Thursday, December 2, 2010

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. (2010)
Florin Serban

A bit like a smaller budget A Prophet, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle is about developing partnerships and alliances while staying alive in prison.

[Well, it's about much more than that, but for my reasoning, that's a good place to start.] 

It's about forming bonds that keep you alive for now, and knowing how to get the things you need while shut away. That the jail is for older teenage boys makes it all the more fascinating from a story point of view.

I wasn't a huge fan of A Prophet, which, much to my own dismay, bored me to tears. The boys' jail in If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle finds a soft spot in me, even though I realize its problems.

You can be tough, you can know how to handle yourself with the bad boys -- you can stand up but not out in the hostile detention center where you live -- you can do all this, and be all that, but sometimes the simple crack of timing is what will make you or break you on the inside. The odd timing of events in central character Silviu's life is what I like about this story.

Eighteen year-old Silviu has fifteen days left in his four year sentence. He's been a good kid to this point -- even the warden lets us know it in one of the first key scenes when he tells Silviu to stay on the good path he's been on.

But sometimes life is more than the path we've been on. It's a moment by moment dealing with what's currently happening -- the now. Whether you meet the right person at the right time, or make that good business deal, or get that promotion that was necessary to save a key relationship -- there are the moment by moment battles that not only define us now, but will shape us down the road, too.

Is it predestination or free will that brings Silviu a visit from his long lost mom, saying she's taking his younger brother to Italy in a week? Still in jail, counting the days until he gets out, and knowing how rotten mom actually is, Silviu sits and waits. And waits. And waits.

In some ways, this Romanian low-budget drama reminds me of a title I know I've seen in many films before. The title is Boiling Point. As Silviu waits, dealing with emotional turmoil and inmates that pick at him like a festering sore, we watch the heat turn up with each passing day, the blood in his veins subtly starting to boil.

Silviu went away to boy's prison. That's his past. He can do nothing about that now. But the thing that's killing him now is knowing how his mom took him twice to Italy before -- he thinks she was simply lonely -- and that both times, she shacked up with a new man and sent Silviu back to Romania to fend for himself for years. He blames her for whatever went wrong in his life, how he ended up as a number in the system. And maybe partially, that is true. He can't do anything about his past, whatever the reasons were for his troubles, but how can he still be here for fifteen days when his mom is taking little brother next week?

Knowing he only has a short time left and doesn't want to wreck being set free, he also experiences the harassment of inmates exploiting his situation, making him appear weaker in their eyes. So when mom finally does visit to talk about it all, he's like a lit bomb ready to go off immediately. He explodes into a rage, calling her a "fucking whore," screaming that he'll kill her and his little brother, in a scene that sets the emotional tone for the rest of the story. It's an unsettling moment where the film changes somewhat from The Shawshank Redemption to Taxi Driver fueled by resentment and hatred and hostage negotiations.

I'm not going to say this is the best recent Romanian film, or that it even fits into the catalogue of the "Romanian new wave," whatever that is. I will say that for a recent US theatrical and Film Movement release, it's much better than cable reruns of "Law & Order" or "CSI", and that there are some powerful performances on display. But it's a movie that could have delved much deeper into its issues. I guess when I think about everything that goes down here, I simply wonder about "timing," and how it works everywhere else. If anything, that the film gets me to think makes it worth watching more than once.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Letters to Juliet. (2010) Gary Winick

Sometimes cardboard cutouts still remind me of life's need and purpose. Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock have sucked me into card-box thinking before, and now it's Amanda Seyfried, with her big pretty eyes and playful though predictable dialogue. Oh, I'm not going to get all mushy about this romcom -- if you can even call it that (it didn't have much com for its rom) -- but I want to go easy on a film I give a Netflix 2-out-of-5 stars to. It's not as bad a story as it deserves to be rated as a film.

There's a lot here showing characters who need the plot to drive them -- they wouldn't exist if they weren't meant for the next scene. And there are some awful moments where the back(d)flop of music adds elements of cheese we wish weren't there -- not that Taylor Swift's song is bad (I really don't think it is), but here, when it's added, it's like three weeks past the sell date on Aldi's Swiss cheese. Who didn't know that she would be, "Crying on the staircase," begging him to please not go?...

But once you get past the cheese and cardboard, there's a felt need here, and I won't say I wasn't somewhat affected. I will say that I didn't buy any of it -- at least how it's represented here, in this film -- but the idea that we really do need love is still there, and that's the part that got me.

So sue me. I need love. And I liked a film that I still only give a predictable lovey-dovey 2/5 for a predictable lovey-dovey huggie-bear film. There are turns in the dark halls of everyone's twisted journey.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Don't Look Back. (2010) Marina de Van

This is the second film from Marina de Van which pits a middle aged, pretty French woman against her mind, body and identity. It would seem de Van likes characters not at ease with living in their own skin.

She tackles the body/mind and identity/soul themes at as high a level as anyone, artfully exploring them in ways that can truly capture your attention. Her previous film, In My Skin, would almost be considered horror if it weren't for the fact that cutting, an ancient tradition showing loyalty to the gods, now seems normal in today's teen angst (and film enhanced) culture. De Van sidestepped the teen issue and brought greater weight by giving us a woman in her thirties who not only cut, but took her case study to a whole new level, eating her flesh and licking up her own blood, a literal reading of the self-destructive addict. Whereas that film was a hard, dark trip steeped in emotional preoccupation and the dark corridors of psychology, it made for a mesmerizing case study, nonetheless. It's a directorial debut I'll never forget, setting de Van's name as a high priority for any follow up.

The follow up is here, de Van finding two stellar, well-known actresses to pull off a new idea for body/mind identity exploration -- and add to that a character's belief that she's being manipulated through hidden reality and her family's deception. Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci each play Jeanne, a biographer aiming to change over to fiction and an apparently normal and loving wife and mother of two. Marceau plays Jeanne from the beginning of the story, Bellucci morphing into her half way through, which of course is a jolt to the system when no one else sees the change. Her mother, husband and children also turn unrecognizable, and even the furniture in the house travels to new locations. These things seem to happen very quickly and may allude to her recent writings, in which she's digging in her past in order to work this fiction out, or amnesia she experienced as an eight year-old.

Don't Look Back has an approach that's less sick than In My Skin, and certainly not horror, but rather a slow boiling mystery that gets into your head and has you grasping at straws at the film's device of identity.

What de Van does with interiors here is as fantastical as anything in In My Skin. Like that film, the story telling is at its best when Jeanne is trapped in several small rooms (the use of lighting and mirrors and reflections a recurring motif), as well as trapped in the meltdown of her own mind and body. The interiors, physical and mental, bring a claustrophobic feel, perfect for the stifling tension coming on this house. The creeped out soundtrack adds to the intensity, too, informing the insanity and disintegration the family goes through as Jeanne's transformation slowly tears her from them.

The story wraps up, but not in a nice little bow. In order for Jeanne to figure out what is happening, she'll return to her childhood and start again from there. In a sense, she's always been that little girl that's trapped in a woman's body, and that might be at the heart of what de Van seems interested in delving into. Some strands are left undeveloped in the end, but they're not the ones we care about the most -- we go from the surreal to the bizarre, but then there's way made for the poetic, too -- but a sense of brokenness will permeate the final frame.

If anything, Don't Look Back made me a firm believer in the strength of de Van as a filmmaker, and not just a one-hit wonder with In My Skin. I'm looking forward to what she does next as much as I looked forward to her second effort, and I'd happily add her name to any of the younger French directors getting known.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Secret of Kells. (2010) Tomm Moore

I may have found the number one on my Top 10 of 2010. I never -- EVER -- thought I'd say that about an animation. But The Secret of Kells is perfect in so many wonderful ways, that I can't deny it's the greatest combination of film and art this year. My kids were stunned at it, too.

I'm going to let it seep with time. I'll definitely be revisiting it soon. But there are going to have to be some absolute masterpiece power-house releases for anything to have a chance to beat this out. We'll see.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jesus of Montreal. (1989) Denys Arcand

Here's another solid entry into our Top 100.

