Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Helsinki, Forever. (2008) Peter von Bagh

The first time I ever left the country I landed on a runway in Helsinki. I was twenty years-old and I thought I had you, me, everybody and their Uncle -- the whole world -- figured out, and I was barely in my third year of college. (There are times when I catch myself thinking that I've got it all figured out even twenty years later, but these days I simply remind myself that it just. ain't. true...)

I missed several connections that day and didn't speak a word of Finnish, not even "hampurilainen," a word which a few years later certainly helped ("Hamburger"). But I somehow made it to the correct dock that was to boat me over the Baltic waters onto the shores of what was then communist Tallinn, where I was supposed to catch up with some band mates. The only problem was that I arrived too late. The boat was gone, the dock was closed. The banks were closed, too, and this being my first trip, I wasn't smart enough to change my money at the airport. So I sat down outside the dock with my only travelling companions -- my luggage bag, my bass, and my amp -- and spent a freezing November night in the dribble and snow simultaneously praying and begging while gritting my teeth at God. At least I was smart enough to have worn a long jacket that night. It must have been what saved me from freezing to death.

Helsinki became a city I would travel back to time and again over the next ten years. Even with our rough beginning, I grew to become quite fond it. There was a club somewhere in the heart of the city -- I don't remember its name and don't even know if it's still there -- where several formations of bands I was in played to a packed house each time. More often than those crowded-house experiences, I remember other times where we played venues in town where the population was sparse. The one thing I do remember, whether playing as a known musician or not, is that the Finns of Helsinki were always happy to have music played for them. There's a lot of repressed mood in this country, and a lively night with some music ala soul is an easy way to put a smile on a good Finn's face.

It was with delight, then, that I heard about the documentary that Jonathon Rosenbaum referred to as a "symphony for the city." Mr. Rosenbaum was even at one of the earler screenings presenting Helsinki, Forever -- it made his list as one of the ten best films of last decade. I wish I could have been at the screening with Rosenbaum presenting. I'm certain I would have found even more to admire in this easily admirable film.

Somewhat a historical documentary and somewhat a lovesong to Helsinki itself, I realized from the opening image, which is by far the greatest image in the film -- an image that in itself made the entire event a true joy -- that I was staring through a portal at a vision of a city not many have had a chance to see. Even its inhabitants might not know this particular Helsinki, for the film stretched back over 100 years, revealing layer after layer of its humble foundations. I was overjoyed to let my eye take it all in. Who knows if I'll ever get another chance to see these archived black and white images from yesteryear? The dreamy pictures continually showed how the city was built, and not just with blueprints, architects and hands, but by ideas and the workings and inner longings of the soul: film stars and musicians, painters and poets, and (gasp!) a number of financiers and politicians all played a huge role in the hammering at Helsinki.

Closing in on the wrap of this year's EUFF, with my favorite film of the fest having been Finnish, it felt fitting to dialogue with the land, viewing early 20th Century prints that captured the first film stars and artists that made their homes there with pride. Or seeing old theaters and museums in their glory, having long since been demolished, wiped clean off the streets. Hearing the music and ideas of those who worked to bring us today's Helsinki brought to mind that you never know how great your ideas can really be.

We also gaze into the life of the everyday man, standing in freezing lines with a hundred more who only ache for a bottle in the cold Finnish night, or we see the whole land toughing out post-civil unrest only to despair between the Nazi and the Bear. We compare divorce rates from then and now, and DUIs, too. The results in the city's growth, and the growth of the issues city-life brings, is staggering. We see electricity explode from a tiny little spark into every facet and groove of the high rises and homes, putting Helsinki in the light of the global map -- it changes the attitudes and gives it a "new city" vibe, humming visible from the sky above, lit up from the labor of all the years.

It was a wonder to let these mostly black and white images flow over me. It's possible I've met some of the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of some of the characters I saw on screen. I may have had a long drawn-out conversation or even shared a taxi with the offspring of one of these classic old Finns. Regardless, the power of film is greatly on display in such a work as this. It's not just that images are archived and shown, but an idea is put forth, one that has exploded into an entire scene, a scene chock-full of thousands of other great ideas. The images capture an age that's lost but not forgotten, because someone wise enough was able to preserve them for our sake, and for leaning on for even better ideas in the future.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Disengagement. (2007) Amos Gitai

Two standout scenes bookend the latest Gitai film, Disengagement. They both involve crossing borders and reaching out -- no matter your background or identity.

The film's title, and how it works itself into all the intricacies of this poetic story, is significant. We disengage when we isolate and protect our heart from others. We disengage in seeing hardship but in failing to respond. Watching the 5:30 news, we're engrossed in viewing and unable to help. What else can we do? The problems remain. We're aware of all the details -- we turn it off and move on.

The disengagement in Disengagement is very much of the political sphere, but it's personal, too, and told like a meaningful parable. It can teach via innuendo; it's best viewed from several directions.

The story can be summarized best as two in one: a pair of siblings reunited in the loss of their Father, and the interplay of nationalities separated by awkward boundaries. As the story progresses, the two become one: a birth mom searching for her long, lost daughter, reeling as the young lady is once again pulled away.

Juliette Binoche is outstanding as the flirtatious sanguine half-sister who becomes said mom by the film's end. She also represents many nations who peek in but have their own problems to worry about, and can't be bothered. The story's end is terribly abrupt for the on-hand narrative, but perfect for the political message to sink in.

