Friday, August 28, 2009

(Don't) Walk This Way

by James Hansen

As any avid moviegoer recognizes, it can be frustrating when you sit down for a movie and within ten or fifteen minutes know exactly where its going, what it will do, and the point its going to make. Of course, along the way, things can be subverted and toyed with, which is why genre “weaknesses” and three act script structure alone are never the only vices of a movie, and the movie can give itself some kind of life. Just because you hear Japanese Family Drama shouldn’t mean the movie is a moot point. Unfortunately, this is the case with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s (After Life, Distance, Nobody Knows) new film Still Walking – a film that does plenty of things well, but never comes close to overcoming its transparency and, insodoing, becomes a bore.

Still Walking revolves around the Yokoyama family. Ryota, a recently unemployed art restorer, has recently married a widow, Yukari, who has a ten-year old son. They are making a rare trip home to visit Ryota’s aging parents on the fifteenth anniversary of his eldest brother’s death. Uncomfortable around his father, a retired, very respected local doctor, Ryota is searching for his place in both families, as both a son, husband, and parent.

From the onset, and to its favor, Still Walking’s low-key, classic style addresses its modest expectations, and shows, as Kore-eda says in his director’s statement for the film, that “there are no typhoons in this film.” Taking this subtle approach, Still Walking is playing in the simple, tender territory that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s uneven Tokyo Sonata powerfully ends on. The hushed, nuanced emotion is played well by each of the actors and actresses. Trouble is, the “subtle” formalism is made significantly less so by the directness with which it deals with issues, such as generational difference (cue the edits from old hands preparing foods to younger people on trains playing on Iphones and handheld video games; line up the hospital coming in to overtake the local doctor struggling to still do his job).

This is one of many instances where the somber attitude is made loud by these instantly recognizable tropes. Moreover, Still Walking ends with a terribly unnecessary, self-defeating coda, announced by the first bit of voice over in the entire film. This divulgence highlights the attempted subtlety of the rest of the film, but also forces one to question where such an overwrought decision came from. All though this misstep may seem from out of nowhere, the small missteps are planted throughout the film which makes the bigger misfire at the end all the more unsurprising. Coming after what was the predictable, if more satisfying, should-be ending of the three generations taking “the walk” together, the actual ending puts the heavy-handed stamp of disapproval all over the rest of the film.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on another near-end-of-life life-affirming film, as some have suggested I have been on a rhetorically similar film yet to be officially released. While Still Walking is still leagues above that film, its so see through everything in it just felt perfunctory. Although it does feature some strong performances, Kore-eda is treading familiar ground for the viewers and himself. Even though this film may be more deeply personal for him (both his parents have passed away in the last few years), there is nothing here cinematically that translates those feelings anyway differently than we’ve seen or felt more strongly before. As life goes on, we all have to keep moving in whichever way life leads us. Check, please.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

"L' Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot Inferno" Trailer

I suppose this is mostly Clouzot's unfinished footage that this documentary, premiering at Toronto, will deal with. Whatever it is, its completely ravishing.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rooftop Films August 21-22

If you think it’s hard being a punk rocker in the USA, try making it in China.
Venue: On the roof of the Old American Can Factory
Address: 232 3rd St. @ 3rd Ave. (Gowanus/ Park Slope, Brooklyn)
Directions: F/G to Carroll St. or M/R to Union Ave.
8:00PM: Doors open
8:30PM: Live music presented by Sound Fix Records
9:00PM: Film
11:00PM–12:30AM: Reception in courtyard including free sangria courtesy of Carlo Rossi

Rooftop Films and The Fledgling Fund present
Imagine an ocean without fish. Imagine your meals without seafood. Imagine the global consequences.
Venue: The Beach at Governor’s Island
Address: On the beach along the water on Governor’s Island, just to the West of the Ferry landing
Directions: The Water Taxi's will leave every 15 minutes from the Battery Maritime Building Slip 7 on the Southern Tip of Manhattan
8:00PM: Doors open
8:30PM: Live music presented by Sound Fix Records
9:00PM: Film
Tickets: $12 at the door or online
Presented in partnership with: The Fledgling Fund, Cinereach & New York magazine

