Friday, February 27, 2009

DVD of the Week: "Tokyo-Ga" (Wim Wenders, 1985)

by Brandon Colvin

It’s easy to overlook a DVD when it doesn’t even have its own stand-alone release. German auteur Wim Wenders’ remarkable 1985 documentary Tokyo-Ga – a tribute to minimalist Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu can only be viewed via Criterion’s two-disc special edition of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and The Wim Wender’s Collection, Vol. 2 (if you’re willing to track it down for a reasonable price). Reflective of Ozu’s meditative stylistic techniques, Wenders’ film is relaxed, playful, and subtly emotional – a fitting examination of Ozu’s home-base, as well as his works’ significance to and impact on international cinematic culture.

More than anything, Wenders’ film plays out like a travelogue of a very personal artistic pilgrimage, in this case, to Ozu’s Tokyo. A potentially excellent double-bill counterpart to Chris Marker’s (who makes a brief appearance in the film) contemporaneous Japan-centric experimental fiction/documentary hybrid, Sans Soleil (1983), Tokyo-Ga reveals the perspective of a fascinated apprentice, a perspective that includes memorable scenes featuring Wenders’ visit to Ozu’s gravesite, an intriguing encounter with Werner Herzog, and an exploration of the Daiei Studio lots where Ozu crafted his masterpieces, including Tokyo Story (1953), Good Morning (1959), and Floating Weeds (1959). Certainly the most moving and valuable aspects of Wenders’ documentary are the lengthy interviews with longtime Ozu cinematographer and collaborator, Yuuharu Atsuta, and Ozu’s favorite actor, Chishu Ryu, who appeared in over 35 of the director’s 54 films, both of which are essential for any fan of Ozu’s work or any viewer interested in the collaborative relationship between a truly visionary director and his associates. Perhaps the best documentary about cinema I have ever had the pleasure of watching, Wenders’ film deserves at least a spot at the top of your Netflix queue.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Horror Relaunch

by James Hansen

While the 2008 French film Inside proved that new horror movies can still be fresh and seriously frightening, America’s slices of horror continue to take a different path. Although there are certainly exceptions, there have been more revamped horror series in the past few years than ever before with even “classic” works finding recreations for younger audiences who know a different kind of horror. The new Friday the 13th, if nothing else, makes clear that good horror ideas do not age, and rarely need to change. Teens wander into woods. Have sex. Get drunk. Run into [masked] killer. Die in increasingly gruesome ways. Repeat until movie is over and a couple kids have “escaped” only to discover the killer magically reborn in the last instant before the movie smash cuts to black and the credits roll. Spoiler alert? Please.

Thus (surprise surprise) goes the new Friday the 13th. This is not to say the movie is not without value, stylistically well executed, and a bit stirring – all three are apt descriptions. Sure, its stock material where the “good guys” are motivated by tits and ass, and the killer kills indiscriminately for no apparent (read: marginally substantive) reason. But does it really matter? Granted, the movie does not deserve a pass – none do – but how is anyone to fairly view, analyze, and understand modern horror movies in the first place? Acting? Direction? Pure style? Whatever the case, something needs to change, and if the movies are not doing it themselves, then maybe we – viewers, fans, and critics – need to alter our patterns for them.

For Friday the 13th, as well as other horror movies, it is quite possible that it should all go back to the psychoanalytic family. This is, after all, a movie where the killer is avenging his mother, and the hero is saving his sister. While this remains the kind of reasonable analysis that has dominated academic discussions of horror films since Carol Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, it appears that in recent horror franchises (Saw, The Devils Rejects, Hostel) the rooting interest for the viewer has slowly shifted from the would-be innocent teenagers to the villains. As this change occurs, so must the theories we use to write and discuss.

Undoubtedly, the brash tongue-in-cheek attitude of Freddy vs. Jason, Jason X, Leprechaun in Space, Bride of Chucky, etc. has contributed to this greatly. Rather than have terrorizing villains, they have become useless models of comedic death, destruction, and battles. Perhaps it is all to blame on Scream who took the magicians’ hat off, cleaned it out, and explained each trick to the audience. Though the mindless glorification of violence in Friday the 13th and some of the other franchises make these discussions more problematic, the relaunch of classic horror into a new horror environment signals a good place to begin.

Starting at the end of the original Friday the 13th, the new Friday the 13th is immediately less interested in establishing, or, at the very least, putting stock in, the Jason mythology. Mother spouts her anger at a counselor for not watching Jason when he drowned. She is promptly decapitated and the endless death spree begins. With a baffling, and surprisingly effective, opening 20 minutes, Jason is shown to be a ruthless killer, who nonetheless will always wait to see some tits before he spears, beheads, or mutilates his victims. In what is essentially its own Friday the 13th short film, complete with its own cast of one-dimensional characters, the opening is a miniature prelude for everything that is to come and has come before. Odlly enough, the prelude seems more interested in its narrative than the rest of the movie, which makes the actual movie a bit tiring and repetitive. But, when it comes to the stock narrative, how would it not be?

Rather than focus on any kind of mythology or reasoning behind why characters die at the hands of villains, Friday the 13th, and modern horror in general, features narrative that focus on how characters die. Even while morality and humanism are tossed around in the plot (especially in the Saw franchise which, working in complete opposition of itself, clearly labels its morality in order to focus on the how rather than the why), Friday the 13th moves from death to death like a sledgehammer loudly slamming its way through sheet metal. Extended to excruciating lengths, at least in the mind of many viewers and critics who have subsequently dubbed the inane and misguided term “torture porn” for these modern horror movies, death becomes something that is not understood, but rather something that purveys every action of the characters until their long, painful final moments come. Jason, like the creators of new horror franchises, never shies away from making death take a little bit longer, and he, of course, always prefers to have an audience. This new form of entrapment, which Friday the 13th proudly revels in, inculcates a new age nihilism which few viewers willingly accept. At the same time, just as in the narrative of Friday the 13th, it takes a brutalized victim enmeshed within that system to turn the tables and break free.

