1.31.2010

Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Colossal Youth (2006)

Day 2 of SNUFF reinforced an ongoing problem I (and I'm sure others) grapple with when trying to write effectively and informatively about films sporting vastly contrasting styles. The two art house films I watched today, Colossal Youth from Pedro Costas and Syndromes and a Century from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, are cut from such a different cloth than most of the movies I've seen recently, that they felt a little like a another medium. The viewing experience is more akin to visual meditation than the entertainment we're use to seeing at the movies.

That said, once you move into the head-space necessary to sync into the flow of this type of cinema (either through sheer force of will, or with the assistance of some organic substance... 'srooms come to mind, for example) they can become hugely satisfying experiences. As I mentioned yesterday, both films received high marks from innumerable critics and ranked up near the top of several best-of-the-decade lists. I find critics that describe this type of cinema as “little droplets of pure cinematic joy that gently sweep down and consume the audience in a rapturous symphony of orgasmic imagery and 24 frame per second cognitive bliss” (I just made that up, but you know what I mean) to be utterly useless. The problem is, however .... it's kinda' true. There were moments in both films that left me awestruck, like I'd been exposed to a different sort of cinematic language. Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century was particularly inspiring. There's a scene with two people talking on a porch that seemed, for some reason, almost perfect. The problem remains, I can't explain why. It's a feeling, a connection to the characters that seems at once utterly compelling and yet nothing is said. The story has no real start, middle or end... it's just a collection of moments. These moments are repeated (well, sort of, but not in a Run Lola Run way) once in a rural setting and then again, using the same actors, in an urban one. The two “stories” differ enough to be unique pieces designed, I'm guessing, to juxtapose how similar people in distinct environments evolve in different directions.

I need to give Colossal Youth another try when Criterion releases it with two other Costas films in March. I downloaded it from a French cable broadcast and the print had burned-in yellow French subtitling with white English overlaid on top. There's enough dialogue to have made the exercise of reading the subtitles a little migraine-inducing and I didn't make it through to the end. I enjoyed what I saw and will definitely go back to it. (Nick... I'll need some of your better product for that. I'll be in touch).

All in all a successful second day at SNUFF. I admit that couldn't do a steady diet of languorous foreign art house fare, I have neither the time nor enough spare cash for the bales of weed necessary to get myself in the mood, but I was reminded that gearing down and watching something that washes over rather than beans you is a worthy of the occasional lane change. Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady has moved up the list of possible SNUFF films for later this week.

Tomorrow's lineup? .... I haven't decided yet. Something with guns, I think.

Sporgey

1.30.2010

Work?

MySpace Graphics

Out,

Niki

Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End (1971) and The Shout (1978)

Polish Director Jerzy Skolimowski isn't exactly a household name, but during the '70s he wrote and directed two of the most accomplished English language films of a decade that had an embarrassment of cinematic gems. It's likely for this reason that his two masterpieces, Deep End from 1971 and The Shout from 1978, are rarely discussed. Neither are easily obtainable on video, but both were definitely worth the search. Skolimowski is probably closest in terms of style and mood to Polanski (Skolimowski cowrote Polanski's Knife in the Water, so they share some lineage too). Both directors share a sense of the macabre, a talent for black humour and their English language films have an outsider's feel – presumably because they were just that when they first broke out, Polanski in 1965 with Repulsion and Jerzy 6 years later with Deep End.

Deep End is a haunting film about teenaged sexual obsession. It has a dreamlike quality that's hard to describe, but feels somewhat like Nicholas Roeg, circa Don't Look Now, or a less-lurid '60s Mario Bava. Colour is liberally (and literally) splashed around to expand mood and emotion and the film has numerous hand-held camera shots that seem way ahead of their time. Interestingly, all this assured and novel direction doesn't get in the way of the story. Actually, you hardly notice it. What you do notice, however, is the cast - particularly Brit actress (and one-time Paul McCartney squeeze), Jane Asher, the flirtatious source of our young lead's sexual hypertension. Asher is spectacular, bringing a sexy and completely believable character to life. Much of the dialogue seems improvised, although I don't know if that's the case or not. The young love-struck teen is well-played by John Moulder-Brown, who falls under the spell of his older female coworker at a seedy bathhouse/pool in swinging London. Saying much more would spoil the plot so I won't, suffice it to say that Deep End is richly deserving of its cult film status.



The Shout, winner of the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes in 1978, is another riveting and yet elusive bit of film making by Skolimowski. It stars Alan Bates in a tour-de-force performance as a mysterious (and increasingly threatening) traveler who inserts himself into the lives of a North Devon couple (John Hurt and Susannah York, both excellent). More brooding mood piece than straight-forward narrative, The Shout reminds again of Roeg, but also Peter Weir's Picnic and Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, due to the stranger's claim (real or imagined) that he is a practitioner of ancient Aborigine ritual and magic. Skolimowski employs an unreliable narrator to tell the story in flashback leaving the viewer uncertain as to the accuracy and validity of the storyteller's tale. I suppose this film might considered a horror, although it isn't in any traditional sense. It drips with atmosphere in much the same way as the original Wicker Man does, leaving the viewer unsettled rather than scarred, if that makes any sense.

Both these films are nearly perfect examples of that certain undefinable '70s cinematic something that seems so much more daring and intelligent than what came after. The stories are adult and thought-provoking, bravely exploring complex emotional themes and posing difficult questions about sexuality, youth, longing and desires, issues it seems that are far too extreme for modern film makers. They served as a brilliant double-bill for the opening night gala at the 2010 SNUFF (Segredos Nearly-Unseen Film Festival) launch.

Today SNUFF continues with the universally-acclaimed and yet completely undistributed Colossal Youth (2006) by director-wunderkind Pedro Costas and another from the same year by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century). These are two of the most highly regarded films of the decade and I've seen neither. I'm plan to fix that today, although whether I can do 5 hours of static art-house film viewing remains to be seen. Reviews tomorrow.
FYI - Blinky Rochester is entirely to blame for the insipid blog entries of late

1.29.2010

Amazing.

I think I'm getting the hang of this....

Little Dieter needs to fly (1997) / Rescue Dawn (2006)

Not so long ago, a film by some German guy finally found its way into my home. Oh, how terrible it seems now the things I did not know then! What would follow was a honeymoon that has not yet ended. A spell in which the sheer power of film has moved me repeatedly. The filmmakers name has been whispered at Film Buff slumber parties since the dawn of VHS and it's one you can now consider me an avid fan of. Yes, It's Werner Herzog.

During the second world war Dieter Dengler was a young boy living in Germany. He was inspired then to one day fly like the pilots he could see from his bedroom window. As an adult he left home and followed his dream, training in the U.S. air force. Soon after in 1966, Dieter was shot down over Laos flying his first ever mission. He was tortured and starved extensively by his captors as were other U.S. prisoners at the same camp. Miraculously, Dieter not only survived the starvation but he eventually escaped barefoot and was later rescued.

This is Dieters story and Little Dieter needs to fly is the documentary. Here we see Dieter in conversation, in interview, at home and at play, but he is also taken back into the Laotian jungle to relive and reenact his capture. This really helps to illustrate not only his own war stories but also Herzog's own story about Dieter, as Dieter is deeply disturbed by the experience.
These stories are told within the context of Dieters whole life and you really get to know him by the end. I think due to his improvising and adventurous nature each Herzog film is very much unique. The pacing, the edit and his relationship with his subject is always changing. By the films conclusion I must admit I was all choked up, it's an extraordinary story and a really fine film that will be watched for years to come.

