Monday, December 29, 2008

Forgotten VHS: "Memories of Underdevelopment" (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968)

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.)
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Friday, December 26, 2008

One Question, For All the Mumbai Marbles

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.
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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ho Ho Hoes

Goldberg wishes you some jolly Christmas jeer.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Short Films You Must See: "Une Catastrophe" (Jean Luc Godard, 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!

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Preserving the Delta's Voice in 'Ballast'

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
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Monday, December 8, 2008

Upcoming Revamp and Reviews

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.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Official "Che" Trailer

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.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Only The Cinema Hawks Blog-A-Thon Announcement

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)
Scarface (1932)
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)

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