Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mammoth. (2009) Lukas Moodysson

I make no bones about the fact that I love Lukas Moodysson's heart and films. I think I even understand why he made A Hole in My Heart, as utterly disgusting a film as it is. And while Lilya 4-Ever grabbed a spot in my Top 10 of last decade, I also found great delight in Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love).

Moodysson has always been nothing less than ambitious. Like a Swedish Gaspar Noé, he's unafraid of sticking the truth as he perceives it right up in your face. That truth may have gotten a little out of hand with the emotional, sensory and pornographic overload of A Hole in My Heart, but Moodysson's point about man's depravity was made. He never shies away from his socialist, vegetarian, humanitarian, or maybe even Christian values.

I have a soft spot for the directors that are characters, unafraid to let it rip into you and burn out your eyeballs if need be.

Mammoth, unfortunately, doesn't do that. And it barely feels like a Moodysson film. But if you've seen Babel and you want a little more of the intersecting lives and social construct of that story, Mammoth might be a place where you can get it.

Two things are easily mentioned as excellence in Mammoth: Gael García Bernal (speaking of Babel!), who has simply gone off the charts in everything he's touched since Cuarón's 2001 film Y tu mamá también. Bernal is becoming one of my favorites.

The other quality that's wonderful about Mammoth is the cinematography itself, created from film crews around the world. But again this reminds me of Babel, and Babel might still have the edge here.

The film does question the global economics of how various cultures are surviving and raising their kids in this age, and no matter the country, no matter the culture, a home without a dad in it is a home in crisis. These are all good points, and Moodysson brings examples from New York, the Philippines and Thailand to make sure we understand his position.

There were scenes in it that I will remember -- especially those of the host mom who finally connects with her child's nanny, just before emergencies separate them both forever. But overall, it is the most dull film in Moodysson's oeuvre. (Having said that I must admit that I still haven't seen his art-film Container.)

I'm still a big fan, and even though I'm less impressed with Mammoth than I've been with his works in the past, I love his values and his social efforts in the film making process. Here's to hoping for more great stuff in Moodysson's future.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Day of Wrath. (1943) Carl Theodor Dreyer

What excellent timing for my blurb on Day of Wrath to appear at A&F. Following my recent roasting of Fall From Grace, the reasons for my desire for Day of Wrath to remain firmly fixed in the Top 100 are self-evident.

Day of Wrath came in this year at #42 on our list. I wrote about it Here, but it is rare for me to get to work with an editor, so I want to reprint it for my own fun here at Filmsweep:

There are few films that fill us with such righteous indignation as Day of Wrath. Featuring empathetic characters caught in a callous system, the film can easily evoke our anger. Religious intolerance and dehumanizing persecution are nothing new, of course, but Day of Wrath reminds us that it has a long history. At the same time, the film suggests that systems of spiritual abuse are still with us.

The film may make your blood boil, but it remains a masterpiece. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, which Dreyer filmed more than twenty years earlier, Day of Wrath is a lifeline for assessing religious and political conflict.

Like Nicholas Hynter's film version of The Crucible and many stories on the Salem Witch trials, it centers on a devout community persuaded that there are witches in their midst. The witches in this case are living in Denmark in 1623. After being tortured to obtain "confessions," these witches are destined to be burned alive. In one of the awful and agonizing first acts, an elderly woman named Herlofs Marte is burned at the stake while a boy’s choir sings.

There are those who believe that the hunt for another's sin is a greater cause than stalking and defeating their own. It may be illegal to burn or kill people for their alleged sins in our society—we don't often see the cringe-inducing horrors faced in Dreyer's story—but it doesn't mean that harsh pronouncements aren't still made—that pain and guilt aren't still inflicted, that people aren't hurt by authority figures, or that the heart of the Gospel is often missed.

In "A Little on Film Style" (1943), Dreyer wrote that after finishing Day of Wrath it became a reproach to him, that the film felt too heavy, too slow. Having recently sat with it again, I'm at odds with his final regret. The story builds on a rhythmic calculus, layering soft gray over shadow-black tones; un-made-up actors avoid any falsity or extremism by bringing a concrete, believable, and valuable performance to the table. Dreyer's background was of course in silent cinema—in Day of Wrath he achieves a "quiet" cinema, in which a tension is created between the spaces. It is the perfect approach to the subject of abuse committed in the name of the church.

Fall From Grace. (2007) K. Ryan Jones

Years ago my wife and I were in downtown Atlanta when we drove past a sight that so throttled us we needed to pull the car over for further eyeballing. It's a sight that seems more common in the past few years. It leaves me queasy and nauseous, and with a crackling ache in my belly. A group of people holding picket signs were jeering and shouting, slowing down traffic on an urban corner -- by no means a unique picture in any downtown city setting. However, this group was unique in that their sad and sickened message carried with it the most vile and contemptuous hate-filled speech, which they backed up with Biblical scripture. They said they knew a Jesus and a God who hates people.