Rescue Dawn is the feature film adaptation of Dieters story, written and directed by Herzog and starring Christian Bale as Dieter. Thailand plays as the beautiful Laotian landscape and the many supporting actors really committed to do a good job. Certain chapters are too long and some poignancy is lost in the distracting fracas. Bales performance is what really sells the film. Every scene of torture or discomfort is felt and the atmosphere of dread and desperation is palpable.

Watching Little Dieter needs to fly & Rescue Dawn back-to-back was emotional and highly entertaining but did serve to highlight Werner's occasional ham-fistedness. His gung-ho shooting approach is better suited to the shifting nature of documentaries over the rigid structure of a feature film script. Some scenes in Rescue Dawn felt like rushed and tokenistic retellings of Dieter's amazing stories from the documentary. Sometimes though, when the stars are aligned and things fall into place, Herzog makes magic. I suppose waiting for those moments is just the nature of the beast.
We will have to wait for Bad Lieutenant:Port of call New Orleans to see whether a more patient and precise execution has been adopted.

1.27.2010

Modern Day Morality Tales?

Writing about a film genre that I have little interest in has proven far more difficult than I first imagined. This is several drafts into some thoughts I wanted to commit to paper about contemporary horror films and I doubt I've got it quite right. As unlikely as it may seem, the idea started with a discussion I had with a FBW customer a few weeks ago and germinated from there. He mentioned that our 2009 year-end review “was mostly about horror films”, an observation that has stuck with me. Coincidentally, I'd been reading through a recent issue of Cineaste that also focused on the same topic. I've been mulling over the contemporary horror film ever since, trying to form some coherent thoughts and valid interpretations about a genre that seems difficult to define and/or easily deconstruct. It hasn't helped that my start point for the undertaking was a general distaste for the some of the genre.

While horror is a contentious and controversial film genre, it has legions of fans and obviously not all of them are drooling half-wits. One of the biggest problems with modern horror remains finding the better examples of it. Even devotees of the genre seem unable to come to any consensus as to which ones are worthwhile and which ones aren't. As a result, it's become a closed genre of sorts where consistent recommendations for/on/about clearly well-executed examples are hard to find. It's seems to be a genre that needs to be further subdivided into smaller sub-genres before any potential candidates come forward. At the risk of getting mired in a never-ending exercise of defining what those subsets are, it seemed wise to limit the divisions. For the sake of expediency, I arrived at the following – Supernatural, Psychological, Slasher and Gothic. This presumption is quite likely littered with holes but I couldn't find a simpler way to divide the genre.

With some stellar recent exceptions, it would appear that the Supernatural/Monster film has ramped down in recent years while the psychological and slasher/serial killer output has risen substantially. Gothic horror has been co-opted and revamped (if you'll excuse the choice of terminology) for a predominantly female audience and is on its own, quite separate, but upward trajectory. The preeminent sub-genre in recent years, however, has been twofold - the psychological horror, specifically J-horror and it's many imitators/mutations and a small but controversial extension of the '70s/'80s slasher film, named for both real and marketing purposes as “torture-porn”.

It's probably easiest to dispense with the New-Gothic growth first. Horror has traditionally been a genre that focused on a young male audience, because that's who watched it. It was a demographic truism that film producers understood and exploited. To draw in a larger slice of potential viewership, film producers/makers had to find a way to appeal to a female audience and fundamentally retooling vampire lore and centering it on a female perspective turned out to be the ticket. Its evolution can be traced from Anne Rice adaptations to Buffy to True Blood, and to it's latest incarnation, the newly minted Twilight franchise (and its inevitable and soon-to-be-numerous imitators). It's a patently corporate genre-exploitation-for-profit-exercise that will continue as long as the money keeps rolling in (and the 13 to 55 year old female demographic exists). It's also the least complicated of the recent horror genre trends to figure out.

Which leaves the significantly overlapping sub-genres of contemporary psychological horror and slasher/serial killer horror to rationalize. These are the easiest to simply write off as the products of a sick and declining culture, but that is an intellectually lazy way out. The tricky part about commenting on the trend to more brutal, visceral and sadistically grotesque horror is the slippery slope facing the observer/critic to charges of prudishness. One risks being labeled as such for simply pointing out that much of the new horror output is technically and artistically rubbish, even when it clearly is. Most of these pictures are so outlandishly ludicrous and poorly executed as to make one wonder if that might be the point. Contemporary slasher horror might just be the death metal of cinematic choice, something virtually bereft of artistic value, except as a counterpoint to the bland mainstream drivel that studios continually dump into theatres....a sort of quasi-counter-cultural, or perhaps more accurately, counter-mainstream movement. In the end though, I think that might give too much credit to the fan base of contemporary slasher/horror. There may be some truth to the idea that the most viscous and gratuitously violent examples of modern horror remain a forbidden fruit to nihilistic teenagers in suburban rec-rooms, a way of flipping the bird to distant-dad and medicated-mom, but the fan base extends well beyond this demographic so the key to its increased popularity lays elsewhere.

A second, more likely explanation involves the obvious intersections between sex, vulnerability, sadism and death in modern horror. I'm the first to admit that I'm well outside my ability to understand or articulate these deeper psychological connections, but it's so central to the genre as to seem a fairly overt pop-cultural expression of these complex societal issues. The typical response to queries aimed at the slasher/horror fan base - as to what it is about the genre that appeals to them - rarely elicits much of a response beyond... “I dunno, I just like them”. The analysis seems to stop there. The apparent disinterest in trying to articulate a reasoned summation on the merits of some of the more extreme examples of modern horror gives one pause to consider that some horror fans don't seem to have ever considered it. The sensory shocks, scenes of grotesque and gag-inducing gore and the mystery of the character's larger motivations seem to provide enough of a draw to warrant another sequel or another minor variation of the basic plot.

It's nearly impossible to avoid having your own views bleed into a topic like this. I readily admit to intensely disliking films like the Saw franchise and anything Eli Roth puts out. I think they're both bad for cinema and bad for society. Supernatural/Monster horror is another story however. The Host, Let the Right One In, Drag Me to Hell, 28 Days Later and Pontypoole all land up high on my recent favourites list. I like the whole Zombie/Infection/Romero oeuvre too. I can rationalize these choices because most of them fall into the realm of fantasy. I can also handle some gore when it's part of the narrative. This position may be hypocritical but I would counter that being thrilled or scared by the unknown is very different from reveling in the terror, torture and dismemberment of some onscreen victim. To me, that seems far too close to the barbaric world of cheering as people get eaten by lions. The line representing what is acceptable and what isn't seems to have been nearly erased and I wonder whether this is a cause or an effect of changes in our society.

That said, my biggest concern remains not the degree of gore inherent in some recent horror sub-genre film making, but rather how little ink is spilled on the disturbing moral conservatism of the subtext. It seems abundantly strange that the fan base seems oblivious to the conservative moral underpinnings of many (if not most) of the recent wave of slasher/horror films. The Saw/Hostel/Wolf Creek/Captivity films all have at their core a morally rigid, deeply conservative ideology. Thematically, plots typically revolve around a central narrative device that has those seeking casual sex being captured and tortured to death as punishment for loose ethics. Woman who abandon their traditional matriarchal duties are often subject to the same fate. So, do these films represent a fictional inquisition of sorts where deeply moralistic (and predominantly Christian) values are reinforced by condemning those who don't adhere to hellish torture and an agonizing death? If you look at the judge, jury and executioner at the centre of these films, more often than not, they're middle-aged, white males. Surely this thematic consistency isn't lost on the genre's audience, which begs the further question, is it possible that these films act as a kind of bastard-confessional for the viewer, a way of exorcising their own demons? It might be too large a leap to make this connection, but in the absence of alternative readings on the recent turn toward ever-increasing levels of violence in the slasher/horror sub-genre, I wonder if there's something to this idea.

