Saturday, January 31, 2009

DVD releases for January 27

After a hiatus, I'll get back on the DVD train. Although this is no momentous week for DVDs, I will be re-watching Vicky Christina Barcelona with my better half, and also checking out RocknRolla to see if it is all that bad.

Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) directed by Woody Allen
I have to stop being concerned about how I can like a film so much and others could hate it. Although I can't understand why someone would dog this movie, I'm willing to accept that we are all different and have different expectations from films. At this point, I think if Woody Allen is willing to stay in the directing chair (and out of the acting chair) his films are as dynamic as they have ever been. Vicky Christina Barcelona is a trademark Allen film that is able to feel new by the unique characters built by Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, and Scarlett Johansson. (I swear, Woody Allen is the only director who doesn't let Johansson look like the worst actress ever.)

Lakeview Terrace (2008) directed by Neil LaBute
If you know Neil LaBute, you know what you are getting into with Lakeview Terrace. It is divisive without feeling being overly contrived. I longed for a Halloween-like ending to this film, but I think LaBute had more serious intentions. Samuel L. Jackson is pretty frightening in this role.

RocknRolla (2008) directd by Guy Ritchie
The great break-up film of 2008. Or did Ritchie and Madonna break-up in 2007? I'm not sure. However, if they were trying to outdo each other with their bad movies, it looks like they succeeded. Although Madonna's Filth and Wisdom seemed to take the prize as the worst, RocknRolla didn't fare much better with the critics or the masses. It came and went so fast that I didn't get a chance to see it in the theaters. I'm convinced that it can't be all that bad, but I'll make the assessment on DVD.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008) directed by Marina Zenovich
Anyone who wants to know why Polanski wasn't around to collect his 2002 Oscar for The Pianist should check out this doc. The film is less about the crime Polanski committed, than it is about the celebrity trial that turned into a sham. The film has made the rounds in the theater and on TV, but if you still haven't seen it, it is a pretty interesting doc that paints Polanski as neither victim nor villain.

Black Is...Back Ain't (1994) directed by Marlon Riggs
Like everyone, I don't think Marlon Riggs could have seen that only 14 short years later, we would have an African American president. It's too bad he didn't live to see it. Black Is...Black Ain't was Riggs final film. The documentary is a dialog among African Americans to define what is black. Through interviews and personal stories, Riggs underlines the fact that lumping races (and genders and religions) together is counterproductive. This film is just a relevant as ever.

2012: Science or Superstition
If you want to do some research for a crappy apocalypse/action movie coming to summer theaters near you, check out this documentary. (Try not to be fooled by the cool trailer for the upcoming 2012. I have no doubt that it is going to be equally as dumb as Roland Emmerich's other films: 10,000 BC, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, et al.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Terence Davies' OF TIME AND THE CITY

I'll admit that it has taken longer than it should to notice Terence Davies' films. Although aware of his feature films, I was completely uninterested due to recondite reasoning that I myself have no explanation for. This is especially true for Distance Voices, Still Lives that was newly out on VHS during my fertile video store years. Customers were often sing its praises, and I dismissed the admiration as the same flutter you would get around the Merchant Ivory films.

Of Time and the City was my gateway to Davies. As I headed off on vacation this summer, I threw recently arrived periodicals in my bag for downtime reading. One of them was the summer issue of Cinema Scope (that's two words folks, Cinema and Scope - Mark Peranson, I hope you are reading) which included an interview with Terence Davies. I was reading it with about as much interest as I had given Distant Voices, but by the time I got to the end I was stunned and had to re-read it. Who was this guy? Is he for real?

The interview is pleasant and Davies exerts a wry sense of humor. But it is his honesty that I was struck by, while methodically and politely contemplating Of Time and the City. Right smack in the middle of the interview Davies is talking about how, when he was 11, he realized he was gay, and that it ruined his life as a devote Catholic. Jason Anderson asks Davies, "So have you ever felt happy since you were 11?" to which he replies, "No, never. I'm afraid not." His candor in this interview was my first insight to why his films are so special.

When I heard that the Walker would be screening Of Time in the City, I was ecstatic. Terence Davies revealed. It was recommended to me, if I was really interested in Davies, that I check out his Trilogy—Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration—available on DVD in the UK. So that is exactly what I did. I converted my hard earned American dollars into British pounds for the DVD and spent last weekend diving head first into what has to be some of the most personal and achingly beautiful films I have seen.

Of Time and the City is being called a film essay for its use of archive footage and voice-over narration, but it could just as easily be called a memoir. Returning to his hometown of Liverpool, Davies reminisces and contemplates the place that molded him into the adult that he is today. The majority of the film is made up of found footage, mostly black and white, of Liverpool and England during the time Davies was growing up. With subject matter switch from the Royal Family to the Beatles to the Catholic Church, Davies sews together a free form composition. It is too personal to have the universal overtones of Chris Marker, and is more serious than the dark sarcasm of Guy Maddin. Exhibiting the same honesty that I noted in his interview, Davies unflinchingly introduces his homeland with an air of nostalgia and scorn (sometimes in the same breath.)

Davies acknowledges that Humphrey Jennings' 1942 Listen to Britain was direct inspiration for Of Time and the City. Listen to Britain was solicited to support the Allied war effort. It is a short film that shows 'a day in the life.' Although very propaganda-like, it is considered a masterpiece and in Davies' own words, "one of the greatest documentaries." The lyricism and the authenticity was what Davies was trying to capture for Liverpool.