Voted #88 this year, the film revolves around a ragtag group of actors performing a passion play for the local Catholic church. What they come up with is unorthodox, but well accepted by everyone except the church itself. "Institutions," claims a broken priest, "live longer than individuals."

It's too bad that the church has to cancel this production -- it was the most honest passion play I've seen. Those involved seem affected by the story, too -- they are somewhat disciples rather than actors in the end.

Here's a movie staging a theater production of a 2000 year-old story, a story which still brings me to tears. I can't imagine any real church having the budget of the church here, but it's an ideal to aim at for anyone interested in telling the gospel story.

The film is streaming at Netflix only for a few more days. My friend, Peter Chattaway, wrote an excellent blurb Here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Come Undone. (2010) Silvio Soldini

Why is it that you can have a relationship or steamy sex, but never both? At least that's the way it works in the movies.

Maybe Anna just needed to be noticed again, not for her great career, not for her caring spirit. Maybe she needed to be noticed for being gorgeous. Maybe she missed the days when her boyfriend Alessio dove into her for her luscious beauty. Maybe if he'd lose some weight and pursue her like the madman he no doubt was when they met, she wouldn't be tempted at the thought of someone else. Or maybe life in Milan has become way too predictable. It's really hard to tell.

I love how this story begins. Anna and Alessio are awakened in the middle of the night by her sister Isa on the phone. Isa's husband is working a night shift, her water just broke and she's going to have this baby now. Anna and Ale, with a car in the shop, wake up a neighbor and ask to borrow his vehicle. They make it to the hospital, and then the delivery, and Anna gets to cut the cord. They've made it through a midnight emergency, and joy is the end result -- but they couldn't have made it through without each other.

That we get to see Anna and Alessio in the middle of an emergency and dealing with the fallout later (Anna, devastated, admitting she never knew birth was so "violent") reveals a couple experiencing the spectrum of life's emotions. They are barreling through and even enjoying life's crazed moments -- together. The next night, tired as he is, Ale makes dinner for her and they chat. The next morning he helps pack her car. He's a handy man -- he puts a door on their shower, and she won't have that nasty curtain touching her in the shower again.

He mentions in passing that maybe it's time they thought about a baby. A business woman by day, she's hesitant at first, but then later she's suddenly willing to go off the pill. Her decision seems tailored to make him happy. Their relationship is a close one, and if any couple is truly in love, they seem so.

So why does she make a date with a caterer she barely knows? Is she feeling the ticking clock after her sister's delivery? Is she bored with life? Or is it basic animal instinct -- Domenico is tall, dark and handsome. Does she need something wild on the side?

She claims her career keeps her busy and never bored. She seems content with Ale and their circle of friends. She doesn't want to tear down years that she's built up. There's something conflicted in her, but the film keeps us guessing about her motives. Perhaps she's guessing, too.

Another thing I like about the film is its shift in perspective. For the first part we only see the world through Anna's eyes. When she first falls for Domenico, he remains a mysterious figure, only popping up as we watch the course of Anna's days play out. But then they sleep together, and we finally follow him home. To his wife. To his newborn baby and five year-old girl. To a job that doesn't pay enough and a brother, willing to loan him money, but whom he resents nonetheless.

There's no one to root for here. It's a story about an affair that's about as real as it gets. These are real people that have real desires, desires that lead to real hurts. We don't root for Alessio or Domenico to finally win the heart of the babe, or the right to take her home. Anna's not some trophy you might find on "Big Brother." The parts here are all played to perfection, but this is heartbreaking stuff. That old song, "Torn Between Two Lovers" comes to mind.

You might recognize Anna from her role as the lesbian sister in another film set in Milan, I Am Love. Though that film played more to art-house audiences, it's interesting that the two, both released this year, deal with an aging blonde falling for someone working in the food business. The films differ, however, in approaching their key affairs -- each film has a different focus. And while Come Undone is no smoldering filmic masterpiece like I Am Love, it deals with its conflicted characters so realistically that you can't help but be drawn into the fallout of its story.

The movie went through a name change and had a few minutes shaved off before appearing at the Chicago International Film Festival and being released by Film Movement this fall. Come Undone could be a double entendre for the euphoria one feels in the arms of a strange, new lover. More likely, it's about the unraveling that takes place in a person's life when they've focused so hard on one thing that they forget to take all else into account. Anna and Domenico both have everything they need, but in the heat of the moment they risk it to grasp at that something extra. It's probably something most people in their shoes never understand -- how you can have it all, and be planning for more in that context, but still be willing to throw it away for the cherry on top -- so quickly eaten, and soon there's nothing in your hands.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How I Ended This Summer. (2010)
Alexei Popogrebsky

Hiding something is often the same as lying. How I Ended This Summer is an exploration into the fear that turns into hiding, the cover-ups as a lie explodes, and the ramifications as it tears into already fragile relationships.

These cold relationships are exacerbated by the harsh atmosphere on an arctic Russian island. In the winds and rain of this frigid climate, Sergei and Pavel are forced to live together, trying their best to get along as they work a meteorological station. Sergei, a calloused blue collar tough old geezer has been at this work for years. He's the head of the Archym Island Weather Station, and he knows his stuff. Young Pavel seems to have only approached the job like it's temp work, here for the summer season, hoping to write a paper on his experience at the place. He finds Sergei harsh and intimidating, a tough pick for a workmate. Sure, he knows his stuff. It doesn't make him any easier to live with.

Most workmates only have to deal with water cooler gossip and the occasional cubicle cornering. These two have to tough it out in the arctic and get along. They're the only two on the island, it's not like there's gossip around every corner.

It's trout season, and Sergei decides to take the boat out for a day or two. Maybe he really loves the trout at this time of year, or maybe he wants to see if Pavel can handle the work while he's gone. Regardless, while he's out fishing and AWOL from his work, Pavel receives a CB radiogram relaying the distressful message that Sergei's wife and son have been in an accident. The company is sending a vessel to their location to give Sergei the opportunity to get home as fast as possible. Pavel winces at the thought of relaying this message to the grumpy old man. A ship might take five days to get there. Should he relay the message now and bear the bear for the next five days?

He initially takes down the message from the CB, writing it down word for word, but fear keeps him from relaying it. After choosing to not relay it, fear becomes a central character in Pavel's existence. Nervousness chokes him while he keeps the truth from his workmate. And does Sergei really want to kill him when he later learns the truth? Is he really as deranged as he seems? The viewer might not think so, but it's easy to see why Pavel does. Earlier, Sergei told him another story of two men that were also on the island, at an earlier point in time. Things for those two didn't turn out so well. Pavel seems to think that Sergei is capable of repeating history.

So the lie leaves Pavel running for his life and isolated against a dangerous environmental backdrop with little knowledge of how to actually survive. This is the deeper dig into the human nature of the story -- that lying causes distance, when our actual human need is communal. Pavel probably didn't realize how ill equipped he was to take on the island by himself, but as he's forced to -- or thinks he is forced to, anyway -- the island seems to become a much smaller, and stifling place.

There are quite a few moments where the passage of time is relayed through the frigid elements in time-lapse photography. Clouds, fog, the passing sun, the fading of day. They rush by quickly, speeding up the monotony of life on the arctic island. Later, as Pavel seeks every crevice of rock to hide in, his bunny-like nervousness seems to slow the day down, even as fast as he chooses to move. Time on the island moves quickly when you're moving slow, and slowly when you're running for your life.

I can think of two film comparisons to How I Ended This Summer. Because it's a "Russian arctic" movie, the first thing that comes to mind is (obviously) Russian Ark. But two films have never been more different. Everything about Russian Ark screamed majestic and grandiose, with a thousand characters in mis-en-scène, abundant and energetic, like several classic films thrust into one. How I Ended This Summer is minimalist: two characters, one island, one problem, one big cover-up. The films are polar opposite.

And yet it's also comparable to an indie-style film that's in theaters right now, Buried. Reviews of that film have sprung up all over the Internet revealing astonishment at how captivating it actually is. In Buried, the amazement is because the entire 95 minutes are claustrophobic, shot completely inside a coffin; similarly, in How I Ended This Summer it's that only two actors reading telemetry in the arctic could pull the story together. In both cases there is but a device that either fails or excels, based on the viewer's interpretation.