Sporgey

1.25.2010

bam!

Rank Title Worldwide Box Office
1. Avatar (2009) $1,840,797,418
2. Titanic (1997) $1,835,300,000

1.23.2010

Politist, adj. .. "it's like a toothbrush without toothpaste, right?"




At the Royal I got to treasure the experience of the movie Police, Adjective. Yes, it's a little slow if you talk to anyone about it, but as my accomplice AJ pointed out, "it's just played out in real time". Fully agreed! The dialogue (the script must have been 5 pages long) was beautiful and most of the time damn funny! The end scene is about 20 minutes long and it's astounding how intense it is as it's one continuous locked-off shot. I can imagine screwing that scene up several times only to start all over again and again. I will admit that for the most part I wasn't in the mood to watch the film but afterwards, couldn't stop trying to sing this...



Best Romanian song EVER! Also my fave scene. Enjoy!!!
Photobucket

1.22.2010

Happy Birthday Coleslaw!

For those interested, it's our blog founder's birthday today.

Best wishes Joe.

1.21.2010

Can't Wii all just get iLong?

Because I'm a sucker for almost any science fiction, I thought I'd give the new Bruce Willis film Surrogates a try yesterday. Ya, I know, What was I thinking? ….but the concept at its core seemed an interesting one - people living through robotic surrogates, never having to leave the sanctuary of their own homes and letting their robots deal with traffic and interacting with other robotic surrogates.


Well, with little surprise, the whole thing is a bit of a waste of time. To be fair, Surrogates suffered from being viewed in the aftermath of a lunar eclipse. Willis hits his marks as usual but the plot's immense potential is tossed out in favour of producing yet another mediocre action flick. Instead of exploring the fascinating possibilities of a futuristic Kadassic-Period world, we end up with a poor-man's Blade-Walker, a Majority Report meets Wii-Robot disappointment. Strangely, the picture also sports a now-20-year-old Total Recall look that seems vastly out of time and place in a BSG/ Moon/Dark Knight present.

Had I not seen the extraordinary Moon just last week, I probably would have enjoyed Surrogates a little more. It's not awful, it's just pointless and that's too bad because there's some delicious rotten-Apple iRobot potential here that goes completely unexplored. I guess we'll just have to wait for Moon-Unit Duncan Jones to do it.
 
With apologies for the quantity of posts of late,
 
Sporgey

Take it from me, popularity isn't all it's cracked up to be

A recent discussion with a friend about movie ratings on IMDb.com got me thinking about how misleading they can be. Often times, they represent little more than the accumulated results of a gigantic movie popularity contest. At worst, they skew to 6.2/10 meaninglessness. Not surprisingly, the demographic that populates these “scores” inflate films made in the last 30 years disproportionally to those made before that time. To illustrate my point, the respected American Film Institute's top 100 films split by decade as follows;


2000s: 1
1990s: 11
1980s: 8
1970s: 20
1960s: 17
1950s: 16
1940s: 11
1930s: 12
1920s: 3
1910s: 1

….as compared to the films in the IMDb.com Top 100, by decade

2000s: 23
1990s: 20
1980s: 13
1970s: 11
1960s: 8
1950s: 12
1940s: 9
1930s: 3
1920s: 1
1910s: 0

The IMDb list noticeably skews to the last three decades, again not surprisingly given the demographic, but it also often skews to a different kind of film than those on most critic's lists. A significant number of people I know factor the IMDb ratings into the process of choosing what to watch, often citing the “score” as being relatively important in their decision. Bad move. Rating by popular vote rarely speaks to the quality of a given picture and more to the point, probably contributes in no small way to the perpetual dumbing-down of the cinematic audience in recent decades. Viewers seem to vote based on how easy a film is to watch while critics key on a film's comparative strengths. This seemingly subtle difference, taken together with the huge numbers of people that visit the IMDb site, lends an unwarranted credibility to these ratings when in fact, at least as a measure of quality, they are virtually useless.

To cite an example of how the IMDb Top 250 works (or more accurately, doesn't), let's look at its top-rated film. Number 1 on the list is The Shawshank Redemption from 1994, a fine film to be sure, but hardly the best movie ever made. In fact, if you scan various critics and viewer/reader polls, a rather odd thing happens, critics rarely include it at all and if they do, it's well down the list (75th on the AFI 100, it's never made the Sight and Sound poll, or Piero Scaruffi's top 1000 films, or the Mr. Showbiz Critic's Top 100). It regularly, however, shows up on various viewer's polls, often up near the top, which begs the question; why the disparity? How can a film be at the top of the heap by one measurement and not even make the top 1000 in another?

I'd like to speculate that there are two very different yardsticks being deployed by two distinctly different groups when it comes rating a film. The typical viewer votes on how a movie makes them feel, while a critic (at least the better ones) looks at how a film is structured and its merits in comparison to other films. The best films from a critical standpoint are often complex and challenging works that expand the cinematic experience. The viewer, on the other hand, would appear to be seeking entertainment, polish, escapism, emotional connection and most importantly, satisfaction. Certain films gain credibility in both camps, but mostly “popular” and “acclaimed” mean different things. My problem with IMDb's ratings is just how much stock people put in them these days. It's a step up from choosing a movie based on its box office performance, but not much of one.

If your goal is to watch films of merit, films worthy of your time, films that invite participation, or films that expanded the medium, you need to exercise caution with the IMDb rating system. A much better way to explore film possibilities is to find a critic who likes that same kinds of films you do, or visit something like Rottentomatoes.com or MetaCritic.com where an a cross-section of critic's scores are used to tabulate an aggregated rating for each film. To be sure, different films will appeal to some and not others. What needs to be reiterated and recognized is this... a popularity contest defines a film's accessibility, not it's cinematic merits. There's nothing startling here I realize, but differentiating good films such as The Dark Knight, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects and Shawshank from great films like Chinatown, Night of the Hunter, Sunset Boulevard and Apocalypse Now is something that IMDb's viewer rating system does an extraordinarily poor job of.

One of the best lists of great films published can be linked to here....

http://www.theyshootpictures.com/gf1000_all1000films.htm

The IMDb top 10 list and the film's placement on the TSPDT top 1000 speaks to the differences between critical evaluation and popularity.