I'm not going to pretend to understand all of the underlying politics involved in the background of Disengagement. I'm not going to spout off about Gaza, or an occupation, or which side is right or what the sides need to do. I hold strong anti-partisan beliefs in the hope that someday all will be united. But I love it when an artist brings views to an audience that can catch on whether they have all his understanding or not.

You can understand the concepts here -- they are rich and deep, and full of toughened reaction to a struggle -- whether you're close to the situation or not, or whether you're a film scholar and have seen seventeen other Gitai films, or if you're like me and this is your first. 

Through riveting performances, characters convince you of a higher plane -- that this narrative points to a higher ideal. It feels like film was made for stories such as this. These tenacious little tales can affect us for the better.

a PS to this review -- I remembered this the next day: Disengagement has one of the greatest hugs I have ever seen in a film. Seriously, see it for the hug alone.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Soul at Peace. (2009) Vladimír Balko

Fresh out of prison, full of hardened bitterness and snide sensitivities, Tono learns to navigate his surroundings by the reactions of old acquaintances. He returns from a five-year absence to his verdant hometown in the Slovakian wilderness, but the insular folk unabashedly choose to not forget his jaded past. They keep their distance in the same pub where once he called them friends. They have no employment for Tono, not in the local logging industry or any of the wood working jobs in town. Tono's return to freedom brings him continual hardship from a past that never goes away, until the two worst possibilities finally break him down: his wife, Mária, most likely cheated on him in his time away, and his best friend is coercing him back to the thieving life that initially landed him behind bars.

But Tono, now well past his mid-life crisis, just wants a fresh start, a decent job to grow old in, and the avoidance of another reformatory stint.

In watching Tono and all his difficulties, we root for him as the story glides along. We hope that he'll find peace, reconciliation with his neighbors, his family, his land. We hope for renewal. We hope for redemption, and we begin to see that this is something Tono is hoping for, too. As we see defeat reign down on all his new dreams, we find him desperate for a second chance with anyone. It's something he's simply not going to get, and (unfortunately for the viewer) we won't get it either. Soul at Peace smashes all our hopes for this feisty, sorry sap.

Two things angered me about the story in this gorgeously filmed production: the betrayal by a man Tono thinks is a true friend, a calloused and sad man who seems to turn on anyone for a buck -- and the film's end itself, that dark side of being at peace. That's the smashing I just mentioned.

In my search to look for the beauty in everyone, in my desire to locate the good and bad in all, I sometimes forget that some relationships are nothing but bad. They're toxic, built only for one and not the other, the stronger enabling the weaker one's withering. A relationship like this exists in Soul at Peace, but I'm glad Tono roots it out before it's too late.

The film's ending is a final layer of what has been its strongest points thus far -- the picturesque locale where the village resides, all the green and lush beauty brought to even greater sad crescendos as a pan flute and strings lull us into the images. Beauty, peace -- being at one with nature and earth -- these have all been important themes in the visuals and how the story relates. In the end, they're most important to Tono, too.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Collectress. (2008) Kristina Buozyte

The medium is the message in Kristina Buozyte's 2008 film about a Lithuanian film lover -- that is, films she narcissistically watches of herself.

Gaile, a speech therapist to children with disabilities, watches helplessly as her father overcomes the surrender to cancer by instead deciding to end it all now. He tells her this while running a reel of family films of Gaile and her sister while they were still playful kids. Caught up in grief, with a video to develop for her job, Gaile enlists the help of an alcoholic editor to piece together videos to share at a therapeutic conference. It's at this point that things get weird.

We don't know exactly why Gaile falls in love with the images of herself, all we really know is that she's quickly preoccupied with making more and more personal films. She's willing to use the money her father left her to pay off the editor's debts and isolate him in her employment. She wants to feel anything but numb at her place in life, and through editing and viewing herself in awkward situations -- uninvited at a wedding and fully kissing the groom, driving like crazy in her boss's sports car as he grips the passenger door and screams to slow down -- she can laugh, cry, and experience normal emotion again.

It's pretty easy to see where this is going.

Like what I recently wrote about A Call Girl, I was simply hoping for substance in any form. When the medium, contrived as it is, becomes the focus of the message, there's little else to hope for in the offering. And in order for the medium to be any message we really care about, there's got to a more powerful display of it than the one we find in The Collectress.

If you need a film on the same topic, I'd more quickly recommend Ondi Timoner's documentary from last year, We Live in Public. It's much more thorough, better explained, and the whole great mess is real.

A Call Girl. (2009) Damjan Kozole

Aleksandra is a college girl in Ljubljana, Slovenia, who desires more materially than other college kids. She wants a nice apartment, nice things to put in it, and extra cash to be able to toss out conveniently. Guess by the film's title how she gets it. Why wait and study hard, and in a few years get a job where you can work your way into that fancy room and pretty shoes, when you can simply put an ad in the classifieds as the ever-so-willing "Slovenian Girl"?

The problem is that with this chosen hobby comes secrets to guard tightly, danger around every corner, and a willingness to lie. She offers her body as a temporary way to get ahead, but she offers her soul, too, in lying to cover-up the wrong. We wonder if the hooking act is more wrong than the lying to family and friends, or vice-versa. When her family and friends begin to catch on to what she's doing, and when she wants to stop but falls behind in all her bills, our story's tonal center is the panic of Aleksandra.

Nina Ivanisin plays Aleksandra in a melancholic, perfect manner. She hones in on the surface exteriors, but like any real call girl you've met, penetrating the heart is a lot harder.

