Saturday, November 28, 2009

This turkey was not pardoned.

I hope everyone had a happy and safe holiday weekend.
And for those who were involved in this turkey's demise, thanks for a great Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sufjan Stevens' THE BQE with DM Stith and Osso

(Originally published on In Review Online. The BQE screened in the Twin Cities on October 29 at the beautiful Southern Theater.)

Sufjan Stevens has recently broken out of his Brooklyn shell, and taken his show on the road in true cult art hero form. Playing a handful of very small shows (the one locally sold out in under three minutes online) stocked with new material, Stevens seems to be preparing to unveil something new. But not just yet. His second order of business is to wheel out his 2007 multimedia project, The BQE, in the form of a new CD release and a 13-city music film event. Originally commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The BQE is a film meditation on the chaos and beauty of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The pre-packaged tour and release lacks some of the ceremony and the sight-specific context it has in Brooklyn, but is nonetheless a testament of what popular art can be.

Fortunately I had more than three minutes to buy tickets for the BQE stop in Minneapolis, but the show, with Stevens present to introduce the film, was sure to sell out. The three part show—including Asthmatic Kitty label mates DM Stith and Osso as well as a screening of The BQE—makes its stop at the Southern Theater, a 100 year old, 200 seat theater that hosts an eclectic mix of dance, performance and music. I get to the theater to pick up my tickets at will call having no idea what to expect from the evening. My first surprise is that I must have been ahead of the curve on ticket buying because my assigned seat is row three, front and center. DM Stith takes the stage first in his pink stocking feet backed by the string quartet Osso. Stith, who has a unique voice that pleasantly reminds me of Mercury Rev front man David Baker, alternates between his acoustic guitar and baby grand piano to deliver delicate yet somewhat eerie vocally driven songs.

After a brief intermission (to allow people to buy more beer and wine in the lobby no doubt) Osso strolls back on stage followed by Sufjan Stevens to introduce the band. Unbeknownst to me, Stevens and Osso have been working together to transcribe his mostly electronic songs from Enjoy Your Rabbit, which has now manifested itself into a release of its own, Run Rabbit Run. Stevens describes the personal nature of the songs and acknowledges how great it was to transform them with Osso, all the while wearing what looked like kid’s snow gloves. (I am totally distracted by the fact that he is compulsively taking them off and putting them back on only to take off one then the other, then put one back on, then both off… Anyway, his intro is rambling and my mind is wandering.) Osso is made up of two violins, one viola and one cello. Although I am not familiar with their music, I have had my moment of Sufjan love and bought everything the man made and am very familiar with Enjoy Your Rabbit. Hearing the songs filtered through the string quartet’s hands is lovely and almost dream-like since I haven’t listened to the CD in a few years. Cellist Marie Bella Jeffers takes it upon herself to introduce the songs. Unwilling to stop at just telling us the titles, she rambles—even more than Stevens—between every song and by the end it gets a bit old.

Yet another intermission (beer and wine) and time for the headlining act. Stevens comes back onstage (sans snow gloves) to give some background to The BQE. He explained how he was fascinated by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as a hodge-podge of poor urban planning and a demonstration of the irrepressible human condition to move from one place to another. When the BAM commission came his way, he knew immediately that it would be about the BQE. After the screening in Brooklyn, the project took on a life of its own resulting in a comic book and a nice reel for a Viewmaster. He admits a sort of obsession; barrowing cars just to drive it back and forth. His introduction is a kind of ah-shucks admission to his creative compulsion that feels a little too self-consciousness. Ironically I had just spent some time in New York staying with a friend in Queens. My friend had complained about absurd subway projects in Manhattan when what the city really needed was a line between Brooklyn and Queens, and as a result I had a more political context for The BQE in the back of my head. All of that fell away when the images hit the screen. A beautiful confluence of image and sound, The BQE is not unlike those exhilarating collaborations between Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass but from a more local and, dare I say it, more important perspective. Even though that local frame of reference is lost on an audience who primarily live in Minnesota, it’s an amazing celebration of place in all of its messiness and splendor. The three framesets, originally projected from three projectors, has been transferred into one, making the image size from the DVD essentially 12x3. I wondered how hard it could have been to drag a few 16mm or 8mm projectors into the space and sync the soundtrack, but was willing to accept the logistics would have been, not impossible, but more complicated.

