Monday, June 30, 2008

Reviews In Brief: "The Edge of Heaven" (Fatih Akin, 2008)

It is a rare occurrence for me to leave a movie theater and to immediately be ecstatically ready to return to the same film for a second viewing. This, however, is exactly the case for Fatih Akin’s latest film The Edge of Heaven. Methodically deliberate for every second of its draining 122 minutes, The Edge of Heaven refuses to rush its multi-layered, cross cultural narrative, which all builds to a contemplative final moment of rapturous beauty. Its subdued atmosphere and patient tone, similar to that of Akin's earlier feature Head-On (2005) is surprising for a film that sounds so elaborate, far reaching, and ambitious (as that has seemingly become a negative aspect) yet it is precisely this balance that makes The Edge of Heaven so powerfully effective.

Led by an array of rock solid performances, crisp direction, and an ingenious screenplay (which won the Best Screenplay award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival), Akin and his colleagues have crafted an subtly intense experience reflecting the difficult relationship between Turkey and Germany. Yet The Edge of Heaven reaches beyond this culturally specific target and has mass appeal to any individual or group that is waiting for their ship to come in. Without a doubt, The Edge of Heaven is one of the best film you will see this year.

by James Hansen

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Classics... in the making

While I continue working on my review of the glorious Edge of Heaven (is that enough a review for now? If it is in your town, GO SEE IT!), I thought that this recent article in Jim Emerson's Scanners was well worth a look. We continue to talk about lists and what is "the best" or "a classic" and this ponders that a little further. If anyone is up for further discussion, let's get something going in those comments!

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the Week: "Partner" (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1968)

Partner is Bertolucci at his most playful, yet the film is just as formally stringent and manneristic as any of his most popular and works. I have mixed feelings about most of Bertolucci’s films, but Partner, for me, is one of his best, and least seen, works. Clearly inspired by the French New Wave, “Partner” seems overwhelmingly Godardian and is certainly a far cry from his earlier works, such as La Commare Secca or Before The Revolution. Based on a story by Dostoyevsky, Partner spirals into anarchy as a created identity deconstructs the life of Giaccobe, a drama teacher. Any New Wave fans will find clear parallels in Partner and Brecht should weigh heavily in any kind of close analysis, especially considering its release year (1968) and the events that were going on in Europe at the time. Whether Partner achieves what it sets out to do is debatable (I took a Bertolucci class as an undergraduate and most of the class thought it failed), but it is a wild film that everybody should experience.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

"Friday the 13th" Poll Results

Thanks all for voting in the Friday the 13th poll. Hopefully we keep getting more voters in all of these polls. There was quite a split in this one, which is pretty interesting. I guess the series is a love it or hate it/wanted to see it or didn't care to see it kind of thing. Thanks again for voting!


None- 6 (27%)

1-2- 3 (13%)

3-4- 2 (9%)

5-6- 4 (18%)

9-10- 1 (4%)

All of them!!!- 6 (27%)
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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Short Films You Must See: "More" (Mark Osborne, 1998)

An early short from the director of Kung Fu Panda. I haven't seen Kung Fu Panda yet, but if it is anything like this film then it is enormously worth seeing.

Due to embedding requests, the film cannot be placed within this post, but if you follow the link the entire film is available. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Invisible Monsters

A couple of months ago, word started getting around about Martijn Hendriks’ project Give Us Today Our Daily Terror; a project which removed all of the the birds from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. There may be plenty of cynics in regard to Hendriks’ project, but if there will ever be a modern film that is some sort of equivalent Hendriks’ experimentation, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is it. I don’t know anyone who is calling Shyamalan’s newest (and best) film experimental, yet its attempts to create a monster movie without a physical monster is as conceptual a concept as you will ever find in a Hollywood film. This drastic change from the Shyamalan norm comes as a welcome surprise, considering the utter debacle that was Lady in the Water. While most people continue to treat Shyamalan as a critical punching bag (admittedly, I have not been a fan of of any of his work since the mild accomplishments in the first half of Unbreakable) The Happening works to shift expectations and create a new mode of address that can lead to a form of success, not just for Shyamalan but for the human species as well. The Happening is completely bizarre, smart, and shockingly enjoyable from start to finish.