I'm hesitant to say it does either of these things fully. I think it does a little of both.

So I'm not going to hide or lie about How I Ended This Summer. With its crawling pace, typical of many Russian films, it won't be an easy film for some to sit through. The lack of dialogue, too, makes me wonder if the script is even ten pages long -- and with thirty-three minutes left I thought there wasn't enough story for even five. I think the film can on some level be called a success, with the two actors pulling off a coup for minimalism. However, this is not a film I will be revisiting soon. At 130 minutes, it's like watching a Russian arctic snail.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Heartbreaker. (2010) Pascal Chaumeil

Equal parts Runaway Bride and a French romcomian Mission Impossible, Heartbreaker satisfies in ways the feel-good audience needs.

I'm not usually a big fan of the romcom. Other (obviously English speaking) reviews that I read before seeing Heartbreaker made comparisons to recent American films I hadn't even heard of. I don't know whether this is beneficial when reviewing Heartbreaker, but for what it's worth, I'm right there with the feel-good camp.

Romain Duris has had my respect since his commanding performances in both The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Paris, but seeing him in a setting like this brings more understanding to the depth of his abilities. In those films he was undeniably fine, but those serious roles were more simple -- simply serious roles that called for simple seriousness. In Heartbreaker we get to see a brand new Duris with an energized and flamboyant side that, to me, was unexpected, but fully rewarding. I had some great laughs at this little romcom adventure, and Duris was having the time of his life.

Although somewhat predictable, the story is fine for the genre: Duris plays Alex, who runs a business with his sister and her husband in which they're hired to break up relationships. Maybe a relative or an ex-lover, maybe even just a good friend will hire the team to intervene, to somehow get in the middle of a blossoming love affair and with whatever means necessary, bring that relationship down. In a montage at the beginning of the film the team goes first person, directly confronting the camera, explaining their rules and their goofy codes of conduct, like never take a job based on religion or race, and never sleep with anyone to close a deal. But codes aside, they're handsomely paid to crack into a couple's courtship using deceit and seduction to splinter it.

Of course, Alex is the seductive romantic, using his charming good looks and an act he's put together to win the heart of a female mark. He's found that at just the right moment a sad story from his made-up life and a bit of hilariously conjured up tears can win even the hardest of hearts. When a girl has fallen for him to the point of wanting to leave her other, he always stops short. He says he's "far away," that it's "too late" for him, but that it's never too late for her. If the seed of another is planted, so the thought goes, it's enough for her to still pick up and leave.

Obviously when the lovely Vanessa Paradis strolls in as Juliette, a mark for Alex but a girl he just can't figure, things change for Alex and he actually starts to notice someone. The lengths he goes to to get her attention, and her unresponsive nature, make the story as much of a hoot as when she actually begins to notice him back. The problem is that Alex, still in character, a made-up man in a made-up world, needs to now decide whether it's right to come out of hiding and betray the dad that paid him or stuff it away and finish the mission.

The film plays with the idea of the "mission", too, with his teammate sister and her husband working behind the scenes security, or creating roles of their own -- hostess or maintenance man, bartender or race car driver. We begin to see Heartbreaker as not just a puritan romcom, but a Heist film as well -- a comedic one in which things in the background are as laughable as Alex's fumbling. The team spirit going into the breakup and the endless possibilities of what goes wrong are as funny as watching Alex flounder between liking Juliette and sticking to his agreement to thwart her engagement.

Contacting dad and digging into her history is a huge aid to finally reaching her. When Alex discovers how much Juliette loves WHAM and Dirty Dancing, his new mission is memorizing lyrics and 80s soundtrack dance moves. "Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)" is especially appealing, and the results he gets and nods to each are stitches of great enjoyment, especially for us closet WHAM and Dirty Dancing fans, decades of hiding later. (These might also be a reason for the rumored American remake.)

Heartbreaker won't be Duris's defining role, but I'm convinced he'll have a role in the next few years where we'll see it. He's just too good and on too good of a roll for it to escape him at this point.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pi: Screenplay and Guerilla Diaries. (1998) Darren Aronofsky

This is only my second book review here at Filmsweep, but I had so much fun with this quick, fun read, I just had to share the experience.

It's about the humble beginnings of that knock-out film Pi, the black and white sci-fi mind melter that launched Darren Aronofsky's career. You know Aronofsky, right? You've probably heard of Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, or the upcoming Natalie Portman film, The Black Swan. All of these were made post-Pi, on big budgets, long after Aronofsky got the attention of the film industry in '98 by bringing it to Sundance, where it premiered, and got him the prize for Best Director.

What a great moment that must have been. The diaries don't extend that far, in fact they only lead up to four days in front of that moment. But knowing how he toiled for two to five years, depending how you count, knowing his dedication to the project when the funds weren't there and how he labored to keep everything afloat, the win at Sundance must have been his life's most fulfilling moment.

It's neat to see how Pi was conceived, launched, formed into a collaboration of some thirty workers and whittled down to five reels of 35mm film. As the diary progresses, some of the members of the team have to leave the collaboration and move on -- some very late in the project, which frustrates Aronofsky to no end. In his own words he confesses the desire to lash out, but knows it won't do any good. As an up and coming director he knows his goal, which is not just Pi, but directing greater, more massive and well funded films years from now. He is very smart to contain himself in restraint against the enormous feelings inside that beg him to lose his cool.

The film Pi has so many philosophical and spiritual ramifications that have created mounds of discussion in film groups for the past twelve years. The book dives into just a little bit of Aronofsky's spirituality, answering some of the common assumptions that are made by viewers of the film. He doesn't necessarily believe in a God that has a face and a name, but like Max, the main character in Pi, he sees patterns in the universe -- even in the microverse and how they compare when contrasted with universal design -- that lead him to believe in, well, in something. At various points on the set he has the entire crew gather in a circle and hold hands in a prayer-like stance. They don't really offer a prayer as much as submit to the idea of unification. His exact words describe a group moment of "economic and artistic partnership, a socialist collective."

Never mind that Max is half insane -- he and Aronofsky are undeniably linked. Max's graphing of the stock market for emerging numbers is akin to Aronofsky's musings on nature's shapes and connectivity: he finds it fascinating that our DNA and the Milky Way are (by his estimation) so visually connected. "Personally," he says, "I don't think it's this end-all universal form connected to God. But I do think it's awfully strange that our smallest ingredient (DNA) and our largest macro-structure (The Milky Way) are so similar in shape."

At the end of Pi, Max is having an existential moment. Viewers often muse that it is very similar to an existential moment he had at the beginning of the film, but at the beginning he was in a state of crisis, whereas in the end his state is more esoteric. The diary describes it as a moment when Max is fully present -- in the "here and now" -- for the first time, at the end of the story. I chuckled a bit reading those lines, thinking that Henri Nouwen would have loved this. He may have found a rich tradition of Christian spirituality in simply sitting still, observing, meditating, listening. It's hard to say whether Max's cyberworld really goes this far or not, and Aronofsky doesn't really say. It's actually one of the more intriguing mysteries that keeps your eyes glued to both the film and the written diaries.

The second part of the book is the actual script for the film. If you've seen and enjoyed Pi, even if it was years ago, this is a highly enjoyable read. As you glide along the words of the script your memory wanders back to those stark, sometimes horrible and freaked out black and white images -- and you remember in writing the fascination the film has in mathematical code, number theory (specifically the number 216), spirals, the Torah, ancient Kabbalah texts, and the anomalies of human error.

I can't say I'm a great reader or that I read a lot of books, but if they were all as much fun as this one I'd aim to read more.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Requiem. (2006) Hans-Christian Schmid

What better way to continue rollicking in Halloween horror than a dogme-like film about an exorcism, right?

Requiem is the story of Michaela Klingler, a young and devout German Catholic suffering from epilepsy. The disease held her back a year in high school, but now that she's nineteen she wants to attend University and study like any other college-aged kid, managing the disease on her own.