I wanted to vomit and cry at the same time. We wanted to get out of the car and challenge them, but we knew it wasn't even worth the effort with their locked-in minds and zombie-like lack of critical thinking skills. We left in silence and sadness. It's a day I'll never forget.

Centering in on less than fifteen verses from a thousands-verse filled holy book, and ruling out history, political context and original language and intent, the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas is an inflammatory, hate-filled, war-mongering klan that seeks to rid the entire planet of homosexuality. It's their one-note song, their one-hit wonder. They don't seem able to take a stand on anything else.

The means to their end is provocation, anger, heaping loads of blame and shame on "the other" -- all of this for the so-called cause of Christ. Their protest banners alone spew as much exclusivist and bigoted intolerance as the words that leak from their mouths, which bring a stench to unfortunate passers-by.

This isn't an exaggeration -- I couldn't make this stuff up. Outside the church in Topeka hangs an upside-down American flag by a banner on a church exterior which reads "". Their picket signs in protests read:

"God Hates Fags,"
"Prepare to Meet Thy God,"
"Fags Die God Laughs,"
"Fags Burn in Hell,"
"You're Going to Hell,"
"Fags are Worthy of Death,"
"Fags Doom Nations,"
"America is Doomed,"
"Thank God for 9/11,"
"God Hates You,"
"God is Your Enemy,"
"God Hates Your Tears,"

and, "Thank God For IEDs," a reference to belief that soldiers killed in Iraq are God's justification for an exploded bomb in their church building.

The group has been known to show up at funerals of deceased soldiers coming home from Iraq in a box. They claim victory in this, too, as God is judging a too tolerant military.

A church song at the front of the documentary contains lyrics describing the group as militant. They march for their cause, battling for "the Right." "Sound the battle cry!" the choir belts out with piano accompaniment. "Raise the standard high for the Lord... Onward, Soldiers, around the banner!"

Their militancy and willingness to use war lingo in describing their cause is perhaps scarier than the attack on the sin of others. That they're attacking the sin of the sinner, rather than the sin of any believer -- including their own sin -- is a hard one to wrap the brain around. (Don't sinners naturally sin? Aren't the "saved" supposed to be the righteous ones, and not the sinners?)

In a post-Oklahoma City and 9/11 era we need closer scrutiny for such dangerous and hate-fueled religious and political fervor.

Like the Pharisees in Jesus' day, the group seeks out the sin in others and doesn't dare take an inward glance. I wonder if anyone in the group has ever masturbated. It's a certainty they all wear clothes with fabrics that Levitical texts discourage. The same Old Testament verses they use to rail against homosexuality also talk about the clothes they're wearing themselves. Masturbation and avoidance of women during their monthly period would also apply, along with countless other sin issues the group avoids, while zeroing in on their favorite.

(The above verses aren't even commandments for the contemporary Christian, but were guidelines for a specific nation at a specific time, during perhaps the only recorded Theocracy.)

"Pastor" Fred Phelps and his small band of loud followers, comprised primarily of close family members, are obsessed with a curse on our nation. It's a curse I just don't see. What I do see is a clan of bigots who have good-sized houses, nice cars, swimming pools, well-fed children, picnic lunches with leftovers for later, and decent designer clothes to wear. Their finger-pointing chants of doom and gloom ring hollow in the midst of their western riches. How much money they've given or time they've spent with the sick and the poor, much less the scorned homosexual, is unknown, but considering the hellish desire they have for the rest of the planet it's a given that it can't be much.

But perhaps this so-called curse on our land is still coming; all this homosexuality in America is the beginning of the end. The group should read yesterday's posting in this very blog on the global Collapse already in motion. I'm sure they'd juice themselves in excitement over that nightmarish apocalyptic prophecy.

The doc is filmically excellent. It's informative and fair with its time to voices both in the church and in opposition. The film itself comes off more like a Hell House than a Jesus Camp in its objective representation of all views, but it's similar to both in that we see living and breathing "Christian" people more concerned with powering over their opponents than saving or serving the "lost."

I'd like to see Phelps or any of his followers washing a homosexual's feet instead of holding up protest signs. That might be closer to a hint of any real Christian message. Otherwise the group only perpetuates fear, division and hate -- things that Jesus, as I've come to understand him, doesn't represent.