The show, lasting over three hours, met my lofty expectations and I grab the CD release for a cool 15 bucks without even realizing that I was getting a CD, a DVD, a photo/intro booklet, and the "Super Teenage Hooper Heroes" Viewmaster reel with images from the comic book. Half of the booklet is an essay by Stevens ruminating on the BQE and the far-flung connection to the Hula Hoop. It’s an interesting read with enlightening expositions such as, “To drive on the BQE is to embrace the anarchy of an amusement theme park. Interminable roadwork, for one, heedlessly confines and divides traffic into a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome Existential Odyssey of the Mind. There are no rules, except to stay alive.” His obessiveness of the roadway becomes very clear in the eight-page, small type dissertation. The DVD is barebones with no menu and just the film in triptych form exactly how it was projected at the show. The soundtrack easily takes a back seat to the images, but the music on its own should not be underestimated. It is a magnificent symphony that has no problems challenging grandeur with a pop sensibility. The entire BQE package is impressive and a smack in the face to the digital download zeitgeist. Hidden from the limelight, it would seem that Sufjan Stevens’ populist wave has past, but, with his recently flurry of events, he may just be building up to his next tsunami.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


(Originally published on In Review Online. You have one more day to see New York, I Love You in Minneapolis, and I'm afraid this review will not give you a compelling reason to run out and see it.)

Directorial collaborations are notoriously uneven and almost always judged by the parts while ignoring the sum. A successful portmanteau relies on either a galvanizing theme (11”9’01) a very specific style (Fears of the Dark) or enough time to gain a sense of nostalgia or film history (Six in Paris 1965, Love in the City 1953.) In almost all cases, however, the shorts feel like half-baked thumbnail sketches from great directors on assignment. Even though New York, I Love You attempts to break out of the slums of omnibus filmmaking by branding itself as “a collective feature film,” it is no different. The film flows in a continuous free-form 103-minute feature without title cards or overt transitions. It may be harder to dissect, but New York is no less uneven. The highs and the lows blur together and it averages out somewhere around mediocre.

The second in a series on ‘the cities of love’ which started with the much more enticing Paris, J’taime and supposedly will head off to Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, Jerusalem and Mumbai for successive installments. Given two days to shoot, one week to edit and an eight-minute time limit, ten directors pontificate love in the City of Lights. New York starts with a grift triangle by Jiang Wen (Devils on the Doorstep) and ends with a sweet shuffle off to Coney Island by Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) with a predictable mixed bag in between. On the eve of his potential blockbuster The Book of Eli, Allen Hughes turns in the most compelling short starring Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo. From different parts of the city, the two depart to a second meeting together after a one-night-stand. With Matteo on the subway and Cooper walking on the streets, they are both buried in their own internal monologue: reliving their first meeting and doggedly refusing to be optimistic about their second meeting. Hughes successfully captures the electric and intimate energy of being alone in a crowd. In addition, Yvan Attal’s simple one-on-one sequence is perfectly pitched as the ultimate pick-up artist (Ethan Hawke) is served a large plate of crow by a none too naïve woman (Maggie Q.) Randall Balsmeyer, primarily a visual effects person, is given the impossible task of connecting the stories and admirably does so with vignettes that occasionally connect characters from separate stories to give a small-world-after-all feeling.

The biggest disappointment is how little New York invokes a sense of place. It wields its secret weapon—The Big Apple, The City that Never Sleeps, Gotham, The Melting Pot—like an uninspired wet noodle. Although each segment is contained within a specific neighborhood, it unfortunately never translates on screen. I’ve never seen New York City look so boring, and, well, so Anglo and straight. Irrfan Khan, Shu Qi, Uğur Yücel, Carlos Acosta and I guess Shia LaBeouf (who plays an immigrant) are the only ethnic representations of the most culturally diverse city in the world. It is hard to believe that the creative muscle behind this film—which includes the aforementioned directors as well as Fatih Akin, Shunji Iwai, Mira Nair and Shekhar Kapur—could only muster a tepid mish-mash that has no spark. New York, I Love You serves best as dramatized runway for the actors where the audience, completely unengaged in the plot, can have a simple moment of excitement as the film doles out the multigenerational stars one at a time. It says a lot when the most exciting moment in the film was when someone behind me said, “Oh my God! It’s Christina Ricci!”

