Thursday, May 28, 2009

Time for me to exit, TERMINATOR X-it

My halfhearted attempt to avoid summer blockbusters has been thwarted by the simple desire to have companions at the movies. Terminator Salvation won out two to one over Anvil, and I only shrugged my shoulders in protest. Leaving the film with a pulsing machine drone in my head, it was clear I made the right decision: Terminator might just be the best comedy of the summer.

I'm sure that I have seen all three Terminators prior to this one, but I sincerely forgot where we left off or the nuances of the narrative threads. John Connor is still alive, but momma's boy is having trouble, namely with those darn machines again. As the heartbeat of the resistance, Connor faces a new nemesis who is poised to challenge his living messiah status: prototype Marcus Wright, part death row villain, part Skynet machine. Connor might have the corner on the inspiring speeches, but Marcus is way, way more cool. Connor wants to be his friend, but Marcus is a machine! What is he to do? That's when he pulls out the cassette tapes and his vintage player-recorder circa 1985 and listens to his Mom's audio diaries just one more time in search of a clue. Salvation! Find Dad and kill the machines!

Christian Bale, wow, does he have some funny soliloquies. But what I like best is his new Corleone manner of talking. I know he was working on this in Batman, but by gosh, I think he has it down in Terminator. When he first confronts Marcus on his very obvious machine-ness, it was just like seeing Dubya confront Saddam Hussein while channeling Don Vito Corleone. Oscar winning material, my friends.

Taking a bite out of Bale's comedy routine is the burning apocalyptic aesthetic, that at moments, had me hoping that The Road would look as convincing. Like Oshima back in the day, McG has eliminated green from his pallet in Salvation (except for Kate Connor's eyes, that is.) And then there are the machines: very unemotional and very loud and my favorite part of the film by a long shot. I can't help rooting for the machines, especially when they are as crazy cool as the big one that shows up at the gas station.

Having just read an article about Ray Kurzweil (that went much better than me trying to read his book), I wondered how the Terminators fit into his singularity. Is the the future he envisions? I don't think so. I think his future is a little more optimistic. Mine is a little more pessimistic. If the machines have their way, we won't have a chance, especially against those shooting motorcycle ones.

If you are having a hard time taking me seriously, this is exactly how I felt watching Terminator Salvation. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know: it's not supposed to be serious. Well, don't tell that to Christian Bale. He will get mad. The high production values, big explosions, even bigger sounds (I think it is one of the loudest movies I have ever been to) are all good summer fun, but I think it takes itself maybe a tad too seriously. Lighten up on the melodrama, please.

I don't want to ruin it for anyone, but the joining of forces between Marcus Wright and John Connor may be the beginning of something very beautiful. After getting all worked up by seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger naked ala T-800, Marcus and John find a male bonding that few men will ever be able to understand. I am just sure that there was a pre-op kiss that was cut from the film, because you can just feel the love. Like John Connor says, what makes us human is the strength of our beating hearts. If you are listening, you are the resistance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Interview with Louis Lapat: WIN OR LOSE - A SUMMER CAMP STORY

I always try to have a nose for the smaller films that get overlooked, but when the schedule was announced for MSPIFF, my objective was to find the biggest films in a bucket of small films. Hence, my lame excuse for passing over Win or Lose: A Summer Camp Story, a short documentary by Louis Lapat. I had already mapped out my plan for conquering MSPIFF when Louis contacted me about seeing and review his documentary. Although I was unable to make it to his film, he joined Daniel (from Getafilm) and I for our film goat gathering. Over a drink and a chat, Louis was kind enough to pass along a screener. We went our separate ways and I said that I would be in touch.

Embarrassingly, over a month later I finally got around to watching Win or Lose and I was pleasantly surprised. Like great things that come in small packages, Louis' short documentary, under an hour, is about as engaging as anything that is likely to come down the pipe. Win or Lose takes place at Camp Ojibwa in Wisconsin, an all boys summer camp that focuses on sports. The camp's trademark is a competition among teams called Collegiate Week. As one of the campers says of Collegiate Week, "There is winning and absolutely nothing." What starts out as a frat-boy testosterone driven narrative, slowly morphs into a sensitive and thought provoking real life drama.

Louis was kind enough to talk to me about MSPIFF, his film, summer camp, The Blues Brothers and what it takes to be a Ojibwa boy:

First of all, how did the screening at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival go?

My whole experience at the film festival was very positive. My favorite part was meeting so many people in such a short period of time from the festival director Ryan Oestreich to local film bloggers such as yourself. For the screening, I was worried that I wouldn't have a huge crowd because the film was competing against some bigger films that night. Also, I had noticed that the festival was just beginning to hand out programs two hours before the screening. With that said, there was about 60 people that showed up for the screening. It played great. All the laughs came in the right spot. I'm pretty sure most people liked it, they all stayed for the QNA and no one asked really ignorant questions like 'what were you trying to say in the film?' or 'what's the deal with the animation?' They all got it.

Was there anyone at the screening that had been to Camp Ojibwa or had a similar experience?
Yes, there was one person from Camp Ojibwa at the screening. The Camp Ojibwa people always pretty much love the film. There are so many things about camp that stay with you. The sound of morning taps or the way your arms feel after losing a Tug of War. The movie just brings all these emotional memories back. Also, Camp Ojibwa is so hard to explain to people. As someone that went to camp, you want to be able to express how important winning a box hockey match is, but no one would get you, and no one would care. This movie makes these unexplainable camp-concepts understandable.

When is the next chance to catch Win or Lose?
It is being screened twice this Sunday in Highland Park, Illinois. It was just something that was assumed from the get-go. There would always be a screening in Highland Park because everyone that went to Camp Ojibwa is from Highland Park. If you were born in Highland Park, you know about Camp Ojibwa. I think it is going to be an exciting screening. Remember the part in The Blues Brothers before Jake and Elwood go on for their final show at the end of the film? There's like a thousand people in the theater and they are going crazy. That's how I imagine it. We'll see how reality compares.