So...what’s the point? While I have not been attempting to justify, support, or reject the methodology of many modern horror movies, most specifically the relaunched Friday the 13th, I have tried to raise many new issues with analyzing new horror which I think are especially important in this time of horror pastiches run wild. It seems rather unessential and unmotivated to write a generic review of an essentially plotless horror franchise which has no real interest in “good” acting or a “good” story. Instead of focusing on the acting (which is uniformly “bad” even for a horror movie) or direction (which is blunt yet effective) or the success of the scares (of which there are several solid moments), the repetitive nature of the narrative along with a complete totality placed in the ways characters die calls for a different kind of analysis which few critics or academics have yet to approach. Rather than allowing the franchise and form to remain dormant with toss-off accusations and typical criticism, let’s bust out from under that dock to see the complexities in a new kind of scare.
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Saturday, February 14, 2009

All Grime, No Glamour

by Chuck Williamson

While it did not “reinvent the wheel” of contemporary gangster cinema, Brian DePalma’s Scarface nonetheless underlined in thick, bold strokes the genre’s internal frictions and contradictions. Scarface amplified the genre’s basest elements, reimagining its narrative as a sensationalistic, overstuffed, Grand Guignol cartoon that forced audiences to confront, up front and personal, the paradox implicit within all mob movies: the glamorization of the gangster. Because of its lack of nuance and subtlety, DePalma’s film made those once inconspicuous contradictions more explicit. Scarface, like most gangster films, turned its antagonist into an icon of cool, a two-fisted merchant of death with both charisma and cojones—and no amount of anti-crime moralizing could cancel out the intrinsic allure of such a character. For all the bullet wounds and moralizing of its “crime doesn’t pay” third act, the film largely functions as a male adolescent fantasy, a fever dream concoction where decadent materialism is rewarded, macho posturing leads to steamy sex (with nudity!), enemies are mowed down in satisfying spurts of splatter-gore, and men speak in expletive-laced bon mots like, “This town is a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.”

Loaded with both implicit and explicit references to Scarface, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra reappropriates the pop-culture image of gangster cool and makes visible its seams, cracks, and inherent hollowness.

In its most memorable scene, two skinny, anemic-looking teenagers—Marco and Ciro—strip down to their underwear, stroll through a riverbank, and crudely reenact Scarface’s final shoot-out sequence with a pair of stolen semi-automatic weapons. “You sounded just like Tony Montana,” one says to the other, but nothing could be further from the truth. Using Scarface as a “how-to” manual, these two boys may have memorized the film’s macho swagger and f-bomb sloganeering, but their ritual still comes across as a children’s game, a media-constructed façade that fails to mask the authentic image of two vulnerable, naked youths. They are pathetic, juvenile, a pair of children pretending to be big, bad gangsters—and despite their reprehensibility, they remain somewhat sympathetic, as they have bought into the false constructs of Hollywood and will, of course, pay the consequences. While the scene could be described as both self-reflexive and revisionist, it also carries an undercurrent of tragedy, as their inevitable (and bloody) downfall seems designed right from the first pull of a trigger. Based on Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction expose, Gomorra does an excellent job of balancing genre revisionism with fatalistic tragedy, countering and critiquing the slick commercial sheen of Hollywood gangsters while also providing a forceful, visceral cinematic experience.

Set within the seedy, semi-decayed Neapolitan slums, Gomorra tells five interrelated stories that map out the Camorra’s cancer-like proliferation and its far-reaching power. In narratives that intertwine only through their shared milieu—the atrophied streets, corroded slums, and hollowed-out buildings of Naples—Gomorra follows Don Ciro (Gianfelece Imparato), a lower-tier mob courier forced into the middle of a violent feud; Tito (Salvatore Albruzze), a 13-year old delivery boy drawn into the lower rungs of organized crime; Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor who takes a night job training Chinese garment workers how to make couture knock-offs; Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), an ambitious college graduate who gets caught up in an illegal, mob-funded waste management scandal; and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) and Marco (Marco Macor), a pair of boorish, numbskull hoods trying to make a name for themselves amongst high-ranking Camorra.

Rather than linger within the upper echelon of the Camorra’s oligarchic structure, Gomorra fixes its lens on those powerless individuals within the periphery of mob influence—those who are, inexorably, drawn into its malignant center. By focusing on the margins rather than the center, the film redirects away from internal mob politics, and instead concentrates on those individuals trapped within the cycle of cruelty, capital, and corruption. A sense of fatalism hangs over each story, and the guns-and-glamour motif implicitly expected from most mob films is exchanged for the tactile dread and paranoia experienced by those in the lower depths. Only small narrative snippets clarify—or even explain—the intricate frictions, divisions, and feuds within the Camorra. Instead, the film dives headfirst into the slums, street corners, and strip-clubs, following those within the economic and social fringe who are caught within the crossfire. Such an approach purges whatever romanticism, sensationalism or grandeur that could have existed within such a film, leaving in its place a paranoiac, near-suffocating sense of realism.