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lars Von Trier's MEDEA (1988)

(Originally published on In Review Online as a part of their ambitious look at Lars Von Trier's films "The Genius and Misanthropy of Lars Von Trier." Antichrist, if you dare, opens today in the Twin Cities.)

Unequivocally beautiful and brutal, Medea—Lars Von Trier’s made-for-TV movie freely adapted from a Carl Theodore Dreyer script—was prophetic to the films that would follow from this egocentric visionary. Based on the Greek tragedy from Euripides, Von Trier successfully turns this proto-feminist doctrine into a backhanded credo of female martyrdom and suffering. With barely two features to his name, he not only picks an unfilmed script from one of the greatest directors in the world, but also proclaimed to be in “constant telepathic communication” with Carl Th. Dreyer while filming. Pompous as that may sound, seeing Medea is the first step to believing. Intentionally grainy and slightly overexposed allowing the light to swallow up certain forms, you can almost feel the hand of Dreyer.

Taken from her homeland by her husband Jason, Medea is cast aside when King Creon offers Jason his beautiful young daughter, Glauce. Fearing revenge from the scorned Medea, King Creon orders her exiled. Medea is seen as an oracle in her own country, but is a feared foreign heretic in Greece. Medea, set on revenge, persuades King Creon to give her one more day, for the sake of her children. Dark foreshadowing looms as Medea sends her children to Glauce with a gift that is secretly poisoned. Set upon destroying Jason completely, she further resolves to take the lives of his two heirs, her own two children, in a painful exhibition of filicide.

Von Trier’s laconic interpretation of this classic draws on his powerful and impressionistic mise en scène. The interior scenes are dramatically choreographed sets of chiaroscuro where the shadows in the flickering light play a more prominent role than the characters. Jason and Glauce’s newlywed chamber is completely housed in a maze of white cloth, dramatically backlit so silhouettes float back and forth. When Glauce tells Jason that she will not sleep with him until Medea is no longer in the country, Jason is forced to lie next to the shadow of Glauce that is cast on the translucent fabric that separates them. The exterior shots, some perhaps set pieces as well, glow with an unearthly light. The most notable and surreal is when King Creon goes to Medea to tell her she must leave the country. Medea is wading though knee-deep water of a swamp methodically gathering seeds from the plants growing above the water. The fog literally blankets the screen as Medea, the King and his servants fade in and out of view. The entire 75 minutes is filled with charged moments of sharp visual elegance. Every composition is specific, theatrically illustrating every character.

Medea is a very measured feminist doctrine, portraying Medea as equal parts demon and suffragist. Medea ponders aloud, “Why must women bear so much? Wordlessly submissive in body and deed. What rights have women?” And for a brief moment, it seems the film might actually be concerned with these questions. A woman’s right to revenge, however, supersedes, as Medea’s first victim (or martyr, depending on how you look at it) is none other than one of these women without rights. Dressed in a full-length black dress and black hat that fits tightly over her head concealing her hair, Medea has the look of a somber widow. More handsome than beautiful, Medea, as Lars Von Trier has depicted her, is the antithesis of atypical femininity. Glauce’s power, on the other hand, is in her beauty, innocence and youth—all attributes that Medea has lost touch of.

Medea eventually flees. Having successfully poisoned Glauce and murdered her own children, Medea leaves Jason in a state of madness. The camera is trained on Medea and her emotionless face, not so much in judgment than in observation, as she sits at the front of a wooden ship. As the sail is dropped, it briefly flaps in front of the camera, obscuring Medea from the screen. When the curtain pulls back, it reveals Medea, as we have never seen her before: hat off with her long hair falling over her shoulders and her emotions completely exposing her vulnerability. Von Trier makes the most of drawing out the most painful scenes in Medea which is why the suddenness of seeing Medea, sobbing and feminized, comes as such a shock. Hints of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and even Antichrists are contained not only in this scene but also throughout Medea. Thanks to the ancient Greeks and Carl Theodore Dreyer, Lars Von Trier found some perfect food for fonder, sunk in his teeth and has never let go.

Monday, November 9, 2009


(Originally published on In Review Online.)

From the very start it is clear that no expense was spared and no detail neglected in Tony Jaa’s magnum opus actioneer, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning. The credits brighten and fade in ghostly elegance against the backdrop of aestheticized weapons and idols, opening to a chase on horseback that is visually antiquated in sepia but adored with the lush green of the jungle. The arrows sail and the hooves fly in adrenaline inducing beauty. Unfortunately, Ong Bak 2 never rallies any deeper than this type of superficial gloss and physical spectacle for mild but very muddled entertainment.

