Wednesday, June 30, 2010

June Wrap.

Here are a few sentences on films from June that I probably won't write much more on, but felt each was excellent in its own right:

Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? (2008)  Morgan Spurlock

I'm two years late to this inspiring personal piece, but it could be a film that simply won't grow old. Filled with Spurlock's unique blend of humor that can turn on a dime into a deep well of conversation, the search in the title isn't really for Bin Laden after all, but rather for a dialogue with part of the world we westerners would probably do well to better understand. Instead of cruise rides and Disney Land for our next big vacation, I wish we could take a trip like Spurlock and meet this colorful cast of tribes and smiling nations from all over the Middle East -- people who are as interested in peace and goodness as we are. (And none of them have a clue where Bin Laden is, either.)

Erasing David. (2009)  David Bond and Melinda McDougall

Building on quite the same concept as Spurlock's film, wherein David must stare down what he's obsessing over while awaiting the birth of a child -- which caused each of the men to be away during filming, adding another layer of longing into developing, living storylines -- David Bond discovers how his privacy has already been corrupted by both the government (UK) and companies that know way too much about him, and he longs for life off the grid. Not even certain this is possible, he develops an experiment and hires two private eyes to track him down in Europe, having not even seen him and only knowing his name, and having thirty days to accomplish their mission. It turns into a film not all that different from a spy game, and is a total enjoyment, full of anxiety and paranoia, as David aims to elude his captors and find life post-the web.

Battle in Heaven. (2005) Carlos Reygadas

Easily the best of the three Reygadas films released here in the U.S. (the others being Japón and Silent Light), it is the story of a man and his wife who together have made a huge mistake, and their different paths in dealing with the guilt and the consequences. At first, the man finds a coping mechanism in escape through sex, both inside his marriage and out, but his abuse of the act for his own selfishness only exaggerates the issue, heaping further guilt on a heart which can no longer take how far he's strayed from God. The sexually explicit nature of the film is unrivaled and not for the squeamish, however, I can't imagine this particular film being made in any other way. It's one of those that I will some day attempt to dive into and dig into the microscopic details, making it as personal for me as it seems to be for Reygadas.

The Crazies. (2010)  Breck Eisner

Call me crazy, but I found this zombie-sans-the-zombies feature as wonderfully well-stated as the genre is supposed to be, hailing back to the black in Night of the Living Dead. Here we have a virus, a government cover-up, a contaminated water supply in small-town Iowa and a band of folks on the run. Making it more compelling is the fear of said folks being two-fold: the crazies on the right, the military and their containment camp on the left, and yet again, personal to my recent viewing habits -- a pregnant wife stuck in the middle. When the virus goes airborne, there is only one real solution. It's something I never considered before, but the more I think about it, the more real it seems to be for an Outbreak kind of situation.
I won't spoil it, I don't want to give it away -- but the idea is scarier than the film in afterthought. It is a zombie film, no matter what they tell you, and as such you don't need a whole lot: zombie/killers, people running for their lives, and a stunning socio-political message to drive it straight in the viewer's face. The Crazies is better than most are giving credit.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Non-lollipop Docs.

Living in Emergency. (2008)  Mark Hopkins

The blurb from the Siskel Center's The Gazette sums this one up quite nicely:
Doctors Without Borders (aka Médecins Sans Frontières and MSF) is the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization that provides medical care for millions of people in crisis-torn regions around the world. Shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, LIVING IN EMERGENCY follows four MSF doctors working in under-staffed, under-equipped, and often highly hazardous conditions in Liberia and the Congo. First-time director Hopkins was given unprecedented access by MSF, but the resulting film is far from a sanitized promo piece--his engaged, unflinching camera captures disputes, turf wars, burn-out, hair-raising operations, messy decisions, and sexual needs form an inspiring but humanizing portrait that one MSF official said "gets to the very core of who we are and why we exist."
The film will easily make my Top 10 list of docs from the year. I have little doubt about that, but it may be very surprising when I get to the end of the year to find this as one of my favorites -- documentary format or not. It is so inspiring! -- this in-depth study of folks on a mission of humanitarian aid. The impact the doctors are having on a small scale in lieu of the massive crises that exist in war-torn or third-world nations makes it one of the most important films on social justice I've seen since Zana Briski's Born Into Brothels, a story reminding us that one woman with a camera can create all the difference in the world, even for the hearts of little children in Calcutta's Red Light District. The impact of that film started the Kids With Cameras organization, further enhancing the educational spirit of the film.