This realism, of course, leads to scenes that might seem dissonant or strange within standard gangster fodder. When Don Ciro tries on a bullet-proof vest for the first time, he looks at himself in the mirror with an expression of doubt and vulnerability—a clear sign that he fears a second assault. During Marco and Ciro’s late-night escapees, their unsuccessful (and hilariously awkward) attempts to get laid lead to a brutal thrashing that leaves them humiliated and emasculated. Tito’s transformation from innocent bystander to cold-blooded accomplice avoids the crass “child-killer” sensationalism a lesser film might have aimed for. Even its most violent sequences come in short, disorienting machine-gun bursts that dissatisfy on a visceral level, lingering less on bullet-holes and blood-splatters and more on the responses and consequences that come from such bloodshed. Garrone’s direction plays a pivotal role in making all of these sequences work. Filled with hand-held photography and on-location shooting—imagine the Dardennes but with an added dash of grime and gore—the film represents a brilliant meshing of form and content, where its journalistic, verite-style cinematography strips away the layers of cinematic artifice that might have occluded our vision and blinded us with the flimsy romanticism of other pictures.

While this approach has its obvious rewards, the film’s near-elliptical shorthand does, at times, come across as disorienting and impossible to navigate. On occasion, the film forces us to sort through a narratalogical tangle full of splintering plot threads, labyrinthine back-stories, and unresolved character arcs. The first thirty minutes, in particular, are chaotically organized, foregoing narrative coherence for a fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude that works on an aesthetic level but unwinds with a detached, staccato rhythm. Other times, the film comes close to becoming a polemical op/ed piece, as it will on occasion trade in the subtle intricacies of its narrative for broader, more on-the-nose observations (sections of Roberto’s narrative sag a bit because of this).

But these minor gripes do not detract from the film’s lasting impact. Gomorra succeeds as both a rehabilitation of the gangster film and a powerful expose of mob corruption. Amounting to far more than an experiment in genre, Garrone’s film gives us a sobering, terrifying vision of crime and corruption that has, as its biblical title suggests, damned an entire city with the stain of its sins.
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Thursday, February 12, 2009

When It’s Okay to Stop Watching and Start Screwing

This article originally appeared in Rise Over Run Magazine.

by Brandon Colvin

Not all sex scenes are created equally. There’s the weird, the funny, the sentimental, the passionate, the terrifying, and the downright hot – the last of which will be the focus of this list. While defining what is and is not a properly “inspirational” sex scene (ifyaknowwhaddimean) is certainly a subjective endeavor (and a revealing one), I’ve tried to choose a handful of scenes that are not only erotic but also worthy of cinematic merit. In other words, you can come for the sex scene and stay for the movie (pun intended).

5. Dirk Diggler’s first time on camera in Boogie Nights (1997)

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout feature, a multifaceted tale of finding family and inventing identity in the late 70s/early 80s San Fernando Valley porn industry, is chock full of titillation, debauchery, and more sex than you could shake a stick at (even if it is 13-inches-long). Centering on the well-endowed Eddie Adams a.k.a. Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his meteoric rise to adult film stardom, Boogie Nights reaches its erotic climax during Dirk’s debut performance on celluloid with the foxy/strangely maternal Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) – girlfriend of blue movie auteur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds).

A typically cheesy porn set-up (guy-interviews-for-job-and-has-to-whip-his-cock-out-for-sexily-straight-laced-female-interviewer) provides the context for the film-within-a-film, complete with blank-faced porn acting and stilted line delivery. Initially humorous and reasonably light in tone, the scene takes on a more intimate and sensual aura as the two commence with the planned missionary-on-the-desk revelry. Alternating between shallow-focused, handheld shots hovering over the bare, sweaty bodies and the lazily composed footage being recorded by the porn squad’s cameras, introduces a meta-level to the sex scene that detaches it from its seemingly sordid surrounding, imbuing the porn protocol with a sense of pulse-quickening immediacy and genuine tenderness. Directly addressing the voyeuristic position of the audience, the scene inter-cuts reaction shots of the crew – mouths agape, eyes widened – as they look on with awe at the hot, hot lovin’ (Jack Horner included). Self-reflexive to the max, the scene even depicts a dazzling inside-the-camera point-of-view shot of the sexcapades as the soundtrack picks up on every nuance of the couple’s grunts and moans – as well as Amber’s whispered desire for Dirk to cum inside her rather than give her the standard “money shot.” A fascinating sequence on the level of montage and an earnest depiction of how intensely personal sex can still be in a room full of cameras and on-lookers, Boogie Nights’ most interesting sexual sequence is one that demands repeated viewings. That’s right. Over and over and over and over again.

4. Dreamy, dreamy lesbians in Lynch’s surreal Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Most times, movie sex is a fantasy. Sometimes, movie sex is a fantasy inside of a fantasy. And, in at least one instance, movie sex is a fantasy inside of a fantasy inside the mixed-up retro-Hollywood dream of a scorned lover who has recently (and regrettably) put out a hit on her two-timing, heart-breaking ex-ladyfriend; welcome to the wonderful world of David Lynch – abandon all hope ye who enter. The two former/current/imaginary lovers in the film – Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) and Rita/whothehellknows? (Laura Elena Harring) – provide an underlying current of electric sexual tension that erupts in a memorably spontaneous expression of lesbian lust, the powerful impact of which subsequently results in the inevitable undoing of protagonist Betty/Diane’s dream-illusion (a little abstract, I know).