But aren't people who go to the camp from all over the country?
Not really, there are people from all over the country but a majority, like 90% are from Highland Park, Illinois and the surrounding suburbs just north of Chicago.

What made you decide to make this film?
I went to camp 10 years ago. The first 3 years were fantastic, the last year was tough. During my last year at camp I was 15 and I wanted to stay home that summer. My goals were to sleep in every day and play Madden '94 on my Sega till nightfall, then repeat. My mom thought that plan was not ambitious enough so she sent me away to camp. At camp I had one friend, the camp hippy, we'll call him Jeff. I also had one enemy, the camp bully, we'll call him Steve. I was banking me and Jeff would be best friends all summer and everything would be hunky-dory. But Steve came along and stole Jeff from me. Now I had two enemies. I felt alone and depressed so I quit camp vowing never to return. It turns out when you walk away from things they don't necessarily want to walk away from you. For the next 10 years of my life, I thought about camp constantly and had dreams about it all the time. I knew I had some reconciliation to do. I also just happened to have a thesis film that I had to shoot if I wanted to graduate and I always knew collegiate week would make an exciting story.

I admit I never went to summer camp, but it seems like every component of growing up, both painful and joyful, are magnified at camp, especially Camp Ojibwa where it is so competitive. It's like an intense microcosm of your peers.
At camp there is no MTV, no parents and I'm pretty sure there are no cell phones allowed. It's just you, your friends and a bunch of athletic equipment. Also everyone is very similar: for the most part Jewish and way into sports. The emotions associated with winning and losing are magnified because there is not much else for you to do or talk about. Also, the friendships can be stronger. Some people at camp will argue that a camp friendship is much stronger than a home friendship.

There is a lot of great tension and build up in a very short amount of time. How much footage did you shoot and have to edit down to the current 58 minutes?
I shot 130 hours of footage. All the shooting of the film took about a month and a half. 2 weeks to shoot the camp competition and about a month to film the characters at their homes. I figured in a year I would be done editing. That was a miscalculation. It actually took 3 1/2 years to finish editing the film. Part of the reason it took so long was I had never edited a feature length documentary. I also found editing documentaries extremely challenging. It's very similar to writing except you have a limited pallet. You have to follow all the rules of character development, turning points, climax and resolution but you don't necessarily have the footage to back it up. There were also so many people along the way that helped me make this film that without, the film would have sucked.

Part of me feels that this whole competition is terrible for some of these kids, but then when I see the camaraderie and a real love between these guys, I change my mind. It seems that there are great life lessons to be learned at Collegiate Week, but there is also some pretty messed up psychology behind the whole thing. Where does your opinion fall?
I think in the end, competition is a valuable activity for kids and teenagers. The most important thing it teach us is how to lose. If you learn this early in life while playing a game it's so valuable down the road when you actually do lose something important. The other great thing about sports and competition is it's acts as a kind of social lubrication for boys. After boys share an intense experience like winning or losing, they can't help but have some kind of mutual respect for their teammate or rival. Today I still love sports but tend towards ones that are less competitive like pick-up ultimate frisbee games. I wonder if the same positive lessons at camp could be learned if the competition wasn't as intense? What if Camp Ojibwa was just pick-up ultimate frisbee games and long distance running all summer? Would kids still walk away with the same friendships and lessons learned about losing? Not sure.

I was totally ready to condemn the whole summer camp, but you are very good about being even-handed with the material. Was it hard to put your personal feelings about the camp aside for the process of making the movie?
For better or worst, camp shaped me. Like, I always fantasized about being the best athlete at Camp. It would have been one of the highlights of my childhood to go 1-1 in the camp wide draft. So part of me gets completely caught up in the competition and hype surrounding collegiate week. I still tear up a little bit at the end of the movie when the winners are announced. Another part of me remembers that horrible feeling of loneliness at camp my last year. I don't think camp made me feel like a loser, it was more that I was an insecure teenager who shouldn't have gone to camp that summer. With all that said, if I do have a son, I'm going to be very careful about where I send him to camp. If he can hit 60% of his free throws and can sit through a full Sunday of NFL football he might just be an Ojibwa boy.

Are you still friends with people you met at Camp Ojibwa?
I'm friends with a lot of the characters in the film. The main character, Andrew Robinson, just spent the weekend at my apartment. I'm actually not friends with any one that went to camp when I was a camper unless you count facebook friends.

Can people buy a copy of Win or Lose on DVD?
Not yet, I'm still holding off to find a DVD distributor. The best thing to do now is to become a fan on the facebook page found off the website - - and I'll notify people when it becomes available.

What's on deck for you? Any projects that you are working on or thinking about?
I'm working on writing an episodic comedic internet series. It will be similar in tone to a short film I made a few years ago. The film is here:

Thanks Louis! We'll be watching!

Win or Lose official website.
Louis' production blog

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Who cares about the Cannes Film Festival?

Well, me, of course. The 62 Festival de Cannes wrapped up today handing Michael Haneke's new film The White Ribbon the grand poo-baa, also known as the Palm d'Or. From all accounts, the film looks to be a miserable experience filled with brutality and sweeping socio-political connotations. Sounds good to me. Here's a rundown of the awards and the films we can expect to see in the next couple of years or maybe never:

Palme d'Or

The White Ribbon directed by Michael Haneke
Sony has already pick this film up for US distribution and thanks to Caché we actually might see it here in the Twin Cities. (Don't look for the poster to be boasting "From the director of Funny Games...") Haneke is overrated as a provocateur and underrated as a filmmaker. The White Ribbon is set in set in pre-WWI Germany and shot entirely in black and white. It is maybe not so ironic that Isabelle Huppert, who starred in Haneke's The Piano Teacher, was jury president this year at Cannes.

Grand Prix

A Prophet directed by Jacques Audiard
Maybe this film received second place because no one booed at it. Overall, everyone praised this film. Weird. (This phenomenon of people booing at films would make me crazy.) Also picked up by Sony.