Compared to his Trilogy, Of Time and the City is extremely lighthearted, even playful. The films that make up the Terence Davies Trilogy are his first three films made between 1976 and 1983 that have a consistent narrative line. The films highlight his formal skills as a filmmaker and his ability for emotional gravity. They are nothing short of stunning, and it is no wonder why Davies was heralded as a master very early on. Of Time and the City is a perfect reflection of the Trilogy thirty years later.

Of Time and the City's official website here.
A peek at Humphrey Jennings'
Listen to Britain here.
The Walker's Expanding the Frame continues this weekend with Jia Zhang Ke's 24 City.

It looks like I should have checked out Distant Voices, Still Lives when I had the chance on VHS; domestically it is unavailable on DVD.

Monday, January 26, 2009

3rd Asian Film Awards Nominations

Still in its infancy, the Asian Film Awards has yet to cause too many waves. Although the Asian Film Awards gives in to the inevitable lumping of "Asian film," it is also a show of regional camaraderie against the Holywoodization of all these markets. Much like any award program, AFA has a mix of the money-makers, the mediocre and the exceptional. I haven't seen enough of these to differentiate which is which, but two have played here in the Twin Cities (Singh is Kinng and Chandni Chowk to China at the best kept secret in town, the Brookdale 8), one is playing next week (24 City at the Walker), and one is available domestically on DVD (Stephen Chow's CJ7.) At the very least, most will see a DVD release sometime in the next five years state side.

Kim Jee-woon's The Good, the Bad, the Weird led the pack with eight nominations. I'm glad to see that Brillante Mendoza's Service (dogged at Cannes) is up for a few awards. In my opinion, this list is full of interesting stuff, with lots of films I am looking forward to. For those interested here is the complete list:

Best film

Tokyo Sonata - Japan/the Netherlands/Hong Kong
Forever Enthralled - China
The Good, the Bad, the Weird - South Korea
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea - Japan
The Rainbow Troops - Indonesia
Red Cliff - China


Brillante Mendoza, Service - the Philippines
Feng Xiaogang, If You Are the One - China
Kim Jee-woon, The Good, the Bad, the Weird - South Korea
Koreeda Hirokazu, Still Walking - Japan
Miyazaki Hayao/Frank Marshall, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea - Japan
John Woo, Red Cliff - China


Song Kang-ho, The Good, the Bad, the Weird - South Korea
Ge You, If You Are the One - China
Ha Jung-woo, The Chaser - South Korea
Akshay Kumar, Singh Is Kinng - India
Matsuyama Kenich, Detroit Metal City - Japan
Motoki Masahiro, Departures - Japan


Zhou Xun, The Equation of Love and Death - China
Fukatsu Eri, The Magic Hour - Japan
Jiang Wenli, And the Spring Comes - China
Deepika Padukone, Chandni Chowk To China - India
Yoshinaga Sayuri, Kabei -- Our Mother - Japan
Zhou Wei, Painted Skin - China/Hong Kong

Best newcomer

JeeJa Yanin, Chocolate - Thailand
Matsuda Shota, Boys Over Flowers: the Movie - Japan
Sandrine Pinna, Miao Miao - Taiwan/Hong Kong
So Ji-sub, Rough Cut - South Korea
Xu Jiao, CJ7 - Hong Kong
Yu Shaoqun, Forever Enthralled - China

Supporting actor

Nick Cheung (left), Beast Stalker - Hong Kong
Jung Woo-sung, The Good, the Bad, the Weird - South Korea
Lee Byung-hun, The Good, the Bad, the Weird - South Korea
Tsutsumi Shinichi, Suspect X - Japan
Wang Xueqi, Forever Enthralled - China

Supporting actress

Kiki Kirin, Still Walking - Japan
Aoi Yu, Sex Is No Laughing Matter - Japan
Jaclyn Jose, Service - the Philippines
Kim Ji-yeong, Forever the Moment - South Korea
Gina Pareno, Service - the Philippines


Na Hong-jin, The Chaser - South Korea
Li Qiang, And the Spring Comes - China
Tom Lin/Henry Tsai, Winds of September - Taiwan/Hong Kong
Kurosawa Kiyoshi/Max Mannix/Tanaka Sachiko, Tokyo Sonata - Japan/the Netherlands/Hong Kong
Mitani Koki, The Magic Hour - Japan

Ato Shoichi, Paco and the Magical Book - Japan
Cheng Siu-keung (HKSC), Sparrow - Hong Kong
Lee Mo-gae, The Good, the Bad, the Weird - South Korea
Jola Dylewska, Tulpan - Germany/Kazakhstan/Poland/Russia/Switzerland
Wang Yu/Nelson Lik-wai YU, 24 City - China

Production designer

Nitin Chandrakant DESAI, Jodhaa Akbar - India
Kuwajima Towako, Paco and the Magical Book - Japan
Daniel Yan-kong Lee, Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon - Hong Kong/South Korea/China
Bill Lui, Painted Skin - China/ Hong Kong
Taneda Yohei, The Magic Hour - Japan


Dalpalan/Jang Young-gyu, The Good, the Bad, the Weird - South Korea
Hanno Yoshihiro/ LIM Giong, 24 City - China
Hisaishi Joe, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea - Japan
Henry Wan-man Lai, Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon - Hong Kong/South Korea/China
A.R. Rahman, Jodhaa Akbar - India