With a mysterious narrative and obscure plot, Mulholland Dr. thrives on mood and texture, resulting in a profoundly sensual and remarkably sexy fetishization of repeated images and colors, all reminiscent of Hollywood glamour a la Billy Wilder’s influential Sunset Blvd. (1950): ruby red lips, glistening perfect skin, sun-drenched cityscapes, breathy secretive mutterings, elegant evening gowns, intriguingly stylized shadows, and the pleasurably voyeuristic act of watching. Palpably stimulating, the film’s idealized sexual undertones are made overt when Betty/Diane invites Rita to share her bed for the night. Identity confusion, blonde wigs, amnesia, impersonation, and performance haunt the boudoir proceedings as the two women attempt to cast away their swirling doubts, sure of only one thing: their mutual passion. Hallucinatory and intense, the scene depicts the two women stripping one another before engaging in some smooching-between-the-sheets, lit with a melancholy blue cast – an indicator of the tragic oncoming end of the lovers’ perfectly romantic bliss, Betty/Diane’s fantasy. They must awaken from their sexual euphoria, and so must the viewer . . . sure is great while it lasts, though.

3. A History of Violence (2005) – Do it ‘til it hurts

Nobody does weird on-screen sex like David Cronenberg. Nobody. From the mind-altering sadomasochistic snuff film perversion of Videodrome (1983) to the drug-induced phantasmagoria of cannibalistic shape-shifting homosexuality in Naked Lunch (1991) to the car-crash fetish for twisted metal and broken bone orgasms in the NC-17-rated Crash (1996), Cronenberg – known in some circles as the “King of Venereal Horror” (one wonders who the rest of that royal family is) – has consistently pushed the envelope regarding cinematic sexuality. Although it is certainly one of Cronenberg’s most accessible acts of transgression, the exceedingly rough sex between A History of Violence’s Tom Stall/Joey (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), is nonetheless effective – to say the least.

Having just discovered that her husband of nearly 20 years is not who she thinks he is – a down-home, gentle Indiana family man (instead, he’s a reformed mob hitman from Boston) – Edie becomes quite reasonably incensed. When confronted with the threat of police interference as a result of her husband’s recent deadly activity, however, Edie stands by her man, displaying a hint of acquiescence amidst her indignation – setting the tone for the emotionally conflicted physical explosion that follows a brief visit from the local sheriff. Puzzled by Edie’s contradictory actions, Tom corners her on the stairs, grabbing her forcefully and receiving a slap to the face for his brutality, which is then intensified as he returns the slap and slams Edie to her back. Their bodies heaving and their hips pinned tightly together, the two quickly shuffle off their clothes and Tom begins thrusting. In control, Tom keeps his hand on Edie’s throat, as she seems to prefer, her submissive response revealing her breathless excitement. The scene ends unhappily, though, as a sexually satisfied and emotionally distraught Edie wiggles back into her panties and storms furiously up the stairs. Brief, rough, and reckless, the stairwell copulation is a spontaneous erotic crescendo of assertion and assent, reinforcing traditional gender roles and patriarchal power structures in a way that is so hot you almost forget about the overarching ideology. Hell, you might even end up approving of it.

2. Soderbergh’s sophisticated cool in Out of Sight (1998)

Editing can make or break a sex scene; and, when it comes to editing, Steven Soderbergh never fails to impress. The indie icon responsible for the controversial breakthrough sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh came into his own with Out of Sight, a surprisingly sexy heist film adapted from a novel by pulp author Elmore Leonard. Adopting a retro-sleek aesthetic that harkens back to 1970s genre classics, Out of Sight is a tour-de-force of ingenious editing, tastefully muted visual palettes, and brilliantly ambient mood music (by turns rhythmic and ethereal) – consistently encapsulating just the right blend of cool detachment and smirking flirtation. Oh, and the incredible chemistry between leads George Clooney (as debonair bank robber Jack Foley) and Jennifer Lopez (as curvy US Marshal Karen Sisco) doesn’t hurt when the film’s sly libido rises during a role-playing faux-chance-encounter between the odd couple at a snowy, swanky hotel.

As Soderbergh has admitted, the magnificent scene between Jack and Karen (referring to themselves as “Gary” and “Celeste” and pretending to be strangers) is a direct homage to the #1 sex scene on this list (wait for it, you know that’s half the fun) and Out of Sight’s jaw-droppingly beautiful sex scene is almost as excellent as its classic forebear. Using parallel editing, the filmmakers alternate between Jack and Karen’s foreplay-filled dialogue in the hotel lobby, which comes off as both confident and nervously excited, and their later mutual disrobing before an inevitable romp in the bedroom. Slipping between both temporal/physical locations with ease, the scene, which uses Soderbergh’s now-signature flash-forwards (in this case, flashing forward from verbal foreplay to sex), is held together by David Holmes’ haunting score and the voices of the two lovers as their pre-sex banter plays over wonderfully-lit images of them fulfilling the promises of their words in bed, uniting present and future in way that is both deeply moving and deeply erotic. Incredibly intimate and undeniably hot, the scene is a textbook example of how a well-crafted montage can get your blood flowing to the right places even faster than a big, juicy . . . . uh, nevermind.

1. Don’t Look Now (1972): realer than real sex

I have seen films with actual, hardcore, no camera trick sexual acts in them – 9 Songs (2004), Battle in Heaven (2005), The Brown Bunny (2003), El Topo (1970), not to mention straight-up pornography – but I have never seen on-screen sex as true to life and as unpretentious as in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. An unusual candidate for containing the greatest, hottest, most emotionally resonant, best-lit, best-edited, best-staged, most-shockingly brilliant sex scene ever created (the hyperbole is justified), the film stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as John and Laura Baxter, a married couple visiting Venice for one of John’s architectural restoration projects, while also recovering from the emotionally scarring and eerily supernatural recent death of their young daughter. Winding through the dark alleys and foggy bridges of the “City of Water” (notable because their daughter drowned), the psychologically troubled and romantically estranged couple experiences a variety of metaphysical occurrences which lead them to join up with a pair of strange psychics in an attempt to communicate with their deceased child. One of the few films that genuinely scares me, the fact that Don’t Look Now features the pinnacle of cinematic sex is made all the more poignant by its pervasive sense of dread and tragedy, the gorgeous scene of exuberant sexual energy standing out like an island of vitality amidst the murky opacity of the Venetian waters.

