Thursday, August 26, 2010

Satoshi Kon R.I.P

Master animator Satoshi Kon died earlier this week at the age of 47 due to complication with pancreatic cancer. The world has lost a great artist singular in imagination and creativity. His most recent feature film, Paprika, played at MSPIFF a few years ago and there was a line of avid fans, myself included, running down the block to get in. But it is really his animated series Paranoia Agent that has resonated the most with me. Wildly complex and and incredible heartfelt, Kon delves into the recesses of our subconscious with vivid imagination.

Here's just a teaser of the first episode of Paranoia Agent. I look forward to watching again soon! Satoshi-san, we will miss you!

All of Kon's feature films and Paranoia Agent are available on DVD in the US.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO

(Inferno played at MSPIFF and opened in NYC a few weeks ago. Although it seems unlikely that it will make a second appearance in the Twin Cities, look for it on DVD in a few months. Originally published on In Review Online.)

Although the story of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’Enfer began over 45 years ago, the short history of this documentary began in a Paris elevator where director Serge Bromberg was stuck for two hours with the widow of the celebrated French director. Their conversation easily drifted to Clouzot’s films but eventually landed on his one true regret, the unfinished L’Enfer (aka Inferno or more poignantly Hell) and the 185 cans of unused film sitting dormant. This incredible moment of serendipity is laid out in the prologue of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, but what isn’t mentioned is the light bulb that must have been glowing in the film archivist’s head within the close quarters of that elevator. The compulsory comment, that Bromberg must have uttered as delicately as possible during the conversation, is almost palpable: “I would love to take a look at those reels of film.” Fortunately, there must have been something in Bromberg that Inès de Gonzalez trusted enough to allow him and co-director Ruxandra Medrea full access to the footage of what could have been Clouzot’s greatest success, but turned into his greatest failure. Inferno unveils a revelatory patchwork of Clouzot’s swoon-worthy footage that will have you wishing you could turn back the hands of time and alter the film’s cruel fate.

Inferno is a balancing act of discovering the unseen hours of film Clouzot shot, and giving it some context. Built from interviews with the crew, the documentary dissects a production fueled and doomed by obsession. In 1964 L’Enfer was the highly anticipated follow up to La Vérité from Clouzot, a director sometimes referred to as the French Hitchcock. Even before the first clapperboard was snapped, L’Enfer was being built up to be Clouzot’s best yet, even at his own assessment. About a man consumed by jealousy, this relatively large production received a point-blank “unlimited budget” from Columbia executives who had simply seen some of the screen tests. Assembling a star cast, with Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani in the leads, and a talented crew, L’Enfer became consumed by possibilities that no one but Clouzot seemed to understand. Obsessed with manipulating sound and image that would fit the mood of his madness, Clouzot plagued his crew with changes and rewrites that sent many people packing, including Reggiani. Just as it seemed that the film had been pushed to the brink and beyond, Clouzot suffered a heart attack and, by orders from the doctor, L’Enfer came to an abrupt and portentous halt.

What is left is hours of footage that are so incredibly seductive, on a visual and emotional level, it’s completely astounding and heartbreaking that nothing ever came of it. Much of what we see in Inferno are the artful screen tests with Schneider, the images of which will haunt my dreams for an eternity. Clouzot’s camera seems to have taken on the same obsessive quality towards Schneider as her fictional husband would have in the film, with no end to the experiments with Schneider’s alluring face as the hypnotic focal point. Much of the soundtrack lost, Bromberg and Medrea try to build a well-rounded portrait of L’Enfer by staging portions of the script. But these digressions feel like having to eat your vegetables before you can have your cake. There is an analytical draw to the interviews with the production crew and to the analysis of Clouzot’s meticulous storyboards and preparations, but it doesn’t compared to the visceral pull of the film that Clouzot had a hand in. Even the straightforward black and white takes of Reggiani’s character contain the subtle mysterious aura of this ill-fated film. Unfortunately the three people who truly could have added another dimension to the documentary—Clouzot, Reggiani and Schneider—have all passed away leaving an undeniable gap in understanding Clouzot and L’Enfer.