The film opens in 1421 during a familial struggle for power in the newly formed Ayutthaya Kingdom. Young Tien watches as his mother and father are assassinated and escapes through the jungle only to be captured by slave traders. When the stubborn youngster refuses to cooperate, he is thrown into a pit with an alligator in an impossible fight to the death. As one might expect, the spirited youth kills the alligator with the help of a knife tossed into the pit by a by standing admirer Chernang. Chernang, king of all the bandits, sees potential in Tien and takes him on as his adopted son. With the passage of time comes the obligatory martial arts student montage dipicting the journey from young novice to adult master. Eventually succeeding his adoptive father as bandit king, Tien slowly gains his thirst to avenge his father in an all out army of one battle against a (not so) mysterious enemy.

After the moderate but formidable international success of Ong Bak (aka Muay Thai Warrior) and Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector), it seemed that Thailand might have its very own Jackie Chan. With amazing physical talent and creative muster, Jaa was poised to bring Thai film to a broad based international audience. When he signed on to make his directorial debut with the prequel to Ong Bak, sparks were already flying. The media couldn’t help but manifest public anticipation for the film by blowing production problems way out of proportion. When Jaa slunked off into the jungle, literally, and disappeared for two months, you could hardly blame him. When he returned, a cloud of doubt hung over the entire project, and for good reason.

Most martial arts films can survive and even thrive on a very simple, if not predictable story as long as the fighting remains inspired and the actors charismatic. This is exactly how Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the numerous actors before them preserved long and successful careers. Ong Bak 2 is certainly simple and the hand-to-hand combat is plentiful, but Tony Jaa fails to carry the film as an actor or director. Littered with obtuse flashbacks and incongruent plotting, it is a perplexing mess of themes and tones. The result is a rambling series of vignettes and absurd representations of warrior bravado that never engages the audience from one scene to the next. Taming a herd of elephants, fighting a tiger demon lady, and displaying various styles of martial arts feels like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking.

If you are looking for specific continuity between Ong Bak (set in the present) and Ong Bak 2, you may have to wait until Ong Bak 3—already announced—for clarification. That is, if anyone has the patience for a third installment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Home Movies - October

(Originally published on In Review Online. Check out InRO for a couple extra post-Halloween DVD picks.)

Drag Me to Hell (2008) Directed by Sam Raimi [Universal]
Much has been made about Sam Raimi's journey from horror cult hero to blockbuster salary man, but Raimi marches to his own drum whether it is huge or small, great or schlocky. Ironically, Drag Me to Hell seems to be the amalgamation of all those things in the best possible way. If Drag Me feels like a return to Evil Dead, it’s because the balance between scary, funny and completely offensive is perfect. Raimi, fully aware of genre expectations, throws the handbook out the window. While most horror films these days get by on gore, torture, nihilism or some combination of the three, Raimi does more with good old-fashioned mucus, maggots and nose bleeds than Eli Roth can shake baseball bat at. Throw in a good curse, a kitten sacrifice, a girl fight and an old woman with a penchant for biting without her dentures and you have one of the most fun horror films of the year.

Fear(s) of the Dark (2006) Directed by Bluch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire and Pierre di Sciullo [MPI]
The most frightening things are those propelled by an active imagination. The animated French omnibus Fear(s) of the Dark pulls together six artists who clearly understand the fantastical and personal nature of fear. Opting for psychological scares instead of physiological thrills, Fear(s) is composed of five shorts directed by world-renowned graphic artists Bluch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire, all linked together by the drawings of Pierre di Sciullo. The film is effective in maintaining cohesion between the individual stories through its monochromatic style and eerie soundtrack. Sinister and mesmerizing, Fear(s) lingers in the dark recesses of your mind long after the lights go up.

Orphan (2009) Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra [Warner]
If Paranormal Activity hadn’t popped up out of nowhere, I would have crowned Orphan as the smartest horror film of the year. But where Paranormal excels in low-budget creativity, Orphan exceeds in clever storytelling and solid filmmaking. When the Colemans adopt 9-year-old Esther as the third child into their family, they get more than they bargain for. Inexplicitly wise beyond her years, Esther is a child psychologist’s nightmare and the audience’s puzzle. Orphan is expertly paced and brilliantly acted, especially by the three kids in the cast. But don’t get the idea that this film takes itself too seriously—the last fifteen minutes is nothing but classic horror film fodder that has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with adrenaline. Horror films tend to be throwaway money machines that are hardly ever allowed the space to be crafty without being overtly crass. Orphan belongs in a class with Them (aka Ils) and The Descent that offers a brain-powered punch.