One of the main objections to The Happening has been its “awful” script and laughable dialogue. While I don’t find much of a debate on whether or not the comedy is purposeful (however if you want to debate that feel free), the better question to ask may be why this approach was taken. Although I am no auteurist, after the deadly (hysterical) seriousness of Lady in the Water and the backlash that created, Shyamalan clearly needed to go for a different effect and it is important to think about The Happening in that context. Led by the strong performance by Mark Wahlberg as Elliot Moore, a witty high school science teacher, The Happening uses character tropes to create comedy in the midst of chaos. Each problem that Elliot encounters, whether inside or outside of school, is solved as a scientific puzzle. When mass suicides begin in New York City near Central Park, the location becomes the key to Elliot in unlocking this scientific mystery. Meanwhile, his starry-eyed wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) dodges questions about a man named Joey, while Julian (John Leguizamo), a math teacher, confronts his problems with statistics and math riddles. Math gives Julian hope that his wife may not be affected by whatever is causing the suicides, whether it be terrorists or the environment itself.

These one-note characteristics are the kind of quirkiness that The Happening becomes invested in and helps the film not be overbearingly depressing. After seeing Suicide Club (2002), it should be fairly evident that mass suicides are not typically material for comedic fodder. The Happening, however, finds a comedic charm that builds suspense and carries the film through long sections where very little happens. Some goofy secondary characters, obsessed with hot dogs and lemon drinks, continue to control a bizarre atmosphere that can quickly transition from one mood to the next, or to be both at the same time. Its comedy, rooted in the markedly stilted dialogue, may make The Happening seem laughably bad but, in helping to subvert expectations, the dialogue is a major factor in creating the film’s strange aesthetic which is the key to its enjoyment and success.

Part of what makes The Happening so fascinating is its willingness to be completely aimless in a genre that is driven by the question “what will happen next.” The Happening removes the word next in this question, leaving the audience on a frustrating path to nowhere. Elliot, Alma, and other survivors move from town to town wondering if the disease will hit them. They work to comprehend how and why the attacks happen, although very little is understood. Just when it seems like Elliot has begun to figure something out, the storm of death stop as quickly as they started. Incorporating news footage and analysis of the carnage makes clear the parallels between the events and global warming, where nature is seeking revenge on those who have abused it, yet any sort of Big Question remains unasked, much less unanswered. In a genre so reliant on posing and answering questions for plot progression, The Happening continually defies these modes of address and simply lets its events happen. Although some sort of answer is unearthed and a cornball conclusion ties up events for Elliot and Alma, The Happening again makes a shift to the horror genre in its final moments. While this decision may get some chuckles for being typically mundane, the scene reaffirms the message and reconnects Shyamalan, at last, to a set of expectations. The Happening shows that these expectations can be toyed with, but never completely overcome.

The Happening is being met with some of the harshest criticism Shyamalan has ever received. Only Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review mentions the difficult position Shyamalan has place himself in as a “would-be auteur”, deeming the film “marked for failure even before it had a chance to fail- or succeed.” As off-kilter and strange as every element of the The Happening is, each step is taken to match the cynicism of a public that feeds on publicized failure. The purposeful comedy in The Happening is as assured as its quiet thrills and deliberately unsubtle message. Shyamalan’s previous works may have him set up for disaster (just as The Happening contends the people’s relationship with our planet has lent itself to the same result); however, in establishing a new mode of monster movie without the expected Shyamalan aesthetic (which may be leading to its mostly disastrous reviews), The Happening stands out as a bold success in both style and substance. Only by drastically playing with, changing, and challenging preconceived expectations, The Happening has taken a seemingly disastrous project (a monster movie without a physical monster) marked it for success.

by James Hansen

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Overlooked DVD of the Week: "A Cottage On Dartmoor" (Anthony Asquith, 1929)