Chan Ki-hop, Beast Stalker - Hong Kong
William Suk-ping Chang, Miao Miao - Taiwan/Hong Kong
Darya Daniolva, Native Dancer - Kazakhstan/Russia/France/Germany
Waluyo Ichwandiardono, The Rainbow Troops - Indonesia
Kim Sun-min, The Chaser - South Korea

Visual effects

Craig Hayes, Red Cliff - China
Kim Wook, The Good, the Bad, the Weird - South Korea
Yanagawase Masahide, Paco and the Magical Book - Japan

Saturday, January 24, 2009

CHE Roadshow Edition continues at the Uptown

Replace "One Week Only" with "Held Over By Popular Demand" for the Che Roadshow Edition at the Uptown. The film will be held over for one more week, hopefully reflecting good business for the film. My best intentions to catch this film again got swallowed up by the inauguration of my favorite president ever, "Lost," and general fiddling about with my own DVDs (think Uncle, on second thought, scratch that.) Point being, I have a second shot which I intend to make good use of. The program is a draw for me, but I also want to see the differences between the two versions, although I am sure they are minimal.

On another related note, for those who use or occasionally look at the Twin Cities Film Calendar in the sidebar, it continues to be (fill in the blank). Sucky. Useful. Dumb. Inaccurate. I'm willing to accept that it could be any of those. Chandler (the calendar program) can be kind of buggy and will crash my computer no and then if I leave it up. I do however try to keep it updated and keep it as accurate as possible. I am looking into better options; something a little nicer to look at, a little more user friendly (on my end and your end), and something that doesn't crash my computer.

And lastly, more shameless self-promotion: If you haven't already, check out my review of Che here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Kent MacKenzie's THE EXILES

The Walker's Expanding the Frame series started with Bruce McClure's strobing multi-media industrial drone performance, but the more traditional film fun began with a short run of Kent MacKenzie's 1961 slice-of-life masterpiece. Expanding the Frame is a literal grab bag of films that span from an experimental 1933 Bruce Connor film to Terence Davies' 2008 homage to Liverpool. The diverse nature of these films (and performances) all share a common thread of unconventionality. The Exiles falls right smack in the middle of that timeline and also somewhere in between being a narrative and non-narrative feature. Part fact and part fiction, the film is freewheeling and rudderless, much like the film's characters.

The Exiles examines three Native Americans from dusk to dawn in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles. The film's simplicity is part of its grace, but it is also the careful planning of MacKenzie himself who spent over three years on the project. He made a short documentary about Bunker Hill in 1956 which sowed the seeds for The Exiles. Employing his friends, classmates, non-professional actors and borrowed equiptment, MacKenzie no doubt considered The Exiles a labor of love.

Yvonne, Homer and Tommy are individuals of the same community. Although all three are from reservations in the southwest, they all have different reasons for moving to LA. Yvonne is pregnant is Homer's child, yet they have a disconnected and apathetic relationship. Yvonne lives for he baby, and longs to stay in LA to raise her child. Homer lives to go out at night and have fun, but misses his parents and longs to return home. Tommy is carefree and lives moment to moment, drinking and chasing women. The film begins as Yvonne is returning home and Homer, Tommy and their friends are preparing to go out. In turn we get to eavesdrop on each of their thoughts—Yvonne reveals her hope, Homer reveals his anger, and Tommy reveals his imprudence.

It's really hard to know when the actors star being characters, and when the characters stop being actors. Much of the voice-overs sound like testimonials rather than exposes. Yvonne gets dropped off at a movie, knowing full well that she will not be picked up. Homer, unsatisfied with simply sitting around drinking, heads to a card game. He ducks out before he loses all his money and then heads out to raise some hell. Tommy successfully gets drunk and finds a girl, but is unable to muscle his way with the girl is his sorry state. The rabble rousers end up on Hill X in the wee hours of the morning, away from the cops as an isolated party community that includes drums, fights, singing and debauchery.

The Exiles is also a postcard picture of something that doesn't exist anymore. Bunker Hill has been razed for high rises and Hill X is now the home of Dodgers Stadium. There is an air of nostalgia for the way things were, even if it is bittersweet.

Shot in beautiful black and white, The Exiles excels for its formal beauty. The LA streets at night glow with life, but also conceal so much in the inky corners and alleys. It is truly a film of photographs that has been careful restored from non-existence. The film originally screened at the 1961 Venice Festival and then the New York Film Festival, but never got a commercial release. It all but disappeared until clips were featured in Thom Anderson's Los Angeles Plays Itself. Thankfully, Milestone Films (the good people responsible for restoring and re-releasing The Killer of Sheep) took on the project. The results are pretty fantastic.

The official website for The Exiles.

Expanding the Frame continues with Terence Davies Of Time and the City this weekend and Jia Zhangke's 24 City next weekend. Check out the entire upcoming schedule.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Darren Aronofsky's THE WRESTLER

There is much buzz about The Wrestler, but most of it is centered on Mickey Rourke's performance. (And if you want to get excited about the Bruce Springsteen song, that is your own business.) If you missed it, Rourke won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, and it is very likely that he will be battling it out with Sean Penn at the Best Actor Oscar. (I'm convinced that Hollywood is feeling guilty about Proposition 8, and they will try to make it up to us by being generous to Milk. But that is another story.) You will notice, however, that there aren't too many people talking about Robert D. Seigel's amazing scrip or even Darren Aronofsky's talented directing. I would argue that there is a reason for that.