We've seen this before in movies around the globe. I'd like to know the current "prostitute to films" vs. "prostitute to every other real-life career" ratio. The percentage of prostitutes in film right now has to be at an all-time high. We can watch the exploitation as easily as the exploiting Johns can bring it. A hooker is as easily fucked in a hotel room as she is from our clean and safe theater seats. It's an event that in either case might be more merciful to not attend.

I don't want to come off too harshly on A Call Girl. It has the most lush cinematography I've seen this year on an EUFF screen. As a film, purely outside of its subject matter, it is entrancing. The eye and the soul meld together, bringing a sense of one belonging at the core of the story. You fall hypnotically into the lighting and the deep feel of these images. Really, the depth of image here is spellbinding. It's a masterful showcasing in form.

Technology, and an understanding of it, changes the way we enact with foreign cultures. In A Call Girl, there's a Slovenian cinematographer who masterfully renders this visual language. It's a shame the only thing some westerners will take away from A Call Girl is that Slovenia, like every other country in world history, has prostitutes -- and that prostitution is bad, which we probably could have guessed.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Other Irene. (2009) Andrei Gruzsniczki

I was quite enthused after my recent bout with Hooked to find that the Romanian New Wave isn't exhausted of its blossoming potential. While The Other Irene isn't as much of a grueling punch in the gut as the movement's most naked film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, nor as fleeting and in need of restraint as the previously mentioned Hooked, it still retains that fully believable, "this is our life" realist quality that moves this movement best. As with much indie and foreign cinema, Romania thrives when embedding itself in realism. In the beginning of The Other Irene is the claim that the following is based on true events, which brings all the strangeness that much closer.

The story follows a mall security guard, Aurel, somewhat already a downcast and socially out-of-sorts twenty-something, who meets the girl of his dreams, Irene. She's not a depressed and helpless shut-in, nor is she an addict or a promiscuous party girl ("She doesn't even smoke!" he says), but she is unemployed and lacking motivation at the moment. Aurel says he met her when she was, "All washed up," but he liked her anyway. She sits around the house in her sweat pants.

After moving in with Aurel she gets ideas about a possible career path, and we see her pull herself together, bit by bit. She gets a job from some men who run a company out of Egypt (or elsewhere in Africa?), and her initiative is given a spike. Every day she's more motivated about the mysterious job she's accepted, which now takes her to Cairo for months at a time. Aurel hasn't met the men she's running to Egypt with, and he isn't too happy about her departures or the length of time she's away, but he puts up with it in order to set her free and save the relationship. As her independence grows, so does Irene's will. And now she's happy. She won't let him stifle her success.

As she learns to make her own money again, she rediscovers new clothes, better hairdos, makeup, and a nice purse. Now she wants a dishwasher instead of working by hand after supper. If it isn't bought, will a missing dishwasher lead her back to Egypt?

When she doesn't immediately come home after one of her longer business trips, Aurel can't imagine why she isn't on the plane. He makes a few phone calls and checks with the travel agent, who helps him navigate foreign languages and the red tape of tracking her down. The news is not good. Irene isn't coming home just now, in fact she's not coming home ever. At least not alive. She's died of an apparent suicide. Aurel and the agent sit in the travel office as the lights hum above in stunned silence.

Why would she do this when she had so many plans, so much life left to be lived right in front of her? Dead, perhaps -- but not suicide, says Aurel. This is an answer he will not accept.

And this is where the story finds its groove, one that's as hard to imagine as it is to fathom. A deeply engrossing mystery of the fate of Irene begins to eat away not only at Aurel, but at those of us willing to follow him in his frantic search of every consulate and ministry he visits, trying to put any of the puzzle pieces together, trying to find a picture that fits. I must admit that the fate of Irene ate away at me from the inside, too. The plight of Aurel as he attempts to understand what can't be understood -- what may never be understood -- to the film's credit, riveted me from the inside, gnawing away at me from under the surface of my skin. What happened to Irene? Is she really dead, or not? Could she really have committed suicide? Could drugs and alcohol and an illicit affair really have been involved?

By the time her coffin shows up, her body locked in a metal casing inside, we really do begin to wonder whether or not she's actually there. We also note, with sadness, that Aurel is trapped in the coffin of these numbing events. The situation he's in is so much larger than he actually is. It has too many players, and none seem to speak full truth. Irene's sister might know more than she's letting on, but Irene has sealed her lips from the start.

There's a circular life pattern illustrated from the first moments of Aurel's isolation. Initially, there is intrigue, and then discovery of another. Then, togetherness, and what we hope may sprout into the beauty of the two in love. Next is confrontation, loss, and then rejection of information, denial and unbelief. And then there's only lament, which is seeped in wilting sorrow. In the midst of this seeping, the circle is complete: Irene isn't coming home. Aurel is alone again.

The narrative elements are like that pot that you watch which never boils, but the visual elements are key. Empty shoes that wait at the front door, sticky notes on the fridge, overhead shots that look down on busy escalators in empty malls and parking lots with cars coming and going. The images might as well be stills, silent stories telling of movement, and space, and home. We're continually let in on a recurring visual secret: sometimes the same spaces can be used for both the coming in and the going out of our lives. These lingering images are as well spoken as any of the dialogue we hear. We come to believe in Image as one of the central characters in the film.

The Other Irene is a hardship in the making, handled with a quiet, solemn seriousness that treats every scene with dignity. When we exit the theater we are left with hanging thoughts. We might think of those who have relationally come and gone -- characters that once were, but are no longer present. We might think of some that we've lost to the other side: A parent, a sibling, a child, a spouse. But the thoughts stay with us. The packed house I sat with drew a very quiet exit at the end.