Away from her small town, in a city for the first time Michaela quickly makes her first connection in finding an acquaintance from home. She also gets her first boyfriend -- her first drinks, her first kiss, her first physical encounter with another. So are the voices in her head and her recurring seizures symptomatic of her going off her pills, or is this demonic oppression due to her entrance into sinful living?

As the studies get harder and end of semester papers are due, life for Michaela slowly spins out of control. The voices are calling her a slut, and have told her to no longer pray or try to touch a crucifix. She wakes up in contorted positions, and feels seizures steal the use of her hands as she tries desperately to type. She begins rejecting her priests and her doctors and even her friends -- everyone's got advice, but no one can walk in her shoes. Perhaps it's easy to understand why she makes her final decision for exorcism, when she's brought home by worried friends and faced with either the priests or the institution.

The film is based on the real life 1976 exorcism of Anneliese Michel, the same girl that inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose. While Requiem feels more realist than The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the two feel like they offer similar sketches of the same story. Whereas The Exorcism of Emily Rose functions as a horror film, Requiem tells the story in more of a psychological character study. I mentioned the dogme movement before -- Requiem feels like Breaking the Waves in places. It had that strong, fluid camera work, that somber religious feel, and an incredible actress to pull the whole thing off. No special effects, no faces jumping out of the dark, no spider crawls, no backwards masking. Actress Sandra Hüller is believable simply by the way she fills the role of this troubled girl. Her physical presence on screen stands out. It makes the film.

Much to my delight, I was able to have a bit of back and forth with director Scott Derrickson when comparing the two films. That conversation is found Here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Changeling. (1980) Peter Medak

In one's attempt to travel backwards in time and find the "Ultimate Forgotten Halloween Horror Film," you're bound find one or two gems in a mixed bag of other movies ranging from the so-so-ho-hums to the outright stinkers. I'm thinking that The Changling fits into the latter rather than the former.

It's too bad, too, because it starts off as a chilling blast, rather reminiscent of The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise), a coldly creepy film that I'll stop right now and mention: if you haven't seen The Haunting, then that is your UFHHF. It is arguably the medium's finest ghost story in history.

But if The Changeling wanted to imitate The Haunting, it only wanted to do so for thirty or forty minutes. For that amount of time it rides the tails of that film well: Banging pipes and stuck notes on the piano, dreamy sequences of a drowned boy in the tub and a door that slowly creaks open by itself -- these things hearken back to Wise's masterpiece in well-done and similar fashion. A frightening mood is created in the mystery of what's not shown and in the fear-inducing sounds (a topic I'll delve more into when I sit down to write about Eraserhead next week). Sometimes it's best to let the viewer's imagination run wild, and that's accomplished with flair in the first half of The Changeling.

The problem, then, is in the second half explanation, which rather feels like an old Christian rock song in which the third verse makes certain it straightens out all the problems the writer created in the first two. The mystery is gone, some of it even beginning to feel like algebra, and the sound has lost its impressionable weight; the clanging and banging that takes place in the second half of the film lacks any curiosity that the first half generated. The ghost begins acting a little strange, too, and the people trying to help the ghost are kind of stuck in the middle. A lot of the details of the riddle's answers feel cheap. Then the ghost gets really really mad -- again for what reason, we can't precisely tell, although it is a child ghost, so maybe it's some kind of adolescent temper tantrum -- and he wipes out his place of residence, the only place where there are people who want to help him, the place where they live, too.

Not a whole lot of sense is made in the second half of the film, and the story's choice to leave the house and pursue a public figure -- the guy the ghost is REALLY mad at -- is awful.

Of course George C. Scott brought an excellent performance to a film that could have been better. His presence did lift the material, and I think one could say that about quite a few of his films.

There are so many films, especially in horror, that stack the deck in the front only to fail to deliver in the end. They're the most frustrating kind of film because you don't really want to pick on them after you initially liked them in the beginning. The Changeling is one such film. It deserves to be picked on harder than I'm picking on it here, but I just can't pick any harder.

Out of the gate, it could have been great, but I took the bait and it waffled.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Thing. (1982) John Carpenter

This is the first time I've seen The Thing, and apart from some very 80s looking effects, it drew me in. It's a fun and creepy monster movie that functions as much in the realm of nail-biting thriller as it does in cringe-inducing horror. Seeing it now and knowing it has somehow survived the test of time, I can't imagine how much cooler it must have been to see it in its day. But few did see it -- it came out two weeks after E.T., and for its poor timing it suffered at the box office.

Time has smiled kindly on The Thing, however, and a cult following seems to champion the film as a sort of b-movie horror staple. I don't know that this is a b-movie, per se, as much as it's simply a film that caught on years after its FX wore out. (But I'd still rather see this again than much of the current CGI garbage that dominates modern film, the horror genre in particular.)

The story follows a group of twelve scientists in the Antarctic who run into a virus-like alien that can graft copies of itself in the shape of another being. That is, it latches onto something or someone, destroys them, and incorporates its DNA to form itself in their image. The scientists, although typically quite drunk, remain very educated, and figure out what's happening relatively quickly. But the knowledge of what's happening is no comfort. If anything, knowledge in this case leads to greater panic. You don't know if the man you once worked with is still himself, or if the "thing" has taken over.

So half of the fun is the paranoia involved, and that strand of the story is why the film transcends its time. Kurt Russell, looking like a mix between Bad Blake and late period Jim Morrison, is especially fun to watch as he distrusts everyone and everything around him. The method he comes up with in testing the blood of all the men provides one of the greatest jolts in the film, and that jolt, from a blood sample in a petri dish, was perhaps the most fun jolt I've had this year.

I didn't even realize that a prequel to The Thing will be out soon. I've gotta say, I'm looking forward to seeing where they go with it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jacob's Ladder. (1990) Adrian Lyne

Every year, October seems to creep up and get me. I find myself caught up in the Halloween spirit and wandering (yet again) to the horror genre. It's been happening for several years and hopefully climaxed last year when I ended up far gone into the French New Wave of horror, a grotesque movement of unrestrained decadence that rivals any of the so-called "torture porn" films created in Asia or the U.S.

Films like 13 Tzameti, ils, Sheitan, Martyrs, À l'intérieur (Inside), Frontière(s), Calvaire, and Vinyan probably left me a bit slack-jawed and dazed, hoping to only see reruns of "The Golden Girls" or "Eight is Enough." They're brutal films that follow up older Euro-horror like
I Stand Alone, Irréversible, and Haute Tension, some of which aren't even officially in the the horror canon but can nevertheless be labelled horrifying and grotesque. Last year was a hard year for me, the perfect year for October's horror fest to fully jar the envelope of my senses. It was a year and an October that don't need to be repeated.

This year I've decided not to go that route, a route that had me ending with Strangers and Vacancy and Wolf Creek. Not that all the films I watched last year were awful. They weren't. But they were all grotesque, and maybe only reserved for that one October in life.

So this year as October's personal horror fest creeps its way to me again, I find myself meandering back to classics, even alterna-classics of the genre. Not classics like Vampyr or Nosferatu -- I've seen those classics quite enough. I guess Jacob's Ladder would qualify as a great example of the kind of alterna-classic horror I'm trying to describe. It really isn't a horror film at all. But there are elements of tense horror in its downright terrifying moments of suspense. It is also a film that stands the test of time. Twenty years after its initial release, its non-linear command of the senses is as strong and sharp as when it was made.

The story follows Vietnam vet Jacob Singer, who having returned from active duty is slowly losing his mind. I've never been much of a Tim Robbins fan -- he's an actor I've seen countless times who just kind of remains "out there" for me -- but he is riveting as Singer, wandering from scene to scene, one moment with his wife and children, the next supposedly separated from them and living with his girlfriend, and always somehow strangely still in Vietnam -- we're never actually sure where he is until the final reveal, which is solid but no pre-fall M. Night splendor.