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Monday, August 17, 2009

The Kids Aren't Alright

by Brandon Colvin

Loren Cass begins in darkness. White noise feedback and discordant guitar jangles zig-zag around one another over a black screen. Sound preceding image, sound defining image. The visual of a desolate highway at night, speckled with fluorescents and neons from streetlamps and signs. Cars zoom by intermittently. A voiceover begins and trails off, “Back in 1997 . . . .” This is the only context. A mournful solo trumpet replaces the dissonant guitars. The film’s three main characters are then introduced in a succession of still, quiet images, moving from disparity to coalescence – just as the feedback mellows into the brass melody – when their banal paths cross.

Cale, played by writer/director/editor/producer Chris Fuller, is a young mechanic, first shown driving his car on a pale, grey morning. Jason (Travis Maynard) is his skinheaded, self-destructive, punk-rock pal who sleeps in a room with newspaper-covered walls and whose father, like most adults in Loren Cass, is practically a zombie, seen passed out in front of a static-ridden television screen. Cale picks Jason up at the curb, just like he does everyday. They go to work at the body shop. Nicole (Kayla Tabish) rises from bed and gets dressed. A young black man stirs in her sheets – one of many men to do so throughout the film, including Cale. Nicole gets in her car, leaving her equally zonked out parents sitting frozen in the living room. On the road, Nicole’s car pulls up behind Cale’s. The three characters are close but separated, isolated. Then, they simply drive off, drifting back into their unspoken, nebulous angst and the existential tension hovering over their hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, a city recovering in the wake of the 1996 race riots.

These initial minutes are Loren Cass in microcosm. Scenes of boredom, disconnection, and poetic loneliness linked sonically, ranging from the violently cacophonous, to the cryptically lyrical, to the emptily quiet. Throughout the film, the multi-talented Fuller tackles every element with remarkable boldness, unafraid of silence, of experimentation, and his aural design reflects this. Shot over a period of eight years and written by Fuller at the tender age of 15, Loren Cass demonstrates an unusually mature and confident handling of perhaps the most neglected aspect of filmmaking – the soundtrack. Swirling around his emotionally unmoored characters and their listless – though often incredibly vicious – interactions, Fuller crafts a contrapuntal blend of meandering instrumental music, punk riffs, audio recordings of political activists, stream-of-consciousness voiceovers, radio clips, Charles Bukowski reading from “The Last Days of the Suicide Kid,” ambient industrial hums, and – most significantly – quietude, all serving the purpose of redefining and reinterpreting atmosphere and mood, of creating new, unexpected sensual linkages that imbue Loren Cass with a energy and freshness.

The film’s brilliance does not end with its sonic mastery. Fuller and cinematographer William Garcia utilize a wide array of effective visual techniques, gleaned from all corners of cinematic language. Amidst the dominant medium/wide long-takes and motionless shots are graceful tracks and pans, floating handheld movements, slow-motion sequences, jump-cuts, fragmentary close-ups, and the repeated use of a black screen without image, but with audio, as in the opening seconds, demonstrating that the filmmakers not only know what to show, but also what not to show. The inter-cutting of footage from Budd Dwyer’s infamously televised suicide adds yet another facet to Loren Cass’ use of mixed-media (as with its sound design) and adds a harsh, shocking dose of documentary reality to the film’s already diverse cinematic tools, emphasizing the brutality that surrounds the movie’s chaotic gang fights and pervasive, desperate aggression.

One of the most emblematic sequences from Loren Cass consists of a brief series of shots depicting the architecture of the characters’ school. Immaculately framed and edited together with a contemplative rhythm, the still shots are reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s famous transitions – usually a short series of immobile frames depicting precisely arranged interiors and exteriors, noteworthy for their silence, simplicity, and tonal power. In Loren Cass, this sequence imparts a sense of disused decrepitude and an almost metaphysical feeling of absence: rusted, fading signs; sickly-colored lockers; empty, dark hallways; a staircase bathed in a grim blue hue; a public restroom with a single stall in use. The succession of images generates a sensation of ethereal abandonment, and is, to a certain extent, downright creepy, particularly when matched with the faint buzz that haunts the soundtrack throughout, subtly shifting timbre from shot to shot. For characters living in a “dirty, dirty town by a dirty, dirty sea,” who have “stopped dreaming,” as the un-attributed voiceover states, the mood is perfect. From this single sequence one might agree with another voiceover utterance coming later in the film: “The kids are all dead.”