One of the signs Phelps held tightly to in a protest read, "Too Late to Pray." It's a reference to his belief that homosexuality is unique, a sin that one cannot repent of. Hey, Fred -- if it's too late to even pray and there's no means to your desired repentance, why should a homosexual even bother trying to change -- for you, him, or anyone else? And why are you still standing there with your antagonizing sign?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Collapse. (2010) Chris Smith

We usually consider the ideas of social and economic collapse in films of fiction. Blood saturated zombie flicks are the first that spring to mind. Films like 28 Days Later or the more recent Carriers reveal at least the dramatic side of the world's upheaval when people take capitalism to its extreme and literally have one another for dinner. Other apocalyptic films like 2012 bring us the end of modern or post-modern civilization, whichever the case may be, but outside of natural disasters or slimy-green aliens from beyond, they rarely make a case for a real-life end-time scenario.

Michael Ruppert seems to have a thing for the end of the world -- if not the end of the world then certainly an end to social order. He's a self-made think-tank, a math wizard for ongoing and progressive social studies. He forecasts the cultural climate and events like a guru, sometimes even like a prophet. Lately quite a few of his economic predictions are even leading naysayers to begin to believe.

In March 2009 director Smith sat Ruppert down and just let him get it all out like a sit-and-spew, spilling all of his guts in one sitting.
A venting of Michael Ruppert is like taking the Book of Revelation, weeding out the Pink Floyd-like poetry and any hope of a savior on the scene, and making the events very current, very scary and very real.

Ruppert first became known as a whistle blower regarding a CIA drug smuggling operation in the mid-sixties. His background is that of a child insider raised in US intelligence: his mother worked as an NSA cryptanalyst reporting directly to Roosevelt in WWII; his father an Airforce aviator involved in the creation of a well-known CIA spy satellite. Ruppert attended UCLA as a republican against Viet Nam, at that time firmly believing that the system was that which could be changed from the inside-out.

He became an LA policeman for a number of years before the CIA nudged him toward recruitment in their operations. He had no interest in drug smuggling or involvement in their operations and after declining the offer was soon betrayed by his fiancée (was she an operative on the inside?). As she disappeared completely from his life he quickly found himself a target, dodging bullets and doing anything to stay alive. He found that it was best to publically take his experience to the world, writing letters to newspapers and congress and going on public record whenever and wherever he could.

Due to all the dirt-digging he did in simply trying to understand all he went through, his tale is now that of thirty years of investigative journalism which leads to constant trails of government inconsistency, corruption and scandal. He's uncovered and written about countless scandals in papers for many years, searching out illegality by those in power who are claiming higher principles.

The way he tells it now, the tools he acquired in trying to get truths made public in that initial investigation are the same tools he uses today in his "map making" of world events. He paints a picture of imminent collapse that is teetering on the horizon. Recently, as much of what he's forecasted has come to fruition, a lot of people are looking more seriously at his thoughts.

Ruppert weights in most heavily when discussing energy issues, and of course the bulk of that conversation will involve oil. But the points he's making about oil and how it's used, even in forms of oil the commoner doesn't typically consider (plastic, tires, toothbrushes and toothpaste), and the evidences of government agencies responding to the reality of "Peak Oil" -- that the world has been explored for well over 100 years and all its reserves fully tapped -- make the notion that his "conspiracy theory" feels far too weighted with sound logic to simply shrug your shoulders and pass off as environmentally leftist. His premise that the reserves are already nearly sucked dry couples with the fact that it's now costing as much in energy to obtain the energy we get from oil, resulting in a negative cash flow for the first time in oil's history. He also categorizes countless other alternative energies with the conclusion that nothing can replace fossil fuels, that a global economy still depending on it for forward progress is headed for utter and complete collapse.

The problem doesn't stop with oil, though. From there, Ruppert takes us on a journey that begins in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and explains our relations with those countries and how they really work... and then we're off to the arctic to check out the polar ice caps, and to Canada for the tar sands... and then through ethanol ("a joke")...  And hydrogen and electric issues, where again, more energy is invested to create the energy than is possible to make a profit.

One of the clearest and easiest examples for the failure of alternative energy is in Ruppert's definition of electricity: it's not a source of energy at all. It is energy that has to be derived from an outside force.

Then there are food resources, soil nutrients, crop rotation issues, the unnecessary economics of distribution in general, fresh water, gold, and on and on as geopolitical topics mount up and bleed together. But it always comes back to the industrial revolution, the population growth that came along with it, oil, and the other side, which is the downside, of the oil bell curve.

Many of Ruppert's conclusions have led him to anger and resentment at the powers that be. He's been ignored for years by a mainstream who pass him off. But as many of his predictions have come true even in the current economic crisis, he feels a sense of relief that he's no longer simply a lone voice in the wilderness. It touches his heart to the point of tears that people are starting to wake up and listen -- that the film might even be taken very seriously by more than a select few. It's obvious he doesn't really want this coming apocalypse, that masked below all the numbers and figures is a cynic humanitarian with a genuine concern for mankind.