IMDb #1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) TSPDT #583
IMDb #2. The Godfather (1972) TSPDT #6
IMDb #3. The Godfather: Part II (1974) TSPDT #15
IMDb #4. Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo. (1966) TSPDT does not appear
IMDb #5. Pulp Fiction (1994) TSPDT #130
IMDb #6. Schindler's List (1993) TSPDT #203
IMDb #7. 12 Angry Men (1957) TSPDT #473
IMDb #8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) TSPDT #149
IMDb #9. The Dark Knight (2008) TSPDT #890
IMDb #10. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) TSPDT #104

An inverse comparison is interesting too

TSPDT #1 Citizen Kane (1941) IMDb #32
TSPDT #2 Vertigo (1958) IMDb #41
TSPDT #3 Rules of the Game (1939) IMDb # does not appear in top 250
TSPDT #4 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) IMDb #19
TSPDT #5 8½ (1963) IMDb #168
TSPDT #6 Godfather, The (1972) IMDb #2
TSPDT #7 Searchers, The (1956) IMDb # does not appear in top 250
TSPDT #8 Seven Samurai, The (1954) IMDb #15
TSPDT #9 Singin' in the Rain (1952) IMDb #75
TSPDT #10 Battleship Potemkin (1925) IMDb # does not appear in top 250

A couple of weeks ago, I read David Cronenberg's fairly disparaging comments about the negative effect he feels the Internet has had on film criticism. At the risk of putting words in his mouth, I think he might have been speaking to this same issue... the popularity vs. analysis dilemma. I've been noticing more and more lately that people seem far less interested in conversing than broadcasting (notwithstanding the obvious hypocrisy of making such an observation toward the end of a 1000 word blog entry). Perhaps it's a function of generational disconnect, but possibly one of the implications of endlessly telling the world what we think is a growing inability to listen to what others have to say. I think it's possible that the film industry has fallen victim to trying to placate and mollify an audience that isn't as receptive to provocation as it once was. The danger of continuing down this path is self-evident. With some exceptions, mainstream film making has begun to resemble an artistic suburbia – rows of big, imposing facades with very little soul and nothing to say.

They're pretty popular though.

Sporgey

1.19.2010

Pushing Daisies

WTF? Where did this come from? Yesterday, I picked up both seasons of the now-canceled Pushing Daisies and after watching a couple of episodes tonight, can't believe we missed this one. It stars our very own Luke Davies and couldn't be any quirkier, and I mean that in a good way. Order this Joe. It's really interesting. I've just got the Blu-Rays but I'm gonna order the regular DVD's in the morning.






Sporgey

1.18.2010

(500) Posts of Bummer

Just noticed that we've hit the 500 post mark (with Niki's Brendan Fraser video link)!  Congratulations all who contribute, or have contributed in the past.  Let's all give each other a cyber pat on the ass  for making this one of the most widely read blogs on the internet.  500 posts is a remarkable achievement that no other blog has ever attained.  Here's to 500 more!

Ahem...

Maybe not that hilarious but I bet you can't play it just once.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9XXaU8xnV0&feature=player_embedded

The Fox and the Child (2007)

An altogether beautiful film about a little girl's relationship with a wild fox (and her relationship with, and understanding of, nature on a grander scale), Luc Jacquet's The Fox and the Child (Le renard et l'enfant) plays less like his previous March of the Penguins and more like a completely charming and beautiful fairy tale.

It's a simple film that has a bit more of a narrative structure than March, and is sort of a child's fantasy set in the real world, though that "real world" is mainly limited to the natural world of forests, meadows and caves.  TFATC is an elegant love story, and carries an impassioned environmental plea; there is also a plainly told and powerful moral at the end of the film, which would be easy for a child to understand.  However, because of the gorgeous cinematography, some amazing "how in the world did they capture that?" wildlife footage, and a sweet innocence in the tale, it is a film that will also appeal to adults.

Those who write this one off as sappy or overly sentimental are doing themselves a disservice - while on the surface the film may seem childish, it is in fact universal, filled with wide-eyed wonder, and contains a message we could all use as a reminder.

Dead men don't wear ├ęcossais

Rather than spoil the "zero" comments purity-of-disinterest in Eric Rohmer's recent passing from Graham's post below, I thought I'd add that I have nothing to say about it up here. Quite frankly I thought he died years ago, around the time Godard kicked it. 

Brain Damage?

In between all the dreck that fills the TV dial these days, some have argued that we're in the middle of a new golden age of television. During the last decade, there have been some undeniable home runs - starting with HBO and then other cable networks who radically reworked and expanded the serial drama, taking it in whole new directions. After the success of shows such as The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire, a host of other, smaller cable stations began programming their own shows using high production values, big name actors, and polished scripts. Damages is one of the more recent examples, a slickly produced and meticulously constructed tale of greed, corruption and power from FX. The scriptwriters use a host of story telling devices - flashbacks/forwards, misdirection, etc. - to crank up the tension and keep everything racing along at break-neck speed. The critics overwhelmingly ate it up, almost unanimously declaring Damages to be a first-rate example of this new style of film-quality television programming.


But is it any good? With an 8.7 viewer rating on IMDB and a chorus of glowing critical reviews, one would have to conclude that Damages is another serial drama home run. There is much to support this contention too. FX, a cable station who had their breakout hit with The Shield and more recently, Rescue Me, has come to specialize in shows that hinge on morally-ambiguous characters and Damages continues in this tradition. The show also sports a decidedly “high quality” programing veneer, a (mostly) killer cast and the apparent budget of a feature film. I was completely taken with all the twists and turns in 1st season and was looking forward to seeing if they could sustain the show's obvious momentum for a second.... and I think they have.

I'm going to split my thoughts on Damages 2 into two parts, the first on why this is a terrific program and the second on why it isn't. Hopefully, these positions aren't as contradictory as they first sound because I'm trying to identify how a show like this one can be both highly successful and yet somehow lacking.

First, the upsides..... Damages is first and foremost a series about power, what people are willing to do to get it and how far they'll go to keep it. Its collection of narcissistic, deeply-flawed and morally-reprehensible characters are presented as anti-protagonists whose motivations are primarily self-interest, money and control. They justify their actions by deflection, avoiding the ethical quagmire at the root of their choices because it's simply “how the game is played”. The bad good-guys fight the good bad-guys on equal footing, fire with fire, mano-a-womano. The big-name (and refreshingly adult) cast revels in this sleazy world of tainted characters, hidden agendas and murderous plots.... with the odd moment of regret thrown in to make them seem at least partly human. Damages is a reflection on urban decay, but not the derelict building kind. The high-flying power brokers, clients, partners and employees of Hewes and Associates, the corporate legal firm at the centre of Damages are engaged in out-and-out warfare and will do anything to win. The decay it speaks to is the decline in civility, fairness, honesty, responsibility and corporate ethics that have come to define our era. The complex plot structure and constant manipulation of the viewer's perception of events thrusts us into a world that few of us have any experience with. It hardly matters that this morally-inverted fantasy land couldn't possibly be this sordid. Damages is I, Claudius retooled for a 21st century I, Cheney world. It works because it allows the audience a glimpse into the halls of power and reinforces what we all think must exist in that world.

….and now the downsides. The rise of sophisticated TV programming (at least, as a viable alternative to film viewing) has seemingly coincided with the dumbing-down of the modern cinema audience. With some exceptions (particularly a few of the better HBO programs), most of this new programming retains the underlying simplicity of the traditional television series format. While a cinematic veneer may have been introduced, most of the shows contain only minor variations on tried and true television conventions and formulas. A film fan with even a modest level of viewing experience can spot what's coming a mile away... which, after all, might be the point. The surprises are canned, the twists telegraphed and the results passively absorbed. Damages seems complicated and glossy, in part because it is. The plot is regularly pushed in odd, jarring and disjointed directions with the reasons held from the viewer until the writers want us to know and tip their hand. It's trickery, slight-of-hand writing that manipulates and stick-handles the plot for reasons relating more to TV's inherent episodic structure than advancing the story. The result is oddly unsatisfying because we're complicit in the illusion. We go along with the trivial and manufactured twists and turns because we willingly buy into the conceit and understand the formula. The same may be true about film convention, but at least cinema, at its best, can still challenge and surprise us in ways that TV rarely reaches for. In the end, I wonder whether the serial television drama just suits our time and place... short, clearly defined and easy to digest escapism in an increasingly noisy world the operates in bursts of information. It's a slippery slope that I find myself gravitating to because it's so damned easy. The problem with a steady diet of this kind of viewing is its contribution to the downward trajectory of challenging works. A point of diminishing intellectual return invariably coincides with consuming more and more well-packaged and well-executed TV programs, not unlike the nearly perfect Crunchie chocolate bar. As good as they may be, you have to sit down and eat a proper dinner every now and then.....