And if the kids aren’t all dead, they’re certainly trying to get that way. Suicide looms over Loren Cass like a spectral buzzard, a back-of-the-mind thought just waiting for a weak moment. The self-destructive tendencies that manifest themselves in the characters result from the psychologically alchemical process of transforming passion into anger into disaffection into apathy into nihilistic submission. Everyone in Loren Cass seems on the cusp of abyss-leaping; as the mysterious voiceover says, “Kill me, please, before I have to.” For a film so overflowing with despair, however, Loren Cass is full of youth, courage, intensity, and confidence – a rarity, particularly for a feature-length debut. One might say that at its best moments it nears the cinematic poetry of Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977) or Linklater’s Slacker (1991), which is inspiring even amidst the “ugly things” the film celebrates. With its ingenious sound design and mastery of a deep visual repertoire, Loren Cass suggests that Chris Fuller has an incredibly bright future in filmmaking ahead of him – and that’s certainly something to find hope in.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

[insert food metaphor here]

by Chuck Williamson

Since its release, Julie & Julia has attracted the sort of lame critical bon mots one might expect from a food-focused biopic: predictable culinary puns, overreaching food metaphors, a three-course meal of gastronomic groaners. And, to be honest, I doubt I can resist the temptation to do the same. Frivolous to a fault, Julie & Julia is the sort of mediocre, inconsequential product that encourages empty rhetorical embellishment and blurb-friendly summations. In this respect, the food lingo can transform a limp, lifeless cinematic experience into something more robust and palatable for the reader. So let me get this out of the way: Julie & Julia is a low-calorie soufflé, light and enjoyable, but with a soggy, undercooked center that, even with its various herbs and spices, makes for a bland, tasteless meal.

Chief amongst the film’s more egregious failings is the bifurcated structure, a zigzagging and needlessly convoluted attempt to construct a dialogue between its cross-generational narratives. As the film alternates between the stories of famed culinary icon Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and fame-chasing bureaucrat turned blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams), these strained efforts to place the two narratives in concert remain superficial and slight. As boneless and stitched together as the duck en croute featured in the climax, the film’s dialogic structure unravels into a discursive mess, as its various threads fail to connect in a smart, substantive way. At best, the film uses its interlocking narratives in the service of serio-comic juxtaposition, crosscutting either between set-up and punch-line or transgenerational cause and effect. But as the film progresses, the structure becomes more of a gimmick, and the two narratives grow increasingly discordant and incoherent. In the rare instances of interconnection, the structure merely props up winking in-jokes and shallow truisms, cutting back and forth between a string of faux-ironic scenes punctuated with jokey proclamations of self-doubt, period-specific zingers, and scowling caricatures who bark lines like, “You’ll never master the art of French cooking!” Har, har! Little do they know she’ll be a famous chef one day!

Even worse, the structure forces the two narratives into a rigged deathmatch where the more fascinating post-war, proto-feminist permeations of Child’s narrative—further enhanced by the mix of pathos and bathos of Streep’s effective high-camp mimicry—overpowers the froth and narcissism that characterizes many the Powell sequences, where Adams does her best with a narrative that demands little more than spunk and self-indulgence. But, in the end, both stories suffer. Rather than link the two narratives in a way that enhances both, the dual structure shortchanges the audience with an unfinished patchwork of scenes that seem to have been culled from two different movies. Neither narrative works, as the structure merely emphasizes the weaknesses of the Powell sequences while compromising what could have been a relatively well-made, if formulaic, Julia Child biopic.