I was fully prepared to be disappointed in The Wrestler. The trailer screamed cliché every time I saw it. An over the hill and down on his luck guy who wants to make good on all he has done bad; his only friend is a stripper with a heart of gold; and he decides now is the time to make an effort with his estranged adult daughter. The tear rolling down the cheek as he pleads his case to his daughter was just too much for me. The only twist that I could see was that the guy with the shit-life flashing before his eyes is a professional wrestler.

I may have been prepared for the overused story and the mawkish dialog, but I was completely unprepared for The Wrestler's tenderness and sheer physicality. Randy 'The Ram' Robinson's longevity in the world of professional boxing is exemplified in this yin-like humanity and yang-like brutality. And now that I think about it, it may also explain his lack of meaningful personal relationships. His professional relationships have more depth than the one he has with the stripper or even his daughter. The moments of sincerity in the locker rooms shared between the wrestlers is like some sort of code of the samurai: the respect and love shown due to a clandestine understanding for one another.

And then there is the physicality. First there is Rourke's surprising gravity and age. The burly and rough man that he has become from his soft and pretty days of 9 1/2 Weeks is unbelievable, and the film is willing to exploit it into art. The second part of this is a testament to the fact that I am not totally desensitized. I'm willing to see people cut out their own tongues and many other unspeakable things, but, I'm sorry, volunteering to be tagged over and over again with a brad gun? I don't think so. The centerpiece fight had me looking at the seat in front of me for it's viscerality. It was all a little too realistic. I'll cry at a movie at the drop of a hat, but admitting defeat in the squeamish department is not something I'm used to doing. To Aronofsky's credit, it's a well edited scene that is meant to drive the point home. He may not have had my defeat in mind, but its obviously a pivotal scene that is meant to blunt and unembellished.

Mickey Rourke is quite remarkable in his role, and no doubt part of it has to do with personal experience. Like most people, I haven't exactly been following Rourke's career, but the film inevitably highlights the fact that he left acting to pursue a boxing career. Honestly, I don't really care much about that, but the reality is that his career choices off the screen translate on the screen. Taking the role was a pretty gutsy move. As much as I think Sean Penn transformed himself into Harvey Milk and was the shining light in a very ho-hum Gus Van Sant movie, I would much rather see Rourke get the little gold man for this one.

Darren Aronofsky has a mixed bag of cult films to his resume, and I would have to say that The Wrestler is by far his most 'mainstream.' Sort of. The Wrestler is certainly not the feel-good movie of the year, I don't care how you look at it. Most will find this film unsettling and unresolved. Even though those are the qualities I admire about it, The Wrestler is bound to disappoint some award-curious viewers. With its moments of graphic violence and unadorned sex and less than happy ending, it may just as easily fall into the film fringes.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Yu Hyun-mok's STRAY BULLET

Enough about 2008 already. Now let's move on to 1960...

My idea of a classic Korean film might be something from the mid-90s. As a matter of fact, I think the two 'oldest' Korean films I have seen are 301/302 and A Single Spark, both from 1995 (unless you count the classic North Korean kaiju film Pulgasari from 1985.) Pleasantly distracted by the offerings of Contemporary Korean film, I have rarely given a thought to the history of Korean cinema. It goes without saying that classic Korean cinema doesn't have nearly the recognition of classic Japanese cinema. Part of the problem is distribution, with few pre-1990s Korean films making it across the Pacific. The bigger problem may be that 35% of Korean films made since 1910 are simply gone: products of a fragile medium and a tumultuous century.

Under these circumstances, I was surprised to see Yu Hyun-mok's Stray Bullet (more commonly known as Aimless Bullet or simply by its Korean name Obaltan) out on DVD in the US. It's been out for some time on the Cinema Epoch label that is also responsible for the Chinese Film Classics series. Considered one of the best Korean films ever made, Stray Bullet is a relentless melodrama that owes a large debt to Italian Neorealism. Its examination of social strife is so resolute that reports of it being banned at the time come at no surprise.

Stray Bullet takes place in urban South Korea shortly after the end of the Korean War. The economy and society are reeling from the effects of a very physical yet also a highly ideological struggle. At the heart of the film is one seven-member family desperately living from day to day. Each member represent a different perspective on what can only be called the worst of times.

Chul Ho is the oldest brother in the family and the only bread winner. He works long tireless hours as an accountant for a salary that barely sustains everyone. His misery is only heightened by the fact that he lives with a painful toothache he can't afford to fix. His young daughter is painfully hopeful that she will get a new pair of shoes, and his wife is malnourished and pregnant. She diligently collects her husbands earnings, but barely says a word throughout the entire film. It seems less a case of subservience, than simply 'if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all.' Chul Ho's brother, Yong Ho, is a war veteran. He spends most of his time drinking with his army buddies and being nostalgic about their time as heroes. Chul Ho and Yong Ho also have a young brother who has given up his education to sell newspapers on the street. Their sister, Myong Sook, is more pragmatic about the situation. Her boyfriend has been emasculated by a war injury and refuses to marry. Giving up hope on ever having a family, she turns to prostitution to support herself. Lastly, there is the matriarch, Chul Ho's mother. Bedridden, she wakes every ten minutes or so to wail, "Let's get out of here! Let's get out of here!" and then falls back into a catatonic state. She is the symbolic cornerstone of the film and an ominous reminder of what the family has already been through.