...or dive into the first season of Fringe, which I picked up on Blu-Ray yesterday.

Sporgey

1.17.2010

Dear Tom...

Is that a choker?

From Niki

Fermat's Room (2007)

Fermat's Room (La habitacion de Fermat) revolves around four disparate people who are invited to a mysterious mathematics summit.  All are given names of famous mathematicians (Pascal, Hilbert, Oliva, Galois) and instructed by letter not to reveal any information about their personal lives.  These four were chosen because they were presumably the only ones to solve a riddle which was sent out to hundreds.  When they arrive at a secluded house in the country, they find their host has not yet arrived, but he does soon after, and the fifth member of the story is finally  in place - Fermat.  However, Fermat receives a phone call and is informed that his daughter (who is in the hospital in a coma) needs him.  He promptly leaves, and soon after, a PDA spews forth a riddle with a one minute time limit.  The remaining quartet think it's a fun game and set about solving the puzzle at a languid pace.  However, as the minute expires, the walls of the room start slowly closing in on the group.  When they put the answer into the PDA, the walls stop, and a new puzzle is transmitted, with another 60 second time limit...

This structure can get a bit thin after awhile, and so the filmmakers have the strangers start to reveal things about themselves, and we discover that they are not such strangers to each other after all...

While watching the film, I got caught up in the intricacies of the puzzles, and it was quite fun trying to solve the riddles along with the group (I failed shockingly, shockingly), and the whole affair seemed very clever and well-thought out.  I'm sure it was, too, but the problem is it doesn't really hold up.  Not sure I can even explain why, but the rationale for the whole thing just doesn't seem believable.

Sorry for the vagueness, but I can't really say much more without giving away a major plot point and ruining the film.  Actually, maybe that's it: this - and other films that rely on a big "reveal" - don't hold up because they not only rely on a gimmick, they are a gimmick.  And the more I though about it after the fact, the more I discovered several gaping plot holes.  Like The Sixth Sense - or Saw (and its myriad sequels), or Sleepaway Camp, or The Crying Game, or...you get the picture - before it, Fermat's Room is a one trick pony, and while definitely fun to watch once - and, don't get me wrong, it's certainly worth a view, and an enjoyable view it is - it's not a film you'll feel compelled to return to, like, say, Cube.

1.15.2010

Somers Town (2009)

This is the latest from Brit director Shane Meadows, probably one of the most exciting directors working right now. His two previous films Dead Man's Shoes and This is England have showcased his progression from solid director to where he is now, knocking on the door to world class. He hasn't yet had the script or the budget to send him into the mainstream and only time will tell whether he chooses to go in that direction or not. He might instead continue to put out his own auteured projects which are fast attracting a cult all of their own.
Somers Town arrived via Film Movement, a cool little label that only puts out one film per month. We have a decent selection of these releases, mostly low budget or festival films that otherwise wouldn't get a release. I will be delving into the back catalogue in the near future to see what other gems The Film Movement have dug up.
Quite quickly the reason Somers Town has arrived with so little fanfare becomes clear. It's the opposite of epic, a tiny but totally charming little film with the budget of a picnic, but that doesn't detract in any way.
It's the story of teenagers Tomo and Marek and their unlikely friendship in London. Both away from home, their friendship grows as does their infatuation with a local French waitress. The plot wanders and cul-de-sacs all over the map, revealing more about the perspectives of the kids themselves. The film has a fierce stench of nostalgia to it and captures the naivety and awkwardness of the teen years. It's not of a pace or film language accepted by the popcorn crowd, but for those with an open mind it's a pretty simple pleasure.

1.14.2010

World's Greatest Dad (2009) & Big Fan (2009)

We've had some chuckles here at The Buff over how the marketing of films is so often wide of the mark. We've seen Inglourious Basterds misrepresented as a Dirty dozen remake, Moon was pushed as some sort of sub Fight club 'imaginary friend' scenario and Drag me to hell just looked plain shite when it really wasn't.
In the absence of any large marketing campaign we're made to speculate. Is it in a mostly white case? Probably a light-hearted 'RomCom'. Holographic case? Definitely a horror, and if Kate Winslet is in it it's probably good but has no guns, cars and/or spaceships and as such is severely limited.
On this sort of a 'miseducated guess' basis, the first impressions of these two films were way off.

After the torture of One Hour Photo I wasn't sure if I could ever watch Robin Williams anymore, it was somehow too sad, too tragic and ultimately unrewarding. However, I came across this trailer and on the strength of that I gave World's greatest dad (2009) a chance. I must say, I'm glad I did.
At a time where people are calling The Hangover "Movie of the year" this film is a twisted gourd tossed in the fruit salad at some shitty Hollywood party. The writing is acerbic and uncomfortably truthful at times yet balanced with enough genuine humour and dark turns to make for a totally impressive film. Writer Bobcat Goldthwaite hasn't really been on my radar at all since I was 10 and confused by his screeching on Police Academy. He's well on there now with this, the best comedy I've seen well, so far this year anyway.

Photobucket

Patton Oswalt is one of the best stand up comedians around, I'm a big fan. Curious? Check out the live album Werewolves and Lollipops or browse m4m on Craigslist's 'Casual encounters' section. So, being that this dark comic has made me look like a walking asthma attack on several occasions, I was really looking forward to his big screen transition in Big Fan (2009). I watch... and I wait... and I'm totally confused.
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It's certainly not a bad movie but one thing it isn't is a comedy. A little research shows it's from Robert D Siegel, writer of The Wrestler, a film which I loved but here he's gone for the quick one-two knockout and not quite landed. Big Fan is a story of faded dreams and missed opportunities much like The Wrestler but it's just somehow less interesting. The good news is Patton is really quite a decent actor and this film although not a triumph is enough of a square peg to be of interest to all but the most dedicated Bride Wars fan.

Fascinating Demographics Exercise from Netflicks

Scope this out.....

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/01/10/nyregion/20100110-netflix-map.html

I've wasted hours on this thing.

S

1.13.2010

RIP Eric Rohmer


NYTimes Article

I wanna know whose shirts he wears....

8 or 9 years ago, Roman Coppola directed his first (and as it turns out mercifully, last) film: CQ, a piece of absolute rubbish that only a true art-fraudster film turd could love. It was an unmitigated jumble of incomplete ideas tossed into an incoherent cinematic stew that tasted like a big bowl of pretension. Based solely on the interminable half hour I spent watching the junior Coppola's ode to self-expression, I concluded that he was a self-absorbed git who got a movie made because of who his daddy was. Nepotism never had a better poster-child.


Enter Duncan Jones (the bastard seed of Iggy Stardust, and whose time it was to leave the capsule - if he dared - and really make the grade) with his first (and hopefully, not last) film: Moon. Jones steps through the door, floats in a most peculiar way and delivers a film that makes the "stars" look very different today.

