. It is just that it’s not what most people would want. On we go through fragmented sections of these regular visits between Elizabeth and Jeremy. Love curdles from the start, but something in Elizabeth is not quite ready so she hits the road.

Soon enough, Elizabeth (calling herself Lizzy) is waitressing in Memphis, where she observes Arnie (David Straitharn) drinking away the sorrows of his life, mostly because of his separation from his wife, Sue (Rachel Weisz). Later, Elizabeth (calling herself Beth) meets Leslie (Natalie Portman) in a casino. Leslie calls herself a great gambler, although from the bits we get to see, she is not quite what she says she is. These two stories take up the bulk of the film, while Elizabeth keeps writing to Jeremy in New York. I suppose somewhere in here she learns life lessons that attract her to Jeremy and ultimately lead her back to New York, but I never found these elements very evident. With each location, Elizabeth is attempting to redefine herself as a new person who is taking steps forward. However, these life lessons, so cliche among road films, are never made clear. Rather, the stories seem unnecessary tangents in the pie-crossed relationship of Jeremy and Elizabeth.

Aside from a strong performance by Portman, who seems to be the only performer in the film who works with Wong’s style, the rest of the cast seems out of place. Jones has a face that Wong adores, but whatever else he saw in her doesn’t translate. Straitharn and Weisz seem one-note and their story does little to move Elizabeth’s story; it seems more like a sidebar that leads to nothing. Law’s dreamlike bakery fits his attitude, but the overly dialogue driven script comes across as inauthentic. The script, coming from Wong and Lawrence Bender, is the big pitfall here. As much as the other elements of the film don’t add up, most of it is rooted in a dialogue driven, awkwardly delivered yet. Worse yet, the technically dazzling cinematography from Darius Khondji overwhelms the shallowness of the characters and seems out of place in this rather tame, poorly delivered film.

A disappointment from start to finish, if My Blueberry Nights is what gets the America-bug out of Wong’s system then maybe it can be seen as some bit of success, if only in propelling Wong back to where he is more comfortable. In a week where Wong’s first feature As Tears Go By gets its US theatrical premiere, My Blueberry Nights continues to play and show where Wong is now. Let’s all hope he takes a step back before taking another failed leap forward.

by James Hansen
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