Best Director

Brillante Mendoza for Kinatay
Well, this is kind of a surprise. Mendoza isn't exactly loved at Cannes, but I'm glad to see him win. I'm pretty sure everyone hated Sebris from last year, and Kinatay (aka Slaughter) was, to barrow a phrase from Manohla Dargis, "widely loathed." Mendoza's Tirador (Slingshot) played at the MSPIFF last year, and I could swear I saw Sebris listed on the local Landmark site, but alas is nowhere to be found. Maybe we can personally loath Kinatay at next year's MSPIFF.

Jury Prize (shared)

Fish Tank directed by Andrea Arnold/Thirst directed by Park Chan-Wook
Sharing prizes is so nice. Fish Tank is the new film from the director of Red Road, which played at the Walker and at the Lagoon. Big news in this pair for me is Thirst which was championed by Darcy Paquet and pooped on by everyone else. I'm hardly a neutral in this sight-unseen argument simply because I think Park, despite having a misstep with I'm a Cyborg, is one of the better directors around. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is pretty high up there on my overall best films, and I am willing to give Park the benefit of the doubt with Thirst. I am very very excited to see this film. Word on the street was that Focus Features was going to release Thirst in the US this summer. Given the poor reception at Cannes, we'll see if they change their mind.

Best Performance for an Actor

Christopher Waltz
in Inglourious Basterds directed by Quentin Tarantino
If one film dominated the press it was Tarantino's Inglorious Basturds...I mean Basterds...whatever. If we weren't hearing about what Brad and Angelina were wearing, we were hearing the constant debate, 'Will it be good? Will it be bad?' Poor Christopher Waltz, who from all reports deserves the award, will still be minor talk when it comes to this ego-maniacs divulgence on WWII. Brad Pitt looks to be playing a character somewhere between Benjamin Button and Jeffery Goines—intolerable for 30 seconds, let alone 2 and a half hours. Ever heard an interview with Eli Roth? Do you think his performance will be any different?

Best Performance by an Actress

Charlotte Gainsbourg
in Antichrist directed by Lars von Trier
It looks like von Trier has successfully overcome his depression with a little venting. Antichrist sounds to be the most press worthy film of the festival. As audacious as it should be, Gainbourg gets her award for a lot of nudity and masturbation. Papa would be proud! IFC will be responsible for unleashing the beast in the US. I'm looking forward to it.

Best Screenplay

Mei Feng
for Spring Fever directed by Lou Ye
Another film that clearly got overlooked by the hub-bub of sex and violence and Brad Pitt's suit, Lou Ye isn't far behind Jia Zhangke as one of the best Six Generation Chinese filmmakers. Driven by a populace aesthetic but condemned by the state, Lou three films since 2000 have been rock solid productions. I can only assume the same from Spring Fever.

Personally I want to see all the films that screened regardless of awards, but here are a few of the other films that got my attention even though they didn't get the juries attention:
Bright Star directed by Jane Campion
Visage directed by Tsai Ming-liang
The Time That Remains directed by Elia Suleiman
Vengeance directed by Johnny To
Air Doll directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Mother directed by Bong Joon-ho
Enter the Void directed by Gaspar Noé

Everyone does a little Cannes coverage, but here are some of the sources I've been watching:
New York Times
Art Forum
The Playlist
The Guardian (don't miss their awesome video roundup)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Na Hong-jin's THE CHASER

The renaissance in South Korean film was in many ways powered by the action blockbusters that barreled onto the scene in 1999 and 2000. They were films that clearly took their cue from Hollywood, but blazed a trail of their own in story and style. From the high-octane espionage action thriller Shiri (1999) to the ultra-stylish police mystery Nowhere to Hide (1999) to the testosterone driven fight-til-you-drop Die Bad (2000) to the brainy DMZ Hitchcockian political drama JSA (2000) to the touching coming-of-age action epic Friend (2001) and the comic book high school actioneer Volcano High (2001), South Korea was putting every other country to shame for their diverse line-up of action films. Na Hong-jin's debut feature film The Chaser is a product of this decade of honed genre fueled films. A barn-burner that is unapologetically brutal and relentlessly clever, The Chaser is anything but your stereotypical serial-killer thriller. It quickly takes hold of you and keeps you guessing the entire 125 minutes.

Jung-ho is a sympathetic ex-cop turned pimp who runs a small prostitution operation that has fallen on tough times. Two of 'his girls' have gone missing and Jung-ho is convinced they have taken their monetary advance and run off. He finally realizes that the women went missing after visiting the same client, but only after forcing one of his last remaining workers, Mi-jin, to take the same client. Convinced that this john is hiring then kidnapping and selling the women, Jung-ho sets out for revenge. And the chase is on, or so it seems.

Chance and perseverance lead the film down a road that seems to be over in only 30 minutes. But that is when the film takes its first turn against common action narrative, but in favor of genuine drama. Jung-ho unknowingly captures a serial killer, but does so serendipitously during a time when the police department is under great political pressure. Not only are the police being blamed for not protecting the mayor from a poop attacker—or an attacker with poop, as the case may be—but they are also fighting against the bureaucracy of policy procedure. As the police play their cards very carefully Jung-ho's frustrations builds, further fueled by the possibility that the last victim, Mi-jin, his working girl, may still be alive.

With the police stymied by hesitation, Jung-ho settles into the rebel with a cause role. Revenge underscored with a black-and-white notion of justice incites him to follow leads faster than the police can get untangled from the red tape. What he slowly finds out is something we already know: the suspect is a sick sap and is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But with no evidence, Jung-ho simply looks for the trail to where Mi-jin might be, dead or alive.

You can actually feel Jung-ho's transition from foolhardy working-class pimp, to angry immolated stooge, to compassionate cause-driven antihero looking for redemption. Kim Yun-seok digs into this role like he means it, without giving the audience much pause for authenticity. Unlike Ha Jung-woo's conventional serial killer character, Jung-ho is a character of dimension that we spend the entire film trying to understand: a thug and a hero that Kim is able to wrap up in his amazing performance.