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Watching Moon is an intensely atmospheric and authentic film experience. It's substantive and substantial, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and invites real queries of genuine depth about what it is to be human without pretending that simple answers exist to complex questions. Jones has assembled an outstanding first feature film that is both provocative and contemplative without being preachy or self-indulgent. All that glowing praise of Jones' balanced writing and assured direction notwithstanding, Moon might not have been as successful had it not included a jaw-dropping, tour-de-force performance by Sam Rockwell, who is the heart and soul (and heart and soul) of this film. Consider him robbed of a richly-deserved Best Actor Oscar if he doesn't get the nod. Actually, he should get two Oscars....which will make more sense once you've seen the film.

A final comment/shout out to those responsible for the “look” of Moon, the miniatures and special effects are at once familiar and fresh. The production sports a 1968 2001 meets 1975 Space 1999 look that is integral to the mood of the 2009 film, but doesn't get in the way of the 2029 story. Moon is also an inverted, reversed and refocused simplification of George Lucas' Star Wars Looniverse, a welcome and long overdue reimagining of what science fiction can be. What struck me as I thought back on the film was just how little it felt like a sci-fi. Moon is very-nearly-perfect character piece that presents complex material in a naturally-flowing and entirely unforced manner. The fact that it takes place on the Moon somewhere in the future seems entirely secondary. A brilliant and worthy first picture from a talented and accomplished young director.

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much (she knows!)
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong


Can you hear me Major Tom....?

And as for you Coppola.... I'm a card carrying member of the People's Front of Judea and to join them, you have to really hate the Romans.

Sporgey.

1.11.2010

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008)

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is Fear of the Unknown."  So wrote Howard Phillips Lovecraft in the early part of the 20th century, and so begins the documentary Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown.

If you don't know who Lovecraft is by name, perhaps you are familiar with some of the film adaptations of his work, or those based on his writings and ideas?  The Thing, Alien, Hellboy, Re-Animator, From Beyond, and nearly a hundred others - not to mention those writers/filmmakers upon whom Lovecraft's influence is palpable.  Stephen King's The Mist?  Straight Lovecraft ripoff.  And John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness is widely regarded as one of the most successful interpretations of the Lovecraft mythos.

Perhaps Lovecraft's greatest contribution to the horror genre is that he created a completely new realm of possibility for horror; he left behind the gothic trappings of previous authors, the ghosts and witches, and introduced his readers to a much darker world ruled by old, vengeful gods, where mankind teetered on the brink of sanity and in which humanity's ultimate cosmic meaninglessness was stressed.  Some (intentional or not) very cool concepts are touched on in his stories - one such example is how he structures the final scene in The Rats in the Wall to parallel the relatively modern theory of Deep Time (which would have been known to Lovecraft).  Toss in some really creepy, slimy monsters (most resembling some kind of massive, mutated, deep sea thing), and some of the more purple prose you'll read, and you've got a bona fide heavyweight in American literature, albeit one who has only recently been recognized as such, finally elevated from the "lowly" designation of "pulp writer" with the stodgy Library of America's publication of Lovecraft: Tales.

The doc gathers together all the usual Lovecraft heirs - Ramsey Campbell, Stuart Gordon, Guillermo del Toro, Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, ST Joshi, John Carpenter and a few others, and simply allows them to speak.  Interspersed with their musings are period photographs (don't say it), letters, and modern artworks that interpret some of Lovecraft's nastier beasties.  The film is fairly straightforward, following the course of the general "survey doc", and is thorough in its study of the troubled author in the context of his times and his impact on the present.  Kudos to the filmmakers for not shying away from Lovecraft's intense xenophobia, as I find many of these docs that present the subject adoringly tend to gloss over the less savoury aspects of the person's life.

An enjoyable, informative, and well-made doc that will please current fans but isn't so esoteric as to alienate the newcomer to Lovecraft's work.  Recommended.  And I cannot wait for House of Re-Animator - shit's gonna be so rad.

The Coelacanth Watched Some More Movies

As I did last year, in 2009 I kept my usual film diary.  No notes on the films or anything, simply a list of the films I watched.  Again, probably not hugely interesting to many, but if you want a little peek inside the cobwebbed brain of the Coelacanth, here it is.  Like last time, some at times obvious and at times intriguing patterns emerged.

If you care to scroll through the list, a couple of explanatory remarks: the film titles with (C) beside them are ones I saw in the cinema.  In some cases (i.e. TV series/some films), I didn't watch the entire thing on that specific day, but the day listed is simply when I completed the series/film (i.e. I didn't watch all of season five of Buffy in a single day).  In all cases, I watched the entire film.  If I watched half, it didn't count - for example, I didn't include Michael Mann's Thief, and I watched 95 of its 124 minute run-time.  Some of the films were re-watches, most were not.  Here goes:

January
4 - Pineapple Express
11 - Here Is What Is
     - Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
     - Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 5
17 - Saw V
18 - Repo! The Genetic Opera
19 - Tokyo Gore Police
20 - Blood Tea and Red String
22 - Jour de fete
23 - Tapeheads
24 - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
25 - Eyes of Laura Mars
26 - Beaver Family
28 - 9 to 5: Days in Porn
     - Ugetsu
31 - My Bloody Valentine 3-D (C)

February
1 - Step Brothers
2 - El Norte
3 - The Quare Fellow
4 - 60 Cycles
   - Buffy s.6
5 - Permanent Midnight
7 - Step Brothers (not a mistake - I watched it twice in a week, long story)
10 - Patti Smith: Dream of Life
13 - Cold Prey
17 - Midnight Meat Train
18 - Ex Drummer
20 - Children of the Stones
23 - The Discipline of D.E.
24 - Buffy s.7
27 - Batman: Gotham Knight
28 - Hated

March
1 - Frisky Dingo s.1
   - Quicksilver
5 - Habit
   - Rendezvous
7 - Rachel Getting Married
   - Happy-Go-Lucky
8 - Let the Right One In
   - Watchmen (C)
9 - Synechdoche, New York
10 - Milk
     - Role Models
12 - Elevator Movie
14 - Batman vs Dracula
15 - Twilight
19 - Little Criminals
25 - Quiet City
26 - Punisher: War Zone
     - Dance Party, USA

April
2 - Sex Drive
   - The Mindscape of Alan Moore
3 - Hunger
6 - Batman
12 - For Love of the Game
20 - Something Wild
21 - [Rec]

May
2 - Tales of the Rat Fink
6 - Wendy and Lucy
7 - The Punisher
9 - Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai
10 - A No Hit, No Run Summer
26 - The Friends of Eddie Coyle
28 - All Night Long
     - Drag Me to Hell (C)
30 - The Hit

June
17 - An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
25 - Timecrimes
     - Moon (C)
28 - Eastbound & Down

July
2 - The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
17 - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
23 - Midnight Movie
25 - My Dinner With Andre
29 - Pontypool

August
2 - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
9 - Dazed and Confused
10 - GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (C)
20 - Trick 'r Treat (C)
22 - Halloween
     - 2 Seconds
23 - Inglourious Basterds (C)
27 - Inglourious Basterds (C)
28 - The Chaser
30 - Sugar
     - Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

September
8 - The Taste of Tea
10 - The Flesh Eaters
     - Jennifer's Body (C)
11 - Daybreakers (C)
13 - The Loved Ones (C)
14 - Bitch Slap (C)
15 - [Rec] 2 (C)
16 - Solomon Kane (C)
17 - Symbol (C)
18 - A Town Called Panic (C)
19 - Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (C)
20 - Vincent
28 - Dorothy Mills
30 - Kurt & Courtney