But enough about the film. How’s the food? Sizzling, scrumptious goodness, shot with the sort of fetishistic detail lacking in the rest of the film. At times, I began to wonder if director Nora Ephron purposefully designed the film as an extended advertisement for the various cookbooks, biographies, and memoirs diligently name-checked throughout the film. With its whitewashed narrative(s) and ineffective dialogic structure, the film works best as an inoffensive diversion that, like the Transformers and GI Joe films, masks its commercial plugs with a glossy, gossamer-thin veneer. If asked what lasting impression the film might have had on me, I would probably respond, “Well, the movie was nice enough—but, boy, am I hungry! Why don’t we swing by Barnes & Noble and pick up a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For some reason, I’m suddenly in the mood for beef burgundy.”

Bon appetit!

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

NYFF 2009 Slate

The 47th Annual New York Film Festival Returns to the Fully Renovated Alice Tully Hall

September 25 - October 11, 2009

The 47th edition of the New York Film Festival will open with the U.S. premiere of Alain Resnais's Wild Grass (Les herbes folles) and close with Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces. This year's Centerpiece will be Lee Daniels' Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. In addition this year's festival will include two Masterworks series from China and India.

The 2009 New York Film Festival Selection Committee was comprised of Richard Peña, Selection Committee Chair and Program Director at The Film Society; Melissa Anderson, film critic; Scott Foundas, Film Editor and Chief Film Critic for LA Weekly; J. Hoberman, Senior Film Critic at The Village Voice and Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University; and Dennis Lim, Editor at Moving Image Source.

Main Slate

Wild Grass / Les herbes folles
Alain Resnais, France, 2009; 113m
The venerable Alan Resnais creates an exquisite human comedy of manners, mystery and romance with some of France's - and our - favorite actors: Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Almaric. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Lee Daniels, USA, 2009; 109m
Precious is sixteen and living a miserable life. But she uses all the emotional energy she possesses to turn her life around. Director Lee Daniel's audacious tale features unforgettable performances by Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. A Lionsgate release.

Broken Embraces / Los abrazos rotos
Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2009; 128m
Almodóvar's newest masterwork is a candy-colored emotional roller that barrels from comedy to romance to melodrama to the darker haunts of film noir and stars his muse, Penélope Cruz, in a multilayered story of a man who loses his sight and the love of his life. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

36 Views of Saint-Loup Peak / 36 Vues Du Pic Saint Loup
Jacques Rivette, France, 2009, 84m
The legendary Jacques Rivette returns with an elegiac look at the final days of a small-time traveling circus.

Lars von Trier, Denmark, 2009, 109m
Surely to be one of the year's most discussed films, Lars von Trier's latest chronicles a couple's efforts to find their love again after a tragic loss, only to unleash hidden monsters lurking in their souls. An IFC Films release.

The Art of the Steal
Don Argott, USA, 2009, 101m
Bound to be controversial, this intriguing account of the travails of the legendary Barnes collection of art masterworks and the foundation set up to protect it raises vital questions about public vs. private "ownership" of art.

Bluebeard / La Barbe Bleue
Catherine Breillat, France, 2009, 78m
Two sisters reading Charles Perrault's 17th century tale of perhaps the first "serial killer" becomes a meditation on the enduring fascination with a character who has served as inspiration for countless novels, plays and films.

Crossroads of Youth / Cheongchun's Sipjaro
An Jong-hwa, Korea, 1934, 73m
The oldest surviving Korean film, this recently-rediscovered masterwork will be presented with live musical accompaniment as well as a benshi (offscreen narrator).

Eccentricities of a Blonde
Manoel de Olivera, Portugal/France, 2009, 64m
One hundred years young, director Manoel de Oliveira returns with another gem: a wry, moving tale of a pure if frustrated love adapted from a novel by Eça de Queiroz.

Everyone Else / Alle Anderen
Maren Ade, Germany, 2009, 119m
The ups and downs, joys and jealousies, frustrations and fulfillments of a young couple on a summer holiday provides the premise for this brilliant meditation on modern coupling.

Ghost Town
Zhao Dayong, China, 2008, 180m
A revealing, one-of-a-kind look at China far away from the glittering urban skylines, this portrait of a contemporary rural community in China offers extraordinary insights into everything from the role of religion to gender relationships to the place of social deviants.

Bruno Dumont, France, 2009, 105m
A young woman searches for an absolute experience of faith-and in the process grows increasingly distant from the world around her.