Na makes it very clear early on that he is not above visceral brutality. The savagery, brief but unforgettable, not only redirects your expectations of the film, but also builds a great deal of disgust for the villain, helping us to align with Jung-ho. The film's major misstep comes in the form of a finale of stylized unrelenting violence, but it is only the finale to the finale. The scene is so demanding and, to some extent, resolute, that asking viewers for another fifteen minutes detracts from the entire film.

The first hour and 45 minutes represents one of the best acted and cleverly paced action films to come around in some time. Put in perspective, the last 15 minutes act as an end chapter in the form of an homage. That final chunk of film is representative of those to which it owes a debt. If you don't recognize image of Jung-ho raising the hammer or the eerie contents of the fish tank, they are emblems of South Korean action and horror films and their influences. It's the only part of the film that feels even slightly derivative—not an easy task for an action film. Unique and destine for a US remake, The Chaser opens the door for a new era of South Korean action.

The Chaser plays this weekend at the Oak Street Cinema: Friday, May 22- Sunday, May 24 at 9:30pm.
The Chaser is available on R3 Hong Kong DVD and on demand from IFC.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Sometimes I wonder about this whole film thing that I am mired in. Like most things that consume middle-class American life, what's the point? Imagine if I channeled all of the time (and money) spent on watching movies, writing about movies, reading about movies, thinking about movies into something that clearly benefited others and the world we live in. Perhaps there is a logical debate about the benefits of cinephilia, but the evidence is clearly stacked against that notion. That it is even beneficial to me would be a hard argument to make: it certainly doesn't put food on the table or pay the heat bill, and what it does satisfy is probably some nervous tick more akin to a malignant tumor that needs to be eradicated rather than encouraged. In a round about way, The Limits of Control confirms all this, but also says, "So what?"

Unlike all the other releases playing in a theater near you, Jim Jarmusch's new film The Limits of Control will gleefully draw attention to its own pointlessness, but do so with more style and cultural references than you can shake a friggin' Romulan at. The temptation to call The Limits of Control vacuous comes easy if you are unwilling to question how it is any more vacuous than any other movie. If someone wants to assert the validity of Angels & Demons or the verisimilitude of Wolverine, I'm willing to hear them out, but I guarantee The Limits of Control will have a retort for everything.

Fortunately, Jarmusch has moved beyond questioning the values of his motives. Ever since Stranger Than Paradise, he has been working seamlessly between his intellect and his subconscious to confounding effect. The Limits of Control is brilliantly surreal within the very rational boundaries of cinematic iconography. An action film with no action; a mystery with no answer; a means with no ends.

Isaach De Bankolé is a nameless man for hire. We first meet him in a bathroom stall doing some breathing exercises like some sort of Tai Chi for small spaces. He steps out of the stall in his impeccable grey-blue silk suit and heads to the airport lobby where he meets his two contacts. Ambiguous verbal exchanges are made, vague instructions are given and a small box of matches are passed to our stolid hero. And so the game begins, as De Bankolé travels to Madrid to Seville to Almería to complete a mission that may as well be a secretive walking on the moon. Along the way, other contacts are met, other boxes of matches are traded, and ideas are expounded. Although the endgame puts the journey in perspective, it is a minor punctuation to the methodically mundane dance that is casuistically captivating.

De Bankolé, credited as the "Lone Man," does not so much play a character in the film more than he acts as a vessel: for ideas and curiosities of the world, but more importantly for cinematic ideals and the very practical application of creativity and the imagination. Although this is an overt reference to his scene with Bill Murray (the "American"), it is also a reference to his intuitive magnetism toward art. Impassive but not aloof, our Lone Man is rigorously engaged mentally in his surroundings. Although he is never called upon to do so, you suspect that he could whip out some chopsticks anytime and catch a fly with minimal movements. On a regiment of double espresso (in two cups) and no sleep and the breathing exercises, he is the embodiment of no limits to control. Watching De Bankolé with his sculptural face and his very subtle expressions was absolutely perfect as the elegant émigré angel.

The Limits of Control is a little like a cultural test (that I failed, but enjoyed) where you suspect that everything has a hidden meaning, but you have to be smart enough to figure it out. Knowing Spanish would certainly add a dimension to the film, as signs and text and even some dialogue were left untranslated. His getaway car—which was actually a truck—had the motto of 'la vida no vine nada' scrolled along the tailgate. Not to mention the reference of the Sam Fuller movie in the movie poster containing Tilda Swinton's character. For those who can identify paintings and songs and architecture, Jarmusch has given you something of a treasure hunt, much like the game being played in the movie, in which winning doesn't really matter; you are just required to participate.

Christopher Doyle's controlled but free-form cinematography added a lightness to The Limits that was different from any other Jarmusch film. Doyle's camera is not so much choreographed around the characters than it is around the architecture—constantly reacting to the structures instead of the humans.

The film also boasts a handsome cast that reads like and indie film wish list: Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt, Youki Kudoh, Alex Descas, Paz de la Huerta, Hiam Abbass and so on. All play momentary pieces in the whole with Tilda Swinton's being the most memorable not only because of the amazing look, but because she gets a chance to verbalize the visual magic of films. Are these images a dream? Or is it a film?

In the case of The Limits of Control, it is clearly both. A highly cerebral film that is short on emotional gravity or visceral excitement, The Limits of Control asks you to enjoy the cinematic moment along side the abstract postulations—admittedly a tough request for even the most adventurous and esoteric movie goer, myself included. I would be hard pressed to call the film successful, but there are too many perfect moments within the film for it to be unsuccessful. If you can live with the fact that films, and reviews, can be pointless and relevant at the same time, you're in the right place.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eugene Lourié's THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)

While geeking out reading David Kalat's informative "A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series," he refers to the influence of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It pre-dates Godzilla by one year and is, on the surface, a very similar film. The story and the monster in Godzilla were closely modeled after the successful Beast, and, as Kalat explains, animator Ray Harryhausen harbored "a personal grudge against Toho's Godzilla series for decades thereafter, thinking that they had won commercial success only by stealing from his film."