The signs of the brilliance inside the chaos are there but painfully unsubstantiated. Imagine watching Hearts of Darkness if Apocalypse Now was never finished: this is what Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno is. You get the feeling that Clouzot, a dogged planner, set out to show those off-the-cuff New Wavers how to make a cutting edge film, but his ambition and perhaps his ego completely did him in. After his heat attack, he worked for a few years in television earning enough money to finance his last film La Prisonnière (1968), incorporating many of the hallucinatory effects from L’Enfer with limited yet bizarre effect. Was this the film that Clouzot wanted to make in 1964? I don’t think so. But neither was Claude Chabrol’s half-hearted 1994 adaptation of the same name. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno tenders a fragmented tease open to endless speculation. Although Bromberg and Medrea have done a great service in bringing pieces of the unfinished film to an audience, their greatest achievement is pushing aside the idea that L’Enfer was a failure while immortalizing Clouzot’s creative zeal. The original source material will leave your head spinning with the images of a masterpiece that was not meant to be, but the documentary itself will leave you longing for more.

Friday, August 13, 2010


My buddy Aaron just finished his movie, so I'm just going to pimp it a little bit. Many years in the making, this all-green-screen film is inspired by the rich tradition of B movies and many of the ridiculous Hong Kong films Aaron and would go see every week. Check out the trailer below for a taste of what The Diamonds of Metro Valley is all about. Also check out the official website and buy a DVD! With stickers!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lisa Cholodenko's THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

(Originally published on In Review Online.)

The debate over the 1989 children’s book “Heather has Two Mommies” seems like a cultural millennium ago, but that doesn’t mean that the era has ushered in the kind of social acceptance or progressive politics one would have expected. Instead it has been a mixed bag of uphill climbs and road bumps epitomized by the current seesaw battle for gay marriage in California. Befuddling hate mongering politics masquerading as moral high ground certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but small signs point to the fact that society (with a little help from the law and a more rational Supreme Court) may be ready to move on. Acting as both an innovator and a reactionary, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is a welcome sign of the times: a film full of vivaciousness about a family with two women at the helm where (gasp!) politics are nowhere to be found.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and their two teenage kids, Laser (Josh Hutchenson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska), are an average family in every way with the exception that Nic and Jules are lesbians. But no one seems to care, including Laser’s skate punk friend who uses the word ‘faggot’ as if oblivious to its meaning beyond a slur. Nic and Jules’ marriage is far from perfect, but it is even farther from unusual. The comfort of trite bickering and the ease of mutual appreciation represent a typical, if not stereotypical, twenty-year-plus relationship, regardless of gender. Nic is the mother of Joni and Jules is the mother of Laser, but both were born using the sperm from the same anonymous donor. Laser pressures Joni, who just turned 18, into pursuing her adult privilege of contacting their donor father. Enter Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an earthy and virile urban farmer named who owns a restaurant. The kids meet Paul on the sly with the assumption that it would not go beyond one visit. But opening that genetic door leaves lingering questions. In an attempt to be open and sensitive to their kids’ needs, Nic and Jules invite Paul over which culminates in Paul hiring Jules to do some landscaping and seemingly sending the group down the road to alternative family bliss. The easy-going Paul dives head first into his role of friend and father to the kids and libido leaning confidant to Jules. Nic—the breadwinner who wears the type A pants in the family—is the odd woman out and is rightly suspicious of the relationships her family is building with Paul.

Every moment in this film sparkles with a refreshing humor and sincerity. Whether it’s Jules sharing an overly rational explanation for gay-man-porn to Laser or Joni inarticulately expressing disappointment in Paul, The Kids Are All Right never loses its bubbly veracity. Cholodenko enlists five actors who make this film not only extremely watchable but also entirely believable. Bening and Moore embody the affectations of a couple to a tee. Their California characters fall somewhere between the “L Word” and “Weeds” and “Parenthood,” movie or TV show. Bening shines at a dinner party where she gives an a cappella rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and moments later silently and personally confronts her partner’s infidelity. Unfortunately, the film’s need to be contrary and funny occasionally backs the characters into superficial corners. The tirade that Nic gives on composting, açaí and hemp milk is over-the-top in its attempt to be antithetical and humorous. Likewise, the script occasionally pulls back from melodrama, as if it might get burned. Jules gives an explanation for her poor sexual judgment (using the particularly poignant and well delivered line “marriage is a fucking marathon”) in a soliloquy to her family that is incredibly heartfelt, but shyly backs away by capping it with an innocent but mood killing quip about Russian novels.