One of the things I loved about Ruppert is his desire for humankind to reconnect to the earth -- to have daily contact with its functions, its feel, the nature of its seasons and its timing. He also insists that the rugged individual won't have an advantage -- there won't be a Road Warrior figure in the age of collapse. Salvation and survival in the coming transition period will be local and communal, where people are not only daily digging into their neighborhood dirt, but digging in with their neighbors, practicing localized tribal community once again.

I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but the ideas here are profound. Resources don't replenish themselves. Oil is the key to a great many world issues. If anything, the theories here make me want to make certain my loved ones know how dear they are to me, and find me saving up seeds for future planting.

Crash Woes Update

It's not that I haven't seen any films recently. I'll try not to go into huge (read: boring) details, but two things of note before I dive into a couple of quick reviews.

Many of the films I've seen haven't been worth writing about. Having recently trashed Greenberg and Chloe, I'm not yet ready to once again cock back and hammer a few more. I guess that's point number one.

Point number two is a bit of a story. It goes something like this:

Our main Internet friendly computer crashed last week and is slowly in the process of being put back together. Honestly, this is a bit of a Humpty Dumpty tale, it seems there are problems with many of the cracked pieces and half the battle is simply choosing which parts to repair first. Poor old Humpty will probably end up in a landfill next time around. (Unless we figure out a more environmentally sound way to deal with it by then.)

About a week before that crash, I had another crash that was even more severe. My iPod, which was bought around the first time you ever heard the word "iPod," which has had its OS repaired many times over the years, decided it was time to fully crash the original hard drive and call life quits for good. Experts have used words like, "unrepairable," "a goner," "it's had it." I hate the word dead for this little device has been with me since the beginning of iPod chronology. It's slept with me, it's travelled with me, it's eaten with me, it has been a true friend.

Alas, I need a new friend. I can live without a phone, I've proven it recently. I can live without a car. In case of a hard drive crash I can even live without a computer, at least as long as it takes to get to a library and find something suitable for a quick fix. However, I cannot live without Arcade Fire, Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, Beirut, Radiohead, Blonde Redhead, Coldplay, Starflyer 59, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (etc etc., see the column to the right for more details)... and an overabundance of various teachings from the years from Rob Bell at Mars Hill.

In searching for my new friend, by the way, did you know they make these things these days with video!? And you can simply touch the screen with your fingers and magical things happen. It goes wherever you want -- whatever your little mind desires, it can have. Reminds me of Clint Eastwood in Firefox, but this is reality. Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, the iPod Touch can achieve...

So I've got this new 32 gig Touchy Feely little-little device and it just so happens I'm taking quite a few trains between Chicago and Grand Rapids at the moment. It occurred to me that maybe I could watch a movie on the 3-1/2" screen. But really. Who would do that? A movie? On that little thing? Why? It is an affront to moviedom in general. The entire global and social structure of fine arts involves a certain way a film is supposed to be seen. It involves community and large-ish-ness... And wonder and enrapture. Things that would never happen on a little screen on train tracks, right?

But, oh -- I didn't consider that one kind of movie that might actually be both suitable and perfect for a moment such as this. There's this thing, it is called a "documentary." It's not quite like other films. It's more about a relaying of information than it is a film experience in general, and the information is typically more important than the movie-going traditions.


Look, I'm not going to watch the latest Haneke or Claire Denis or Coen or Dardenne brothers on a 3-1/2" screen. That's just not going to happen. And I can't think of anyone that would think it'd be cool to watch Avatar or The Hurt Locker or the latest Emmerich like 2012 or the upcoming Robin Hood on such a little device with ear buds. A few of those I can barely handle in the theater as is. (I'm talking to you, Emmerich.)

But a well done doc can sometimes be more like a good college class with a funloving professor -- usually leftist -- it relays itself with great visual information, the "information" part being much more important than the "visual," except in rare cases maybe like Bus 174 or Touching the Void.

So I tried it, on the train. And it was a wonderful learning experience for me. (I'm really beginning to like the train again, btw. Especially now that you can watch movies -- errr, documentaries -- and you don't have to worry about a steering wheel.)

I've used this method on two docs so far. Later today I'll be posting on Collapse, a conspiracy-"fact"-as-opposed-to-conspiracy-"theory" film in which Michael Ruppert is allowed to speak at us for 82 straight minutes -- and he's actually quite interesting to give ear to for that amount of time.

And then tomorrow I'll post some sort of venting or scathing reaction to Fall From Grace, a film which I am still burning about.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Troubled Water. (2008) Erik Poppe

The third film in Poppe's "Oslo Trilogy" translates as "The Invisibles," which is fitting, as "DeUs" also fits into a portion of the title. We're itching to search for God here, and if he's only invisible or quietly up in heaven, we'd prefer him down here in our waters of trouble.