I was kind of embarrassed I had not seen this film, apparently outside playing with cow pies when it was probably playing on TV. Regardless, I assumed this grudge was either an artistic ego at work or some form of Western superiority. Boy, was I wrong. Harryhausen's Rhedosaurus knocks the lumbering Godzilla right out of the water. The animation is impressive, bringing the monster to vivid life. The story might be lacking, but it hardly matters in light of the visual effects.

Long before we were concerned about the melting of the polar ice caps, we find our heroes preposterously conducting nuclear tests near the Arctic Circle. Cleverly named "Operation Experiment," the test has unwittingly awakened a 'Rhedosaurus' from its very long and cold cryonic sleep. Two scientists conducting observations of the blast site on foot happen upon the monster, leaving one dead and the other injured. When scientist Tom Nesbitt regains consciousness and tells his story of the monster, the poor sap is labeled crazy. But wait! He finds an unlikely ally in a beautiful young paleontologist, who is intrigued by his story. Concurrently, there are similar sightings of such a monster making its way via the Atlantic down the Eastern seaboard. The lost little Rhedosauraus seems to be heading home to New York City!

Harryhausen and his agile beast is the true star of the film. His effects and incredibly visionary animation bring the monster to life. Harryhausen's first major film was Mighty Joe Young (1949), working as an assistant to the pioneering animator Willis O'Brien, earning them an Oscar for special effects. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was his first feature as solo animator, working from a short story penned by his friend Ray Bradbury. Although The Beast elaborates on the story, entitled "The Fog Horn," the centerpiece of the film where the monster attacks a lighthouse is the visual ethos Bradbury's piece. The scene is one of the crowning visual moments of the film with all the long-range shots of the beast and lighthouse shot totally in silhouette. I'm not sure if I have seen a more striking monster movie image made either before or since.

Harryhausen's method of stop motion animation has since become iconic. Imbedded in my subconscious are the creatures of his creativity. At some point I must have stopped playing with cow pies and planted myself in front of the TV, because I vividly remember Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. I may not remember the stories, but, wow, do I remember the Minotaur, Cyclops and the skeletons! It is odd how something you can barely remember can seem so familiar. Call me nostalgic, but his methods of animation is worlds beyond any CGI. As Harryhausen's Rhedosauraus makes its way around NYC, every movement of this four legged giant is considered down to the most subtle detail. The poor creature's death is more melodramatic that any actor could ever come up with.

The place where Godzilla excels is its geographical place in historicity. The diverging perception of the atomic bomb in the 1950s is sort of summed up between The Beast and Godzilla. Many people in the US believed the propaganda that the atomic bomb, especially as it was used in WWII, was peacemaker; a necessary force in the face of evil-doers. The Japanese knew differently, especially Ishiro Honda who saw the destruction in Hiroshima. Godzilla is a sobering reminder of mankind's failures, but heroism and optimism lives in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The Beast is light fare, but the special effects represent how magical movies can be, something I forget all too often.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mastodon: Live at the Fine Line

Live in Review - Mastodon @ the Fine Line.

Despite the fact that I am old (very close to embarking on the last year in my 30s) and of the gender that skews away from attending such things (marketers call me the 'freak factor'), it seems that I attend more shows than my colleagues at In Review Online. Posted in this week's edition of Week in Review (the inaugural 'Live in Review' which I hope to be participating in more) is my review of Mastodon's rollicking show at the Fine Line a couple weeks ago.

Although movies might be the thing I like to go blah blah blah about, I enjoy music just about as much as movies. The choice between the one-time show and the one-time screening is really a hard one to predict. In the case of Mastodon, I bought my ticket knowing it would fall at the end of the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival, but without knowing exactly what was going to be on the schedule that night. As I turned out, I wasn't missing too much and I was in need for a cathartic loud evening away from the movies.

Knowing film is sometimes even handy at shows. Mastodon put my film knowledge to the test, using clips from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Part 2 as part of their trippy background video. Is someone in the band a Eisenstein fan? I doubt it. The film was probably used for the incredible imagery and the loose connection that it has to Crack the Skye's theme.

Check out the review here. The live show was augmented by the small(er) venue. If I can bust in to the Animal Collective show at First Ave next week, maybe I will cover that as well.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The nine lives of the Oak Street Cinema

Let's just forget the Phoenix metaphor; nothing rises from the ashes this many times. I'm going to peg the Oak Street as a gentle, but aloof, stray cat that is working through its nine lives. Open again for business, the Oak, once again, has a pretty exciting slate of films coming up. You could call it Best of the Fest Plus, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart when I say that the Twin Cities really really needs an alternative theater playing films like this.

At a screening last week, Al Milgrom said that the Oak would be open for business until the beginning of July, when they would assess the situation. Part of 'the situation' will no doubt be regarding the developer who was interested in the real estate (not the theater), but I'm sure another part of it will be whether or not business is good enough to sustain operations. Can we have some sort of rally cry for the Oak again? In the end, will it matter? I'm willing to commit to seeing every film the Oak screens and to bringing a friend to at least half of those screenings. And maybe, just maybe, I won't see a single summer blockbuster. (So far, I'm doing pretty good.)

Here's the schedule so far, and I don't see a clunker in there:

Tuesday, May 12 - Thursday, May 14 @ 7pm & 9pm
Harvard Beats Yale 29 - 29 (2008) directed by Kevin Rafferty

Forget that it is about football, this is a documentary about one of the most unbelievable games in the history of sports. I'm no football fan, by a long shot, but just reading the facts about this 1968 game is fascinating. With just the title, I needed some convincing too.
Check out the trailer here.
Manohla Dargis' review in the New York Times.
Kenneth Turan's review in the Los Angeles Times.
J.R. Jones' review in the Chicago Reader.

Friday, May 15 - Monday, May 18 @ 7pm & 9pm (Sat, Sun early show @ 4:30pm)
Lola Montès (1955) directed by Max Ophüls

Is this something I should have seen by now? I don't know. After you go to Art-a-Whirl in beautiful NE Minneapolis, you can also enjoy some rep theater just a couple miles away. I'm excited to see this, even if it is not my cup of tea.
Check out the trailer here.
Robert Ebert's review in the Chicago Sun Times.
Chris Wisniewski's review at Reverse Shot.
Fernando F. Croce's review at Slant Magazine.
Ryland Walker Knight's essay at the Auteurs.