October
1 - The Masque of the Red Death
   - Shutter
4 - The Wolf Man
   - In the Mouth of Madness
6 - Harper's Island
10 - The American Brew
15 - Drag Me to Hell
17 - Kill, Baby...Kill!
     - Murder Party
     - From Beyond
     - Basket Case
     - New Nightmare
18 - Let's Scare Jessica To Death
     - Halloween
20 - Student Bodies
21 - The Children
23 - The Boxer's Omen
     - The Gravedancers
24 - Phantasm
29 - Suspiria
     - Inferno

November
1 - Paranormal Activity (C)
3 - Night of the Creeps
5 - I Can See You
6 - Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
11 - Adventureland
13 - Splinter
15 - Franklyn
17 - The Limits of Control
     - Klunkerz
19 - The Stars and The Water Carriers
     - Let's Scare Jessica To Death (C)
20 - Hardware
22 - Medicine For Melancholy
25 - Thirst
     - Ballast
26 - I Sell the Dead
29 - Combat Shock

December
3 - Messiah Of Evil
6 - Black Christmas
7 - Macabre
8 - The Cove
17 - Skin and Bones
19 - Superstition
     - It Might Get Loud
23 - Wisconsin Death Trip
30 - Run! Bitch Run!

Roundup
Films watched: 147 (7 more than last year)
In cinema: 19 (2 fewer than last year)

So, anyone else do their own diary for '09?  Post it up!

1.08.2010

Bang, Bang....You're Dead - The Hurt Locker

Reflecting back on the just-watched Hurt Locker, I'm still reeling from the experience. It's tense, claustrophobic, well-crafted and terrific... pretty much as Nick described it in his year-end post. The only thing I'd like to suggest is a slightly different reading on the “politics” of the film. I think it's possible that we've come to expect overt messages from filmmakers and are less attuned to subtle ones. The film that most immediately comes to mind in comparative terms is Coppola's Apocalypse Now, another movie that doesn't wear its politics on its sleeve, but could hardly be called apolitical. I think Bigelow's Hurt Locker falls into similar territory and, like the Coppola film before it, we will see its politics come into focus the further we get from it. I think it's entirely possible that this film might be a defining statement about the United States and it's people in the aftermath of 9/11.


While I think an alternate reading of the film paints a fascinating metaphor of the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd also like to suggest that this metaphor isn't “political” - at least in any modern “geopolitical” sense - but rather tied (and self-consciously so) to another great American myth, the cowboy. On more than one occasion during The Hurt Locker, Sargent James/Jesse James walks off alone to face down the bad guys evoking some pretty heavy “High Noon” symbolism. His bravado and borderline psychotic behavior parallels western gunslinger lore only too closely as Bigelow shows James as myopic to the point of insanity.

I've got a few minor quibbles about Hurt Locker that I hope aren't misinterpreted as nit-picky. Picking up on a point made about Avatar in an earlier post, I think The Hurt Locker suffers a little in the writing department at times. It's simplistic where it doesn't need to be. The Jack-In-The-Box scene is just too obvious for such an otherwise smart movie. The subplot with the little black market DVD kid seems out of place and muddies the film's pacing unnecessarily. The other members of the bomb disposal team don't bring much to the table and at times Bigelow seems simply too enamored with her lead. If there is a fundamental weakness in the film, it is perhaps in its inability to do what good cowboy films have achieved, to touch on the dark choice at the heart of this character – the question of whether what he does is something a man has to do, or something he chooses to do. Bigelow seems uninterested in following this “heart of darkness” thread to its natural conclusion.

Technically, The Hurt Locker is an accomplished work and it seems to have succeeded in finding an audience where a range of other films about the the modern American military (Rendition, Lions For Lambs, In The Valley Of Elah, Stop-Loss, Redacted… all high-profile quasi-war movies, all box office flops) have failed to. Thematically, it's a solid effort at deconstructing the heroic mystique that draws men to war and countries into conflict. From this perspective, I think that The Hurt Locker could be seen as a highly political film, just not in the way we're use to seeing. Watching it had me thinking that I need to revisit David Simon's Generation Kill and give it a second shot. From the couple of episodes I watched, there are some interesting parallels to The Hurt Locker is terms of visual style and presentation.
 
Sporgey

1.06.2010

Doc Martin

A little off topic from what we normally kick around here, but that Doc Martin BBC series is really quite good. It suffers from the village of quirky britards dilemma that the Beeb seems bent on including in every bloody show, but the Doc himself is stellar. He's annoying and annoyed, rude, hates most people and loaths the rest and can't stand the sight of blood and as such, is a veritable template on how to live amongst the masses these days. My new hero. Check it out when/if you get old.     

1.04.2010

Despite being far from household names, the Joe Berlinger/Bruce Sinofsky directing partnership has produced a series of consistently great documentaries over the years. Their most recent feature length DVD release, the fantastic Metallica: Some kind of monster sees a slight departure from the legal battles and small town scope of their previous films, but it's perhaps not as big a jump as you might think.

Many of their films were produced for TV by HBO and it seems the 'capture everything, edit later' ethos gives these films their character. For example, revelations implied in the nuances of body language during an impromptu street interview. Long bumbling monologues offering insight into characters you might else only see in the courtroom. These are the scenes that make all the difference. This comprehensive approach becomes immersive before a profound sense of powerlessness washes you up on shore, as the credits roll.

A quick peek at other upcoming projects reveals the possibility of some closure on what would be one of the great crime stories captured in film with the Paradise Lost series as well as the should-be-on-dvd-soon title Crude. Here's what you may have missed.


Brother's Keeper (1992)
Hicksville has always been a rich seam for mining documentaries and this one gets in so deep it requires subtitles. When one of a family of farming brothers is found dead, the autopsy is inconclusive. The following shake up takes the simple working mans perspective as the big city attorneys try to place the blame. Sad, heartfelt, small but quite perfectly formed.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)

My favourite and surely one of the most shocking of true crime documentaries. The film that spawned a whole movement in defense of the 'West Memphis 3'. Three teenagers stand accused when three young children are found dead and mutilated in the local woods. The only problem is that there seems to be no evidence. However, little things like that won't stop the rolling wheels of US justice!

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000)
The very existence of this film implies the lack of a satisfying verdict in the first Paradise Lost. Never have I rushed to see a sequel as I did for this. A progressive continuation on the same case, new evidence comes to light and suspicions on other suspects are reinforced. What a mind melter this case is. This is a long film and finds no true closure. Paradise Lost 3 now in Post-production. All of this makes you wonder about all the thousands of other cases we didn't get to hear about.

Gray Matter (2004)
This one reaches back in time to when the Nazi eugenics program manifested in the most horrific of ways as a children's 'treatment centre'. This film visits today's legacy as the families of those involved finally lay them all to rest. Short, sad but an important story to tell.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)
The biggest scariest band of them all sits down with their shrink and tell him how things are getting so 'heavy'. Priceless, even if you're not a fan. In fact, especially if you're not.

GennyG and Me.

Because Nick secretly hates me, he gave me David Foster Wallace's tome Infinite Jest for Christmas and advised to “stick with it, as the early passages are a little challenging”. No shit, Sherlock. I've been reading for a solid week and I'm on page 34, reduced to an intellectual cripple. The other day I found myself covered in drool at one point as I read and reread, and then reread again page 26, the toughest 40 minutes so far. Right now it's a toss up who's more dense - DFW or SDW.