The set up does not paint a very pretty picture, and it hardly gets any better. Most of the film focuses on Yong Ho's psychological struggle to find a place in society after the war. When a friend sets up an opportunity for him to act in a movie, Yong Ho becomes furious at the director's intentions to trivialize and exploit his experience as a war veteran. In a rare moment of lightheartedness, Yong Ho runs into a nurse who treated him during the war. Their bond seems to open the door to some sort of hope for happiness only to be slammed shut again.

Stray Bullet is a harsh social critique, and is revered because of it. Unfortunately, the print the DVD was taken from is not the best. It's a black and white film, and in cases of extreme darkness the image is reduced to mud. The opposite is also true, where the brightest images simply get washed out. This is all to be expected. Much like Epoch's Chinese Film Classic DVDs, without the funding to restore the films, I'm simply glad that something exists. It states at the beginning of the DVD that it is taken from a festival print that was recovered. The subtitles were burnt into the print, but there are also selectable subtitles in yellow that are probably a little easier to read.

Facts come from Darcy Paquet's research here and here. Also find a robust amount of information on the Korean Film Councils website here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Steven Soderbergh's CHE

As luck would have it, I was fortunate enough to review this film for the Star Tribune. You can read the review here.

The long and the short of it, pun probably intended, is: Che is a great film; it is 4 hours and 20 minutes long; and you should not miss the "Roadshow Edition" of the film playing at the Uptown for one week only. The Roadshow Edition has Part One and Two screening together with no ads or previews and a fancy program in lieu of no opening and closing credits. After playing the Roadshow Edition at the Uptown, it will then be screened as two separate films most likely at the Lagoon. The other rub to all this is that Soderbergh is also releasing Che online January 21. I'm not sure where and how online, but I am generally kind of stupid about such things. Nonetheless, if Che is not coming to a theater near you, Roadshow or otherwise, you can still see it without having to wait.

Soderbergh has guts to release a film like this: breaking the time barrier for normal films and seeking alternative methods of distribution. He obviously has the clout and the respect to do such things and I am glad for that. (In another interesting note on Mr. Soderbergh, he has plans for a 3-D Cleopatra rock musical with Catherine Zeta Jones in the lead. I kid you not.)

There is a lot I would like to say about Che and I feel I said most of it in my review. I will more than likely go to see the Roadshow Edition for the program and to see what the difference is. (The two part version with credits was screened for the press.)

I'm interested in these films that go beyond the three hour mark, because they really behave differently on an psychological level. Our brain has been conditioned to the 90 minute attention span requirement for an average movie. When a movie breaks out of that, especially beyond, it becomes free from certain restraints that most films are held accountable for. I revel in such experiments and like to see these boarders pushed. No doubt this is one reason for my high regard of Che.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Best of 2008: Music

Less a self-congratulatory need for a high five than just a little record keeping and reminiscing on my year in music. (I'll take the high-five, however, if there are any out there.) Click on links and rock out.

In absolutely no order:

CSS - "Donkey"
Cansei de Ser Sexy (literally 'I got tired of being sexy') is dance rock perfection from Brazil. The show at First Ave was a physical dance endurance test for me, shaking my money-maker to The Go Team for an hour and then doing all over again for CSS. (Probably kind of a sad sight, but I enjoyed myself.) Infectious music good for any party.

M83 - "Saturdays = Youth"
I spent over a month listening to this album and this album alone. Saturdays = Youth is as atmospheric as any other M83 album, but is infused with irresistible melodic 80s pop sound that is soooo dreamy.

Santogold"Santogold" and "Top Ranking"
Where is Santogold! When will she come to Minneapolis? Santogold just came out of nowhere with Radio K playing "L.E.S. Artists" and "Unstoppable" months before the actual full length came out. And with good reason. Santogold's image might scream underground New York artist, but her music is pure glorious pop. The fact that Diplo released a Santogold remix album, "Top Ranking," meant that I could hear all these songs that I loved (and more) in a new version.

Nomo - "Ghost Rock"
This nine piece from Michigan is one part Fela Kuti and one part Aphex Twin, sometimes leaning toward a horn heavy sound and sometimes leaning toward a effervescent electronic sound.

Be Your Own Pet - "Get Awkward"
This band just keeps getting louder and rowdier. "Super Soaked" never fails to super-charge my jog into an all out run. "Get Awkward" is Be Your Own Pet's second album - owning both means twice the fun. Punk lives in this loud, fun music. Zombie Graveyard Party!

Black Mountain - "In The Future"
The Black Mountain show was the most purple haze I have seen for some time. Of course half of that was the City Pages pumping them up as stoner music with a glorious Sabbath sound, and although that is true, "In the Future" has so much more to offer than that. First there is Amber Webber's warbling ethereally vocals, nicely contrasting with Stephen McBean's growling Damon Alban-like voice. And second, it may sound like the 70s, but it is 2008 (or at this point 2009, but you know what I'm saying.) The beauty of Black Mountain is that they are making this big riff, super-sonic rock-n-roll now.

Fleet Foxes - "Fleet Foxes"
I challenge anyone to find four guys that can harmonize better than Fleet Foxes. These songs are so achingly beautiful, that the lyrics are simply an added bonus of earthy sweetness. If that weren't enough, these guys are really funny and smart. Look, they even have a Bruegel painting for their cover art.