There's something about a beating heart in your sleep. It's simply there, doing its thing, even during bad sleep or during a nightmare. It's pulsing even as you breathe, and you can't consciously decide to control either function. The Other Irene is mystery and tragedy laced together, but its tone is that of the quiet, subconscious pulse.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Film with Me in It. (2008) Ian Fitzgibbon

There's a popular article in every Reader's Digest called, "Laughter is the Best Medicine." It rarely makes me laugh. Neither does most comedy on that loathsome brain-downsizing device that sits in living rooms, percolating American agitation such as "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Two and a Half Men."

Even in the theater seat, comedy films -- particularly those that are American-made -- mostly make me wince instead of laugh. (I'm talking to you, American Pie.)  I do have a thing for The Jerk and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but honestly, that's more about my youth, and if I were pressed I'd probably cop to liking What About Bob? and Weekend at Bernie's, too.

But that's it. Four films. That's all you're gonna get out of me.

It's not that I don't like to laugh. I'm no boring and crotchety old man who sits in a rocking chair on the front porch cursing at the grandkids about leaving all my tools on the front lawn. Most who deal with me on a daily basis, at the office or around the house, will tell you that I do enjoy laughing, that sometimes I'm often the first to take delight in every day living. I just don't find too much "real" humor in the hundredth time Homer takes a football to the groin or the abuse people inflict on each other in order to get a scripted knee-jerk prime-time giggle.

A while ago I actually went so far as to declare the modern comedy as dead. I said that its ideas are all used up, rehashed time and again into some void that endlessly swirls, every once in a while puking out a repeat, but always with a new character in the same old role. I don't know if that's a very good stance, but it reflected more on my disappointment with comedic-structured moving pictures than any real understanding of our basic need to chuckle.

Imagine my surprise then when I found myself not only laughing, but laughing so hard that my sides hurt, laughing so hard that I nearly fell out of my chair, at Ian Fitzgibbon's Irish black comedy, A Film with Me in It. And it wasn't just my personal reaction of laughing that made me take notice of  such an unusual event, but it was what I was laughing at that really made me stop and think.

Like the previously mentioned Weekend at Bernie's, which I saw in the theater when I was nineteen (was that really twenty years ago?!), I was laughing at the exploits of the dead. And isn't there something exciting and fun about laughing at people dying or dead?

In A Film with Me in It, there are dead bodies piling up all over a poor man's house. So many bodies that it would never look like they were all accidents, that he didn't have anything to do with the deaths. But they are all accidents. So how is he going to explain all this to the police? He and his friend figure they might as well make these accidents look like accidents, that way they'll never get in trouble for all these accidents.

Dead people piling up around a house. Sounds like a barrel of laughs, huh? Sounds like more fun than a bucket of monkeys, right? I mean, are we really supposed to laugh at people dying? Isn't there supposed to be something sacred about this event? How could I have laughed at such a horrible situation?

Absurdity presents itself all the time in entertainment, but here it presents itself for large guffaws. And, with just a tad of guilt, I readily took pleasure in it. What happens in A Film with Me in It is downright absurd, twisted, completely messed up -- and totally hilarious. One of the more outright hilarious series of events I've seen in years. (That said, remember -- I don't actively seek these kinds of films out. I surely am no expert. But I definitely had a fun time.)

I sat in a roomful of Irish folk who seem to have no guilt in the kind of humor that was on the screen. I think that made the experience even more fun. As they laughed, I laughed. As they got louder, I realized how insane these dead bodies really were. As the absurdity piled up, so did the bodies -- and so did the laughter.

I can't believe it. For the first time in years, I had fun at a comedy.

I don't know if that says more about me or the film itself, but if you want a few good laughs -- laughs that are not standard fare, but are very well thought out and so much funnier than a shallow college kid having sexual relations with warm apple pie, or any of the wasted druggie (comedic?) films containing pledges for a loss of one's virginity -- see A Film with Me in It. It simply feels like real humor. Slapstick: yes. Immature: no.

It's quite good, even if it's about laughing at dead people. I'd be interested to hear if you laugh when you see it, and whether you feel guilty at all.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hooked. (2007) Adrian Sitaru

Shot constantly from the first person view of any one of the three main characters -- and at that, shot badly, like you're in the bumpiest, craziest car ride of your life and the Blair Witch is closing in in the rearview mirror -- or like a very, very bad reflection of the Dogme '95 film movement -- Hooked feels amateurish, shallow, ugly (DV) and cheap. The latter not only because it hails from a land of lesser money (and thus, less than standard film[?] stock), but "cheap" in that it cheapens its characters. It goes to great lengths to thoroughly reduce them.

They were cheap to begin with. We didn't need a plot to make them so. Mihai and Lubi are trying to runaway from Lubi's husband for the weekend. Their affair has already gone on for a year. It's to the point where she might as well have just stayed with her husband -- it seems all she and Mihai want to do is bicker like ancient lovers.

As she drives them out of town to her picnic-away-from-hubbie, they quarrel and make-up at least, oh, I don't know, seventeen times. But by the time they hit the prostitute in the middle of the road it's a good thing for a third character to enter into this mess. I was already quite tired of the two inside the car.