As he starts to form beliefs about his wandering existential crisis, he thinks he's losing his mind in one moment, and in another, he flat-out believes he's in hell. The first astounding ten minutes ease the viewer straight into Singer and his story. A great foreshadowing takes place -- on the subway he looks up at two advertisements. One reads about being "Crazy in New York," the other about life being "Hell" when you're on drugs. This movie feels like it's on drugs, and most movies that attempt this aren't able to make it work. Jacob's Ladder makes it work, and it works you over in nightmare fashion.

I'm diving into a few films like this for this year's personal October fest. Some, like Donnie Darko, The Shining and Eraserhead I've seen a hundred times each and still find them perplexing and fun with each additional viewing. Others, like The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980) and The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982), will be quite new to me. If I've seen them, I don't really remember it. I was only ten and twelve years-old when they came out! But they're films I've heard good things about in recommendation from folks I can trust. It's good to have folks you can trust when you're a film buff.

It feels like 2010 is going to bring me great viewing and Halloween fun. Hope yours is safe and excellent, too.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Non-lollipop Docs.

Catfish. (2010)  Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

There's a moment in the middle of Catfish when it hits you that the film could go practically anywhere. It's a fun moment because you're never really certain where you stand with the film anyway. Is it a documentary? A prankumentary? A fuck-u-mentary? What kind of a "mentary" is this?

With Exit Through the Gift Shop and I'm Still Here, 2010 has already given its fair share of new school thought that says, "I am going to tell my story whether it's true or not. I hope you enjoy the story." It was a blast of artistic irony and comedy in Banksy's hilarious offering Exit Through the Gift Shop. It was insufferable, miserable, a life gone wrong and right in your face in I'm Still Here. Catfish differs from both of these. It's neither a comedic delight nor an assaultive mess, but for what it's worth, I think I actually smiled through the entire first half of it.

The moment I mentioned is so much fun because you realize that honestly, at this point in the story, anything can happen, which is weird to think in a documentary-style film. We don't normally think that a monster or a serial killer is going to pop out of the woods during a Michael Moore film. We don't think an ATF helicopter might descend on an investigative Errol Morris-type scene of some young men from NYC driving in upper peninsula Michigan at night. A deer might cross their path, and they might hit it and wreck their rental -- but surely that'd be found in a Herzog doc -- not here. Right?

What really amazed me at the end of Catfish was the division of emotions segregated inside me as I watched from beginning to end. I followed the main character Nev from surprise and astonishment, to amazement and infatuation, to fear, to discovery and back to fear (a different kind), to identifying with another, to sadness and wonderment and finally astonishment again -- all in 94 minutes. Many movies do this. They play with our emotions and take us on a roller coaster ride of feeling. But for some reason in Catfish it feels like each emotion is its own chapter. It's divided so clearly it feels like the emotions are running the show.

And perhaps they are. Perhaps there's more manipulation here than at first we were led to believe. But I don't think it matters, if we surrender to the story. All art is a lie, yes? All art has to lie a little to get to a form of truth.

So Catfish is a story, whether truth or lie, that kind of piggy backs off The Social Network, a social myth of sorts, fusing into a first person My Kid Could Paint That (a great docu-DVD rental, see below), and kind of rounding off as a make-up session after all the dumb Immatures just exploded on an ego-fueled reality show. It's the story of a talented eight year-old painter, maybe. Or maybe it's the story of painter girl's 19 year-old sister, who is just too good to be true. (Note the forum.) It is definitely a story of internet sociality and deceit, but above all it's about dealing with that great big Hole -- that needing, searching Hole you've felt when something was stolen from you, or when a relationship falls apart. It's the -- "what happened?" that's left unanswered, trying to find out where things went wrong.

It's that nagging need to figure out just how you were duped, and why. Film it in DV and send it from New York City to Michigan, cuz that's really what Catfish is about.

Freakonomics. (2010)  Full list of directors Here.

The trailer for this one looked like so much fun that I made a trip to the local library and got the New York Times Bestseller. The Revised and Expanded Edition of Freakonomics has been sitting next to my toilet for close to two months through several renewals. It is perfect bathroom reading, but I've often found myself asking why I should care about its insights -- it is insightful, don't get me wrong. It just seems that a lot of work has been put into reading data and studying incentives that would otherwise be trumped by common sense.

The movie version, directed by various excellent filmmakers, turns out to be a light doc, mostly happy with a shade or two of gray. Nothing wrong with that, it's good to think happy thoughts sometimes, but again, while some of the insights are interesting, I remain unconvinced they have much to do with a deeper level of Me.

I'm going to go ahead and spoil this one, so if you don't want the knowledge of the insights in Freakonomics, don't read on. However, if you're somewhat familiar with the book or have caught a glimpse of the trailer, you already know everything that's in the film, so honestly, this is no big deal:

1. Real estate agents would rather have a bird in the hand than two in the bush.

2. No matter what you name your kid, he or she may or may not succeed.

3. Some sumo wrestlers have been known to cheat.

4. You can potty train a child with M&Ms. (DUH! I have done this.)

5. Population curves as a result of Roe v. Wade have even effected percentages of criminality in the early 90s.

6. You can bribe some 9th graders to do well in school. Others, you can't.

The film is simple, but fun. I like the concentration on incentives and don't think I've seen it covered like this before, but I have a hard time thinking that a rogue economist like Steven D. Levitt can't come up with anything more interesting.

Even with its simplicity and inability to part from the topics of the book, I recommend the film based on its different directors -- all admired for previous documentary work -- and out of the sheer fun the movie has with itself. It's like going back to school with the coolest teacher on campus and letting his brain run free combining sociology with economics.

My Kid Could Paint That. (2007)  Amir Bar-Lev

Much like this year's Exit Through the Gift Shop, My Kid Could Paint That is about art and its authentic value: its birthing process, its original purity, and the ability of a seller to exploit it. In particular, the film may ask why some are willing to spend so much on what's passed off as art -- a problematic issue in My Kid Could Paint That because we're discussing the abstract art of a four year-old. Can four year-olds even think in abstract terms?

This is the perplexing story of real-life child prodigy Marla Olmstead, the story of a kid and her paintings which confound the adult mind. If everything is as true as reported and she's receiving no artistic guidance from dad -- something which may never actually be known -- she's been confounding even her parents since she first started using dad's professional paints and easels to begin working at age three. This kid's got incredible talent if everything as represented here is true.

(Big "If.")

Her first painting sold for $250. A few years later and she's now sold around $300,000 -- which mom and dad wisely put in a college fund.

The story starts out easy enough. Marla made a few paintings, a local New York art dealer saw them at a coffee house and decided to host a show to see if they would sell. They did. When people began learning about the child behind the art, the demand went through the roof to the point where Marla would never be able to meet the demand. Local press picked all this up, and the New York Times ran a story on it as well. Soon Marla and her paintings were featured in Time Magazine, on CBS and the BBC, as well as newscasts around the globe.

Her dad enjoyed all the attention Marla was getting, but mom's reception was more tepid, realizing the fickle nature of the media -- that in an age of instant fame there's usually a backlash, a turning against the thing that gave someone (even a four year-old) their fifteen minutes. What she didn't realize was how ugly this was going to be.

When "60 Minutes" covered the story on one of their weekly segments, they raised questions that, in my opinion, haven't been answered, but are heartbreaking nonetheless. They brought on a child psychologist who questioned whether Marla could truly have been the sole creator of these paintings, or whether the paintings we see her doing alone are inferior compared to the times when she's off camera with her (artist) dad.

Am I really a cynic if I agree with the "60 Minutes" segment? The paintings Marla did look too advanced, with too many styles. Even after her parents produced a five hour video showing Marla working on a painting ("Ocean") from beginning to end, I have to admit it wasn't as good as many of the other paintings already sold. This is one of those times where I hope that my cynicism is wrong, however, it looks to me like the paintings were doctored by dad.

But what does it matter? Are people buying these paintings for their end result alone, or only because they know a four year-old created them? Wouldn't they be just as beautiful and valuable if they were made by the daughter and father together? And in a way, aren't they? As her coach, dad provided Marla with all the paints and supplies she needed. He was a great assistant to her, the kind any professional would desire.

Beauty is beauty, but not in the eyes of all.