Raya Martin, Philippines, 2009, 77m
Maverick director Raya Martin offers a kind of alternative history of the Philippines and its struggle for nationhood in this stylized tale of a mother and son hiding in the mountains after the US takeover of the islands.

Inferno / L'Enfer
Serge Bromberg, France, 2009, 100m
A film buff's delight, Serge Bromberg film resurrects the surviving footage of Clouzot's aborted, experimental film L'Enfer, revealing a slightly mad but beguiling project that will always remain one of cinema's great "what ifs."

Sabu, Japan, 2009, 109m
Kaniskosen is a highly stylized, stirring, manga-flavored update of a classic Japanese political novel, with labor unrest aboard a crab canning ship evolving into a cry of a younger generation aching to break the bonds of conformity.

Samuel Maoz, Israel, 2009, 92m
Debut director Samuel Maoz takes us inside an Israeli tank and the emotions of its crew during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Life During Wartime
Todd Solondz, USA, 2009, 96m
Preparing for his bar-mitzvah, a young man must deal with his divorced mother's prospective fiancé as well as rumors that his own father is not really dead.

Min Yé
Souleymane Cissé, Mali/France, 2009, 135m
A work of startling originality, Souleymane Cisse's first film in over a decade insightfully and incisively chronicles the dissolution of an upper-middle class African marriage.

Mother/ Maedo
Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009, 128m
Convinced that her son has been wrongly accused of murder, a widow throws herself body and soul into proving his innocence. Kim Hye-ja in the title role gives perhaps the performance of the year.

Ne Change Rien
Pedro Costa, France/Portugal, 2009, 103m
A shimmering valentine, Costa's latest is less a portrait than a kind of visual homage, to the artistry of actor and singer Jeanne Balibar.

Police Adjective / Politist, adj.
Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 2009, 115m
Discovering a teenager with hashish, a young policeman hesitates about turning him in. But his supervisor has other ideas in this beautifully acted, provocative modern morality play. An IFC Films release.

Room and a Half / Poltory Komnaty Ili Sentimentalnoe Puteshtvie Na Rodinu
Andrey Khrzhanovsky, Russia, 2009, 131m
Former animator Andrey Khrzhanovsky combines scripted scenes, archival footage, several types of animation, and surrealist flights of fancy to create this stirring portrait of poet Josef Brodsky and the postwar Soviet cultural scene. A Seagull Films release.

Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA, 2009, 105m
This breathtaking chronicle follows an ever-surprising group of modern-day cowboys as they lead an enormous herd of sheep up and then down the slopes of the Beartooth Mountains in Montana on their way to market.

Sweet Rush / Tatarak
Andrzej Wajda, Poland/France, 2009, 85m
Celebrated master Andrzej Wajda returns with a bold, experimental work that juxtaposes a story about a terminally doctor's wife rediscovering romance thanks with a heart-rending monologue written and performed by actress Krystyna Janda about the death of her husband.

To Die Like a Man / Morrer Como Um Homen
Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal, 2009,138m
This touching, finely-etched portrait follows Tonia, a veteran drag performer confronting younger competition and her boyfriend's demands that she undergo a sex change.

Marco Bellocchio, Italy, 2009, 129m
Mussolini's "secret" marriage to Ida Dalser, afterwards completely denied by Il Duce, along with the son born from the relationship, becomes the springboard for this visually ravishing meditation on the fascist manipulation of history. An IFC Films release.

White Material
Claire Denis, France, 2009, 100m
A handful of Europeans try to make sense of-and survive-the chaos happening all around them in an African country torn apart by civil war.

The White Ribbon / Das weisse band
Michael Haneke, Austria/France, 2009, 144m
The Palme d'Or winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival, this is a starkly beautiful meditation on the consequences of violence-physical, emotional, spiritual-in a northern German town on the eve of World War I. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

The Wizard of Oz
Victor Fleming, 1939, USA, 103m
The 70th Anniversary of the timeless classic, presented in a spectacular newly-restored edition makes the film a new experience even for those who practically have it memorized. A Warner Bros. release

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Rooftop Films August 14-15

On Friday, August 14th Rooftop Films and Verizon Fios present
Home Movies, short films and video about moments in time, capturing and
imagining what it felt like to be there. On Saturday, August 15th, Rooftop
Films is screening Where You Live, a short films program exploring locales
as diverse as the harshest African deserts and the slowly fading inner
city of Detroit on the roof of El Museo del Barrio.