Munyurangabo (2007) Directed by Lee Isaac Chung [Film Movement]
Definitely in the running for one of the best films I’ve seen this year, Munyurangabo is a powerful visual tome that gains its power through silent intensity and honest emotions. It contemplates the collective history of the Rwandan genocide ten years after and the very powerful effects on individuals. The film chronicles a journey made by two friends (one a Hutu and one a Tutsi) on the verge of adulthood. Representative of the collective unconscious, both seek resolution to a personal restlessness. Lee Isaac Chung makes the most out of a budget in his first feature film, tapping the natural talents of his Rwandan film students in an 11-day shoot. Chung spends over an hour pulling back his bow and finally lets his arrow fly in the form of a powerful 7-minute poem that will leave you stunned. For Film Movement subscribers this DVD was delivered months ago, but made publicly available this month.

Black Rain (1989) Directed by Shohei Imamura [AnimEigo]
Shohei Imamura’s sobering 1989 Black Rain receives an its-about-fuckin-time DVD release courtesy of the unlikely heroes at AnimEigo. Based on Masuji Ibuse’s novel of the same name, this luminescent black and white film finds Imumura returning to the family drama motifs of his teacher Yasujiro Ozu. Although the film recalls the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—with surreal and shrewd detail—the majority of the drama takes place in 1950 when the more subtle effects of the war and the bomb have taken a firm hold on the daily lives of the robust but world-weary characters. As the entire country tries to train their eyes toward the future, so does Yasuko who hopes to find a husband despite the fact that she has been turned down three times due to her exposure to the bomb’s ‘black rain’ fallout. Handled with sensitivity and restraint, Black Rain is less of a pointed accusation that it is a humanitarian document that falls perfectly in line with Imamura’s oeuvre. The DVD includes an alternate color ending and interviews with actress Yoshiko Tanaka and assistant director on the film, Takashi Miike.

Fados (2007) Directed by Carlos Saura [Zeitgeist]
This formal yet enthralling celebration of the melodramatic musical tradition of fado is less about education that it is enjoyment. Fados is Carlos Saura’s final installment to his musical trilogy that also included Flamenco (1995) and Tango. Fado is Portuguese soul music, born on the streets of Lisbon in the 19th century. Saura lends a keen cinematic eye to the musical set pieces in the film, but ultimately puts his trust in the power of the performers of fados, or fadistas, to carry the documentary to a place where only music can go. “Fados” features performances by Amália Rodrigues, Mariza, Camané, Maria de Nazaré, Vicente da Camara, Carmo Rebelo de Andrade, Pedro Moutinho, Toni Garrido, Ricardo Ribeiro, Ricardo Rocha, Miguel Poveda, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque de Hollanda, Ana Sofia Varela, Lura and Lila Downs, and each interpretation adds a new dimension of passion and melancholia.

Il Divo (2008) Directed by Paolo Sorrentino [MPI]
Yet another one of the best films I’ve seen this year, Il Divo is not what you expect from a political biopic. Director Paolo Sorrentino takes the story of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti—a notorious political figurehead elected seven times to Parliament who welded unbelievable power despite his impish physicality—and turns it into a dazzling, fast-paced analytical thriller. Actor Tony Servillo plays Andreotti with physical specificity and emotional guile that is unsurpassed. Regardless of your knowledge of Italian politics, this film is thoroughly engrossing and highly entertaining.

Z (1969) Directed by Costa-Gavras [Criterion]
Costa-Gavras’ Z may not have the same impact it had when it premiered in 1969, but, like “The Battle of Algiers, it is a testament not only to the political times but to the burgeoning power of filmmaking. Based on the 1963 assassination of Greek left-wing activist Gregoris Lambrakis, Z was a very personal for of protest for Costa-Garvas against what was happening in his country. Armed with nouvelle vague cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Z has a street-level immediacy that is hard not to get caught up in. Criterion offers a restored version of the film as well as a handful of special features including new interviews with Costa-Garvras and Coutard.