Encounters at the End of the World. (2007)  Werner Herzog

Encounters at the End of the World is the third Herzog for which I've given a perfect Netflix 5/5 stars. I may as well go ahead and just share my Herzogian Netflix ratings:

5.0/5 Stroszek
5.0/5 Fitzcarraldo
5.0/5 Encounters at the End of the World
4.5/5 Aguirre: The Wrath of God
4.5/5 Grizzly Man
4.0/5 The Enigma of Kasper Hauser
3.5/5 Nosferatu the Vampyre
3.0/5 The White Diamond
3.0/5 Rescue Dawn
3.0/5 My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski
1.5/5 Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
1.0/5 Wild Blue Yonder

I am on a huge Herzog kick as of late. I've been trying to see at least one of his films a month. I think he may be becoming one of my all-time favorite directors. If not that, he easily ranks as one of my favorite all-time personalities!

Encounters at the End of the World hits on so many amazing levels. Herzog takes what would by some other filmmaker be a great documentary on nature, specifically the Antarctic, and turns it into a study not only of nature itself, but of the people who study the nature -- they being just as interesting as it. And that easily sums up exactly why I've fallen so in love with this guy as of late. He loves studying and digging into and talking about people, he loves filming them and hearing their stories (especially when their stories are outrageous, which I'm sure he encourages, and probably even encourages them to exaggerate). It has been mentioned how fascinated he is with nature, and the struggle within that framework to wrestle its adversity into film. But he's also fascinated by the nature of man, and mankind itself, and how to express some of man's strangest thoughts and actions.

It is such a huge turn-on to see this in so many Herzog films. Think about it: How many directors are actually so interested in others that that is exactly what they want to display? Many filmmakers want to create something big and grande, and be known for it, and that's fine. Herzog finds the big and grande in everyone around him, and puts it on display, and in doing so he also becomes big and grande with his subjects.

So like with Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man and Bruno S. in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser and Stroszek, Herzog once again ends up in an odd location -- here, the south pole -- and the film becomes a nature film for PBS that's as much about the odd scientists (and divers and welders and physicists) as it is about the location itself. And all of these people are so odd and worth probing -- so worth checking out for their oddities -- they just kind of slid south of civilization, all the way down to the south pole.

So not only do we get shots of an underwater life that is more alien than anything in a sci-fi film (riffed on when the scientists sit around watching the old horror film Them), not only do we get to ponder a penguin that we can't stop as he blatantly journeys to his own demise, not only do we get boot camp for survival training and learn how to keep our group alive in a white-out (hilarious scene!), and explore volcanoes and the deepest parts of the coldest oceans on earth, but we get to explore the hearts of the travelers, to find out what makes them tick. To see through their eyes, and as it is mentioned more than once, to let the Universe discover its importance through their consciousness.

It is filled with danger, deep thoughts, ironies, humor, and those typical Herzogian moments of the completely bizarre Other.

It also seems to lack some of the scenes from other Herzog films that we've had cynical takes on before -- the Treadwell death tape that remains as the "white elephant" in Grizzly Man's empty room, or the cave behind the Guyanese falls that he couldn't possibly show for cultural reasons in The White Diamond. Encounters feels so close to Herzog's heart that the idea of a lie or a trick is held at a distance; we feel these tender scenes and he really wants to earn our trust, which may be difficult considering we've had the rug pulled out before.

For me, it worked. I fell in and trusted him completely this time. He was far too convincing for me to doubt, even an inch. The doc is an incredible study on man, animal, and life on the planet in general. Even in the final few scenes we delve into quantum physics, a search for ultimate reality, which for this crew is a desire for God.

Most of my film buddies aren't readily in agreement with me on the 5/5 greatness of Encounters at the End of the World, but I was able to fuel some fiery thoughts Here, where local A&F conversation was scrumptious.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Social Network. (2010) David Fincher

Layered performances and electrifying dialogue make this one of the best U.S. releases this year. Trent Reznor's pulsating score cranks it up even another notch. Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin have created a masterpiece of post-modern cinema, a creation myth of the social order, perfectly capturing the need for human connectivity against egos that feed into betrayal and isolation.

Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Rooney Mara (who will be our American "girl with the dragon tattoo" -- and I'm hoping Reznor will show up with her in that film, too) relate a thrilling drama with fast talking characters representing the strange paradoxes found in social connectivity on the web, where you can be a jackass if you want to, but it's not the wild wild west, and your actions have consequences that might stalk you.

My friend Steve Greydanus has written an unbelievably good review, a reaction that's as fun to read as the film is to watch. There are no heavy spoilers, and it's well worth a look either before or after you've seen the film. You can find his review Here.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Let Me In. (2010) Matt Reeves

I am eating some serious crow in regard to Let Me In. I wrote some time ago that there was no way an American remake of the now classic Let the Right One In would ever be able to capture the essence of this utterly Swedish vampire tale -- and even if it did, it wouldn't possibly be well received by U.S. audiences, who need loads of shock and gore to swallow down their helpings of horror.

I stand corrected on both counts. The remake does capture the essence of the original (which may present its own problems, and I'll get into that later), and whether audiences are lapping it up is really impossible to gauge, but critics and bloggers and film lovers in general seem quite smitten with it so far.

Not that Let Me In doesn't have its fair share of problems. It does. But it's a pretty damn fine film, and for me to admit it -- (when I originally heard the remake was even planned, I blurted out, "This is frickin' disgusting. Is there nothing sacred anymore?") -- makes it a monumental achievement, at least in my book. I don't go easy when America plunders the finest movies of other nations. It goes back to my belief that film energizes us to become global. That if we can't go to another country, we can at least understand another country through film. I see it as not just a good side effect from viewing foreign titles, but rather the responsibility of anyone who considers theirself cultured. Remakes in general defeat this purpose by offering films that cover-up the need to see the original in its land and in its language -- hence, why it's amazing I'm able to admit how well done the remake is here.

More than once I've read that Let Me In kept the essence of the original by becoming a shot by shot remake. That is as false as false statements get. There were similarities, sure, but an entire sub-plot is gone, traded in for a cop and a general tightening of a few core figures. Other scenes are indeed "roughed up" a bit for American fans of the horror genre.

But Let Me In has a huge problem with pacing. Yeah, they're trying very hard, probably too hard to get the pacing of the original. But the Swedish version was an extremely quiet film. As such, it was in tradition with much Scandinavian cinema, film from a land where people are typically more casual and reserved and a whole lot more peaceful than some of us in the crazy states. For the pacing of the dialogue to be understood as inherently Swedish makes the similar pacing of the remake's dialogue a little clunky when you consider that most American teens don't talk like this. (Sentence. Space. Sentence. More space. etc.)

The biggest problem is that the spaces are now loaded with music that throws this subdued style of dialogue completely off. At times the dialogue is forced. It's slower and quieter than normal American teenagers would be, wherein the original had a very natural (Swedish) flow. The score, filled with over the top tension and huge leading tones trying to steer and sway emotion, actually gets in the way and makes itself all too noticeable.

I realize that even as I pick on the score it's my own problem because I typically like subdued Swedish films more, anyway. It won't be a huge problem for the folks that show up to see the film in the theater. If anything, the biggest problem that US moviegoers will face is that they'll think the film is too slow. And that's an OK beef. They won't have fully grasped that they're seeing an art house film with horror, not a horror film with a touch of art.

Still, if I I left the theater and said the remake wasn't interesting, it'd be a lie. I guess I'm wondering whether I found it interesting because I know the original so well and, while I was impressed, I was comparing the films the whole time -- or whether Let Me In really is a good film, as stylistically created and well acted as the original. Haven't figured out my answer to that one yet.

I suppose I should celebrate that a wider audience has been exposed to a great story, a story that puts the Twilight stories to shame. (I haven't seen any of those films but seeing the trailers is enough to convince me.) I'm still wondering about the U.S. reaction, though. Will the horror fans that show up know they've encountered a great story when they finally see one?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I'm Still Here. (2010) Casey Affleck

This film is no fun in so many different ways.