The narrative set up is perfect for a late-in-life homo-reformation sermon, but thankfully Cholodenko asserts her team pride and hits a hard line drive, earning RBIs from all of us who hardly see orientation as a choice. But she doesn’t do so without acknowledging it. Privy of Jules’ infidelity, Nic asks the incredulous question that hangs in the air: “Are you straight now?” Even if her denial is not convincing, Jules shortly thereafter conclusively responds to Paul’s attempts to win her over by stating “Paul. I’m gay.” in such a no-duh tone that it nearly bowled over my wavering expectations with surprise. The tryst induced family crisis is handled with candor and honesty on an individual level, regardless of orientation. Paul quickly shifts from mysterious hunky donor daddy to thoughtless home-wrecker in the eyes of Joni and Laser and to self-indulgent ‘interloper’ in the eyes of Nic. Jules might be wearing the scarlet letter around the house, but her bond to Nic, Joni and Laser is not as easily dismissed as Paul’s—his harsh treatment is not about blame, but the emotional survival of the family.

Cholodenko received critical acclaim for High Art and Laurel Canyon, but The Kids Are All Right will likely be a breakout better defined once the awards season hits. In limited release, this subtle little family comedy was neck-and-neck with blockbuster supreme Inception in per screen revenue. Although every good film needs to hold its own outside of the cultural implications that might cushion critique, it is impossible not to take note of the assimilation of The Kids Are All Right (and how it differs from the love affair with Lisbeth Sanders.) Tearing the rainbow flag and the protest signs from our hands, Cholodenko has taken a bold step by making a film that moves an entire community beyond martyrdom and indignation, shifting, ever so slightly, the image of lesbian couples and families to anything but abnormal. Although I have never subscribed to the cause-and-effect influence of popular entertainment when the debate is geared towards violence begetting violence, is there any chance that a populist drama can beget tolerance? Subversive in its normalcy, The Kids Are All Right triumphs with a refreshing take on the American family, propelled by a stellar cast and an uncanny knack for honesty, familiarity and wit.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

FIVE EASY PIECES at the Trylon

Going into Five Easy Pieces, I was skeptical. I saw the film in 1989 in Kansas City at the the ripe old age of 19. It was made out to be a big deal—unavailable on VHS and a purported iconic symbol of American cinema. I came out of the film underwhelmed and disappointed. Bobby Duprea struck me as no more that a selfish jackass who just couldn't pull it together. That's an easy judgment to make at 19.

Seeing it again last night, 21 years later was a totally different experience. Bobby's character is contained in his solitary silent moments, not in the smart-ass remarks about chicken salad sandwiches. His frustration and anger is fueled by the social constraints defined by an ambiguous class system build around his family and his subsequent lifestyle. There is a complexity to Bobby that I certainly didn't see before, and a rigorous beauty to the film and its various landscapes. I was also floored by Helena Kallianiotes brief appearance as a hitchhiker who delivers a non-stop hilarious monologue.

See it this weekend at the Trylon. There are four screenings left with a new 35mm print with lots of Tammy Wynette: Saturday 7 and 9pm, and Sunday 5 and 7pm.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Phillip Noyce's SALT

Salt's day has come and gone. It put up a good fight against Inception, but then got buried by Dinner for Schmucks. Who is Salt? She's a Russian spy. Here's a review I wrote for In Review Online:

Fostering redundant conversations about celebrity culture and nauseating puns on table seasonings comes with the territory of making a film with Angelina Jolie entitled Salt. Treading half-baked Cold War waters with a mix of earnest spy intrigue ala Sidney Bristow and Jason Bourne, Salt delivers just enough swift kicks to the head that you almost forget that you wanted anything more nuanced or complex. The film opens in North Korea where the evil doers du jour are torturing Evelyn Salt (Jolie) as she unconvincingly repeats, “I am not a spy…I am a businesswoman.” As it turns out, of course, Salt works covert operations for the CIA. Freed though a diplomatic trade, she returns home to the normalcy of pushing papers for the CIA and folding napkins in preparation for her wedding anniversary. None too soon, however, a mysterious, but oddly well-informed, Russian defector turns up fingering our heroin as a mole. Her staunch colleague, played with furrow planted in brow by Liev Schreiber, voices his doubts about the accusation while the contradictory FBI agent, a role that demands little from Chiwetel Ejiofor, wants her detained immediately. Feeling trapped and fearing for the safety of her husband, Salt displays her army-of-one capabilities, eludes homeland plus security and flees with suspicious intentions. What ensues is a typical cat and mouse that satisfyingly allows Salt to flaunt her feminine brains and brawn.

Director Phillip Noyce is not so much recycling formulas that worked in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger than he is watering them down to essential action elements that barely register any twist. Salt’s potential double agent status feels randomly inconsequential and her enemies are, coincidentally, the people who show up in her dubiously motivated path. Fortunately, most of the mundane, if not flawed, plot is buried beneath well-honed physical action that rests on Jolie’s slight but confident shoulders, including a stairway murder near the end of the film that is as surprising as it is fierce. Although Salt couldn’t be more topical with the recent arrest of a Russian spy ring and by sharing a name with the 1970s treaties (a far more interesting innuendo than the stuff sitting on your table), escapism is not so high minded to draw such correlations. Much like “Alias,” Salt leaves real world believability behind in favor of base level entertainment.

Angelina Jolie adequately fills the shoes left empty by Tom Cruise for the role of Salt and is up to the task of the film’s grounded physicality. Her counterparts never stand a chance against her charisma that is more about being Angelina Jolie than it is Evelyn Salt and she even plays a pretty good young man with the help of prosthetics—facial prosthetics, that is. Her character, however, is placid at best, and never earns enough sympathy for us to care about what Salt 2 has in store. The only emotional gravity you can find in Salt is in the cute little doggy that Evelyn Salt must abandon to save the US President (coincidentally played by a soap opera star) and the world. The plot holes are big enough to drive a North Korean submarine through and the narrative is so deliberate it’s a little insulting, but Salt keeps running, jumping, shooting, kicking and hitting as if that is all that matters. Falling well below Phillip Noyce’s highs but above Angelina Jolie’s lows, Salt hurtles unambiguously down a path of least resistance and innovation to satisfy the genre’s easiest customer.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lawrence Lau's BESIEGED CITY (2008) and CITY WITHOUT BASEBALL (2009)

Lawrence Lau (aka Lawrence Ah Mon) has made a name for himself over the past twenty years by making small innovative films, the best of which eschew the use of stars in favor of either non-actors or low-profile actors. Queen of Temple Street (1990), Spacked Out (2000) and Gimme Gimme (2001) have far more earnest, if not artistic, ambitions than your average Hong Kong film and refuse to acquiesce to comedic or melodramatic expectations. Often focusing on the problems and/or debauchery of youth culture, Lau has earned a tag (or a red herring) as an art-house director. If Lau makes films like an outsider, that's because he started out that way. He was born in South Africa, studied in the US and then subsequently worked as assistance director to Tsui Hark, which might explain why he has other things on his mind other than what the Hong Kong film market demands.

Two recent films directed by Lau, Besieged City (2007) and City Without Baseball (2008), shows a return to the grittiness of Spacked Out and the light-heartedness of Gimme Gimme with some failure and some success. Besieged City takes place in Tin Shui Wai, part of the New Territories in Hong Kong, known for its wetlands, huge housing estates and sensational news stories fueled by its social ills. It is the later that has given the neighborhood the nickname "City of Sadness" and that has inspired Lau's film. Oppressive from beginning to end, Besieged City is a dire depiction of youth culture that is almost too resolute in its melancholia.