High Places - "High Places"
Two people standing behind a couple laptops making music may be passe, but High Places is livelier than most in this genre. Their bubbly mechanical pop is lifted by lead singer Mary Pearson's high, child-like voice. It's pretty enchanting music that will have kids and adults bouncing in their chairs.

Marnie Stern - "This Is It and I am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and That Is That"
I'm not kidding around about that title. And if that isn't enough to convince you that Marnie Stern is no ordinary woman, you should hear her guitar playing. She does more fret tapping than, well, any of those guys who are more famous for fret tapping. Marnie Stern's music is seriously quirky, which is totally why I love it so much: not metal, not punk, and certainly not pop.

Ponytail - "Ice Cream Spiritual"
Ponytail produces solid experimental rock lightened by Molly Siegel's unexplainable vocals. Is she speaking English? Or a foreign language? Or her own personal language? Does it really matter? Not really. It only matters that I want to trill and scream and 'wooop!' along with her. Ponytail rips through songs much like Deerhoof, only Deerhoof turned in one of the most tired sounding albums of the year and Ponytail turned in one of the freshest.

Portishead - "Third"
One might think that a ten year hiatus might water down Portihead's sound. Quite the contrary, Portishead seems to have honed their melancholic electro-drone to some sort of perfection that is something more subversive than just sounding creepy.

Elbow"The Seldom Seen Kid"
Elbow is Brit pop wonderment that seems like it could explode onto the popular scene at any second. (Or maybe they have, but my head is so buried, I didn't notice.)

U.S. Christmas"Eat the Low Dogs"
What shall I compare "Eat the Low Dogs" to? Monster Magnet? Mudhoney? Pink Floyd? Or some combination of the three and some other stuff? It's a loud, hard hitting album that is equally spacey and psychedelic. There are so many fuzzy layers to these songs, you feel like you could just dive in. Hailing from the mountains of North Carolina, its the perfect music for that setting. In the modern day Deliverance, these dudes will be standing on the bridge howling at you. The ten minute elegy "Silent Tongue" is a force to be reckoned with.

UNKLE"End Titles…Stories for Film" and "End Titles…Redux"
I'm content to have James Lavelle remix Vivaldi or remix his remix on Vivaldi. I love both of these releases.

Honorably Mentionable
Tricky - "Knowle West Boy"
Terry Lynn - "Kingstonlogic 2.0"
Abe Vigoda – "Skeleton"
TV on the Radio - "Dear Science"
Dengue Fever - "Venus On Earth"
Hot Chip - "Made in the Dark"
Sian Alice Group – "59.59"
Ocrilim - "Annwn"

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Best of 2008: Twin Cities Film

By all accounts, 2008 was a bad year for the film industry. As movies vie for attention, television has become far more sophisticated at distracting the audience. As the piece of the money making pie for films gets smaller, the larger companies fight harder. A handful of specialty distributors (Warner Independent Pictures, Picturehouse, THINKFilm, New Line, Paramount Vantage, Tartan) threw in the towel, changing the landscape of independent film distribution. As the lines become more and more blurry between the theater and your television and your computer and your PDA, film generally gets ignored under the wide umbella of media events. The biggest shows of the year played out not on film, but on TV and the various digital outlets that it supports. Between Zhang Yimou's theatrical mega-show in Beijing and the election year's many moments of political dynamism and ridiculousisms, I was even willing to join the couch potatoes. Although Oliver Stone filmically tried to add to the conversation with W, no one heard him over the shouts for Tina Fey.

Of course the other watershed of 2008 was the "crisis in film criticism." A number of full time critics at large publications lost their jobs due to a seismic shift between digital and print media. All of the sudden those who get paid to write about films are threatened by those of us willing to write about film regardless of pay. (Please note the two very important exhibits right before you: a) your computer, b) my ragtag blog where you have read into the second paragraph.) Every conversation about what is going on with film criticism eventually ends up on those dirty weirdos in their basements on a 24/7 blog-a-thon. (Again, refer to exhibit b.) The irony locally is that yours truly and my friend Daniel over at Getafilm, bloggers at the very least, have crept out from our basements to occasionally grace the pages of our local daily. Needless to say, the crisis is more of a crisis of excess, and this is by no means isolated to film. Figuring out what form this excess will take on in the coming years is a do-or-die task for every magazine and newspaper. Personally, I don't know if film periodicals have ever been better. I am continually amazed by the rich material in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Cineaste, the newly redesigned Film Quarterly, and Art Forum.

It is under these dire circumstances that the Twin Cities film community soldiers on! If it was a bad year in film, I was ignorantly oblivious to it here in the Twin Cities, where film exhibition continued to challenge my schedule and my brain. Although I wish our community had a little more solidarity (uniforms? lapel pins?), our resilience has nonetheless been rewarded with a very fruitful year of screenings. Whether you wanted to be nostalgic or cutting edge, a handful of venues and organizations did their very best to offer top shelf programming. Here were the highlights:

26th Minneapolis-St Paul International Film Festival
Carrying a huge sign that signified 'not dead yet,' Minnesota Film Arts packed St Anthony Main day in and day out with a very solid film festival. Offering a glorified sneak peak of the year's indie darlings (The Visitor, Encounters at the End of the World, Beauty in Trouble, The Edge of Heaven, The Last Mistress, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, Son of Rambow, Tell No One, Time Crimes, Young @ Heart, Up the Yangtze, Savage Grace, American Teen) as well as unprecedented screenings of fantastic films that will never ever return(Alexandra, Autumn Ball, Beaufort, Dry Season, Import/Export, Jar City, Katyn, Little Moth, Slingshot, Still Life, Way I Spent the End of the World, Woman on the Beach, Yella, You the Living, Pageant, Momma's Man, Patti Smith: Dream of Life...and those were just the ones I saw. To say that there was something for everyone would be an understatement. MFA has been struggling the past few years and has faced many criticisms (perhaps even from me.) But its sheer tenacity is admirable. Film Fest dates for this year are set for April 16 to May 3.