Let's hope the Human Rights Watch Film Festival continues to make inroads bringing more awareness and aiding world poverty. Better yet, let's support groups like this and maybe even END world poverty. It is still within our reach...

There are moments when I wish I could go back to the choices I made just before I entered my first year of college. If I were eighteen again (If only I were eighteen again...) and were in the same situation where I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life but knew I wanted to do something big, grandiose, something on a large scale, something important -- and if I happened to wander into a film like this sight unseen, and get a glimpse of people finding creative ways in aiding the globally oppressed, it might have changed the course of my life. There were scores of college-aged kids at the screening last night. The film seemed to resonate with quite a few of them. I observed a group of girls that I hope are in med school that talked for quite some time outside the theater on how it impacted them. Here's to hoping they're some of the next generation I've hoped for that is not only as globally aware as mine, but willing to dive in and get their hands dirty, lending those dirty hands and launching the New Global Revolution.

8: The Mormon Proposition. (2010)  Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet

Half an investigative piece of journalism, and half a blistering report on the lies and deception of the highest powers of the Mormon church, 8: The Mormon Proposition sheds much insight into the plight of gay kids growing up in the Mormon community, as well as putting a light on the "man behind the curtain" technique the church has used in both Hawaii and California in which it puts a "coalition" together to mask its own name, but funding millions of dollars into political campaigns opposing gay rights. There's so much brought out in the two halves of the doc that I'm certain the filmmakers could have made two films. The bulk of information is simply overwhelming, particularly in the first half when they read the written words of the highest leaders in the church and their plan to thwart gay marriage in California. They are a deceptive lot, to say the least, looking more like politicians than servants of God. In fact, portrayed here (and rightly so, for their actions are shown in their own words), they look about as anti-God as they possibly can.

If I'm to describe one new learning I took away from the screening in a quick, small blurb, it is this: there is a difference between being anti-gay as a moral stance, a stance that says, "This is repugnant, morally wrong, and certainly not for me," than being anti-gay as in "anti-gay-people," driving a wedge between those who need salvation as much as anyone else and a church that can supposedly grant it. If the Mormon church is of the latter kind of anti-gay, then I resolve to be firmly anti-Mormon -- a shame, since the Mormons I've met along the way have impressed me as a kind and decent people.

Their leadership, fully on display, are anything but that. In fact the words "spite"and "hateful" spring to mind.

Suicide shouldn't be an option in a faith that so strongly observes family values. If a family member has an issue, shouldn't the family be the first place one can safely go for comfort? Yet the suicide rate among teens in Utah is at an all-time high. These are the teens who are Mormon and gay.

The gay great-grandsons of founding Mormon polygamists are at the heart of the study in the film. Their marriage is nullified when Salt Lake City funds put the nail in the coffin of gay marriage in California. I've always understood the desire for morality, to live a peaceful life of integrity, but I've never understood the need to force one's morality on others, especially ones who have no claims on the same faith or understanding of God. With all the money the Mormons sank into California law, I agree with those who think the church should be taxed.

Join Us. (2007)  Ondi Timoner

I am very impressed with Ms. Timoner as a documentary filmmaker. After seeing We Live in Public, which I scribbled a few thoughts on Here, I went back in time to visit one of her earlier works. She excels in the art of capturing large groups of people in the process of collective group-think. I guess she should know -- as I understand it, she was a part of "Pseudo," which is Josh Harris's million-dollar internet and television lock-in from the mid-90s as talked about in We Live in Public. The project was nuts, and when I watched the doc, it seemed to me to be the workings of cult-like thinking -- however non-religious the people actually were. Maybe it was a secular cult, if there is such a thing.

Regardless, I believe my line of thinking was correct, and in Join Us Timoner steps outside herself and studies a cult from the outside-in: the people involved, which are several families, pick up and take all their spouses and kids to a two-week live-in rehab for cults (the only rehab of its kind in America, or so it claims). We watch them graduate from rehab, going back to normal life and having to confront the pastor of the church of spiritual abuse.

The film is amazing on several levels. Some of their children were beaten by the parents themselves, who claim that the brainwashing of their pastor made them do it. It feels a bit like Flip Wilson's, "The Devil Made Me Do It," only here it's, "The Servant of God Made Me Do It." Worse than that, the Pastor himself has been known to beat the kids, even placing one of the children's hands on a hot stove. He used scripture about "sparing not the rod" to justify his disciplinary position. When they go back and try to catch him admit it with a concealed camera tucked away, the Pastor has suddenly developed Alzheimer's, and can't remember any one of the many events the group describes.