It's no fun to watch a good actor destroy himself. Yes, I said "himself," and not simply his career. A part of a seemingly decent person dies here, whether they want to pass it off as fiction or not.

And it's not even fun as a gag, even when you're in on the joke and know the punch line.

Like wimpy freshman in the senior locker room, Affleck and Phoenix let the cat out of the bag last week. Tail ducked firmly between their legs, the Big Reveal was something I've known all along -- that none of this was real. Or, at least it wasn't real for them. We don't know who they duped in the process of capturing their "fictional" lives, or what it may have cost them in terms of friendships and acquaintances.

A famous Emerson quote says, "A cynic can chill or dishearten with a single word." Taken to greater proportions, a film maker can chill and dishearten the masses with a single cynical film.

The project may have started out as a rush, the adrenaline of being the only ones in on the Big Bad Secret. But to pull this off, wouldn't Phoenix have needed to actually smell like alcohol and not just simply act drunk? The lies may have been conceived as an art stunt (which apparently didn't work too well), but there's truth to be found even in the greatest of lies, and after watching this vapid prankumentary even with the knowledge that it's a facade, I still think Phoenix had fun throwing up on himself. What he did in falling apart, he did well. With hookers, booze and drugs. Let the campaign to cover-up begin. They can say it was for art, but I think not.

The real problem, however, is that anyone, anywhere can do this. It doesn't take talent, it simply takes a pulse. I've done it, I've pulled apart years of foundation I once laid -- and when I did it, I did it for real. Didn't have the press or media to run to and say, "It was all a trick! Forgive me and restore me, pleeeeeeze!!" All it takes is an ID with proof that you're 21 or older and anyone can do what's done here. Get a friend or family member to film it and maybe you can make a better film than this.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wall Street. (1987) Oliver Stone

I might be the last person on the face of the earth to see Wall Street, but I'm certain I won't be the last to appreciate it.

I was only seventeen when it came out. I'd probably only been to two or three R-rated movies, and by the time it hit video, it never really appealed to me. But this is one case where I'm glad I missed it when it first came out. Viewing it for the first time as an adult brings more depth to the story than I would have understood as a teen.

The sequel is now out, twenty-three years after the first film was made. I guess I decided to see Wall Street just to find out whether the sequel would be worth a trip to the theater. Time will tell regarding the sequel, which will obviously have to stand on its own strength -- however, I'm glad the sequel exists if only that it got me moving in the direction of seeing the first film.

If you missed it before, it's definitely one to track down. If you saw it as a kid, you need to dig into it as an adult. If it's been a few years, it might be one to revisit.

It really is a fascinating story about how money changes us and has the ability to corrupt. I don't think many of us would agree with its character whose motto is, "Greed is good." But things are different now than they were in 1985. We see the world in a bit of a different light. We actually see the world every day in far greater ability than we were able to twenty years ago, and greed today may mean something entirely different than it did in the mid-80s.

It's a high-level drama with some outrageous scheming, but has truths about human nature that make for excellent thought. It was well worth the time invested.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983. (2010) Anand Tucker

A redemption of sorts makes its way into the final chapter of the Red Riding trilogy. The films wrap up in resolute fashion, and while I'm a tad underwhelmed at how the stories resolve, I'm still convinced this is a trilogy I want to revisit. In fact, I'd like to have it on my shelf. I'm certain a second viewing is in order. The trilogy screams to be seen more than once.

Most of the things we've not understood are given an answer in 1983, but the answer feels like Agent Dale Cooper turning into Bob at the end of Twin Peaks. With characters like the "wolf," the "owl," the "badger" -- and constant murmurs about a murder location that's "under the carpets" -- there's just enough of a Lynchian edge to send the neurons in your brain scrambling.

The more I think about it, the Twin Peaks comparison is decent. Originally a TV show about the murder of Laura Palmer, a high school senior, with FBI investigations and small town eccentricities, the end of the second season (and the series) left us with Cooper staring in the mirror, the killer staring back. It was a haunting image, never clearly resolved, a decent introduction to the main investigator in 1983.

The finale is the most emotionally invested of the three. The investigator cop, Maurice Jobson, who we've seen mostly as a supporting character, steps into the light in a leading role. He wrestles with the corruption he's witnessed, things he's evaded or taken part in, the killer that's running free due to the force's cover-up. To face these things and make it right he'd have to confront the entire institution. He wants out, but there doesn't seem to be a good out for him. The force has actually enabled a serial killer (or two) by thwarting past investigations for friends that they protect. Jobson's unseen role in 1974 is brought to the surface here -- we watch as he tries to reboot from his part in all the wrong. He won't find absolution, but maybe he can put a stop to the insanity once and for all. It would still be a sort of redemption for him, but for any character in Red Ridintg, absolution is far away.

And of course, Jobson's story is only one of several stories that intertwine and weave together a tapestry of characters who have all been profoundly affected by the murders and cover-ups. The strength of Red Riding as a whole is that it isn't one neat story, but a bunch of messy ones webbed together.

A climactic, over the top, slow motion scene toward the end will leave some stunned, and others pondering movie manipulation. I left the scene somewhere in the middle, but can't wait to see it again.

While I picked on 1974 for its inferior 16mm and applauded 1980 for its standard 35mm, having seen the final film in DV format is rather telling. When digital was first pushed in dogme films years ago, I loved it. It revolutionized indie filmmaking long before Youtube was conceived. Over the years it has gradually worn down with people like Michael Mann, unable to locate its strengths. I am no fan of the digital setting in 1983, especially the way reflected light brings these horizontal, ugly lines across the screen, which is all too noticeable and happens throughout the film. However, watching the three together as a whole rather redeems the use of the finale's digital. It is sleek, compared to the retro use of old-school devices in 1974. Understood this way, time seems to travel from retro to modern as the years of the series progress. While I'm not a fan of the way the digital was used here, I can understand it in context with the rest of the films, and even appreciate the artistic attempts at creativity.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980. (2010) James Marsh

What I felt lacking in 1974 was nearly perfectly resolved in 1980. The trilogy is starting to only look right when seen as one unified story. Watching only one of the films will lead to disappointment -- they're meant to be seen as one, in order to be seen right. As I progress to the final film, I'm finding the best descriptor to be "Inceptionesque," except that when you go back through the Red Riding labyrnthian mind-benders you find they're actually better than last summer's blockbuster. All the pieces here fit and form a puzzle, not a million little pieces left on the floor.

I call it "near perfect" resolution only because we still don't have a clear idea of who 1974's child killer was, or the why behind the brutal slayings. Also, 1974 still unravels from a femme fatale relationship that is beyond reasonable belief; it's an over the top layer that seemed out of step with the rest of the story. But so many unanswered questions in that film, many of which would have been left behind in lesser productions, become plot points in 1980, resolving tension from both films in the most satisfying of ways.

As I had to explain the words "near perfect," I feel I now must qualify the word "satisfying." There's really nothing satisfying about the resolution other than story choices which bring clear and concise closure to events we'd thought long forgotten. Now that we're actually aware of who the bad guys are, it's rather squeamish to view the final scenes. "Satisfying" fits in a film way, but in a human way? No. But that's somewhat the point. We're not watching film noir, but in many ways it feels like it. In this world, corruption and darkness lurk around every corner -- even next to a police station in broad daylight.

Whereas in 1974 we followed young and cocky journalist Eddie Dunford, who appeared truly caring in tracking down the killer for his paper, 1980 gives us Paddy Considine as Peter Hunter, the upstanding cop who also has unanswered questions from the first film's closing shootout. Frustrations with an investigation finding nothing after thirteen murders, and Hunter's known integrity and fearlessness in pursuing justice land him a job on a special task force, what the press calls a "super squad," appointed to apprehend the killer and solve this mysterious case once and for all. Like Dunford before him, Hunter is over his head before he even knows it. What he begins to solve is a mystery, indeed -- but not the one he was jobbed out for.

Police corruption once again takes priority. The Yorkshire Ripper will certainly be caught, but he once again takes second fiddle when Hunter starts digging in the files. I wouldn't call the serial killers MacGuffins, it's just that these are extremely large stories and Red Riding chooses to prioritize the story within the story.