Ling is a high school student in a no win situation. Surrounded by violence both inside and outside the home, he does his best to keep his head down. If it's not his abusive father then it's his bullying classmates that keep him inside his wordless shell in order to protect himself. But when his runaway younger brother, Jun, ends up accused of murder and in a coma from an attempted suicide, Ling is forced to uncover the truth about his brother's life on the streets. Told in flashback, Jun's hard-knock life is slowly revealed. Baring the brunt of his father's tirades and falling prey to the relentless abuse of his classmates, Jun abandoned school and his family to eventually find refuge with a group of similar wayfaring delinquents. Typical mayhem ensues in the form of sex, drugs and petty crime that leads Jun to mid-level triad activity. As the story unravels so the mystery builds regarding how and why Jun stands accused of murder.

A youth film without youth stars in Hong Kong is as refreshing now as it was when Lau made Gangs in 1988. Not only was I struck by the new faces in Besieged City, but also the formidable performances they all gave. Because of this, Besieged City maintains some authenticity despite the overwrought despair and viciousness that hangs over almost every scene. Watching a very drunk pair of girls snort a line of cocaine longer than most coffee tables is as over-the-top as seeing a gaggle of remorseless teenage girls shove a young boys head in a urinal over and over. The exploration of familial loyalty when the chips are down between Ling and Jun, as well as two sisters who enter the picture, is barely allowed to surface amongst a very harsh notion of reality and largely one dimensional characters. Cues for sentimentality from the music are completely out of place and there is a polish to the brutality that rings false, if not slightly exploitive, right down to the very definitive finale. Besieged City is a very bitter pill to swallow.

City Without Baseball is a completely different story. On the surface, it's a very conventional romantic drama, but it also reaches into idiosyncratic corners for moments of minor brilliance. Co-directed and written by newcomer Scud with Lau in the passengers seat, the film employs the physical and emotional talents of the Hong Kong National Baseball Team to play themselves in a drama loosely based on their own experiences. But being a baseball player in Hong Kong is like being a curling player in Orlando: their sport is a personal passion, not a popular pastime with most people in Hong Kong completely unaware that they even have a team. Aptly pointed out early in the film, Hong Kong baseball fields don't have bleachers because they have no audience. Baseball might be their dream, but it is the incidentals of life—jobs, relationships, family and friends—that builds the subtext of this brave and gentle film.

Diverting the camera's eye away from the sport, Lau and Scud focus on the interpersonal relationships both on and off the field in a meandering sort of way. Far more contemplative than plot driven, City Without Baseball is one season in the life of a 'professional' Hong Kong baseball player. Coach Tai is the new guy from Taiwan who must inspire his team and come to terms with being a transplant. Chung is the star pitcher who is just as serious about baseball as he is about driving fast cars and wooing young women. Ron is the quiet up-and-coming pitcher who is at a crossroads in terms of his life's choices and confronting his sexuality. Storylines emerge and then disappear, as do the waves of melodrama (not to mention weird music homages to Hong Kong singers who have passed away.) If City wasn't so low-key, it could easily be tossed aside as a fragmented mess, but instead is able to form a dramatic amalgamation within the sum of all its various parts.

City Without Baseball may be most notable, however, for the amount of male skin that graces the screen. An opening sequence of the team in the shower that erupts in a game of ass-smacking is at once completely honest and thoroughly homoerotic. But even when they are not horsing around in the showers, they are shedding there clothes for the ladies or simply running buck naked out of frustration. As a result, the baseball players read like the Greek gods of Hong Kong, sans fig leaf. The lack of modesty within the Hong Kong National Baseball Team may come off as flamboyance or even arrogance, but it is overshadowed by their surprising ability to pull off solid performances. If Scud was the creative force behind the film, then Lau is the orchestrator that keeps the actors and story from falling flat on its face. City Without Baseball is adventurous in subtle ways that are hard to overlook, even if the film isn't entirely successful.

Watch the trailer for Besieged City HERE.
Watch the trailer for City Without Baseball HERE.