I've always maintained that heaven is a wonderful concept for the afterlife, but it's an afterlife of which we have no inherent proof. If there's a God, and if he really cares for mankind as we like to think, we'd rather have him guiding and aiding in our earthen journey than quietly watching, amused in the skies.

The characters in Troubled Water have struggled through hell on earth already. If heaven is just out of reach to them now, they understandably crave a form of peace as they journey ahead.

Jan Thomas, fresh out of jail for the conviction of a child murder years ago, finds employment as a church organist and fills the pipes with a wind of conviction. His talent is as unquestionable as the beauty of his music. Even with fingers taped together from a final beating before his release, his hands glide into chording structures, flying over the keys, and his shoeless feet tap fervently at the pedals booming bass lines below. He approaches the instrument like it's his last chance at salvation -- there's nothing but absolute conviction dripping from every belted out note. Distancing himself from the faith of much of the church's teachings, his organ playing replaces separation from their cause.

One of the greatest reasons to fall in love with Troubled Water is the agonizing beauty of these inspired organ moments.

Festen's Trine Dyrholm plays Agnes, the mother of the lost child of Jan Thomas's conviction. Her child's body was never found, further planting that gaping hole at the core of her being. Her horrifying discovery of Jan Thomas's church presence leaves her inward resentments exposed. His presence almost puts her in an out of body mode. She exists as one who sits beside herself. Jan Thomas's loving involvement with the church's PK -- a young blond boy who looks almost exactly like the child she lost -- only further seals the feeling of burning anger in her heart.

So we begin our delving into the psyche of both characters: one stocked up with an inventory of guilt, longing to forget his wrongful past and move forward, and the other, bordering toward hysterical in her loss, steadfast in her conviction that the ex-con is still the same man. He's that cruel and careless monster who stole the innocent boy from her life. He might be free, and his music certainly sounds like he's changed, but he'll always remain a criminal in her mind.

The church itself plays a distinct role in its aim to comfort both characters. The attitudes in this church are those you would hope for in the church as a global healer -- always looking for beauty, looking to bless as they've received blessing, making the right next step, the best approach toward goodness. Priestess Anna brings soothing words of God's grace to Jan Thomas. An elder in the church tells Jan Thomas that the communion's power is real whether or not he fully believes. He partakes in the sacrament, longing for freedom from the bonds of guilt.

Of course Jan Thomas falls for Anna. That much would have been obvious. She is beautiful, she's full of tenderness and mercy, she's alone with her boy and is probably hoping for more out of life. With his talent and good looks and his quest for spiritual reconciliation, it's hard to believe she wouldn't eventually fall for Jan Thomas, too.

Jan Thomas is quiet about his past in dealing with the church and his new love interest. They know he played organ in the prison chapel, but he's hesitant to tell them how he got there. And no one wants to ask -- they're all satisfied with a repentant sinner in their midst (especially one as talented as JT) -- until Agnes begins showing up and scraping out questions like a sand blaster. The elder reminds Agnes that the church is a place for wounded souls like Jan Thomas, and yet he still needs to confront Jan Thomas about the incident (a confrontation which actually takes places earlier in this spliced-up gem of a story).

Upon her discovery of all of his past, Jan Thomas admits to Anna, "I wanted you to like me first." It might seem at the point its said that it's too little, too late, which is quite a sad fact of life.

It's a lot to take in, more than she'd have to deal with in most relationship baggage, but isn't this really what everyone does when they're courting or dating someone, when they're seeking out a life partner or even looking for a friend? We don't let all the baggage out at once. For some of us, time makes the baggage heavier every year -- the older we get, the less we let out at all! When meeting someone new, we want them to "like us" before diving into the backwash. It rarely comes back to bite us the way it apparently does Jan Thomas, but I'd imagine for quite a few of us it could.

In the final gripping scenes we no longer know who's the bad guy and which one needs redemption more. We cross a bridge from developed characters into somewhat expressionist archetypes, in which ethical ideas replace the need for a tight plot, and human touch creates a greater understanding.

Like Revanche was a meditation on revenge, DeUsynlige feels very much like a meditation on guilt, and on confronting and burying what's dead in the back yard. It's as packed with euphoric longing as a film gets. From beginning to end it is the high point of the trilogy, with a climax that reaches toward the Godly.

Hawaii, Oslo. (2004) Erik Poppe

From here on out the trilogy reminds me of an old Terry Taylor phrase: the stories are "a briefing for the ascent." They mesh and intertwine, creating Crash or Magnolia-type intricacies of layers, weaving characters through plot lines that maze into the great beyond. They climb skyward, improving as they ascend, until otherworldly realms are confronted in their final scenes, where conscience, guilt, and redemption collide. Our Norwegian characters will be left carefully considering every future action.