This is a darkly fascinating British silent film that appeared on DVD for the first time last year and has yet to receive the press and discussion it deserves, at least in the general public. Its restoration premiered at Cannes in 2005 and moved onto several other festivals, including the Telluride Film Festival where I was lucky to see it with live orchestration. I haven’t seen the film since then, but its unique images and sharp storytelling has stuck with me ever since. Director Anthony Asquith would go on to direct Pygmalion (1938) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), both available on DVD through Criterion, but neither of those good films approach the flare and brains shown in A Cottage On Dartmoor. Visually reflective of German Expressionism with a more classical narrative, A Cottage On Dartmoor came out near the end of “The Silent Era” and highlights many techniques that would become prominent in sound film. More than just an important film, A Cottage On Dartmoor is a remarkable silent thriller; it may be a recent rediscovery, but it is a must see.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

My Winnipeg Home Companion

Guy Maddin may well be the reincarnation of Sergei Eisenstein. The Canadian director’s latest film, My Winnipeg, reaffirms that he is the heir apparent to the throne of montage mastery. With the aid of seemingly erratic juxtaposition, rapid-paced editing, and photography reminiscent of silent films, Maddin transports his viewers back to the cinematic days of yore. He kicks it old school. With My Winnipeg, Maddin set out to make a travelogue of the town that bore him. It would be called an “ode” if the film didn’t seem like an extended lamentation about the state of Winnipeg and the events which transpired in the town’s (and Maddin’s) history. But of course, a filmic lamentation can be just as enjoyable to a viewer as a filmic revelry.

My Winnipeg doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense of the word. If a plot must be culled from what is shown, then the film is about a man named Guy Maddin on a train who is trying to escape Winnipeg. Guy is tired and slips into and out of consciousness as the train presses onward. The voiceover claims that all Winnipeggers are sleepwalkers, so it’s only appropriate that one of their fold attempting to escape should be battling sleep. While sleep attempts to overcome him, he thinks back to events which took place in his childhood and also to events in the history of the city. The stories cover a wide spectrum and are loosely connected in the mind of the dreamer. Boyhood memories lead to dwelling upon events such as the class riot of 1919, a taxicab feud, the construction of a superfluous hockey rink, and the destruction of the Happy Land amusement park which then became the building materials of the shanty town atop the roofs of downtown skyscrapers. Other highlights include a group of horses that somehow end up in a pond and become frozen, their heads jutting out of the snow. This particular spot then inexplicably becomes a romantic locale for the city. Frozen horse heads begat romance begat a baby boom (Winnipeg winters are, after all, the “bareback time”). But all other stories are trumped by “If Day,” when the local Rotarians stormed the town dressed as Nazis to illustrate what might happen if the citizenry didn’t buy war bonds. Associated images lead viewers to believe that Rotarian Nazis frisked nuns and then required the nuns to frisk them back.

While the film is a combination of stories from the history of Winnipeg, another aspect of it leads to questions of legitimacy on the part of Maddin. As in Brand Upon the Brain!, a main character shares the same moniker as the man at the film’s helm. Guy Maddin inserts Guy Maddin, the character, into the film skewing the real and the unreal. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his parents’ wedding, Maddin (now the director himself) subleases his boyhood home and hires actors to play the roles of his family members—except for his mother whom he says is played by herself (in actuality the matriarch is played by Ann Savage). Sporadically throughout the film, these actors re-hash alleged scenes from Maddin’s past in a rather melodramatic fashion. Also interspersed into My Winnipeg is footage of present-day Winnipeg which features Maddin, this time playing the part of documentarian. On top of this, Maddin also provides the voiceover narration for much of the film. While this may seem to be the pinnacle of narcissism, it’s allowable considering how intertwined Maddin considers himself and Winnipeg to be.

Maddin’s oedipal complex is also in full gear for this film. The town’s forked rivers are juxtaposed with the forked parts of Maddin’s mother (as the voiceover states, “Everything’s a euphemism…”). A young Guy is also shown spooning with his mother in the snow. To the uninitiated these images might be somewhat disturbing, but after Brand Upon the Brain!, this sort of maternal fixation should come as no surprise to regular viewers of Maddin’s oeuvre. Stylistically, My Winnipeg finds Maddin in comfortable territory. He continues to employ the use of rapid-fire editing and intertitles which gives his films that dated, wistful feeling. The characteristic Maddin “kookiness” is also intact. What other director would turn a séance into a ballet sequence? (Well, maybe Lynch in one of his friskier moments, but few others would even consider it.)