Because intellect is a zero-sum-game in my case, the result of all this cerebral calisthenics is a marked reduction in the complexity of the viewing I'm willing to tackle right now. TV seems about the right speed, allowing partial recovery from the brain-throb DFW induces with each grueling page of Infinite Jest.

Which brings me to the TV series I've sunk my teeth into – My Own Worst Enemy. I should start by pointing out a fan-site review from....

http://www.viewpoints.com/My-Own-Worst-Enemy-reviews

Glance down to the third one, which reads ....

“Very intreging show!”

“I Am....” Likes to be entertained

“I did not get to see all of these episods but the few I did get to watch I liked. I am so mad they took it off the air. They did not even give it a chance. The story was very clever. They need to think about putting it back on the air.”

GennyG
Lincoln CA

Now, beyond the hilarity of the karmic GennyG/JennyG connection, after a few paragraphs of DFW, I too “am likes to be entertained by a few intreging episods of My Own Worst Enemy”. In fact, it's kinda neato.

MOWE is about a deadly superspy who works for an organization known as Janus. Edward Albright (played by Christian Slater) is part of a special program that essentially divided him into two people. One is Henry Spivey, a mild-mannered efficiency expert with all of the trappings of a comfortable suburban life and the other is Edward, a highly skilled spy/assassin. The company uses a switch to toggle between the split personalities, and because it was likely made in China, the computer chip malfunctions and Henry starts waking up in the middle of mission firefights deep inside Russia. Edward, on the other hand, wakes up and bones Henry's babe wife. The concept wears a little thin at times and one wonders why a spy organization would go to all this trouble, but if you forgive the threadbare logic and can suspend disbelief long enough, the 9 "episods" that NBC (I think I spelled that right) allowed before they pulled the plug are fun in a “at least I'm not reading David Foster Wallace” kind of way.

The whole thing looks like a Jason Bourne-lite effort and if like me, you are “likes to be entertained”, it might serve as a good little time waster while you're between the pages.

Sporgey

1.03.2010

Push

A few months back, I took Paul McGuigan's film Push home and promptly took 3 weeks to get around to finally watching it. I'll admit to being a little surprised how much I liked it. For whatever reason, Push has continued to rattle around in my craw ever since. Most of the major critics were dismissive of the film for reasons that I understood but didn't necessarily agree with. Part of the problem with the film is the familiarity of its plot. In many ways it's thematically fairly close to both the X-Men franchise and the TV series, Heroes.

On the surface Push is not dissimilar to these and many other superhero films: it revolves around a protagonist who discovers his “power,” learns to harness it, and then join the fight against evil. What differentiates Push, however, is it avoids the usual trappings of the standard superhero story. Its protagonists are not independently wealthy or blessed with a protective benefactor, nor do they wear goofy costumes. The script is not based on a comic so we don't have to suffer through the typically long and elaborate character back stories that often mar the pacing of such films. We are instead thrust into a story about mostly normal people with extraordinary psychic abilities. Instead of hiding in Batcaves or X-Mansions, the protagonists of Push hide in plain sight, swallowed up in the urban confusion and teaming masses of Hong Kong, where most of the film takes place.

Push's “heroes” also aren't “super” in any Marvel or DC sense, they simply have different abilities than the rest of us. There are Pushers, Bleeders, Stitches, Movers, Watchers, Sniffs, Shifters and Wipers, each with a unique gift that has marked them as targets for a nefarious U.S. Government agency called Division. This is what the protagonists of Push are fighting for, against the threat of being “disappeared” Recruited, transformed – and, subsequently, effaced – in service of Division.

I think what I found made Push interesting was its fairly realistic grittiness and nihilistic vision of our time. Where Nolan might have overplayed these themes in the Dark Knight, McGuigan seems to have placed Push in a very recognizable present and it makes the film entirely more accessible and the territory more familiar. The cast is uniformly good but Dakota Fanning (believe it or not) is the standout. She plays a trashy 14-year-old who catches glimpses of the future (and it rarely looks all that rosy) with the integrity and skill of a Jody Foster, circa Taxi Driver. Mark my words, this child star will be an adult star too.

I'm not sure why Push doesn't quite work for most people. Perhaps it's too convoluted, too silly (or maybe more to the point, not silly enough). I seriously wondered if McGuigan had have moved the entire tone of the film in a sort of “Big Trouble in Little China” direction, if he wouldn't have struck gold at the box office. The problem with that approach remains that Push, for all its silly superhero overtones, is a relatively serious film about serious issues. What the critics might have failed to recognize is Push addresses a host of issues from the violence that defines our present, to the the role medical science plays in contributing to modern disease, and how shadow governments and fortified bureaucracies strangle the vitality of the living. Perhaps the odd choice of genre precludes anyone from taking Push all that seriously, but I think this is one of those films that slipped between the cracks. It is a flawed work to be sure, but in the same way that The Fountain was – a fantasy with some interesting and thought provoking elements rolled into an unconventional package.
 
The marketing of Push made it look far too much like last year's nearly unwatchable “Jumper” starring Darth Vader, so people's reluctance to give it a try is understandable. I'm not sure if it's worth the investment, but there's something to this film that I think might strike a chord with a few of you.
 
Sporgey

1.01.2010

Ballast (2008) - Lance Hammer

Ballast is, according to IMDB, set in the Mississippi Delta area. Reading this was a surprise to me, as the landscape and chilly atmosphere of the film really reminded me of rural Canada, or somewhere in the northern prairies of the states (CN railcars are featured in several shots too, but I guess they go all over the continent). In some respects, the South does fit better with the primarily African-American cast—for some reason, I found it hard to picture there being a large population of African-Americans in rural North Dakota, maybe I'm wrong.

Anyways, racial profiling aside, let's talk about the film. If I were to give it a rating out of ten, I think I'd say a 7. Not bad, but nothing that curled my toes. It is filled with a pretty tragic cast of characters, poverty seems to be an overwhelming force in most of their lives. The plot of the film is very minimal, and basically follows the banal sufferings of three main protagonists.

I think that it is really important for film to represent these more "authentic" (and, no doubt, more common) experiences of "real" people. Our culture has a surplus of representations of how tough high school is for rich white girls. However, I am at the same time always a little suspicious of these glimpses at the poor and downtrodden produced by wealthy intellectuals. My attention quickly turns away from a desire to learn about the characters’ experiences to a critical analysis of the filmmaker’s motivations for showing these experiences to us. Perhaps this is a leftover from my art school days, when superficial Marxist analysis was drilled into our heads. However, some films work in a way that lets me get past this suspicion—Pasonlini’s films, Ermanno Olmi’s, Harmony Korine’s, etc. This one didn’t. I’m still suspicious. I think my problem with Ballast is that, while it may engage with the misery of the majority of Americans' lives, it does not offer a what Pasonlini and Co. offer—an agency, creativity and beauty within these tragic figures. These characters seem empty, powerless and worthy of pity. This is often how wealthy people represent the poor.

All that being said, Ballast is a very beautiful film. There are some gorgeous, lonely, heart-breaking shots in it that made watching it worthwhile. This is Lance Hammer’s first film, and so his character development may mature. However, at present, I think I’d suggest waiting for more by Lol Crawley (the cinematographer) than more by Hammer.