Director Nicolas Roeg has claimed that he added the scene to humanize the relationship between John and Laura Baxter, which is strained throughout the rest of the film; he certainly achieved his desired effect. The inverted predecessor of Soderbergh’s flash-forward to sex in Out of Sight, Don’t Look Now’s sex scene is structured as a flashback in an editing scheme that alternates between two temporalities/spaces (this is the part Soderbergh picked up on, obviously). Beginning with shots of the two getting dressed and primped in the bathroom, the scene cuts backs-and-forth between their mundane getting-ready routine and the playful lovemaking that preceded it, depicting the sex with fresh nostalgia and the warmth of a relived memory.

Even more striking than its impeccable structure is the scene’s surprising levity. Boldly, Don’t Look Now shows a married couple having spontaneous, light, laughter-filled, multi-positioned, loving, tender, intimate, enjoyable, non-über-serious, smiling, open-eyed sex in a room that is well-lit in the middle of the day. To say the least, this is rare. To say the most, this is truer to my experience and to that of those I’ve talked to who have seen the film than any other sex scene in existence. This is the glory of a truly great sexual relationship – there is no over-dramatization, no indulgent over-emphasis, no fetishization of clichéd visual tropes, only the understated regularity of a relationship where good sex is the norm and in which making love is a happy part of daily life. As a result of how immensely and uniquely relatable it is, the scene gains all of the qualities other sex scenes miss, and without even trying too hard: joy, cooperation, communication, a sense of humor, and a feeling of genuine comfort are all present in John and Laura’s respite from the horror surrounding their stay in Venice. If watching this scene doesn’t inspire you to pause the DVD player, grab the special someone next to you, and love them like you never have before, well, you might want to contact your local monastery/convent; I don’t think you’d have a hard time fitting in.
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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

by James Hansen

Happy to linger in its stunningly realized 3D world, Henry Selick’s Coraline is all about the visuals. Though 3D has long been used as a cinematic bag of tricks to throw at a totally suspecting audience, Coraline successfully expands this usage by fully embedding 3D technology into its world. Each varying space is effectively extended, distorted, and shifted for specific narratological purposes. Moreover, Coraline’s stop-motion animation is, to put it quite simply, jaw-dropping. To this end, Coraline is an astounding success that should be a benchmark for future 3D animated projects. Outside of the visuals, however, Coraline feels all too characteristic, unmotivated, and relatively unsubstantive. The visual mastery helps mask its shallow narrative to a point, but Coraline’s failure to satisfy on multiple levels holds it back from greatness.

Having recently moved to Oregon from her home in Michigan, Coraline is displaced from the get go. Her blue hair and yellow jacket clashes with the grays, blacks, and faded pink colors that predominate her entire world. Her parents are fed up with her childish antics. Her dad sports a Michigan State shirt – another rival to the blue and gold (i.e. U of Mich) Coraline. They might as well be from different worlds. On an excursion around the house, Coraline finds a small door which appears to open into a wall of bricks. Later that night, however, Coraline discovers the door is actually a portal into an alternate world where her parents are nice, her annoying stalker cannot speak, and life seems cheery. Of course, there is more to that world than initially meets the button eye.

While the amusing minor characters begin to highlight to Coraline the crucial differences in the her real world and the other world, this dialectic is only confirmed visually. The battle between the world and her ultimate desire for the real happens in an instant. Adapted from a book by Neil Gaiman, the screenplay lacks any real motivation for Coraline to make her decision. Neither world is fleshed out in the narrative enough for the decision to be on anything but visual perception. Then again, with the major threat being that of replacing your eyes with buttons, perhaps there is something crucial about vision in the narrative. Vision really is everything.

The major problem is that the climax feels so unmotivated precisely because the narrative lingers in each distinct world, event, and movement that it fails to establish emotions for either world. Instead, when Coraline is suddenly (read: randomly) saving the souls of other children by achieving three tasks, the story turns into a shabby video game like narrative. The tasks may be interesting and we certainly know who we want to win, but there just is not a lot to it. While it was all fun to look at and be a part of, Coraline almost asks for the viewer for a complacent viewing experience in regard to its narrative. This failure to jive with the smart, sophisticated visuals (especially since 3D is supposedly more interactive) left me equally complacent in my final response. Rather than build its elements together to achieve a great viewing experience, Coraline is a little too simple and a little too complicated for itself all at once.
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Saturday, February 7, 2009

David Lynch Features Poll Results

Thanks to everyone for voting in our most recent (and wildly successful) poll. This is by far the most votes we have ever had in a poll here. We want to thank everyone for coming to the site and voting, and we all truly hope you'll stick around and keep coming back to see what we have to offer. Lynch is certainly one of the major directors who has influenced and inspired each of the writers at this site. So many of his movies have been so great, so I know many people had a tough time picking just one of these features. In the end, though, it was Lynch's last filmic feature that ran away with this poll. Thanks to everyone and on with the poll results!

Which is your favorite David Lynch feature?