In the Realm of Oshima: The Films of Japanese Master Nagisa Oshima at the Walker
The Walker offered many things in 2008—Naomi Kawase and her films Shara and Mourning Forest, Mike Leigh and his amazing first film Bleak Moments, Carlos Reygadas and his most recent masterpiece Silent Light, Two Lane Blacktop, crazy Errol Morris and Standard Operating Procedure—but the Nagisa Oshima retrospective was the crowning jewel. Seeing these films, many for the first time, was like some kind of unbelievable gift that I didn't deserve. The three week remastered CinemaScope retrospective of film rebellion was like a dream come true: intellectually engaging, visually stunning and completely overwhelming.

Playing the Villain: The Films of Richard Widmark at the Parkway
Take-Up Productions has worked tirelessly to make repertory screenings a reality, offering two film noir series and this hum-dinger at the newly renovated Parkway Theater. Richard Widmark was born in Minnesota, and although he wasn't a huge star, he was a familiar face. The beauty of the Widmark series was the relative obscurity of the titles: Kiss Of Death (1947), Slattery's Hurricane (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), Yellow Sky (1948), and Don't Bother to Knock (1952). I'm willing to be corrected, but I would guess that all five probably had not screened here theatrically since being released.

Alain Robbe-Grillet Series and Godard Retrospective at the Oak Street
Word on the street was that the powers that be were not happy about the turn out for these two series, but I thought they resurrected some much needed life back into Oak Street. Despite the fact that everyone was focused on the election and debates, film fans turned out to see these films either for the first time or the fifteenth. The Alain Robbe-Grillet films were a stark reminder to what the Oak used to be with surprising hidden gems that I could have never imagined in my wildest dreams.

The sad reality of theaters fighting for audiences did make itself evident in small, but very obvious ways in the Twin Cities. The most stinging was coming back from vacation to find Mama Mia and Batman Returns dominating my independent film mutiplex. With that in mind, I make the plea for everyone to check out a film that you have never heard of, or support the cinema offering challenging programming. I'm no Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert, but I'll see you at the movies anyway.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Best of 2008: Movies

It's not a top ten list if you don't make some difficult decisions separating the wheat from the chaff. It's also not a top ten list if there aren't ten. Because I couldn't bring myself to reduce this list any more than I already have, I am inaugurating the top 5% list. That's right, these 16 titles represent 5% of what I saw in 2008. (You do the math.) From the heart, here are my favorite films of the year, in order, with a sizable bucket for honorable mentions:

Ashes of Time Redux (2008) directed by Wong Kar Wai
December 12 an 17 at the Lagoon
Seeing Ashes of Time again was like falling in love all over again. The most surprising thing about Redux is how similar it is to the original, but how it feels like an entirely new film. Painstakingly remastered, it looks as it never has before. Ashes of Time is the martial arts film for the contemplative romantic that finds the human heart as mysterious a place as the Gobi desert. Ashes of Time has been my favorite Wong Kar Wai film because of its elusive nature that turned most people away. Like most of his films (My Blueberry Nights the big exception), Ashes revealed a new layer with each viewing. Thankfully the era of watching it from DVDs that are shamelessly cropped and devoid of color is over.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) directed by Cristian Mungiu
March 3 at the Edina
The buzz for this film was in 2007, but it didn't arrive here until 2008. Although very un-movie like in pragmatic storyline and tone, 4 Months is all the more powerful and painful. Oppression hangs over every scene like a high pitch that you can't hear but you can definitely feel.

Syndromes and a Century (2006) directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
January 27 on DVD
Apichatpong Weerasethakul may be one of the most brilliant filmmakers alive. His films are visual dreams that find their beauty in a gentle surreality. Syndromes and a Century was inspired by Weerasethakul's parents, who were both doctors, but it hardly stops there. Like Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century is made up of two stories that work as a sublime puzzle that thankfully defies being 'figured out.' This film was one commissioned for Mozart's 250th birthday in 2006; it got a brief theatrical run in 2007 (but not here); and came out on DVD early in 2008. I'm ashamed that I didn't take the time to write about it and will make a new year's resolution to rewatch it and write about it in 2009.

Silent Light (2007) directed by Carlos Reygadas
April 25 at the Walker
Just one of the theatrical screenings in the Twin Cities that defied all odds. It screened only once with the director himself there for a Q and A. Reygadas has dropped some of the overt experimentation found in Battle in Heaven to return to the minimalist beauty of Japón. Silent Light takes place in a cloistered Mennonite community in Mexico and functions like a contemporary religious fable.

Man on Wire (2008) directed by James Marsh
August 14 at the Uptown
Nothing contemplates the human condition more than Man on Wire. And by 'the human condition' I mean the dreams that make us feel alive. In Philippe Petit's case that meant walking a high wire between the Twin Towers in 1974. It's an awe-inspiring story that is truly hard to grasp.