The TV-like production values from Schpaaa are gone and in their wake stand two movies that are a film lover's delight. They're essential viewing for diligent seekers in the art-house crowd, but potent enough for mainstream viewers to get caught up in their ineffable glory.

The maze metaphor extends to physicality in the opening and closing scenes of Hawaii, Oslo. A "God's-eye" view sweeps down over an Oslo intersection where a group of mazed strangers come upon a chance meeting. An ambulance is involved in an accident, apparently on its way to deliver a baby, when a jogger -- more like a sprinter -- bolts out in front of the vehicle. The strangers have already been converging in their differing mazes on the scene as paramedics attempt in all earnestness to aid the run-over victim, but the crash is too severe, and in a heap he breathes his last on the blackened and blood-stained streets. The strangers watch and consider what the accident means to them.

The story backs up to all the witnesses' previous days and the journey of how they arrived at this place at the exact same time. There's no doubt the characters are working out of their own free will -- they're born free in a world made of good and bad choices. However, there's also little doubt that something else is working behind the scenes: angelic guiding figures seem to prompt for the good, while an aura of suspended synchronicity drives events like a guiding force.

That we know the end from the beginning -- (and we really don't, anyway) -- isn't really the point at all. We're brought into lives that are about to converge for a reason; we see all of the hope that this event is going to bring. Those whose lives that will be forever changed at the scene of the crash stand in awe at their inability to help: a mother who long ago abandoned two sons, two sons who are dealing with the loss of their dad, a newborn child that in one day has lost and gained a chance to live, an unbalanced man waiting on a long lost love, an airline stewardess who has completely given up on relationships, a clairvoyant who has already seen all of these events unfold, and a figure that seems to constantly show up whenever someone has need. Everyone has not only something to learn, but something to teach the viewer as well.

There's a film garnering great reviews right now called The World is Big and Salvation Lurks around Every Corner. It feels like it could be the subtitle here. Maybe: Oslo is a Scandinavian city where hardship is reality, but salvation still lurks everywhere... Or something like that. A friend recently pointed out how often the word "saved" is used in Hawaii, Oslo. There are those who need saving, and those, as in real life, who deny they are even in need. We identify with a human longing to be saved. If not "salvation," than certainly sometimes "intervention".

The film suggests that Heaven Can Wait as it hurls us back toward its opening crash. But the "God's-eye" view comes compassionately back, and as in Tykwer's Heaven, we ascend up and out of the scene, until we can barely see characters in the middle of the intersection, until all we can see is the city from high above, until the camera tilts and turns and stares us unquestioningly at the cloudy skies hanging just over Oslo. A golden ray of sunlight is peeking through.

If there ever were a doubt that someone somewhere wasn't guiding us, the question is at this point put to rest. If there were ever a film desiring to relay a graced message, Hawaii, Oslo would probably sit alongside it. Poppe's second film in the trilogy far surpasses any of the missteps of the first, and now we're about to get the roof blown off the joint in the final, gripping trilogy conclusion, which I'll be writing more about tomorrow.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Schpaaa. (1998) Erik Poppe

Schpaaa, otherwise known by its international title, Bunch of Five, is the first film in Erik Poppe's "Oslo Trilogy."

Like Bergman's En filmtrilogi, in which the master filmmaker decided to unite the three sometime during the second movie's pre-production, the "Oslo Trilogy" feels like it was conceived well after Schpaaa's original reception -- perhaps even after financing for further films came in.

The story concerns five boys between the ages of 11-14 who are ganged together in a series of criminal sprees around East Oslo. Together they skip school, rob stores, bully children, run drugs, fight, and receive frequent beatings themselves.

The intro and ending scenes are narrated by fourteen year old Jonas. Born and raised in Oslo, Jonas is living with his mother and has never met his dad. He claims from the beginning that his best friend Emir, an abused Yugoslavian immigrant teen showing signs of carrying on the family tradition, scares him -- that he's prone to violence, that he might make Jonas's life a "living hell."

Jonas and Emir and three other friends are hired by Emir's uncle to do two things: deliver drugs to a "big shot," and beat up a junkie who owes money. The kids carry off their mission without a hitch. They celebrate in a local convenience store, buying Twinkies and comic books in relief. The only problem, classic in drug stories, is that the kids have gotten the two men confused -- they've jumped and pummeled the wrong man (the "big shot"), and given heroin to a junkie who will no doubt consume every last bit.