At first they believe that the prostitute is dead, but soon she's better, and she's on her way to the picnic with them. (hhuuuwhat?!)  Once at the beach for their picnic, she acts like something between a pixie and a pilgrim. She continually interferes when she can grab a private moment with each. She says she loves that they're together and wants to help them love each other better. She also says -- to each again, privately -- that the reason she hooks is because she likes to make people happy, and she'd like to make both Mihai and Lubi have a smile on their face, so to speak.

If there really are people like this in the world, I guess I just haven't met them yet, but I've been on more than a few around-the-world type trips, and I've personally never met anyone quite this daft.

The prostitute, Ana (or Violet, depending on which story she's telling) drifts somewhere between being a healing source to their relationship or a thorn that pricks at the skin of it. Already weighed down with the guilt of the affair and adultery, the skin of their relationship isn't thick to begin with.

If the camera would have just sat still for a few seconds and not felt like it had to give me whiplash at the very idea of an idea, if it just could have slowed down, even still hand held, and just let any
-- any!-- image soak into the frame, I might have given the story an easier entrance to my heart. But it would've been a long shot. I'm simply getting a bit tired of hookers and adultery and affairs and turning tricks and wondering what he said and she said when they said that to the hooker, but didn't say it to each other...

People, sit down and have a conversation already. And not one in the car with a camera whipping around in the back seat. Just sit down and look into each other's eyes. Try for once to get yourself out of the picture. You might find that something is still worth saving in the relationship, and you might not need an Ana/Violet there to reveal it. Then again, even if you don't find something worth saving, you could always quit cheating and maybe save one's original vows.

Tough call on Hooked. Certainly not one of the best to come out of Romania, it pales in comparison to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. It wasn't a horrible film, but it certainly wasn't great.
But it was a lot of fun to see it at the festival with Romanians and hipsters in attendance.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Forbidden Fruit. (2009) Dome Karukoski

There are country = good/city = bad stories that we know are oversimplified, but we love them anyway.  Murnau's silent masterpiece Sunrise (1927) might be the best, and perhaps first, example of a film that jailed temptation and sin to the bars of the city. In that classic, 'The Man' not only left his wife for 'The Woman from the City' (who was indeed a metaphor for pernicious city life itself), but he even believed that life would be better if he were to kill his wife, leaving country life, and her, forever behind.

And yet, even in that classic tale, 'The Man' comes to his grips with his lustful disposition and grapples with the error of his ways. He's been misguided, thinking purely from his loins. We tear up with feeling as he wanders home, encountering grace.

Things are not quite as simple in Dome Karukoski's 2009 Finnish-language film, Forbidden Fruit. Redemption doesn't lurk around the corner, but the urge to sin does. The city beckons even after you come home. Its "sin," keeps calling, and we wonder whether God (and sin) might be found in both locations instead of only the one.

It's a coming of age story, but not typical at all. There's a huge, much appreciated amount of restraint here that you don't find in many coming of age movies (thinking back to the recent Fish Tank, which I strongly reacted to Here, which, yes, in terms of nudity and such felt like it was approached with good taste, but the "coming of age" there basically equated the "coming of sex", and while Katie Jarvis gave a riveting performance, her character certainly didn't desire restraint in any form.)

Finland's Laestadian (Lutheran) sect is a rural faith-based community of Biblical literalism, and it's in a commune of this understanding that our story begins. In dealing with the strict religious ideals, director Karukoski holds off judgment well. He spends a good amount of time capturing the wholesomeness here, the God-based, family-based values that are center in the communal focus.

Maria, now eighteen, decides she wants to have a summer of fun in the city. The Laestadians teach that the city and the body are basically bad; they are cunning and powerful and lead to temptation and separation from God -- maybe even separation from faith itself. The "Arch Fiend" is everywhere -- but especially in your body and in places found outside the collective.

According to Laestadian conduct Maria is old enough to decide for herself, and she eventually decides to see, and be a part of, the world outside. The community asks her best friend, Raakel, to go and be with her, to help her through this moment of fascination. Raakel moves to the city and finds her friend -- they'll only stay one summer before moving back home, and Raakel has a "magic word" she can say at any time in which Maria will agree to return home immediately.

They work in a factory and find a small apartment to call home. They discover movies. They discover alcohol. And dancing and clubs. They discover the allure of sexual temptation and kissing and things forbidden. They wrestle with their upbringing concerning all things taboo. They meet boys. They meet Maria's sister, who left the community years ago, and hasn't been welcomed back.

They are longing for love, the kind they've not encountered. The kind where the touch of a boy might bring comfort and warmth.

Every moment, whether day or night, inside or out, city or country, is beautifully shot. There's a softer, more melancholy, utterly Finnish feel. Think: a better looking Kaurismäki. That repressed Finnish vibe that Kaurismäki, a true Finnish auteur, portrays so well, is prevalent in Forbidden Fruit in image as well as mood. I've spent a good bit of time in Finland -- this feels, to me, Finnish to the core.

There's a reversal of sorts and a twist along the way, but not the M.Night kind of twist that's supposed to jump out at us. Everything seems to follow logically and it gradually adds up to a final bus ride to the city that's as hopeful as it is full of fear.

The only reason I got to see this wonderful Finnish film is that Sweden's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sold out -- even the press couldn't find a remaining seat. I'm glad, because I know that that film will receive higher distribution and will certainly (eventually) get talked about at length. But, like Härö's Letters to Father Jacob, another much talked about Finnish movie from last year -- and like Finland in general, which is often in the shadow of other Scandinavian countries -- no one knows how wide a release Forbidden Fruit will get. Which is a real shame. It's so beautifully acted and so thoughtfully directed, it's captured so well and comes across as stunning in its own quiet way. I really can't get over it right now. I'm just hoping there are more great movies to see at the EU Film Fest. I'm sure there are -- but I think I may have seen my favorite one first.