Friday, August 14th: Home Movies
Venue: On the lawn of Automotive High School
Address: 50 Bedford Ave. @ North 13th St. (Williamsburg, Brooklyn)
Directions: L to Bedford Ave. or G to Nassau Ave.
Rain: In the event of rain the show will be held indoors at the same location
8:00PM: Doors open
8:30PM: Sound Fix presents The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players
9:00PM: Film
10:30PM: Filmmaker Q & A
11:30PM-1:00AM: After-party: Open Bar at Matchless (557 Manhattan Ave. @
Driggs) Courtesy of Radeberger Pilsner
Tickets: $9 at the door or online
Presented in partnership with: Cinereach, New York magazine, City Council
Member David Yassky & Automotive High School

Saturday, August 15th: Where You Live
Venue: On the roof of El Museo Del Barrio
Address: 1230 Fifth Ave. @ 104th St. (East Harlem)
Directions: 6 to 103rd St. or 2/3 to 110th St.
Rain: In the event of rain, show will be indoors at the same location
8:00PM: Doors open
8:30PM: Sound Fix presents live music
9:00PM: Films
11:00PM-12:30AM: After-party on the roof: Open bar courtesy of Radeberger
Tickets: $9-$25 at door or online
Presented in partnership with: Cinereach, New York magazine, & El Museo
Del Barrio

No refunds. In the event of rain, the shows will be indoors at the same
locations. Seating is first come, first served. Physical seats are
limited. This means you may not get a chair. You are welcome to bring a
blanket and picnic.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Bee-ing Alive

by James Hansen

Consider, if you will, killer bees. Although they are often called “Africanized” bees by a western culture continuing to position the world's bad genes in the poorer sects of society, killer bees come from Africa but with heritage in countries across Europe. In stressful situations, killer bees, so says Wikipedia, abscond from their colonies, pulling their stingers out of the ground and buzzing along to new landscapes looking for some escape from stress and, lets assume, isolation. Unfortunately, the killer bees will never quite fit in. Poor them. With no specific lineage, home, or identity, killer bees wander the Earth welcomed by horticulturalists with excited, beekeeping glee, and by the common people with dread, precisely because...well...killer bees will fucking kill you.

I won’t speculate as to whether Andrew Bujalski was considering the life patterns of killer bees while writing the immaculate screenplay for his new feature Beeswax, but, just like killer bees, his characters are constantly searching for some fitting place in a massive world that continues to expand even amidst the boldest attempts to scale it down. When set adrift, his characters swarm together, boats against the current, and find ways to rebuild with one another – for better or worse. Beeswax is beautiful, sad, confusing, and oddly thrilling, oftentimes all at once. A remarkable new step for Bujalski, Beeswax is a film in perpetual motion, cast against the backdrop of the places we live, the assholes we deal with, and the varying adventures of life that we all face.

Revolving around a pair of twin sisters – Jeannie, a wheelchair bound co-owner of a local vintage store, and Lauren, figuring out place in the world as she meanders in between jobs and boyfriends while considering whether or not she really wants to teach English overseas. Meanwhile, Merrill, Jeannie’s ex-boyfriend, has just finished law school and reenters Jeannie’s life amid a minorly major crisis at the vintage store. Not quite ready to take the giant leap in front of him, Merrill retreats into Jeannie’s life looking for some comfort allowing his personal impasse to remain just that.