They're in a position now that's too much for them to handle, even as thuggish street smart kids who've been put through the ringer already. They've been a family unit which to this point which have depended on one another -- but with a seeming noose around their necks, relations strain, loyalties crumble, and the finger pointing starts. The knowledge that they'll be dead soon or spend a very long life behind bars etches its way into the crevice of their thoughts. Panic, blame, and more beatings ensue. There's nothing good in the future for any in this bunch of five.

Rife with late 90s drum and bass filler and dated electronic synth music, Schpaaa already comes off as a bit outdated. It feels like it was made for Norwegian TV, directly opposite of the emotional feel and production value of the two profound films that follow. Like those two, there are ways in which Schpaaa contains elements of the relational power of a restored family unit, but it ultimately wears the viewer down and wears itself out with its beaten up kids and a narrative that burns out.

The shortest of the three films, clocking in at only 73 minutes, Schpaaa is an awkward launching pad for the trilogy. It's nowhere near as cinematically packed as the following Hawaii, Oslo or Troubled Water, and a DVD copy is quite hard to track down. The only way to obtain it anymore is to find a used copy on eBay. Trilogy purists might long to see it in order to view the three as a whole, but it's just as easy to skip Schpaaa altogether and find the real deal in the following films. My next two posts will discuss those inspirational gems in-depth.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Greenberg. (2010) Noah Baumbach

I get Greenberg. I just don't see why it needs to exist as a film or any other work of "art," or why anyone should bother to care.

I get that we have a man returning and readjusting to life in LA after decades of being away. I get that he's now a walker, he no longer drives, he's probably used to taking the subway in NYC. I get that he can't handle water but he's back in a sunshiny land stuffed with swimming pools. I get the comedic touches about his social inadequacy, his recent trip to the "hospital," his mental instability, his quirky outbursts. I get that he's frigid toward the world, locked into himself even as his selfishness creates bad conversations and sex. I get that he can't laugh at himself and I get that it's all part of the joke. His quibbles, the fact that he writes letter after complaining letter to corporate empires around the globe lamenting their methods and service, when in fact he can't even cop to all the shortcomings he has --

I get it.

And finally, I get the film's mantra, which beats itself relentlessly into one's skull: "Hurt people hurt people." Fine. We get it. How clever. How trite. How vacuous. How true. Whatever.

Mantra or not, black comedy or not, chuckle or no chuckle, this Greenberg guy is just a jerk. That it's Ben Stiller's finest performance offers very little consolation. There's no reason for the story to be a film just as there's no reason for anyone to watch it, or for me to ever visit it again. It's characters are like giant holes walking a nameless and faceless earth. They are holes, which suck everything into them, remaining giant, gaping and empty. The narrative sucks, too. It sucks into the hole of itself like a "dialogue-ian" vacuum cleaner. There is no hope for any character. No hope, no progress, no redemption, no future. No spirituality or longing for even humanistic improvement. Nada. There is nothing here. And Ben Stiller as Greenberg only finds enlightenment and a clearer form of thinking by accidentally crashing a party (which happens in his home) and tripping and getting wasted with a bunch of kids. Oh, gee, Wally, thanks for the enlightenment.

Anyone who buys into any of this is like a duped gull buying swampland in Florida.

Can you imagine a hole that stands and walks around invisibly but constantly sucks in other things no matter where it goes? Can you imagine it sucking in conversations and good intentions and cordial sociability and kind words, and sucking in sex and alcohol and drugs and regret, but the hole never spits anything back out? Not even vomit -- this Hole spits nothing? Can you imagine being this Hole and actually trying to perceive peace or truth, or, I don't know, a feeling of some kind of newness about the fact that it will always be and remain a giant gaping Hole?

Baumbach is proving to simply be "not my guy to watch". His films are relentlessly boring as he pursues these "real life" characters who are cardboard cutout flats without shine, but only dull with spot and wrinkle. His characters are afraid of confronting any of their own negativity, admitting any of their own fragility, and more importantly, admitting to another their apologies for wrong action. His characters are afraid of change, healing, redemption, or any other reason we might have to want to watch them in a movie. Quite frankly, if his characters came to life and happened along my path and befriended me, I would quickly grow weary of them and for my own sake I'd need to cut them loose. There are certain bridges that you burn so as to not get sucked into the hole. The characters would complain that their friend "dropped them like a rock." The characters wouldn't realize how much life they continually suck out of everyone else.

Greenberg's girlfriend in the film is Florence, and should she decide to stay with this miserable wretch, the world for her really is as dreary as it is dank.

Chloe. (2010) Atom Egoyan

About twenty-five minutes into Chloe, I knew I'd seen all this before. As great as the performances are, particularly from Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore (always fresh no matter the role), I began to realize that I'd already seen a better version of this in a French film from 2003 called Nathalie.