Friday, May 22 - Sunday, May 24 @ 7:15pm (Sat, Sun early show at 5pm)
Three Monkeys (2008) directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

More people need the chance to see this film, so I'm glad they brought it back from the Fest to play for a few more days. A moody, plot driven film that is a little unusual for Ceylan, but stylistically all Ceylan. Admittedly not his best reviewed film, but who cares. Great framing and interesting editing gives Three Monkeys a unique space. Don't miss it on the big screen.
Check out the great trailer here.
Official website.
A.O. Scott's review in the New York Times.
Jonathan Romney's review in The Independent.

Friday, May 22 - Sunday, May 24 @ 9:30
The Chaser (2008) directed by Na Hong-jin

If I stick by my word, it will be my third viewing of The Chaser. But unlike other films, I expect to enjoy it and will probably see things I didn't see in the first or second viewing. I've been ruminating on a review of this film that I will have up in the next week or so. Awesome double feature with Three Monkeys.
Check out the trailer here. (Hate the movie man narration in that.)
Here's the UK official website for the movie.
Kyu Hyun Kim's review at

Friday, May 29 - Monday, June 1 @ 7:15pm & 9:30pm (Sat, Sun early show @ 5pm)
Il Divo (2008) directed by Paolo Sorrentino

A film that I sadly missed at the Film Fest and I'm glad I'm getting another chance. I've heard enough about this film to know I better know the background of this infamous Italian politician. Everyone refers to the speed in which information gets thrown at you during the film, to the point that you can't keep up. A little wiki research will certainly not spoil this movie.
Check out the trailer here.
Official website.
Stephen Holden's review in the New York Times.
Bill Weber's review on Slant Magazine.
Peter Bradshaw's review in the Guardian.
Dave Calhoun's review at Time Out London.

Friday, June 5 - Sunday, June 7 @ 7:15pm
Silent Light (2007) directed by Carlos Reygadas

This had a one night screening at the Walker over a year ago. This is an amazing film set in a Mexican Mennonite community. Slow, thoughtful and beautiful, Silent Light focuses on one family and the patriarch's illicit affair with another woman. The images of the film still linger in my mind a year later, and I will gladly refresh them. If you haven't seen Japón or Battle in Heaven, check those out too.
Check out the trailer here.
Official website.
Manohla Dargis' review in the New York Times.
Roger Ebert's review in the Cicago Sun Times.
J.R. Jones' review in the Chicago Reader.

Whoa. That's a lot of linkin'. Keep your eye on the Oak's calendar for changes and/or additions.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


The Western is one of those irresistibly iconic genres, and it's finding a whole new life in the ready-to-recycle global village. Locally, HBO pumped grit and vigor into the Western with "Deadwood"; globally, Takashi Miike turned out his own private Sergio Leone with Sukiyaki Western Django; and obscurely, Piotr Uklanski did the Western up in a Polish way with Summer Love. Even Ramin Bahrani wants to try his hand at the wild Wild West. The biggest entry last year, at least on the film festival circuit, was Kim Jee-woo's huge budget project The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Unfortunately, its high production values far exceed any of its other slightly disappointing virtues.

The set-up takes little imagination: three heroes, one treasure map, and a league of factions that would exist in the lawless early-20th century Manchuria. It is important to note that the three heroes are not on the same team, and all want the map and the treasure for themselves. Do-won (Jung Woo-sung) is a bounty hunter sent for the map, but may well take the large reward for killing wanted man Chang-yi. Chang-yi (Lee Byung-heon) is a ruthless hit man also sent after the map. Tae-gu (Song Kang-ho) is a petty thief who happens to be in the wrong place to rob a train, but in the right place to nab a map. Within a barren dry landscape of epic horizons, the narrative goes out the window in favor of boarder towns, guns and high-speed chases involving horses, motorcycles and jeeps. The glossed over violence attempts to entertain with a very high, but also very stylish, body count.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird is not just an example of how you make a slick vacuous Korean Western, but it is also a showcase for the three high profile actors. All have meaty roles, but it is Song's character that steals the show with his buffoonery and extremely charismatic performance. Song may very well be one of the most talented and versatile actors working today, as displayed in this film, Secret Sunshine, The Host, Memories of Murder, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and so on. He is 'The Weird' in the film and lives up to the moniker despite the fact that he is much more cunning than he lets on. During a particularly nasty shootout involving a good two dozen people, Tae-gu nabs a deep-sea diving helmet ala Jacques Cousteau and parades his gun shooting prowess, head fully protected. The scene is easily the funniest, but in a movie that is supposed to be full of comedic moments, it was also the only one to elicit an audible laugh.

Jung and Lee certainly do their part, but they are little more than cardboard cutouts. Jung as Do-won is the righteous bounty hunter who longs for an independent Korea. He certainly has the classic Western look with the duster and the shotgun, but you never got to see any Musa-like manly emoting. Lee as Chang-yi is just over-the-top with his fitted three-piece suit with tails and his mod-punk hair. He takes suave and sleazy to a whole 'nother level. The scene when Lee hops out of bed in his knickers to throws a knife into a centipede (and nails the knife in from across the room with his gun) was like some sort of contractual excuse to show him with his shirt off.

Kim's impressive slate of films in his short ten-year career has earned him a fare amount of critical and commercial success. His first film, The Quiet Family, was a cutting and dark comedy that inspired Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuri's. His twisty-turny, highly ornate horror film A Tale of Two Sisters was unfortunately watered down in a US remake, The Uninvited. A Bittersweet Life from 2005 was his gangster magnum opus. The violent noir had an admirable balance of entertainment, depth and style. The Good, The Bad, The Weird pushes those first two attributes to the side to make room for bigger style. Ironically, his biggest budget film, and the one that people outside of Korea are most likely to see, is his most disillusioned.