Bujalski has been given credit for the naturalness of each of his previous features, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), which both captured the inane excitement of slacker culture. Each choice by Bujalski, the actors, and the crew allows for the claim of naturalness, which is certainly something that is striven for in each of Bujalski’s features, but it is hardly the singular reason to praise the features, as some critics have done, especially if you are paying attention to the complex artistry from the hive up in Beeswax. The distinctly isolated spaces at play in Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation showed Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky’s knack for developing locations and embedding the film’s own position with the cinematographic choices – something lacking in almost all films, mainstream or indie. While full frame 16mm film stock was used in Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax opens up its frame to widescreen with Super 16mm as the broader frame coagulates with the spatio-temporal qualities of Jeannie and Lauren’s world. Beeswax finds larger world in play, yet, despite this, it is constantly being pared down by the characters attempting to keep grasp of everything and everyone around them. The world is getting too big, too mean, and its all certainly happening too fast.

Jeannie and Lauren are played by real life twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher who bring an incredibly controlled energy to their performances showing an enormous amount of focused restraint in building a ectstatic, nervous energy to their roles. Tilly is a real stand out in the uniquely challenging role of Jeannie. Empathetic and simultaneously commanding, Tilly builds upon the contradictions engrained in the character of Jeannie and discovers a place for her to be bewildered, composed, and totally dynamic. Alex Karpovsky, as Merrill, has a tough time competing with the great performance of Tilly Hatcher, but it is precisely the odd combination that makes their scenes together continually fascinating. They may not quite be two pees in a pod, two bees in a honeycomb, or two killer bees on an infant child, but the tension that Tilly and Karpovsky create between Jeannie, Merrill, and anyone they come in contact with is intoxicating.

With three features under his belt, each one better than the last, Bujalski already has a special place in the cinematic community for leading a younger generation of truly independent cinema. In Beeswax, Jeannie goes with Merrill to meet a man who may be able to help her out of a possible financial and business crisis. After a slightly awkward meeting, the man tells Jeannie, “I’d like to be your guy, but I don’t know if I’m your guy.” This line may very well sum up the attitude and the celebratory contradictions instilled within Beeswax, but there is no question that Bujalski is becoming the guy. With a sharp mind and a keen sense of people, place, and the fine line between comedy and self-realization, frequenting comparisons to the young days Woody Allen, Bujalski, like the not-strictly-from-Africa Africanized killer bees, may always be looking for a place to be totally comfortable and fit in. If Beeswax is any indication, however, that may be just the way he, and the rest of us, like it.


Opens at Film Forum in NYC on August 7

Opens at Nuart Theater in L.A. on August 21

National release in August / September 2009

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Thrill, A Kill, A Fix

by Brandon Colvin

I saw The Hurt Locker with my step-dad. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he was a Sergeant in the US Army. During his service in Iraq and Kuwait, and, years earlier, in West Germany, he saw men killed, he saved men’s lives, and he changed. In the deserts, his body frequently dehydrated. Sand particles penetrated his clothes and clogged his pores, preventing his body from sweating. He’s never sweated properly since then. At the slightest bit of heat, he starts gushing. He has to carry around a hand towel to wipe the persistent moisture from his face. Twenty years later, his pores are still compensating, still afraid he might dehydrate. The war made its mark on his body. The mark it made on his mind, though, was made evident when we walked out of the theater.

“Watching that movie put me back in it. The world looks different. It looks like it did when I was in the military. It makes me feel like a machine again.”

The Hurt Locker’s power comes from its ability to inspire this somewhat troubling shift in perspective. The film replicates the frame of mind of the soldier – the justified paranoia, the attention to detail, the reactionary instinct for self-preservation, the willingness to pull the trigger. For my step-dad, a man who has been in combat, the film’s representation of the military mindset is genuine. For me, a man who has never been close to combat, it is damned convincing, allowing me to grasp – if not fully understand – what it means to be a soldier, what it means to kill or be killed, to feel yourself constantly facing death.

Admittedly, there are some aspects of combat, of the soldier mentality that are as impenetrable to my step-dad as they are to me. These are the facets of war The Hurt Locker ultimately attempts to investigate, though the film goes no further than posing questions and suggestions – a wise choice that saves it from didacticism. At the center of this inquiry is the film’s frustrating protagonist, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). Pigheaded, reckless, and inconsiderate, Staff Sgt. James is also a master at his profession – defusing explosives in 2004 Iraq. Working with Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), he fishes for IEDs amidst piles of rubble and trash strewn through Iraqi streets. Staff Sgt. James frequently butts heads with his squad – a pair of soldiers who lost their previous leader to an IED – by ignoring safety regulations, endangering himself and his men and demonstrating what is either a death wish or a massive addiction to adrenaline-fueled high wire antics (as the film’s opening titles state, “War is a drug”). For the ever-responsible and sharp Sgt. Sanborn, James’ behavior is inscrutable, prompting him to ask the compulsive daredevil near the end of the film, “What is it that makes you the way you are?” He only receives a shrug in response.

