Sunday, May 23, 2010

An Auteur for the New Century

Forget the notion that the new century of film is going to be defined by rattle-shot shaky-cam 3D aggression; perhaps it will be lead by a far more sensitive aesthetic striving for a better understanding of ourselves and the world by dazzling and challenging audiences. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his new film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Weerasethakul (who has taken the first name Joe for the convenience of anyone who doesn't speak Thai) is just the director to lead the way into this new century. One of the most important directors from the last decade (with films like Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, and Syndromes and a Century), Weerasethakul may never receive wide popular success but the Palme is a step in the right direction. I can't wait to see this film.

(Until I dig myself out of various projects, you will probably see more pictures than words on my blog. As far as I'm concerned, the picture above may be one of the best of the year. It was taken by someone who deserves to get paid. It's a great photo. I'll take it down if someone gets mad.)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Kei Sato - R.I.P.

Veteran Japanese actor Kei Sato died on Thursday last week at the age of 81. Sato-san may not be a household name, but he has a face you can not forget with a hook nose and a curl to his full lips. He got his first role in 1959 as Shinjo, the sympathetic friend to Kaji, in Part 2 of Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition and continued a steady stream of memorable supporting roles including parts in recent films like Azumi (2003) and The Whispering of the Gods (2005). He also played the unfortunate neighbor who got caught in the web of the seducing, murdering duo in the classic horror film Onibaba. Kei Sato is probably best known, however, for the roles he played in Nagisa Oshima's films from the late 60s. Oshima put Sato in a variety of roles that ranged from the hapless (Death by Hanging) to abstract (Japanese Summer: Double Suicide) to the sinister (Violence at Noon.)

It was this last film, Violence at Noon, where Kei Sato gives one of his most powerful performances as the sweaty, leering serial rapist. Violence at Noon feels like a collaboration between Oshima's visual audacity and Sato's unrelenting guile.

Kei Sato stars in four of the five films included in Eclipse's Oshima's Outlaw Sixties, to be released later this month.

Friday, May 7, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Day 9

Bluebeard (2009) Catherine Breillat - Recommended
I am eternally grateful that Catherine Breillat's films are becoming less and less painful. And by painful, I certainly don't mean 'bad' (Breillat's films don't exactly insight such simplistic judgements), but painful because of their unflinching, brutal honesty. The provocation that Breillat was content to hand out has given way to something a little more playful but no less thought provoking with The Last Mistress and her most recent film Bluebeard. The thing that is most striking about Bluebeard is its simplicity. The story of Bluebeard is told from duel perspectives: the first is a literal depiction of the 17th century fairytale in period regalia, and the second is a contemporary reaction to the macabre story as two young sisters read it from a book. The set up is nothing short of brilliant, balancing the then and the now. The then: the sexual allure and curiosity of a rebellious girl who volunteers to marry a 'monster.' The now: the cautionary and moral lessons in the form of fiction to a puritanical society. The period portion is enchanting and is every much the folk tale it should be. Bluebeard is a gruff but gentle man whose physical grotesqueness and murdering tendencies are covert. His young bride is dwarfed by his size, but not by his personality. In many ways, she is more bold than the notorious Bluebeard, foreshadowing a fate that he has yet to realize. The lasting image of the young bride stoking the hair on Bluebeard's decapitated head is haunting. But so is the odd and abrupt ending for the two young girls innocently reading the story. There was a woman on hand at the beginning of the screening who was reading passages from a forthcoming book from U of M professor Jack Zipes entitled The Enchanted Screen: A History of Fairy Tales on Film. Breillat's Bluebeard is included in the book.