While My Winnipeg affords Maddin the opportunity to wax nostalgic, it allows us non-Winnipeggers the opportunity to learn the crazy history of “the heart of the heart” of Canada. With the aid of man pageants, a school of ultra-vixens, Citizen Girl (the superhero that Maddin hopes will restore Winnipeg to its former glory), maternal accusations of daughterly indecency, and homoerotic shower scenes, we stroll with Maddin through his own past and the past of his city. His home. His Winnipeg.

by Jacob Shoaf

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Falling Slowly

If ever there was a film whose narrative seemingly exists only to showcase an orgy of fantastical imagery, The Fall may very well be it. Director Tarsem (The Cell) spent the course of four years shooting in 28 countries and his own money to create The Fall yet the extreme self-indulgence highlights the qualities of “movie magic” from the inception of the industry. Despite stagnant pacing and a first hour that leaves a lot to be desired, The Fall hits a stride in the final act (although some one-pitch performances in an important, yet emotionally overwrought scene threatens to tear it apart) which concludes with a stirring montage that works not only to justify the film’s extreme excesses but also defines why people continue to fall in love with the movies.

Following the story of a paralyzed silent movie stunt man, Roy (Lee Pace), and his relationship with a 4-year-old girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who has broken her arm, the bulk of The Fall is the ongoing fantastical story that Roy tells to Alexandria. Though the storyteller is Roy, the images come from the imagination of Alexandria where some clever storytelling anachronisms help bring alive the world that Roy and Alexandria create. Roy’s storytelling has other motives that Alexandria fails to see the danger in, as she is continually sheltered by her childlike fantasies. Turning into an over the top adventure story, full of labyrinths, a Blue City, and huge landscapes, Roy and Alexandria may be telling a rather normal adventure story, but Alexandria’s imagination, captured through the lens of cinematographer Colin Watkinson, is what makes the film so alive in its flatest sections. Of course, the fantasies begin falling apart and the story becomes much less fun when reality breaks through the barrier of fiction.

Ripe for comparisons with the more fully realized Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fall is very much invested in childlike representations of harsher realities that fail to be understood. Roy and, eventually, Alexandria attempt to create an artifice to hide their faults within, and use this fantasy to keep themselves alive in dire situations. Alexandria clings to Roy and his story, falling into his manipulative trap. Roy, struggling with the departure of his girlfriend, has nowhere to go but down. Even though he is in a hospital, it is Alexandria who is most interested in pulling him up, albeit through trusting in every word he says.

The barrier between fact and fiction, arguably beginning with the most accomplished works of Werner Herzog, seems to be becoming a cliche in many films today, yet the playful inventions used to incorporate it within The Fall keep it from a negative categorization. Even at its most cheesy and flat out boring sections, The Fall keeps its stamina by relying heavily on its oftentimes incredible imagery, none of which is computer generated. That alone makes The Fall a remarkable accomplishment and, despite its many faults, worth seeing in the largest cinema possible. Its insistence on using a more “pure” form of cinema, avoiding the pitfalls of computers, makes its final sequence even more spectacular and surprisingly touching. The Fall is far from a silent film, but its intentions and reliance on images are markedly similar and will surely make any “film geek” nerd out in seeing the simple beauty in the final montage.

Early on in The Fall, it is easy to give up on it for its seeming lack of direction, paper-thin mentality, and stale acting from its leading male. In all honesty, I had given up on the film but continued to watch and found myself, very slowly, coming to terms with its methods and then melting over its final sequence. Jean Luc Godard said, “There is no point in having sharp images when you’ve fuzzy ideas.” The ideas in The Fall take a long while to come into focus; maybe too long for many viewers. However, when the ideas and images finally mesh, The Fall is a bit of mixed magic.

by James Hansen

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Rightfully Wronged

With the right amount of sleaze and dark humor with a stinging, oftentimes brutal, social commentary as an underbite, Stuck plays like a piece of tabloid journalism taken to the extreme. Director Stuart Gordon, of Re-Animator (1985) cult fame, has crafted a nasty little thriller executed with ferocious tenacity. Based on an actual event in which a nurse, Brandi (Mena Suvari), hits a man, Tom (Stephen Rea), with her car, Stuck takes its name from the strangest element of the accident: Tom’s head is lodged into the car windshield. Instead of seeking help, Brandi left him trapped in the windshield for two days until he died. This rather depressing true story is not the one that Gordon and screenwriter John Strysik are interested in telling. Rather, Stuck takes the concept of the event and plays it out so the morally inept characters receive a different, fittingly violent conclusion for their one-sided view of humanity.