It's a perfect film. I really think it is.  I'll be surprised if I find another that's as moving as it is well made.

Oscar Reaction 2010

Official reaction, same as usual: "Meh."

Otherwise, I guessed a few right but cannot fathom how Sandra Bullock was rewarded for such mediocrity, and The Hurt Locker, as gorgeous as it was vacant, could have received the big win over the braniest Coen yet, A Serious Man (and especially if there were as many Jews in the house as Steve Martin claimed).

Oh well. It's all red carpet and pretty dresses.

Here's to Tim Burton in May. That's where the real deal is.

Oh, and PS. Did I see that right? Did Avatar beat out The White Ribbon in the cinematography competition? Um, what? They had to use cameras to make Avatar? Ugh.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Oscar Picks 2010

Jeff Bridges will win Best Actor, Kathryn Bigelow will win for Director (making it a historical gender win in that category), and one would imagine a film as flimsy as The Cove will win for Best Doc.

I've only seen two of the five foreigns (two were only released in the U.S. before today, and I won't be able to make it to Un prophète this weekend), but it does rather feel like it's Michael Haneke's time. So I'm going to pick The White Ribbon, and refer to my review Here.

I've seen seven of the ten nominated for Best Film. I'm rooting for A Serious Man, but I won't be let down with either Inglourious Basterds, where cinema is powerful enough to even stop WWII, or Avatar, the Jazz Singer of 3-D.

I will be hanging out at the Gene Siskel Film Center quite a bit over the weekend for Chicago's 13th Annual European Union Film Festival, so I don't even know how much of the Oscars I will see. (I'm sure I'll be able to track down the winners somewhere.)

I'll be blogging about the EU Film Fest here beginning next week.

My Reaction to the actual winners is found Here.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Through a Screen Darkly (2007).
Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has a beautiful heart.

I'm hesitant to admit that his book has sat on my shelf for three years now, three years of using it as a reference tool and looking up only what I immediately need, but anyone who knows me well, knows I'm not much of a reader. I do try to keep up with the latest McLarens, Millers, Bells that are out, and I have more than a few film books on my bookshelf, ranging from the silents through Scorsese. But there are more unread books on the shelf than read ones. I guess I prefer to read images from the big screen instead.

Still, Jeffrey is my friend, and this isn't one of his fictional works (I definitely have an aversion to written fiction -- that is almost always left to the screen), so I know I should have sat down with Through A Screen Darkly a lot earlier than this.

However, it wasn't guilt that brought me to finally open it up and read every page. I was looking for Jeffrey's words on the wonderful film Ordet, that 1955 Danish black and white that has consistently topped our Arts and Faith Top 100 Films list. I found the portion I was looking for in the chapter entitled, "Suffering Fools Gladly," and as I read I realized just how much I enjoy Jeffrey's insight. I went back to the beginning of the book and started to read -- this time to really read -- as one reads a book from beginning to end. I found that I couldn't put it down. I've got a bit of extra time right now, so I finished the book in a week. With work, meetings, social events and all the film I see, finishing a book in a week is a bit of a miracle.

Jeffrey's words in the book are like buying a brand new pair of glasses. They help you to see things with more clarity. It's less blurry, less of a strain on the eye -- you notice more beauty everywhere. In this case, the focus in particular is on two things: film, which should be obvious, but Jeffrey also allows us to look into himself. We get to study and know him better, and studying and knowing Jeffrey is like looking into goodness and wanting to fill its shoes.

He talks about how certain films affect him personally, how he's been blessed by the light of the screen. He gives so many great instances, with so much insight that he brings his own affection to the table. His writing can have an impact on you, and make you want to see like him.

Tons of new meaning were brought to me personally when I heard his interpretation of films like Taxi Driver, Punch-Drunk Love, The Fisher King, and The Story of the Weeping Camel. There are hundreds of films written about, and he brings keen insight into the tiny, most important but sometimes neglected details, details that when delved into and brought to the surface change the way you view a movie.

(He may have even talked me into seeing Saved! and giving The New World one more try. This would be a huge accomplishment in itself.)

Here are just a few of the moments where I had to take out the yellow highlighter. They're moments where my own thoughts and feelings that I've not been able to put into words flowed back into me as a recognition of my reality:

pg. 77: "...Film is uniquely qualified to explore spirituality. More than any other art, it mirrors our experience in time and space. Reflecting our world back to us, it gives us the opportunity to explore and revisit moments. Offering imaginative visions of alternate worlds, it helps us glimpse aspects of our own that we might otherwise have missed. Slowly, we begin to discover the universal in the particular, the timeless in the temporal, the miraculous in the mundane."

pg. 217: "If a critic says that he prefers an incredible Thai restaurant on the edge of town, he may be trying to sound important, but I doubt it.
"This isn't just about moviegoing -- it's about the choices we make all day long. When we apply ourselves to look more closely, we see more, learn what is possible and move beyond elementary fare. Our choices begin to seem like foolishness to others, just as the preferences of discerning adults often seem ridiculous to children. But we can't let that stop us. The more we learn to find greater sources of truth and beauty, the more we will be transformed."

pg: 289: "Joy grows from true love, and true love is patient, kind and selfless. It is a response to grace, which continues to bless even when we do not deserve blessing."