Official Korean website here.
Trailer for The Good, The Bad, The Weird here (without English subtitles, but you don't need them.)
The Good, The Bad, The Weird is available on Korean or Malaysian R3 DVD or UK Blu-Ray with English subtitles.
IFC apparently has the US distribution rights, but who knows if this will get a theatrical release.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Carlos Cuarón's RUDO Y CURSI

Week in Review #35 includes my review for Rudo y Cursi. Check it out here. I caught Rudo y Cursi at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival a couple weeks ago with Carlos Cuarón in attendance. The 2.5 stars is a generous rating on my part, but to be fair, I think most people will enjoy this film. I didn't so much.

Something kind of funny: The original poster (left) has Diego Luna aka Rudo grabbing his crotch, but it seems that has been photoshopped perhaps for the US release. If you go to the Sony US website (linked below), you'll notice he just has his hand pointing down. Marketers are so weird.

The film opens in NYC today and opens locally in the Twin Cities May 29th.

A recent New York Times article on Cha Cha Cha, the production company behind Rudo y Cursi that is run by Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro.

Official website for Rudo y Cursi.

Trailer for Rudo y Cursi on Apple.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

27th Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival: A Reflection

I have lived in the Twin Cities long enough to remember The Rivertown International Film Festival and the barrage of strange films that had no context in the pre-internet world. Tossed between the Bell, Nicholson Hall, and the awesome Film in the Cities theater in the bank, The Rivertown was impressive even in retrospect if for no other reason than 'where did these films come from.' (The 9th, pictured at left, opened with Ju Dou, that has survived the test of time, and closed with A Thousand Pieces of Gold. Remember that one? Me either.) Things have changed since then: the internet has made everyone an expert (yours truly not excluded) and the film festival has morphed into what is now known as the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival.

The Festival, in its various forms, has been screening 100 plus films for a while. There where too many years that I was either absent (physically or mentally) or working the dreaded second shift to be able to give a true assessment of the last 18 years of International Film Festivals in the Twin Cities, but it has obviously gone through its gowning pains. Most recently and notably four years ago when the Fest gained a new director and some new life. Ballooning at 163 films, the 23th MSPIFF was the programming best this town had seen and the crowds were bursting out the seams of the five various venues. But of course, not long after that golden boy, Jamie Hook, broke the bank and left Minnesota Film Arts, the entity behind the Film Fest, in a shambles. Also buried in this saga is the sorted history of Minnesota Film Arts that will be retold in five different versions by five different people. (Want an introduction? Browse the comments and the article linked here.)

Since then, MSPIFF has rebuilt almost in spite of MFA's efforts, or lack there of. Although I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to the ability to overdose on films, I will never become a member of an organization that is so unwilling to share its plans for the future. After a public effort to save the Oak (and MFA) was thwarted, the board of MFA went silent. Everyone, including long standing members, were left in the dark. It's no wonder that people are prone to conspiracy theories about what the board is trying to hide. At this point, Minnesota Film Arts seems committed to popping its head out of the sand in the Spring for a film festival, but little else. (Of course, I would always love to hear otherwise, and if it sounds good, you've got my cash.)

It is from this dysfunctional nonprofit that the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival is expected to succeed. Al Milgrom continues to be the torch carrier and the face of the Festival, probably providing much of his legwork gratis. And behind him is a league of hardworking (and probably equally underpaid) staff. Their efforts at this year's film festival can not be understated.

Out of the 147 films, I saw 28 theater-side and screened eight from DVD for the Star Tribune for a grand total of 36; not even a quarter of what was offered. Kinda crazy. Within those 36 were some huge highs (Munyurangabo, Lion's Den, Three Monkeys, Tokyo Sonata, and Oblivion), a handful of random lows (The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, Taarka, My Time Will Come, Getting Home, and Land of the Dark Butterflies) with the rest falling somewhere in the middle. Save for Mondays, I was at St Anthony Main every day. I dug hanging out with my peeps (will you be my peeps?) under the ruse of Film Goat Gatherings, and hope to do so again soon at another randomly chosen film event. And if you missed any of that, I narcissistically chronicled it all on this blog.

Because this is a fly-over-land festival, it really serves a purpose of bringing films to the the big screen that would otherwise not make an appearance in the Twin Cities. If you cracked open the New York Times last Friday, you would have seen at least a half dozen films reviewed or advertised that played at the festival: Eldorado, The Merry Gentleman, Three Monkeys, Il Divo, Shall We Kiss, Tyson, Lemon Tree. While some of these are scheduled to make a return appearance either at Landmark or the proposed schedule for the Oak for May, the vast majority of the films at MSPIFF will never return to the big screen and some may even vanish without a DVD trace. Regarding those films that will vanish and never be heard from again, the question I would ask programmers is do they deserve to vanish? I like an obscure film as much as the next person, but I don't obscurity alone is a merit. The other question I would have is regarding films that have a scheduled return (Tokyo Sonata and Lemon Tree being examples): would it be worth filling that slot with a film that may not make a theatrical appearance in the Twin Cities?

These are merely questions, knowing full well that programing a film festival is not like filling your Netflix queue. Distribution deals are probably still be negotiated when films are chosen or screened, so much of this is probably a mute point. However, here are two examples that I can cull simply from reading magazines: Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astree and Celadon and the omnibus film The State of the World which included shorts from Pedro Costa, Chantal Akerman, Wang Bing, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Vicente Ferraz and Ayisha Abraham—both have directorial anchors and, dare I say it, are important films because of it and neither one seems to be coming to a theater near us anytime soon. The Film Fest has some chaff, and I guess I would like to see a little more selective if not visionary programing.

To its credit, the Fest is hugely diverse, (and maybe a little bit too inclusive) but there are some pretty big gaps. One film from Japan, one film from South Korea, and some very uninspired choices from China. And what about Malaysia? Thailand? I would have loved to have seen Wang Bing's Feng Ming: A Chinese Memoir or Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army or Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation or Hong Sang-soo's Day and Night or Liew Seng Tat's Flower in the Pocket or Ying Li's Yasukuni or even Jia Zhangke's poorly review Useless, not to mention Sion Sono's Love Exposure. Or how about filling up a theater with anime fans by showing Mamoro Oshii's Sky Crawlers? Obviously, these are the films that I pine for, but these films represent a viewing demographic that was largely ignored.