Nathalie is a not-forgotten guilty pleasure of mine starring Emmanuelle Béart and Fanny Ardant. (Actually any film with Ms. Béart is somewhat a guilty pleasure of mine, not only for her standard-setting acting, but in my book, she's one of the three most beautiful women in the world.) The film was only released a few years ago but now we already have this English-language version hurled upon us. I'm mostly opposed to any remaking of films -- a film should be seen in the language and context it was intended for -- but a remake is especially bad when an unnecessary character is plucked in and a new plot seals up all the best loose ends from the original.

The last ten minutes of Chloe are simply horrible. When you've seen the original, you understand why. But if you've seen neither the original nor Chloe, I highly recommend you simply avoid Chloe altogether and rent Nathalie. For my part, I'm going to try to forget Chloe altogether. I feel like they ruined my perfectly good French guilty pleasure.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher. (2005) David Di Sabatino

The blurb I wrote for A&F Top 100 film Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher went live today. I personally nominated this revealing documentary on evangelicalism's Jesus Movement roots, but didn't know if it would rank...

I'm so happy to see it made the list!

This year, Frisbee came in at # 90. Here's what I wrote:

The delicate balance between ministry and madness—explored in other Top 100 films such as Ordet and The Apostle—takes a real life turn in Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher, an informative and revealing documentary that explores the life of a struggling evangelist trying to follow and live out God's call.

Lonnie Frisbee, seeking euphoria in LSD, was tripping with friends in a California canyon painting pictures of Jesus on the rock walls when he claims he met Jesus and his life was changed forever. Delusional or not, he responded to the vision like a modern day John the Baptist, becoming a fiery-eyed prophet willing to baptize hundreds and minister to thousands off the Pacific coast. Indeed, he became one of the more well-known prophets of the counter-culture Jesus-movement of that time.

Two of the fastest growing churches of the last half-century were launched as a result of his anointed and zealous evangelism. Sadly, Frisbee himself isn't a part of their story. Having started the churches with a message for the lost, his own lostness and the moralizing of others wrote him out of church history.

Frisbee died of AIDS in 1987. Among the first to die from the epidemic, he continually struggled with homosexuality even as he claimed that it was sin.

The documentary is mind-boggling: it combines a “sin-in-the-ministry” perspective with an evangelical mode—a reminder that behind today’s groomed and well fed preachers lie roots in prophetic figures like John the Baptist, Isaiah, and Hosea. These were figures who stood against conventional religion, often appearing like lunatics but sacrificing for a cause they saw as greater than themselves.

Frisbee didn't hide his sin so much as work alongside it. He didn't want it stopping him from what he felt was the ultimate mission.

This is his story—a story almost forgotten, which some seem to wish to forget. Director David Di Sabatino captures this history in narrative form—with great pictures of Lonnie and his early life and the beginnings of the Jesus movement—and in interviews with as many as he could find who were actually a part of the story. Interviews with Chuck Girard, Chuck Smith, Jr., Troy Perry, Mel White, and Connie, Frisbee's wife, punctuate the history by offering tales that are their own. Their perspectives often differ in the details, but a similar thread always prevails: there once was a man of fire and love and compassion, who pleaded with thousands that Jesus was the way.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

EUFF Wrap.

Special thanks to the Gene Siskel Film Center for Chicago's European Union Film Festival 2010. It really was a great experience. I was able to get to twelve films -- ten either reacted to or reviewed below. The two that I've seen but haven't written on are Hadewijch, the story of a young and beautiful Jesus-follower whose inability to deal with God's invisibility leads her way off course... and The Sicilian Girl, a based-on-real-life story of a mafia princess who denounces the system that murdered her father and brother and takes on an entire village from the Italian witness relocation program. For the record, both were, well, OK, but the first 60% of Hadewijch is a masterpiece. (Before the nosedive, I mean.)

Due to scheduling problems I did miss two that I really wanted to see: Lourdes, which will be released in regular run in May, concerns a wheelchair-bound young woman and her trip to the healing city where an ironic miracle takes place, causing all kinds of questions for everyone... and The Secret of Kells, the Oscar-nominated animation that seems to only be breaking ground in distribution now.

There was a lot of March writing for a simple guy with a film hobby, hence I'm a bit behind the curve here in April. I'm actually worn out from lots of writing in many areas, so I'm going to calm down just a little bit this month. Currently I'm watching really awful horror films just to let my mind breathe easier for a few days -- the kind of stuff I wouldn't probably admit to, and the kind of stuff I certainly don't (typically) care to write about. (Although if you're curious, they will be in my Film Journal).

I plan to watch and write about a trilogy this month: Erik Poppe's Norwegian "Oslo Trilogy," which are Schpaaa (1998), Hawaii, Oslo (2004), and DeUsynlige, or Troubled Water (2008). There will be a few less bloggings this month, but I'm certain there's gold even in just these three films.