All of this makes Stuck a fitting follow-up to Gordon’s little seen (and underappreciated) Edmond (2005), based on the play by Gordon's friend and colleague David Mamet. Where Edmond focuses on the nature of the beast creating beasts of nature, Stuck inhabits a world where the beasts are more singular and have little excuse for becoming the beasts they are. Brandi works at an assisted living home where she is seen early on cleaning up a resident who constantly defecates the bed. Brandi has no complaints about the man or the situation she is in. This may very well be because her boss informs her that there is a promotion with Brandi’s name all over it. This does, however, require Brandi to put in some extra effort. Although she has plans to party on Friday night, she is asked, and pleasantly accepts, to pick up a shift on Saturday. Meanwhile, Tom is kicked out of his apartment, shows up late for an appointment to place him in a job, and is forced to wander the streets to find a place to stay. Soon enough, Brandi is at a party taking ecstasy from her boyfriend Rashid and carelessly driving home to meet him, while Tom is found sleeping in a park and is kicked out by the cops. As Tom wanders across a blinking “don’t walk” sign, Brandi is on her cell phone and plows directly into him.

Although she briefly considers dropping Tom at a hospital, Brandi gets scared and drives home to meet Rashid (Russell Hornsby). She parks her car in the garage while Tom pleads to her for help. Brandi continually tells him that help is on the way, but quickly goes inside and has some crazy sex with Rashid. Amidst hearing the groans of sexual pleasure, Tom quickly realizes that no one is coming to save him. It is from this point that Brandi loses all sense of logic and becomes obsessed with finding a way to get rid of Tom, rather than trying to think of any way to help. Her moral sense of decency is demolished and it is for this reason that Stuck wants to punish her further, instead of having Tom die, Brandi being found out and heading to a trial where she would be placed in prison (the real-life Brandi received a 50 year sentence.) Tom keeps on living on attempts to escape from the car and the garage. Brandi refuses to let him go, although she is constantly reliant on Rashid to “take care of him”, something he claims to have done thousands of times.

Not enough can be said for the finely tuned, incredibly focused performances by Rea and Suvari. Despite the relative simplicity of the situation (Rea spends almost the entire film sitting in the garage) there is an amount of depth in both performances that creates an angst against the choices that Brandi makes and illustrates the humanism that defines Tom. He clutches to a picture of his son and accepts the gift of a cart from a homeless man in the park. Brandi begins just as Tom does, but it is how they react in extreme situations that makes clear who these people are and gives the script leverage to extend itself in the extreme ways that it does.

Even though Tom becomes more vicious and desperate throughout the course of Stuck, in the final act he refuses to stoop to the same lows as Brandi. Without giving away the shockingly pitch black fun of the plot details in the wonderfully melodramatic conclusion, it may go without saying that Brandi’s lack of decency leads to a relentlessness that is her ultimate undoing, both in the real life and film versions of this story. Stuck may be rewriting the history of this news story and turning it into a tabloid-like B-movie, but the method works in making the message markedly clear. Fear may make Brandi act in strange ways, but it also is not an excuse for complete disregard of human life and refusing to take responsibility for the things she has done. In the final scene when Tom cries to Brandi “What is wrong with you?” the answer has become complicatedly simple: everything.

by James Hansen

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Short Films You Must See: "At The Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World" (David Cronenberg, 2007)

This film was linked to a couple days ago on GreenCine Daily, but with the small amount of views on YouTube I felt like it was a worth addition to our ongoing Short Films You Must See series. Below is the film and here is a link to an article written by Stuart Klawans on the film.

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