Technically, it's always just a few bad apples that taint the whole Fest. The worst, was The Secret of the Grain being projected from a DVD. It was bad enough that the picture looked crappy, but to have it jump to the beginning of the disc right in the middle of the movie? Wow. Really really poor judgement on that one; a film that clearly should have been presented on 35mm. That being said, I thought most of the movies projected from HD in Theater 3 looked pretty good with Helen and Tokyo Sonata being standouts examples. (I'll be interested to see if Tokyo Sonata is on 35mm when it plays at the Lagoon.) The point of most of this is that 'films' are becoming increasingly format diverse, and the Festival does a huge disservice to the audience by not printing format somewhere. If I was on the fence about which movie to see, I would always choose the one on 35mm. But there was no way to make that choice, other than trying to track someone down who might know before you buy your tickets and have half of them look at you like you're an asshole. (Maybe I am an asshole, but that's not the point.) Not only do I think most people would be interested in this information, it simply makes a more savvy audience.

Not to keep pooping on the parade with constructive criticism, but...the ballot thing is annoying. Put this online. Let people vote and write comments online and skip all the needless paper and time sorting through these crazy things. (Not to mention the log-jam outside every film with the ballot twitter...) Speaking of Twitter, set up a MSPIFF Twitter account and a MSPIFF Facebook. They may not be my favorite modes of communication, but people use them, especially the young 'uns. Who wouldn't want to volunteer to Tweet?

Having gleefully spent almost all my spare time at St Anthony in the two weeks of MSPIFF, sometime riding directly from work and staying until 11pm, I would like to think it is obvious that I am thankful for the Festival. Problems and criticisms aside, this is my home and this is my Festival. Film in this city means more to me than I am probably willing to admit. And because of that, I want to see it get better and to excel and be profitable. To take it one step further, I think the Twin Cities has the audience and the resources to hone the International Film Festival into something unique and important. As it is, MSPIFF has become an aside. There is no buzz, there is no hype, and there is no attempt to hook a receptive but ambivalent population. MFA needs a little drive and inspiration. If MSPIFF is the one thing they do all year, they really need to get behind it, and not just for one month out of the year.

Thanks for the memories. Let's do it again next year. XO

Monday, May 4, 2009

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN tonight at the Riverview

Strangers on a Train (1951) directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Monday, May 4 at 7:30pm @ The Riverview Theater

Strangers on a Train may be one of my favorite Hitchcock movies for three reasons: it never fails to be entertaining, no matter how many times I've seen it, Bruno Anthony may be one of the smarmiest characters ever put to film, and the absolute bizarre and maniacal merry-go-round scene. It's a dark film, but that kind of goes without saying.

This is the forth film in Take-Up Production's "First You Need a Crime: Six from Hitchcock." Don't miss it!

"Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel, Strangers on a Train takes as its central proposition the meeting and ensuing guilty association of two complete strangers, Granger and Walker. Walker buttonholes Granger, a star tennis player anxious to remarry but with a clinging wife, and initiates a hypnotic discussion of exchange murders. Walker then does 'his' murder (the wife), and threatens to incriminate Granger if he doesn't fulfil his half of the 'bargain' (Walker's father). Significantly, Hitchcock didn't use much of Raymond Chandler's original script, because Chandler was too concerned with the characters' motivation. In place of that, Hitchcock erects a web of guilt around Granger, who 'agreed' to his wife's murder, a murder that suits him very well, and structures his film around a series of set pieces, ending with a paroxysm of violence on a circus carousel, when the circle Granger is trapped within is literally blown to pieces, leaving Walker dead beneath it and Granger a free man again." (Time Out)

Friday, May 1, 2009

MSPIFF: Day 14

As the lights came up on my last screening of the Festival, I wanted a bubble filled Lawence Welk farewell (Good night, sleep tight, and may all your dreams come true...), but St Anthony Main was little more than a ghost town as all MSPIFF staff and groupies attended the closing night film Brothers Bloom and gala party at 7 Sushi. For me seeing interesting films (ie not Brothers Bloom) outweighed the impulse to hob-nob and booze. The two screenings I attended may have not offered a grand finale that would be appropriate, but it came pretty close. Had I went home after The Chaser, the Fest would have ended with a blood pulsing bang, but I insisted on watering down the evening by also attending Apron Strings:

The Chaser (2008) directed by Na Hong-jin
I had seen Na Hong-jin's The Chaser on import DVD, and while I was impressed, I was also let down by an overworked ending. The two fade-to-black endings was my last and lasting impression of The Chaser, but seeing it again has led me to reevaluate not only its problems but its overwhelming merits. The Chaser is a heart-pounding action thriller that is apologetically brutal and clever. It is a film of shifts—not turns, but shifts—that questions social conventions, genre playbooks, and political power. I'm committed to giving this one some more thought in perhaps another screening and a full review. The Chaser was the first Korean language big screen offering in the Twin Cities since the last MSPIFF (but only one, Woman on the Beach) and that is just not right. And before that? Probably three years ago or whenever Oldboy was in town (for one week.) I appreciated The Chaser and Tokyo Sonata, but the Film Fest need to bone up on their East Asian film offerings in a big way. Seriously. Give me a call.

Apron Strings (2006) directed by Simu Urale
Apron Strings was a mash-up of so many movies that we have all seen before. This drama from New Zealand focuses on two families amongst a culturally diverse backdrop. Lorma is the owner of a traditional cake shop who is trying desperately to understand her lay-about son and her single daughter who is pregnant and vegetarian and macrobiotic. The other story is of two sisters of Indian decent who have not spoken to each other in 20 years. Anita, cut off from her family years ago, has moved away from Indian tradition as her sister Tara continues the family curry house and her Sikh traditions. False divides and stereotypes dominate this film about familial relationships. Although it wasn't terrible, it was pretty bland.

I'll do a Fest recap as soon as I get some space and some laundry done.