Two or three things became immediately apparent only a few seconds into 1980:

1. The look of 1980's 35mm shreds 1974's 16mm, which was obvious from the first frame. There's a cinematic quality here that leaps the production up quite a few notches.

2. We now understand that there's more than one murder mystery. In fact, there are at the very least three.

3. Sometimes one simply prefers one directorial or cinematographic style over another, and it can make all the difference in the subject matter and one's experience in dealing with tough material. Like watching Hannibal Lecter, or Se7en, there's nothing easy about this subject matter. Frankly speaking, some of it is sick and goes back to our Old Testament fascination with the strange side of humanity most of us only relate to through story. That we're grappling with an issue that's been around since Cain and Abel makes it no less easy to watch, and stories like this are going to make certain that the horror of it stays with us for a while. But personally I can say that it was easier to take with James Marsh at the helm. It's probably that he simply knows how to add filmic pizazz without it necessarily being noticeable. There are also moments of reprieve that weren't present in 1974, moments when we get a breather from the ickiness.

At the end of 1974 I was left wondering whether this was going to be a worthwhile endeavor. At the end of 1980 I'm left dazed, spellbound. I cannot wait for 1983.

But I also found myself wondering why four novels were reduced to three films. What happened to 1977? I remembered a Film Comment article from nearly six months ago in which Graham Fuller gave an answer and introduced a festering sore:

Tony Grisoni adapted 1974 from the first novel in David Peace's "Red Riding Quartet," named for a Grimm's fairytale, the color of blood, and the West Riding district of Yorkshire. He also adapted 1977, which wasn't filmed; 1980, which was directed by James Marsh; and 1983, directed by Anand Tucker. The absence of 1977 doesn't dilute the overall intensity, but producer Andrew Eaton still hopes to greenlight it once Ridley Scott has completed his American Feature adaptation of the entire quartet. It's been mooted that Scott's film will be set in a run-down industrial state such as Pennsylvania, but whether the screenwriter, Steve Zaillian, will feel obliged to replicate the fierce regionalism of Peace's novels, as did Grisoni, is another matter.
I don't know how I feel about 1977 being created later than the rest of the trilogy, but -- Ridley Scott? A feature length film? "Such as Pennsylvania"? Are you friggin' kidding me? No serious film lover would think it possible to pull off all this material in one film, and no one that's seen Red Riding would think the maker of Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven would be the guy to entrust it to. This is silly. It'd be like someone reducing The Godfather Parts I and II to a ten minute short for the festival circuit. I suppose it can be done, but it's like adding sequels to The Matrix. It leaves a stain on the legacy of the original.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974. (2010) Julian Jarrold

Addendum: The writing below is unchanged from when I wrote it, but having now seen about half of the second film, I am certain 1974 had nothing to do with the Yorkshire Ripper. Little girls were the target in 1974, and the killings there all took place before the Yorkshire Ripper's time, which began in 1975. Also, the Yorkshire Ripper's killings seemed to target prostitutes, not little girls. This was confusing as I'm American and less versed in UK serial killer history, and all the summaries only mentioning the Yorkshire Ripper didn't help. However, this is the web, where we make corrections as we go. People have said for years that the web is a place of half-lies and hopeful truths. I'm reminded that I've even seen Ebert get things wrong in print that he later corrected on the web. The power of the web for the average movie watcher has turned the film experience into a more powerful probing of truth. Consider this next time you diss wikipedia.

When the Red Riding trilogy hit my neck of the woods this year, all three films showed up for one week and one week only, and then they were gone. It's a terrible marketing strategy. Why would you show interest in seeing 1974, the first film in the trilogy, if you knew that if you liked it you'd have to cram hard to get to a theater twice more in the same week? Who plans a week for a trilogy when they don't even know from the first film whether the following two garner interest?

With such a horrible marketing strategy it seems the trilogy is more suited for Americans to see on DVD. The three DVDs came out this week, and I made sure to throw them in the top of my queue.

Judging from the first film I would have been very conflicted about the next two had I had to face that week of the trilogy in theaters. I simply can't tell from the first one whether this is going to be worth an investment of my time.

Ebert compared the films to the Italian epic The Best of Youth. In terms of the time invested, I guess the comparison is apt enough. For those six hours you had to plan two trips to the theater, but the comparison ends there. The Best of Youth was up and down, all over the place emotionally, full of the highs and lows of life, the greatest joys and the bleakest despairs, but like most of life there was always an upside to the many downs.

After 1974, I am persuaded that Yorkshire is a county full of people of bleak despair, and nothing but.

I guess I should take into account the subject matter. Maybe a serial killer in the neighborhood really would make this an awful place to live. And maybe the rampant police and civil corruption of the early to mid-1970s would add to the bottom-of-the-barrel feel of all the characters in this film. But -- yuck. Are the next four hours going to be as icky as this?

The trilogy is loosely based on the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who took thirteen lives in England between 1975-1980. It is a very real case which lit up the community, landing the killer in prison for life and causing quite a stir at the corruption and ineptness of the West Yorkshire police force. 1974 follows young reporter Eddie (Andrew Garfield) who seems to be the only one who wants to bring the killer to justice, but I'm sure he wants a way into covering the hottest case in town, too.

It's not that it's not an interesting story, because it is, and it's not that it's not told really well, because there are exceptional moments. In the beginning we're focused solely on the story of the Yorkshire Ripper, not even fully convinced of his existence, but as the film progresses we lose that focus and a new mystery begins to emerge. We never return to the original mystery. In the end, we seem to, but we're somewhat sure we actually haven't. And that narrative ambiguity makes its way into the acting, the choreography and the general atmosphere as well. There are moments of utter lostness, hallucinogenic, like groping in the dark. The grainy, organic 16mm feel suits this fictional film based on a true-to-life serial killer.

But it is miserably hopeless, and that's why I'm having difficulty deciding whether it is actually going to be worth it or not.

Originally broadcast on BBC TV, the trilogy is made by three different directors in three different formats (the next two films are shot on 35mm and digital video, respectively). I know I'll make it through at least the second film in the trilogy, because 1980 is directed by James Marsh, and I loved his documentaries Man on Wire and Wisconsin Death Trip. The completist in me will most likely want to see the third once I've seen the first two. I guess I'll continue reporting as I go.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wild Strawberries. (1957) Ingmar Bergman

I had a very strong reaction to Wild Strawberries when I recently watched it again. It's probably been close to ten years since I last saw it. I think this is the third time I’ve seen it, but it is definitely the first time it really moved me.

Apparently, I’m getting old.

This is the perfect example of a film that's going to grow with you as you age, because in many aspects the film is about aging.

An elder doctor on his way to a ceremony in his honor travels by car with his daughter-in-law, who kindly tells him why he’s despised as a cold, calloused old stickler. They meet two sets of travelers which, each in different ways, compliment the initial conversation the two started earlier.

The old man has quite a few moments where he falls into dream-like states, either reflecting on his youth, mistakes made years ago, or in actual dreaming, being judged by his peers now for advancing so far in the community to the neglect of those closest to him. Several of these stages of dream consciousness are unnerving. They are cruel taunts of his guilt, accusation at his life's choices.

He seems to understand that even now, in his old age, all is not lost. He still has time to do something about the guilt. He can find redemption from those in his dream who would accuse him of growing old and calloused. There's the idea here that maybe, just maybe, someone can actually change when they see how wrong they are, no matter the age, no matter how far they’ve gone astray. It's just one small aspect you can admire in the story. I’m sure there are more but that’s the one that really stands out to me now.

Bergman, ever the auteur, is all over this thing. He wrote and directed it at a moment when he was struggling with identity, his role on the planet and whether or not there was still a God who was interested in the struggle. It shows in his art, and as he did so many times through the years, he made a film we connect with. We wonder with him at the wonder of life, guilt, redemption, and that the cosmost might be involved in all of it, but then again, they might not be -- but there always seems to be a hope that weighs in on the positive side.

No one is making films like this anymore. We settle for so much less. Where have all the auteurs gone?