The Mourning Forest (2007) directed by Naomi Kawase
March 27 at the Walker
Naomi Kawase's visit to the Walker was a huge highlight for me in in 2008, and seeing her most recent Cannes Grand Prix winning film was the icing on the cake. The Mourning Forest takes liberties in telling a deceptively simple story that apologetically wears its heart on its sleeve. Two strangers come to terms with the loss through a give and take allegorical adventure that is as quiet as it is unsettling.

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
May 2 at the Uptown
Juliette Binoche got all the attention for her 'unconventional performance,' stealing the thunder of Hou's window-on-the-world piece of wonderment. In some respects Flight of the Red Balloon is a family drama, but it is also a fantastic homage to the medium. A film inspired by another film that includes a character making a film. We are constantly reminded that the beauty of the mundane is right before our eyes, either through Hou's lens or Song's lens or Simon looking through Song's lens.

Alexandra (2007) directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
April 22 at St Anthony Main/MSPIFF
It is no mistake that Sokurov's most recent protagonist shares his name as he channels himself through Alexandra into the difficult terrain of Chechnya. Alexandra travels to Chechnya to visit her grandson who is stationed there. She is not only a matronly all-knowing presence among the Russian soldiers on the base, but also among the Chechnyan's in the market. The film is tender but also unwaveringly no-nonsense: a mere peek into the personal politics of one individual.

Mad Detective (2007) directed by Johnny To
May 27 on DVD
Although there was promise of Mad Detective making into theaters, it never appeared in these parts. Johnny To is making quite a name for himself, cranking out the films that the festivals just can't get enough of. With Mad Detective, To has completely outdone himself. Last year I was saying that To had made his best film yet with Exiled, but now Exiled just seems like a well put together rehash of his best films. Mad Detective is something new with an edge provided by Lau Ching-Wan's amazing performance. It's funny, clever, dark and extremely entertaining.

Chop Shop (2007) directed by Ramin Bahrani
May 13 at the Parkway
Once again simplicity wins out in this small, unassuming film. Two orphans trying to make their way in life from the ground up. Young and entrepreneurial Alejandro takes up work in a chop shop in Queens, a stones throw from Shea Stadium. Working to make life better for himself and his older sister is only priority. Comparisons with Neorealism are not unfounded, but more importantly it is heartfelt and grounded. Alejandro carries this very weighty film to great heights.

JCVD (2008) directed by Mabrouk El Mechri
December 12 at the Lagoon
I am filled with admiration of Jean-Claude Van Damme and gratitude to Mabrouk El Mechri for making this film. A drama made for the appreciation of action stars that is unbelievably honest. Van Damme stars as himself, an aging action star whose physical talents are no longer appreciated. The opening shot is no bullshit, as it shows a ridiculous single take of a film within the film. It will make you see Bloodsport in a whole new light. Van Damme is fantastic in this film.

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) directed by Alex Gibney
March 20 at the Parkway
Last year's news is this year's screening. Despite economic woes, the world seems a little brighter now than it did when I saw this film in March. I don't know which makes me more sad: that such things happen, or that such things happen and the majority seems not to care. Gibney was brave to make such an honest film about such an ugly subject.

Paranoid Park (2007) directed by Gus Van Sant
April 21 at the Lagoon
Paranoid Park is far more impressive to me than Van Sant's by the book biopic Milk. Paranoid Park is an artfully atmospheric continuation of Van Sant's meditations on the inner workings of young men's minds. Where Milk is straight forward, Paranoid Park is wonderfully meandering and experimental.

Trouble the Water (2008) directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin
September 19 at the Lagoon
Why are people still talking about Hurricane Katrina? Watch Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke or read Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine or watch this documentary to get your answer. Trouble the Water is guerrilla filmmaking, the antithesis of the pre-packaged government approved nightly news. Kimberly and Scott Roberts were too poor to leave New Orleans as the hurricane approached. With no car and no means of transportation, Kimberly resigns to staying with her video camera turned on. The result is nothing short of an amazing document to what really happened to the people abandoned there and their continuing struggle.

Mister Lonely (2007) directed by Harmony Korine
December 3 on DVD
Perhaps I chose this film simply because it was ignored. Or perhaps I choose this film because John Waters did as well. Or maybe I chose this film because it offered something unique in the homogeneous mess of films that generally hits screens.

Before I Forget (2007) directed by Jacques Nolot
June 25 at the Walker
The best entry in the Walker's Queer Takes series, Before I Forget is an intelligent and dignified portrayal of an aging hustler. Jacques Nolot himself takes the lead role of a man dealing with his own age as he watches friends pass on. Nolot has created an uncompromising fictionalized autobiography that breathes visual poetry. The breathtaking somber last shot still lingers with me six months later.

Much more than Honorable Mentions:
Beaufort (April 29, MSPIFF)
I’ve Loved You So Long
(November 24, Lagoon)
Little Moth
(April 19, MSPIFF)
(October 31, Uptown)
Casandra’s Dream/Vicky Christina Barcelona (January 19/August 15, Lagoon)
Encounters at the End of the World (December 12, DVD)
Slumdog Millionaire (November 21, Edina)
The Unforeseen
(October 28, DVD)
Let the Right One In
(October 30, Lagoon)
(October 29, Walker)

Although I would like to think I have the common sense to avoid the worst movies of the year, there were two movies that I did make the mistake of seeing: Cloverfield and The Happening.