Eraserhead- 14 (10%)

The Elephant Man- 2 (1%)

Dune- 5 (3%)

Blue Velvet- 24 (18%)

Wild At Heart- 1 (0%)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me- 3 (2%)

Lost Highway- 10 (7%)

The Straight Story- 7 (5%)

Mulholland Drive
- 49 (37%)

Inland Empire- 16 (12%)

Total number of votes: 131

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Case of American Neo-Realism

by Brandon Colvin

Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy marks the crest of a recent wave of profound minimalist filmmaking that has dominated the attention of critics in the past year. Along with Wendy and Lucy, films such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, Lance Hammer’s Ballast, Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life, Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light have rightfully floated to the top of many best-of lists and seem to indicate the international maturation of a set of aesthetic and thematic principles rooted in the work of previous generations of iconoclastic cinematic masters. Combining strains of Bresson, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, and Italian neo-realism, these films depict their subjects with attuned subtlety and revealing simplicity, operating on a scale that some have decried as “too small,” but which imbues works like Wendy and Lucy with the capacity to dramatize the most minute motions as monumental movements.

The dynamics of Reichardt’s film, her third feature and second based on a story – “Train Choir” – by Jonathan Raymond, are textured with the nearly imperceptible and the frequently unnoticed – averted gazes, slight vocal shifts, altered body language – all of which become remarkably highlighted when viewed in the context of the film’s general stillness. Expanding like outward ripples, Wendy and Lucy’s humble moments of desperation, generosity, and defeat culminate in an overwhelming deluge of quiet, understated power crafted from the most apparently meager of means. Concerned, like its contemporaries, with accessing the transcendent via the concrete and the tactile, Wendy and Lucy evidences a philosophically materialist ethos, inherited from its cinematic predecessors, as it examines the visceral fragility of the economic, spiritual, and moral decrepitude surrounding its titular heroine, Wendy (Michelle Williams), and her dog, Lucy, as they struggle against frustrating immobility.

Broken down in a small Oregonian town on her way to Alaska – the supposed promised land of good wages, individualism, and ample work – Wendy and Lucy are forced to spend the night in Wendy’s malfunctioned auto. Startled awake by the concerned security guard (Wally Dalton) of the Walgreen’s whose lot they camp in, the short-cropped, barely-scraping-by Wendy and her likable retriever begin their cash-strapped attempt to get back on the road by pushing the vehicle (with the assistance of the amiable parking attendant) to a side street, where it sits as they wait and wait for the local auto repair shop to open. While stuck, the two head to the nearest grocery store for, what else, dog food.

Putting her pup before herself, Wendy is reminiscent of the protagonist of Italian neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952). De Sica’s affectionate pairing of Umberto (Carlo Battisti) and his dog, Flick, is plainly evoked in Wendy and Lucy, tying the film to De Sica’s in content, as well as directly linking Reichardt’s movie to its neo-realist influences. Lucy is Wendy’s only real friend or companion (as with Flick and Umberto) and their bond in a largely uncaring world gives the film heart. Perhaps more important is that this referential set-up aligns Reichardt’s effort with that of renowned screenwriter and conceptual father of neo-realism, Cesare Zavattini, who also wrote many of De Sica’s films, including another major influence on Wendy and Lucy: Bicycle Thieves (1948). Zavatinni craved simplicity and everyday humanity, even claiming that his ideal film would be 90 minutes of an ordinary man doing nothing; Reichardt seems to have taken up his banner, and to have mastered it.

Once Wendy ventures into the grocery store, ominously tying up Lucy outside, desperation and tragedy of Bicycle Thieves proportions throw the straightforward narrative into gear. Knowing she probably has to use most of her money to fix her car, Wendy indulges in shoplifting as a means of penny pinching and pooch pleasing – like Antonio in Bicycle Thieves, economic hardship forces Wendy into a moral conundrum in order to support her family: Lucy. For her transgression, she pays dearly. Once she is caught by an overzealous employee who catches her stealing at the grocery store, Wendy is carted off to jail for a few hours, trapped, locked away from Lucy. Upon her return to the store, with more money paid out to the jail on her release, Wendy finds that Lucy has disappeared, reportedly taken away by a white van. So begins Wendy’s quest for her lost pet, a parallel to Antonio’s frantic search for his stolen bicycle.

The difficulty of travel in Wendy’s circumstance lends added weight to every step along the way. Her car stuck, her funds depleted, and her ass in jail, Wendy is constantly coming up against impediments on her dual journey to find her dog and get to the physical manifestation of carte blanche in Alaska. Wendy’s struggle to avoid stalling in an environment seeking to trap her mirrors Reichardt’s minimalist technique by providing a context that is conducive to highlighting the slightest deviations from a basic stillness. Like her troubled progress in the face of stagnation, Wendy’s infrequent emotional outpourings contrast her usual stoicism, concentrating into each expression a depth and sincerity earned through rarity and minimalist juxtaposition (which is all the more wonderful as a result of Michelle Williams’ superb performance). The most stunning and affecting application of Wendy and Lucy’s pervasive dialectic between disruption and stillness is the way the contrast between the two is used to magnify the simplest acts of kindness into semi-miraculous instances of sympathy and understanding, instances that are vital, yet hard to come by, in Wendy’s situation.