Videocracy (2009) Erik Gandini - Highly Recommended
From the standpoint of the material it dissects, Videocracy was the best documentary I saw during the fest. An absorbing look at Italy's celebrity culture, Videocracy starts at the top with Silvio Berlusconi's media empire and works its way down the spiraling staircase of a fame mongering society. Berlusconi laid the groundwork for his future when he bought a television station in the 70s that was made famous by a quiz show in which an ordinary housewife would take off a piece of clothing with each correct answer from the audience. Sowing the seeds for trash television, Italy now has a population of young women obsessed with become a veline, or a host who dances and generally acts like a slutty Vanna White to the numerous Pat Sejack's of news and entertainment on Italian television. Somehow director Erik Gandini was able to immerse himself inside the thinly veiled Berlusconi machine. From the fame-controlling paparazzi to the mousy mega-producer who idolizes Benito Mussolini, Gandini draws out a fascinating and insidious cycle of the beautiful and rich steering both the demand and the consumption of celebrity drivel. Our moral center is a man who is a mechanic but who desperately wants in on his 15 seconds of Italian fame. American culture as it is, you would think that this type of mania is nothing new, but what is revealed in Videocracy is a creature of another kind, hopelessly intertwined with politics. I've spent the last year associating everything I see or hear about Italy with Matteo Garrone's film and Roberto Saviano's book Gamorrah. Now I will be combining that with what I have seen in Videocracy, including the bizarre campaign song for Berlusconi where the refrain is "Thank God Silvio exists."

Night Catches Us (2010) Tanya Hamilton - Recommended
Receiving ample buzz at Sundance, Night Catches Us is a highly anticipated entry in American independent film, and rightly so. Tanya Hamilton's feature debut is a powerful yet low-key drama that smolders with subtlety in the hands of the two leads, Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington. The fact that Night Catches Us is skirting the margins of festival screenings with no wide release date in sight is a crime. Set in Philadelphia 1976, Marcus (Mackie) returns home for his father's funeral after an extended exile. Tensions are high between Marcus and his brother, who believes he abandoned his family, and between Marcus and his former Black Panther brothers who believe Marcus betrayed them. The only kind face Marcus finds is his friend Patty (Washington), now an up-and-coming lawyer trying to make a difference in the courts and the community. In the mix is a secret about why Marcus left town and why most of his former friends feel betrayed. Although Jimmy Carter's voice in present in the background and the struggle for racial equality simmers on the periphery, Hamilton's film focuses on the characters and the inner anguish of trying to move on. Night Catches Us is handsome in its period depiction of 1970s Philly. Everything seems cast with a golden light of a tarnished bygone era meticulously recreated. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the Roots turns in most of the music for the soundtrack (with Tariq Trotter playing the role of Marcus's brother.) Night Catches Us is not flawless however. The girl who plays Patty's young daughter is handed some lines she can't really pull off, and some of the various narrative off-shoots feel halfhearted. That being said, Night Catches Us is far better than average and feels like it should be enjoying a larger stage than it currently has.

The Revenant (2009) D. Kerry Prior - Not Recommended
The Revenant was the best film I saw out of the late night series MSPIFF programed, which isn't saying much. Although I didn't see Red White & Blue, the other three in the series (The Forbidden Door, The Wild Hunt, and this one) barely tripped the entertainment meter and were all too self-conscious in their attempts to be edgy. In the case of The Revenant, a so-called zombie buddy movie, it is trying too hard to be ironic. Bart comes back from the dead, not as a zombie, not as a vampire, but as a revenant. His friend Joey attempts to help him navigate his undead lifestyle in the most harmless way possible. Vomiting and blood sucking hijinks ensue with a little partying in between. The Revenant is good for some laughs, but most of the jokes get pretty stale by the end of the movie and you really just want all the characters to be dead and stay dead. Give any horror film enough time and it becomes satirical all by itself. Shaun of the Dead was a unique film at the time, but is ultimately a one trick pony. Parodies, like The Revenant, now feel self-reflexive simply for the sake of being self-reflexive.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Day 8

I'm going to slog through these before my memory escapes me, so bare with me.