It's a psychological examination of people locked into the stronghold of an overpowering human's desire, evident as they continue to struggle with whether they are doing the "Devil's work" when confronting the one who devastated their lives. I hope and pray they've learned to move on, but as the film suggests, there are thousands of other cults in America to move on to.

Oh - and I loved the soundtrack all over this doc, particularly the use of Iron & Wine and Calexico during a the road trip home, and the ending credits with Sufjan Stevens' perfectly suited lyrics all over the final scenes and rolling credits. That was as perfect as a final song can make a film.

I can't wait for Timoner's next feature, a documentary on Robert Mapplethorpe called The Perfect Moment. That looks like a wild one in the making.

Burning the Future: Coal in America. (2008)  David Novack

It's been a few weeks since I saw this, but I at least wanted to mention it in this month's wrap-up of the non-lollipop docs. The title gives away the plot, but it is still highly informative and well worth a look. Personally, it hearkened back to my screening of Crude, the doc which follows a lawsuit of 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorans in their battle against Texaco/Chevron for wrecking their land and causing cancer in the Amazon. Novack's film is much along the same lines -- we're still dealing with the world's need to obtain energy, and the high cost to the environment and its inhabitants when energy is found -- but here we're watching American citizens who have lived in West Virginia their whole lives. The mountain mining coal industry brings the natives to terms with: their mountain tops removed and the refuse filling in their valleys; their land utterly rotting away; wells that have long sustained them now poisoning up; their habitat's animals disappearing or going completely extinct; and eroded new pathways from the valleys filling up, creating floods that destroy their valued homes. When part of the town is working for the miners and the other part left to view the results, tension rises, tempers fly and the people won't look at each other the same way again. Likewise, when we turn on the lights, the fridge and the fan this summer, we know we only want to cool down from the heat. But we need to pray that our over-consumption might not put these decent folk forever displaced from their land.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Winter's Bone. (2010) Debra Granik

Winter's Bone has been the talk of many film magazines and the festival circuit, earning big wins at Sundance and Berlin, and now it has finally made its way into mainstream U.S. release.

It's the story of Ree Dolly, a tough-as-nails seventeen year-old grown-up, played to perfection by Jennifer Lawrence. Ree is a native in the Ozark Mountains. She is dealing with a missing dad, a not-all-there mom, the need to keep food on the table for her younger two siblings, and a swarm of the locale's meth-makers she's constantly at odds with. The meth-makers might have something to do with her missing father, or at least know something about it. He was one of the crowd for years, in and out of jail many times.

In fact her dad has recently put the house up for a jail bond, and when he fails to show in court it looks like Ree, her mom and her siblings will have to find somewhere else to live. But they've got nowhere else they can go. The point of Ree's story becomes this: find dad, and find him fast, whether in trouble or not, dead or alive, and figure out how to make sure their home doesn't disappear.

Other than the Ozark setting, in which debate has cropped up when the film is described as an "ethnographic portrait" -- a description that turns out somewhat accurate given the otherworldly feel of the citizens in this land -- the film is actually an eerie endeavor into an otherwise modest genre exercise: the drug film. From gangster flicks like Scarface and Donnie Brasco to the spectacle of gang dealings in Menace II Society and New Jack City, you've seen some of this before, but not with such a dark mountain, almost Flannery O'Connor hypnotic-style spell. The decrepit backwoods flee-pit populace, with little to say or spare, butt heads with the moral crusade of the Sheriff's seemingly righteous (or self-righteous) law. Ree can't trust a soul from either side, and neither give details on the whereabouts of her runaway dad.

The lengths Ree goes to in tracking down her dad -- dead or alive -- for the saving of her home, and thus her mom and the children's home, too -- and her compassion and willingness in taking care of the clan in general, turn the tables from her mom's responsibility back on Ree, breaking her out of the mold of any dreams or desires of a typical teenager (or even daughter or older sister) and into the matriarchal caregiver -- she's the mom to the mom and their kids. That she's willing to enter hostile climates demanding answers from even broken blood-ties -- those who have been in the drug war with her family -- those who have shot at each other and sworn off the family name -- shows how willing she really is to go to bat for this household. She'll take a beating if need be, and even die for the salvation of the home. She becomes the aspirations and affection of a protecting mom, with an understanding beyond her years. She's full of wisdom and smarts, and a great willingness for her tribe at only the age of seventeen.

After she does go through many horrific things, one of the characters tells her he can't believe how she did it. To her, it's always been simple: "I'm a Dolly," she'll say. But given the history of the moral side of the Dollys before her, there's got to be something in her that's greater than just her blood.