The most endearing of Wendy and Lucy’s moments of wondrously empathetic humanity come from the aforementioned Walgreen’s security guard, who repeatedly goes out of his way to lend his services to Wendy and shows sincere support for her in her attempt to find lost Lucy. The security guard’s generosity and selflessness, however minor the may be, enable Wendy to climb out of her tragic rut, like a few extra breaths to a drowning victim. The small acts add up. When faced with her most crucial decision near the end of the film, Wendy seems to apply the sort of sympathy and selflessness exemplified by the benevolent security guard, leaving her in a position that is both bittersweet and ambiguous. Through its minimalist style and sparse narrative, Wendy and Lucy carries on the tradition of its neo-realist influences, portraying the incredibly intimate struggles of an individual with a subtle attentiveness that makes the struggle appear universal and ultimately transcendental. Perhaps more than anything, Reichardt’s film is about how even $7 and a few phone calls can save a soul; it really is the though that counts, no matter how small.
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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

47th NYFF Selection Committee and Sidebars

The Film Society’s premiere festival returns to Alice Tully Hall, Sept. 25 – Oct. 11

NEW YORK— The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today that the New York Film Festival will return to its traditional home, the newly renovated Alice Tully Hall, for its 47th edition, Sept. 25 – Oct. 11. This year’s selection committee also welcomes a new member as film critic Melissa Anderson joins The Film Society’s Richard Peña and Kent Jones and critics Scott Foundas and J. Hoberman in choosing the approximately two-dozen features that will make up the 2009 slate.

“Melissa Anderson is one of the most perceptive critics writing in America today,” says Peña, program director at The Film Society and New York Film Festival selection committee chairman. “She will, I’m sure, be invaluable to the New York Film Festival.”

Anderson has been a film critic in New York since 2000, when she began writing regularly for The Village Voice. She was film editor and a film critic at Time Out New York from November 2005 to January 2009. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and a frequent contributor to Film Comment magazine.

“The New York Film Festival has always been—and will always be—the premiere cinema event of our city, one where I’ve had some of my most fantastic movie-going experiences,” says Anderson, who is introducing a Saturday, Feb. 28, screening of Robert Aldrich’s “The Killing of Sister George” during the Film Society’s Film Comment Selects series. “It’s a true honor to serve on the selection committee.”

She replaces Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, who completed her five-year term on the selection committee last year.

Additionally, the 47th New York Film Festival will mark the 60th year of the People’s Republic of China with the first major U.S. retrospective of the remarkable cinema produced during the so-called Seventeen Years. The period, between establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 and the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, was a time of intense political and aesthetic ferment when the arts, film in particular, were searching for a relevant and influential voice within the newly Socialist society.

Also scheduled for the 2009 New York Film Festival is an expansive tribute to Hindi director, producer, and actor Guru Dutt, frequently credited with ushering in the golden era of Indian cinema in the 1950s and ’60s. These sidebars will screen during the festival at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

Presented by The Film Society, the 17-day New York Film Festival presents a select perspective on the state of contemporary cinema by handpicking the best new works by both emerging talents and internationally recognized artists. All filmmakers regardless of experience are invited to submit work. Visit for more information. This year’s slate will be announced in early September.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center was founded in 1969 to celebrate American and international cinema, to recognize and support new directors, and to enhance the awareness, accessibility and understanding of film. Advancing this mandate today, The Film Society hosts two distinguished festivals—The New York Film Festival and New Directors/New Films—as well as the annual Gala Tribute and a year-round calendar of programming at its Walter Reade Theater. It also offers definitive examinations of essential films and artists to a worldwide audience through Film Comment magazine.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is located at 165 West 65th St. between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway.
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Monday, February 2, 2009

Out 1 Film Journal's Top Films of 2008

At long last, here are Out 1 Film Journal's Top 10 lists. With various writers involved, we have decided, similar to what we did last year, to create a combined list for the top 5 films of the year. Below that, you can see the individual top ten lists from each of our four writers. And wide spread our lists are! 24 different films on four lists, four different #1 films, and lots of films that have not been recognized on many other lists. If nothing else, we hope this list makes you consider, hear about (and watch!) some of the great movies this year that major critics have failed to recognize in favor of what we have found as an extraordinarily weak set of Oscar movies. Nevertheless, cinema stayed strong and lived on in 2008 for each of us with the movies on these lists.

Note: The point system for our cumulative list is the same one used for the Village Voice/LA Weekly poll. Ten points for each #1 films, nine for #2, and on down the line until one point for #10. No tiebreakers were needed. Phew. And, for the record, we played by New York film critics rules. Every film had to have been officially released in NYC at some point in 2008. That kicked a lot of favorites from NYFF and elsewhere (The Headless Woman, Afterschool, Hunger, Summer Hours, etc.) as well as a "new" repertory film. Stick with us and you might see some of those next year. Individual lists after the break.

Out 1 Film Journal's Top 5 Films of 2008
1. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)- 30 points
2. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)- 27 points
3. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)- 26 points
4. Che (Steven Soderbergh)- 15 points
5. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)- 13 points

Brandon Colvin's Top 10 Films of 2008
1. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)
2. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
3. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
4. Ballast (Lance Hammer)
5. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
6. Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani)
7. Iron Man (John Favreau)
8. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller)
9. JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri)
10. Reprise (Joachim Trier)

Honorable Mentions: Milk (Gus Van Sant), Che (Steven Soderbergh), The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky), Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)

Best Unreleased Film: Hunger (Steve McQueen)

Most Underrated: Speed Racer, Rambo, Doomsday

Most Overrated: Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)

Best Female Performance: Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

Best Male Performance: Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man

James Hansen's Top 10 Films of 2008
1. When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves)
A beautiful and utterly staggering experimental film. 16mm dual projection with an original soundtrack performed live by its composer Skúli Sverrisson (along with others) has never been better. While it recalls some of Brakhage's best work, Reeves creates something that is totally unnerving, moving, and new. Special thanks to Michael Sicinski whose recommendation from TIFF (via his site) pushed me to change a flight just so I could see it. It was well worth it.

2. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
Do you believe in miracles?

3. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
This two park movie uses every second to create an unique dialectic on iconography and guerrilla tactics.

4. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
I watched this for a second time on an airplane. Floating along with the film, I had an euphoric experience that bumped this up a couple spots.