The Misfortunates
(2009) Felix Van Groeningen - Take It or Leave It
The title of this film is like a set up: it is almost asking to be used against itself. Fortunately, the film is not overall misfortunate, just sort of. Gunther is a 13-year-old boy who has a higher maturity level than his father and three uncles who all debauch and raise havoc all under the same roof. Parental guidance for Gunther is a misnomer, only finding kindness from his grandmother who patiently cleans up after her adult sons. Like a gang of mongrels, the Strobbes are reviled and regarded in town for their antics. Gunther's life is at a crossroads where he is either fated to inherit the deadbeat lifestyle of his father and uncles or is able to beat the odds before everyone drowns himself in liquor. There are incredibly funny moments in The Misfortunates, but they are overshadowed by the reality of alcoholism in a young persons life: waking up your dad with vomit dripping out of his mouth or becoming the victim of bender induced rage is nothing to laugh about. The film's biggest achievement is constructing these mullet men who you can almost smell from your theater seat into completely likable but totally repugnant men. Our unfulfilled desire to find either a hero or a villain is similar to young Gunther's schizophrenic emotional tugs of love and disappointment from his various father figures. The Misfortunates honesty is a very bitter pill. The story is told in flashback, giving us small glimpses into Gunther's dysfunctional adult life. The present tense tries too hard to correlate with the past and even does a little unwanted social commentary on free will. The Misfortunates is about as fun as waking up on a sticky barroom floor.

Zero (2009) Pawel Borowski - Recommended
My favorite thing about the film fest is being able to walk into a theater with no expectations and be pleasantly surprised. I knew Zero was from Poland and I knew it was just under 2 hours. Although I was prepared to see a bad movie, Zero was far more entertaining and clever than I had anticipated. In his directorial debut, Pawel Borowski exploits the familiar territory paved with large casts and the gimmick of six degrees (or less) of separation. You're introduced to the businessman who calls the surveillance man who spies on a woman who is having an affair with a man who is threatened by a thug who makes pornos with a woman who...well, you get the idea. I thought I had a pretty good idea where this film was going and how it would get there, but 45 minutes into the movie we are still being introduced to new characters. I would liken the film's form to that of a Ferris wheel where the characters stay on for about three revolutions and then move on. Zero maintains this formula for the entire film eventually ending where it started. Sort of. The litany of characters stay interesting, but, for obvious reasons, are never very engaging. The story moves on before we can get very attached to anyone, but it hardly matters. These are more than just mere sketches; Zero is about as polished as a film can get. Perfectly paced with high production values, Borowski makes the ride completely painless.

Ward No. 6 (2009) Karen Shakhnazarov and Aleksandr Gornovsky - Recommended
All I have to say is that slotting a dialog heavy Russian film based on story by Chekov at 10:00pm is like a very cruel joke on someone who has already worked eight hours and seen two movies. The merits of this film were definitely there, but let's just say I missed most of them.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Home Movies - April 2010

(Holy crap. It's May. Somewhere in my past two weeks of movie going, I pulled this out of my arse for In Review Online.)

If I were forced at gunpoint to say one good thing about Avatar, it would be that it reinvigorated the notion of the theatrical experience. It’s unfortunate that Avatar had to be the film to do it, but people took notice of the value of seeing a film on a large screen. Just imagine, however, if 35 Shots of Rum had lured people to theaters, with its kinetic camera movements and intimate close-ups. Or what if people were lined up in droves to see Summer Hours and its luxurious green pallet on the big screen? If that were the case, our futures would be paved with creative subtitled films, all in 2D. Instead, Avatar has delivered a legacy of mindless 3D films that the industry will probably be shoving down our throats for the next decade. Avatar came out on DVD this month, but below are the ones you should buy or rent instead.