As you can see, the book is about so much more than just film. It's about heart, and the kind of heart we might want to grow. Jeffrey's insights into film are certainly astounding, but his insights into the heart are simply beautiful.

As a lover of global film, I thoroughly enjoyed this reading. But it also challenged me to want to be better, go farther, rise up and be a blessing to the earth.

Highly recommended, even if you're a few years late to the party.

Jeffrey's site, "Looking Closer," is Here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Willow Tree. (2005) Majid Majidi

Last month I wrote about catching up with Majid Majidi and his marvel of a film, The Song of Sparrows. The film was an Iranian family story rendered with beautiful color and complex thought. I've loved Majidi's work for years, but catching up with his latest has been even more joyous than I'd imagined.

The Willow Tree is a beautiful, well paced film full of touching, tender moments, moments of wonder at something as simple as sight, and moments of confusion as to what to do with it. It's been years since I've seen The Color of Paradise, but from what I remember in that film about a blind boy, this certainly feels like a companion piece.

After undergoing an operation and being told they'll take the bandages from his eyes tomorrow, the blind Yusef opts to do the deed himself, and is overjoyed in his hospital room with sight. It is the first time he's seen anything in 38 years. His senses overload, he is trembling and filled with tears of joy.

Shot after scrumptious shot, light and color and space all bleed into one another as if noticing each other for the first time.  He sees his bandages, he sees his hands, he sees an insect scurrying with a crumb across the blinds. He walks funny down the hospital hallway, unsure of how to function with his sight, and soon his walking turns to running and running into dancing, and crying and jumping and --

And then he sees his reflection. The last time he saw himself he was eight years old. After thirty-eight years, what he now sees disturbs him. He is old and wrinkled and there is gray poking out of his beard.

Later he sees his mother for the first time since he was a child, and sees his wife for the first time ever. The way that they look at themselves even changes when they see the way he looks at them.

Always a joy is the sight of his daughter, and to see her make the words he's loved to hear.

Yusef prayed for this early on in the story, when things looked hopeless, when it looked like he was not only blind but diseased as well. Before the miracle of his sight he prayed in darkness, and when his sight is surgically recovered he offers a prayer of thanksgiving. The name of God is not mentioned. This is the most universal film Majidi's made.

In his prayer of thanksgiving Yusef says, "I know I was wrong... My biggest mistake was not knowing you enough... You didn't forget about me in Your book of compassion... If I come out of this darkness, I'll be with you forever."

It's a stirring film where a man seeks a miracle from above, and maybe later he's not certain he asked for the right miracle. So much story is told between the spaces, there's so much to look at here, and you can pause and reflect in the moment.

The whole experience is very much like a psalm. It's like David writing his thoughts down, extending from the triumphant joys in the obvious miracle of answered prayer, to the lowest, toughest, most soul searching "down in the valley" moments. Without spoiling anything it's safe to tell you that it ends and begins in exactly the same spot, which is in Yusef writing prayers to God and honestly searching for a way to begin things anew. He does receive this and the experience startles and confuses him. He nearly loses his mind from this "blessing."

Whether or not he gets one more shot at another start after his first "second start" is arguable, ambiguous, somewhat abstract. But at this point we've left behind any notion that this is a simple Iranian story with a moral. It's apparent in deep, meditative, prayer-like tones that what we have witnessed -- in fact, what we've taken part in -- is the writing of a prayer, a song to God. A song from a humble, willing and somewhat exasperated servant who has endured all that he can. It's a song that, by the film's end, could be sung by Yusef whether he's seeing or blind.

There are limits to both being blind and being able to see. Both are dangerous in different ways. Both have rewards and blessings; both are disadvantages that carry a curse.

There's a moment of montage right in the middle that perfectly illustrates why I really admire the film's pace. A choice of shots and perfect editing capture the characters purely in their current world:

Yusef is standing in pouring rain, waiting outside a school for a younger girl he's known and finally seen, a girl he's smitten with now that he can see. He stands in the pouring rain with some papers in his hand -- they are papers that she asked him to look over. There's a rose tucked away in the middle of those papers. He's getting drenched just waiting for her to emerge . She finally stumbles out into the misty gray weather but doesn't see Yusef across the street...

And then we see the look of sadness on Yusef's face as her boyfriend also emerges (it was never even thought that she might have a boyfriend). He's using his jacket to shield her from the rain. The two duck into a car and head off, as Yusef scurries behind some shrubs.

And here come the shots:

Yusef wanders out into the middle of the road, still in pouring rain, and he watches as the car slowly drives away. From behind him we watch with him as the car pulls down the road.

Then, edit: Now we are twenty feet further behind him. He's still watching. The car is still pulling away. To our left is a parked car. It's Yusef's car, and his wife is sitting inside facing us, but she's looking in the rearview mirror. She's known what's in Yusef's heart, and she's here watching the whole thing unfold behind her.

Again, edit: Now we are looking in the rearview mirror that Yusef's wife is looking into. Her eyes are never diverted as she continues to watch her husband watch. We stay focused on him with her, as she starts the car and pulls in the opposite direction. Now we're watching her eyes watch him stand in the rain, with his back to us as we drive away .

It's a wonderfully built capturing of the synchronized images of a broken down man in isolation.

Some of the hope in the light of new sight turns inward, to fear, to isolation and "seeing" darkness. It's a strange twist that seems to happen to Yusef over the course of the story. It's a twist he wants to undo yet again.