But Staff Sgt. James is not all bad. Former war correspondent Mark Boal’s screenplay is much smarter than that. He has a hard fought soft spot for his young son, who lives a modest middle-American life with his wife, Connie (Evangeline Lilly) – both of whom James repeatedly chooses to abandon to satisfy his thrill quota on the frontlines, a decision he seems to regret only in quickly passing moments of what he might call weakness. Regardless of his general callousness toward and dissatisfaction with his family, James has a capacity for tenderness, as shown toward Specialist Eldridge, a young and psychologically damaged soldier, and most prominently displayed in the relationship he develops with a young Iraqi boy, one that leaves him vulnerable and ultimately reinforces Staff Sgt. James’ distant, cynical demeanor. The detrimental reality of caring too much hits James hard, interfering with his ability to do his job and compromising him emotionally. Indeed, the truly sympathetic facet of the man is revealed to be a failing as a soldier. Getting too involved means getting dead.

By the end of the film, James’ necessarily detached perspective seems reasonable, even if his near-suicidal bravado does not. His emotional coldness is one of the many aspects of soldiering that the film depicts with startling resonance, the most indelible of which are the sheer physical and temporal realities of life in the field. Depicting both the exhaustive, tense waiting that fills much of a soldier’s time and the abrupt harshness of real violence, The Hurt Locker is paced immaculately – as a whole and on a scene-to-scene basis – achieving an almost inverted approach to action in which gunshots, explosions, and chases are rarely embellished and the anticipatory anxiety surrounding them is allowed to develop, build, and boil over in a way that feels organic and accurate, a testament to the efforts of celebrated director Kathryn Bigelow and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski. The convincing atmospherics and tonal directness of the film’s editing is somewhat compromised by a dependency on slightly gimmicky “24”-style camera techniques (jittery POV shots, rack zooms, handheld to the max), but not enough to prevent absorption into The Hurt Locker’s involving cinematic environment, one so affecting that it hardens the viewer and conditions his mind.

The film’s final shot reveals the actual bleak result of this immersion in war. Staff Sgt. James suits up in his bomb gear. The heavy metal music previously confined to his stereo fills the entire soundtrack with a crunching riff. Having left his family once again, he walks down an Iraqi street. It all resets. Another year begins in his Sisyphean quest to get that mysterious, unreachable high. Cut off from his own humanity, he recedes into the wilderness, a modern version of The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, driven by an implacable existential restlessness. As he marches forth, isolated, we sympathize with James, familiar with his world and subsumed into its reality, but never understanding what leads a man to taunt death, to sacrifice it all for a thrill, a kill, a fix.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sneak of August 2009 Wikio Top 30 Film Blog Rankings

After the break, you can see the Wikio Blog Rankings for the month of August. We are lucky enough to have been an exclusive preview of the rankings once again, and are thrilled to share them a day early with our readers! I love seeing more and more of our friends and readers own sites appear on here, as WIkio remains an extraordinary resource for finding and tracking the most important sites out there.

Thanks to Wikio and on with the rankings!

2Deadline Hollywood Daily
3MTV Movies Blog
6Film School Rejects
8Cartoon Brew
9Trek Movie Report
10The House Next Door
11Cinema Styles
12GreenCine Daily
13Some Came Running
14Film for the Soul
15Upcoming Pixar
16Shooting Down Pictures
17Ferdy on Films, etc.
18Edward Copeland on Film
19Fin de Cinema
21The Evening Class
22Coffee Coffee and More Coffee
23The Film Doctor
24Out 1
25Mayerson on Animation
26Observations on Film Art
272719 Hyperion
28Movie City Indie
29Nick's Flick Picks

Ranking by Wikio.

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