With its washed out color and melancholic feel, you might seek this one out on a rainy summer night. With its Tales From the Crypt ending with a harrowing chainsaw reality, we watch as Ree the daughter and sister transcends even matriarchal interpretations, becoming a hero in the sense that only this character can bring to the situation (and the screen). Ultimately she is a one-of-a-kind, very seldom seen in cinema, a woman who gains our respect and admiration. At a moment when so many dads are missing, both in every day life and the films that reflect it, it's refreshing to find a woman who bears the soul of a loving mom.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Virgin Spring. (1959) Ingmar Bergman

Much of the current phase in my recent writing has to do with enthusiasm for a community I've been a part of for over a decade --
in one way, shape, or form. In sifting through many of the
A&F Top 100 films I'm unfamiliar with, I've had several encounters with what can only be described as "World Shattering Cinema."

And I've only just begun.

I had seen fifty-three of the 100 at the time the current list was published, with the goal of revisiting nineteen I've seen and the remaining forty-seven I haven't. In the past few months I've locked into six new films from the list, three of which are masterpieces. (Stroszek, The Song of Bernadette, and now The Virgin Spring.)

It's also been a euphoric high finding film connections that circle around and lead me right back to the list. At the European Union Film Festival this year I missed what I most wanted to see, Lourdes, but kept it tucked in the back of my brain for future reference. When I found it later on a one-week run in Chicago, I made certain to gun it to the north side for a screening. It was a good film, the kind that challenges you to think, balancing the delicacies of nature and science vs. God and his problematic miracles. But what Lourdes ultimately did was to lead me to The Song of Bernadette, the origin of the Lourdes story, a Hollywood Oscar-buzzed heart-warmer from 1943, that I simply fell in love with. It also happens to be in our Top 100 films.

Coincidentally, I also just blurbed Ingmar Bergman's classic, Cries and Whispers (Here), a film I've seen and loved many times over the past few years. Blurbing that led me once again back to the Top 100, desiring the remaining Bergman films from the list I haven't seen. And of course that now brings me to this incredible, tense Swedish-language film, The Virgin Spring -- which has an ending directly related to Lourdes and The Song of Bernadette. I won't spoil anything here, in fact I won't even review or react to it as much as simply note it here on the blog, but know this -- the word "spring" is certainly in the title for a reason. Thus, the comparison to the miraculous is made -- the circle is somewhat complete.

The Virgin Spring is a wonderful film about rape and torture and then a horrifying, brutal revenge on same said rapists and torturers. Of course, that last sentence is said a bit in jest -- but honestly, content has never been a problem for me in a linear-driven narrative film. Rapes happen in real life. Murder happens in real life. Revenge happens in real life. We hate it, but it's real.

When I encounter such hardship and sin in film, I try to move past the harsh content itself and dig in to how the story is told, how the image is shown, what the director is trying to offer, whether the nature of the telling rings true. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's just hell observed, with little else to offer. Such a film I have no interest in. (OK, except for a well-made horror film, one of my weaknesses, of which the French New Wave of Horror has been the most interesting over the past several years.) But some of these hard-to-watch "struggle" films wade through the travesty in order to express a higher point -- a higher morality that's made through suggestion, even in viewing the most evil extremes of the human condition.

The Virgin Spring is one such film. You have to go far into the forest and wander around in the darkness in order to make your way out to the other side. But on the other side of all the vile wrong, there's a ray of sunlight for meditation.

Films that retain this high artistic quality are usually present with themes that are "spiritual," or even Godly -- they're ethereal and metaphysical in nature. These are the themes that most personally appeal to me. The Virgin Spring is no exception.

But why should it be? Isn't Ingmar Bergman one who brought this to the screen for half of the last century, time and time again? Shouldn't I simply trust when I walk into a Bergman experience it is going to be far superior to the average Friday night movie -- that it does more than illicit an emotion or give you an enjoyable, fun experience, but actually challenges your notions, causing you to burrow into your hallowed beliefs, digging out questions at a higher, more critical level?

The Virgin Spring hits this level of contemplation like all the many parts that go into a good foundation: it contrasts the roots of pagan belief vs. the traditions of new Euro-Christianity; it shows the desire for harm wished on others, usurped by regret when it actually takes place; it contrasts mundane and obligatory routine morning prayers vs. the wailing dried-up prayer of a desperate man, dependent on only the hope of a higher power; and it breathes desire for repentance, atonement and justice, and asks whether all are deserving, or only a select few.