The Willow Tree is a slower-paced art-like film. Take time with it and let it seep into your bones. It will bring reflection when you need it. A sense of calm in life's crazy storm. It is lush with beauty, ripe with meaningful questions, a bit melancholy in its prayers for humanity, but enduring and timeless as a resonant work of art.

(500) Days of Summer. (2009) Marc Webb

To say, as I've said, that I hate this film, is totally unfair to the film itself.

I recant.

The fact is that I could love (500) Days of Summer if it weren't for the story, and for Summer herself. But it's not as if the film wasn't fair: the narrator told us right from the start that Summer was no ordinary girl, and that this is not a love story. So it's somewhat our fault for reading genre conventions into it in the first place. That it breaks free of the litany of typical romcom fair, bursting out of its own conventions, should be applauded, not boo'd. So now instead of saying I hate it, I say, "I love to hate this film."

In fact I love to hate it so much that I bought a used copy for $4 BIG BUCKS at Blockbuster.

(Cheaper than a BB rental, I might add.)

Outside of the heartbreaking, and (I still think) in some ways unfair, story -- and outside of the problematic nature of Summer herself -- there are so many good and fun things that happen here that it's actually quite hard to keep up with and list them all at once. It really does defy some of its own genre tradition, and I rather like that. It doesn't feel like you can smack a label on it. I like that, too. The undefinable quality might actually be one reason I initially reacted to it with such angst.

But what is it, if it really isn't a tried and true romcom? Like Citizen Kane, it belongs to no contemporary genre of its time. Like Pulp Fiction, the narrative shapes around a splintered and jumping timeline. Like the French New Wave, Godard in particular, it's exuberant in cinematic terms, at times tip-toeing the line of all out expressionism. And like my favorite famous Dane (whose initials are Lars.von.Trier.), it simply screams to be noticed, and will sometimes even turn a trick or two to grab the eye.

I don't know exactly what to call it, but after a second and third viewing some things have crept up that I like:

*The Roving Timeline. It moves forward and backward, from sorrow to joy and back, from darkness to light and into the grays. We get the idea that this is bookended to our dissatisfaction. It doesn't make the ride any less enjoyable.

* The ability to parody and self-parody. The dance number in particular just drives me nuts with love and admiration, particularly the little animated blue bird. It's the cheesiest, sunniest, happiest dance number I know of. (All of that in a truly funny and splendid way.)

* The Godard-and-Bergmanesque films within the film.

* The split screen, which is seen as the expectations vs. reality. Two stories are told at once: one, the fictional, all things hoped for -- the other, the actual, the "how it all went down." The screen is playing with the mind, creating a maze of havoc in the brain as we watch the "hope" and the "actual" play out in dual realities...

* And then, just after that, the image of Tom walking away from the party. He slides into a gradual freeze and the picture descends into still frame, like an old photo. (I know this last scene is a tip of the hat to something, somewhere, I'm not quite sure just what.)

* The dry bits of comedy. "I'm stalking -- I mean, I'm starving!" Summer's smile and her feminine beauty even amidst the desire to hate her brings out a comedic tension that keeps us guessing. But, to quote Monaco when he wrote about Kramer vs. Kramer: "The woman... was, if not actually the villain, then certainly the source of the problem, and the focus was almost entirely on the sensitive and painful reaction of the man." Some of this pain is a little easier to swallow when watching Tom and his friends caught in a black and white documentary about their love lives. Comedic moments turn up time and again, which lessen the severity of the final blow.

* The soundtrack. Like the recent Whip It, or any good episode of House, a good soundtrack has the capacity to improve the material around it. Here it succeeds, and I've got some new tunes to hunt down.

* "Autumn." Yes, it is a bit corny, but it fits. And the coy little smile and the courtesy nod at the camera? That super old trick of moldy cheese from TV of ages past? Yeah, we get it. Ain't it all just so darn cute.

Like a novel about writing a novel or a movie about making a movie, (500) Days of Summer is actually the anti-romcom, eager to beat the platicity of any other romcom into submission. It tells us Harry won't get to be with Sally, the Pretty Woman won't get Richard Gere, Clara Bow ain't all that "It" after all, and Nurse Betty will live alone and remain a nutter butter. The audience that rooted for the happy ending will leave empty handed and only the critics will wake up to take notice of the film as an anti-sensitive movie that defied even its target market.

It's like a giant middle finger to college kids hoping for a decent spouse.

In many ways, (500) Days of Summer feels like it knows it succeeds if you hate it. I've not loved hating a film this much in quite some time.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The 2010 Arts and Faith Top 100 Link

Here is the Link to the actual page I wrote about last night, and gosh, I think it's just lovely!

It just looks so nice! I'm so happy to see it! It's like watching my own little baby finally begin to get up and walk on its own.

IMAGE has had a huge hand in helping us with the design of the new page. My thanks goes out to them for what has obviously been some very hard work.

I would imagine that when it's all said and done, each film from the page will have a link to a page of its own. This is so cool. Have I mentioned how cool this is?

We've already  had  a few looks  from  some  heavy  hitters, and quite a few  bloggerstoo.

(edit: and More Keep Rollin' In...)

(edit again, the next day: Boston Phoenix, The Wrap, Paste, Pakistan Christian TV, Standard Newswire, Examiner.com.... This is really great, and less than two days in. Rather than continue to post links, I'll just post the link where we try to cover the coverage:
And Here It Is.)

I would imagine that there will be printed articles as well in the coming few weeks. Things will no doubt pick up steam as we stumble on ahead...

If you read this and have a contact in the press in your local area, please pass this info along!