5. Inside (Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury)
Best horror film of the decade? It very well might be...

6. The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette)
Rivette's film powerfully evokes paranoid sexual frustration and total inadequacy in a strict period. It's his strongest film in a long, long time.

7. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
I'll never forget the tracking shot in the dog kennel. Never.

8. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)
While on whole I prefer the similar, this far unreleased Afterschool to this, Van Sant's beautiful meditation on adolescent self discovery is a stunner.

9. Paraguayan Hammock (Paz Encina)
Life, death, memory, and aging sway in a distant (yet all too close) hammock.

10. Razzle Dazzle (Ken Jacobs)
Jacobs' use of digital editing enhances the refusal of historical loss in his (and cinema, in general) switch to digital. We just have to stay on the carousel.

Special Mention: Burn After Reading (Coen Brothers), Death Race (Paul W.S. Anderson), Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin), The Happening (M Night Shamyalan), Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh), In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson), Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho), Stuck (Stuart Gordon), The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)

Best Previously Unreleased Repertory Film: Je Entends Plus La Guitare (Phillipe Garrel)

Best Unreleased: The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)

Most Underrated: Burn After Reading (Coen Brothers)

Most Overrated: The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

Best Female Performance: Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

Best Male Performance: John Malkovich in Burn After Reading

Jacob Shoaf's Top 10 Films of 2008
1. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
I saw this in theaters twice. It floored me both times in completely different ways and I’m pretty sure I could think about it endle(DIE)

2. Wall*E (Andrew Stanton)
The last place I expected to have a moving cinematic experience was in a NYC theater Saturday matinee showing of a "kids movie" set in outer space. The Cinema works in mysterious ways...

3. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
Simple and heartbreaking. If anyone ever hands me six dollars, I may have an emotional breakdown on the spot.

4. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)
I don’t know if it’s the slow, meditative tracking shots through fields of grass, the temporal structure, or the fact that I love the Tony Hawk Playstation games, but this film is a joyous and harrowing bildungsroman that I guarantee enough people didn’t see.

5. Razzle Dazzle (Ken Jacobs)
If you’ve ever spent any time on an Avid or Final Cut editing system, this movie will blow your friggin’ mind. Ken Jacobs plays with dimensionality like no one else.

6. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
Maddin mythologizes Winnipeg in this pseudo-semi-autobiographical amalgamation. Equally absurd and contemplative, and (allegedly) it’s all true.

7. The Secret of the Grain (Abdel Kechiche)
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I was put under this film’s spell, but I know that by the end I wanted to strangle the little bastards that took Slimane Beiji’s bike.

8. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
Only Herzog can make me contemplate mortality through the use of penguins.

9. Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani)
This is the poignant story of a street urchin trying to survive. It’s sort of like if Oliver Twist had been set in Queens. Sort of...

10. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
I nervously writhed more during this than any other film this year (save Stuart Gordon’s Stuck).

Honorable Mention: A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin), Doubt (John Patrick Shanley), The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin), Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller), In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín), Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs), Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas), The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)

Most Overrated: The Reader (Steven Daldry)

Best Female Performance: Michele Williams in Wendy and Lucy

Best Male Performance: Sean Penn in Milk

Chuck Williamson's Top 10 Films of 2008
1. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
A cinematic miracle. An austere, slow-paced parable filled with lush, spellbinding cinematography and pained moments of lived-in poignancy. This film’s explorations of faith, love, and death moved me more than anything else this year. Its final moments unfurl like a long, languorous dream—truly stunning and achingly powerful.

2. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
Heartbreaking, naturalistic, absolutely haunting—a near perfect film.

3. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
A mad, inventive, and absolutely bonkers film that sutures the vocabulary of silent cinema to the structure of documentary form. Blending fact and fiction, the final results resemble a sort of fever-dream—a mordant, introspective, self-effacing, and certifiably insane creation.

4. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
Benicio del Toro gives a poignant, humanizing performance as Che Guevara in a biopic that dodges the generic tropes, formulas, and clichés that usually damage such films. A moving portrait of a complex, multifaceted figure.

5. Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant)
A frenzied, elliptical, moody masterwork.

6. Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
A meditative, elegiac film about the traumas of adolescence, perfectly capturing all the pain, longing, and isolation of youth. That it is also doubles as a subversive and sometimes gory vampire flick does not diminish its power, but enhances it.

7. Ballast (Lance Hammer)
The Mississippi Delta has never felt more cold and desolate.

8. The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette)
As graceful and multilayered as a seventeenth-century painting, Rivette’s adaptation of Balzac evokes the sort of repressed longing and suffocating traditions symptomatic of the early modern period. And then he turns the whole thing into a sublime cinematic poem.

9. Still Life (Jia Zhang Ke)
A daring mix of documentary realism and absurdist imagery. Surreal images of the Fengjie’s industrial wasteland, filled with gutted, decaying buildings and the desperate, dislocated people who inhabit them, will haunt the viewer long after the credits roll.

10. Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrami)
Set amid the scrap-yards and garbage-dumps of Willet’s Point, this film delivers a grim, jaundiced examination of modern capitalism and the failed American Dream. At the same time, it is an intense, heartbreaking journey through the immigrant experience.

Honorable Mention: The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan), The Flight of the Red Balloon (Hsiao-hsien Hou), Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh), The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat), Milk (Gus van Sant), My Father, My Lord (David Volach), The Order of Myths (Margaret Brown), Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris)

Best Unreleased Film: You, The Living (Roy Andersson)

Most Overrated- (tie) Elite Squad (Jose Padilha) and Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)

Best Female Performance: Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

Best Male Performance: Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler
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