Icons of Suspense: Hammer Films (1958-1963)
Director(s): Cyril Frankel, Guy Green, Joseph Losey, Michael Carreras, Quentin Lawrence

Sony adds another edition to their ‘Icons’ series with six classic, but rare, potboilers from England’s Hammer Films. Don’t let the price fool you (six movies for around 20 bucks)—all the titles have been restored and presented in their uncensored form, many for the first time ever in the U.S. None of these films made huge waves in the U.S. and most were edited for middle-of-the-road television consumption. Hammer Films was better known for their Technicolor horror films (The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Mummy) that often overshadowed these low-key thrillers. The Snorkel (1958) is a murder mystery melodrama about a daughter who has serious doubts about her mother’s suicide. A family faces a losing battle with a powerful patriarch who harbors his dirty secret regarding his attraction to young girls in Never Take Candy From a Stranger (1960). After a terrible accident, a race car driver fights his unnatural desire to kill his wife in Stop Me Before I Kill (1960), known in the UK as The Full Treatment. Cash on Demand (1961) is a bank heist with a twist, before such a thing was its own pat genre. Maniac is a cautionary tale about the scheming women and their crazy husbands. And finally, These Are the Damned (1963) is a sci-fi drama that burns with the subtext of the social ills of the times. Although reviews and information exists on all these films, most refer to their previously censored releases that pale in comparison to what Sony has unveiled with this set.

35 Shots of Rum (2009)
Director: Claire Denis

InRO’s best film of 2009 needs little introduction. There are a few rare films out there that hand you an experience that feels like a gift—35 Shots of Rum is just such a film. I recently saw ’35 Shots’ for a second time theatrically and found it even more moving and beautiful than the first time. 35 Shots is a masterpiece from the heart that skirts around the edges of social politics with subconscious sublimity. The narrative is driven by a visual osmosis, slowly and subtle revealing truths and discoveries about the transcendental characters. At the center of the film is the relationship between a young adult daughter and her single father—both at junctures in their lives. Claire Denis cites Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring in this dedication to her mother and grandfather, but I still see more Hong Sang-soo (albeit a more gentle Hong) than Ozu in 35 Shots of Rum. Needless to say, there is plenty of repeat viewing in this DVD. Extras include a 20-minute interview with Clair Denis and a 70-minute conversation that she had with Judith Mayne at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Summer Hours (2009)
Director: Oliver Assayas

Criterion makes another fine choice for their new endeavors into current film. Although Oliver Assayas has a knack for providing films that galvanize the opinions of audiences either for their merits or their inferiority, he does a 180 with a family drama that floats above where animosity exists. Simplicity and beauty are Assayas’s rallying points behind an understated tale about family and loss that is balanced with a celebration of art and life. Hélène is the matriarch presiding over a collection of personal belongings that have accrued in market value and artistic status. Faced with her declining health, her three adult children— Frédéric, Adrienne and Jérémie—prepare for the familial clashing of personalities and ideologies in dealing with the estate. Not exactly new or colorful material, but Assayas and his amazing cast and crew turn it into something that feels unique and looks vibrant. I particularly appreciate the line in Kent Jones’ essay included with the DVD in regards to the approach to cinema in Paris that is carried forward by Assayas: “Cinema meant a response to the world, as opposed to a distraction from it, an engagement with the present and the past, historical and aesthetic—in essence, a dismantling of the barrier between the two.” Criterion’s release is supplemented with all the extras you might expect: a new interview with Assayas, a making-of and a documentary, Inventory, about the way art is treated in the film.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Director: Terry Gilliam

Considering all the behind the scenes maelstrom, Terry Gilliam’s most recent film is exactly what it should be: a beautiful mess. Sometimes incomprehensible and almost always illogical, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is Gilliam’s war of the creative will, both literally and metaphorically: literally in his ability to pick up and finish the film after a trio of omens (Heath Ledger’s death, producer William Vince’s death and his own accident where he broke his back) and metaphorically in film as it champions the power of the imagination. The eye-popping visuals and the artistic grandeur are what you might expect from the man behind the animation of Monty Python. Parnassus is a fitting legacy for Ledger who plays a character that is neither here nor there, taking the form of a shape-shifting apparition. Christopher Plummer anchors the film with his more than human performance of the failing Doctor Parnassus, which is hard not to read as a stand-in for Gilliam himself. The DVD mines probably as much extra footage of Ledger that they could find, including a short audio interview and an even shorter wardrobe test. Gilliam provides a commentary for the film and a video introduction.

Taxidermia (2006)
Director: György Pálfi

Taxidermia is a surreal Hungarian film ripe for cult adoration from the director of the much-loved Hukkle. Those expecting more of the same serenity should think again. An absurd allegorical fairy tail obsessed with carnality, György Pálfi’s creation completely tips the scales on visceral human vulgarity. Some people will find this film funny, many will find it dark, but most will find it utterly repugnant. If you combined Ilya Khrjanovsky’s bizarre 4 with one of David Cronenberg’s more fleshy films, you would have something close to Taxidermia. The narrative, such as it is, follows three generations of men, each one with a unique bodily compulsion: sex, food and, of course, taxidermy. Recommendation of this film comes with the explicit covenant of: don’t say I didn’t warn you. Taxidermia is a meticulously made confrontation of bodily fluids, internal organs and sexual perversion that is not for the faint of heart.

Mammoth (2009)
Director: Lukas Moodysson

Show Me Love and Together set up expectations for smart, tender dramas from Lukas Moodysson, but whatever popular or critical acclaim he had left with Lilya 4-Ever seemed to go right out the window with A Hole in my Heart and Container. Moodysson waved goodbye to distribution opportunities when he started mining dark and disturbing subject matter with a very stark unflinching eye. Returning to less experimental endeavors, Moodysson attempts to jump back into the ring with Mammoth and ends up falling flat on his face. In his first English language film, he employs two of the most marketable faces in indie film today (Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal) and still can’t get any respect. Mammoth is largely a film riddled with the guilt of the privileged and the suffering of oppressed, portrayed with little finesse and a ham hand. But for those who are following Moodysson’s interesting trajectory (or who enjoy Williams or Bernal), Mammoth should not be tossed aside so quickly.

Beeswax (2009)
Director: Andrew Bujalski

I’m unwilling to use the term “mumblecore” (although, right there it is) and would rather shift these hipster head-scratchers into a more descriptive category. Painfully intimate and brutally reflexive on the people who are most likely the audience, these films nonetheless find life (or stagnation) in the overly self-conscious dialogue that renders the genre tag accurate. Watching Beeswax, or Andrew Bujalski’s mumbly debut Funny Ha Ha, can be as frustrating as it is when you hear the words ‘ I don’t know’ effortlessly slide out of your mouth. Strong reactions for or against these 21st century slacker films usually reside in the ability or refusal to recognize ourselves in these films. Beeswax is no game changer and continues on the same path that Bujalski paved eight years ago, albeit with a little more craft. He wrote the film for twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher who play the leads in the film. It is a perfect set up for discovering the subtle differences that exist in two similar people. The twins bring some levity to the film in their effortless chemistry in an otherwise overtly awkward film.

La France (2007)
Director: Serge Bozon

Debuting at Cannes 2007, this unique film has probably made the most stops internationally the last few years for the least viewers. A spare and somewhat abstract WWI meditation, La France often gets billed as a musical due to the fact that the moments in which the film breaks into song are so unusually. The film follows a wandering group of soldiers joined by a woman (disguised as a young man) who is searching for her soldier husband. Their travels are aimless and are ambiguously secretive with little notion of a war beyond the men’s period army uniforms. All members are lost physically and emotionally with a world caught up in war. But when the soldiers pull out their handmade instruments and sing an infectious pop song that is distinctly of a different era, you can’t help but be jarred from the somber sensibilities of the film. La France is a tough sell and is all the more special for it. Thankfully Kino has picked it up in a valiant effort to give this film more exposure.

Double Dare Double Feature

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Director: Werner Herzog

44 Inch Chest (2009)
Director: Malcolm Venville

Male characters don’t get much better than Nicolas Cage’s Terence or the ensemble cast that adorns 44 Inch Chest. I’m not sure what Werner Herzog is up to with Bad Lieutenant, but it sure is fun. He re-imagines Abel Ferrara’s original cop-gone-bad with surreal style that almost allows us to forget Harvey Keitel. Cage’s adoption of his character is the icing on the very weird cake. Far less chaotic, 44 Inch Chest survives on the vibrant personalities of the five main characters who are just as good as wielding words as they are fists. Colin’s wife has left him for a younger man. His friends pull together to help Colin enact revenge. The one woman in the film recedes as the male psyche takes center stage. Watching the six principal actors—Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane and Melvil Poupaud—clash and parry with one another is far more entertaining that the story even pretends to be. Between the two films you have one insane American cop and five British cads with latent thug tendencies—just try and imagine if they were thrown in the same room together.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Day 7

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (2009) Leanne Pooley - Recommended
Who are the Topp Twins? Perhaps it's a bonus that this incredibly entertaining survey of the life and times of the popular New Zealand singing and comedic duo, the Topp Twins, will also be an education for most American audiences. Jools and Lynda Topp are twin sisters from rural New Zealand who became homegrown hits in the 80s and are now kiwi icons. Making a name for themselves by drawing large crowds performing on the streets of Auckland, the Topps have since turned their irrepressible charm into multifaceted folk-singing variety act which includes dressing up as lovable stereotypes such as rancher and sportscaster Ken and Ken or glamour loving socialites Prue and Dilly. The unpredictable backstory to the Topp Twins is their activism and their ability to be political without being politicized. Being openly gay, speaking out for Maori rights, protesting apartheid and rallying for a nuclear-free New Zealand never undermined their popularity, in fact, quite the contrary. The film speaks wonders to the progressive nature of New Zealand, and the (unfortunate) conservatism of Americans. Leanne Pooley was approached by the twins to make the documentary after Jools was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was unclear whether or not she would pull through. Fortunately Jools did win the battle with cancer, and the documentary went on to win the People's Choice Award for Documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival (surprising everyone by beating out Michael Moore's Capitalism.) The Topp Twins was, without a doubt, the most fun documentary of the fest. Check out the trailer for the film here and you will see what I'm talking about.
(It would be a shame if The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls did not get wider distribution beyond the festival circuit, but that seems to be the case. A DVD is available on the film's website, and although 30 bucks might seem a lot for a DVD, you can share it with your friends. That's what I plan on doing.)

My Tehran for Sale (2009) Granaz Moussavi - Not Recommended
My Tehran for Sale was the only film I saw from the 2010 Global Lens series at MSPIFF. Global Lens, a yearly series of solid, under-the-radar foreign films, permanently moved into the MSPIFF lineup last year. My Tehran for Sale follows a handful of twenty-something Iranians, each with their own way of dealing with social constraints of society. Sadaf has embraced professional life and takes a devil-may-care attitude about the risky practice of attending underground concerts and events. Her friend Marzieh, however, is a struggling actress and is suffocating under the oppression. When she falls in love with Saman, and Iranian living in Australia, Marzieh starts to see a light at the end of her artistic tunnel. But an unforeseen tragedy strikes and sends Marzieh's life into a tailspin. The strict rules in which Iranian filmmakers are forced to work under have made directors understandably pessimistic, and, as a result, unrelentingly somber. Even though first time director Granaz Moussavi now lives in Australia herself, the dark tone is carried over in her film. My Tehran triumphs in its existence: shot on the sly and smuggled out of the country for editing, it is incredible well made despite the obvious obstacles. But the film flounders with the heavy-handed melodrama forced upon Marzieh. I have no doubt that the frustrations of every one of these characters is very real, but when a guttural scream is emitted under pretext, it has an inevitable resonance of falsity.