Of course, all of this leads me right back to the list, and specifically right back to Bergman. What can I say. All of this is a huge turn on for me.

For many years I've favored foreign film, my friends labelling me a "stuck-up" and a "film snob" along the way. I guess I prefer the term "aficionado," there's some kind of nice ring to that. But the truth is that I'm not trying to be a snob, I just simply prefer the best. I'd rather sit down to a majestic seven course meal than another cheeseburger and fries at McDonalds. I still know very little about global film -- six or seven Bergmans does not an aficionado make -- but it's so nice to have friends in a community I can trust that are teaching me along the way.

There is power in art that is from outside our understanding, and the more we take the plunge, the more we discover about our globe. We get many of the best films from other countries; only a country's best brings international distribution at all. So checking out your local art-house or a list like the Top 100 can lead you into richer, greener pastures. It's a trek well worth taking. The road I'm still on I wouldn't have any other way.

Bergman makes films like the kind I'm describing, and The Virgin Spring is one that I'll be mulling over for some time. It's not the kind of film you can immediately identify with. I'm not sure it fully resonated with me until giving it a day to sink in. The Criterion DVD has a commentary track that is off-the-charts outstanding. I'll be listening more to this as I learn from this rich story, and let it plum at the walls of my heart.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cries and Whispers. (1972) Ingmar Bergman

My blurb for the A&F Top 100 film Cries and Whispers just went live. Bergman's unrelenting masterpiece came in this year at #52. Here's how the blurb turned out:

“I received the most wonderful gift anyone can receive in this life. A gift that is called many things: togetherness, companionship, relatedness, affection. I think this is what is called ‘grace.’

It’s amazing to find these words in what might otherwise be called one of the most emotionally wracking films ever made. They come from the diary of a tormented, cancer-stricken woman, Agnes, who seems to rot away as we helplessly view her demise.

Holed up in a large mansion with chiming bells and ticking clocks that are a constant reminder of her time left, her journey to the end is excruciatingly slow. Two sisters and the long-time housemaid comfort her in whatever way they can (the housemaid does better than the sisters). But the mental anguish they all go through becomes a nightmare in which sickness steals joy, isolation strands people in loneliness, and tears signify failed moments of hope.

As they dress and wash the dying Agnes, reading stories to her and trying to cope, the sisters are reunited only to grapple with their own past guilt. Karin stays responsible with the bookkeeping and the bills, preparing for the funeral and the will of the estate. Maria wants to aid Agnes but recoils in fear at the terror of this haunting disease. Housekeeper Anna is the most compassionate, attending to Agnes at all hours of the night, when she writhes and screams in agony as the wind howls outside.

Many forms of human contact are treasured, but especially when they are close, physical, real: A child to her mother; a doctor to his patient; sisters for years in need of forgiveness. But there are undesired touches, too, so repugnant in nature that they result in overwhelming, horrifying, visceral responses. We need to be aware of the timing in our touch. We need to bring compassion when reaching out to another.

Bergman’s use of red highlights the soul and blood of the family, the ties to kin that can't be broken. In the same way there is a constant use of white set firmly over the red, in a color scheme that suggests a longing for purity. In the creaking dream-like house where Agnes lays, whether truly alive or finally departed, there’s a longing for connection and a whispering hope for absolution. While living and breathing, whether in health or in sickness, with friends or alone, in moments of triumph or despair—there is always a new chance, every dawn of every day, to make the right choices to move forward in grace.

Waiting for Armageddon. (2009)
Kate Davis, David Heilbroner and Franco Sacchi

I am so conflicted.

I'm going to stay on the previous rant I just had over
The September Issue.

Shouldn't I know the answer by now? I've been in love with this medium for decades. I have tried to challenge myself to think critically about film for at least ten or twelve years. Still there are moments when I just don't know how to respond.

The question, again, is this: What do we do with a well-made film -- especially a documentary, I guess, since that's where I seem to be tripping up -- which perfectly captures and takes great pains in depicting and rendering the world it inhabits, when the world it inhabits is either an empty shell of a mess, with negative points on the substance scale (again, see The September Issue reaction), or in this case, stuffed with such ignorant, seemingly brain-washed masses who make you want to shout and scream and vomit on the screen?

Can I react to a well-made documentary, bragging about its achievements, without reacting to its negative content?

A lot of these docs have been yanking this grievous (and admittedly somewhat knee-jerk) reaction from me, making me uneasy because of the content of a film itself, even when the content is captured as a truth. Shouldn't the content being true and the rendering being just cause me to well up with excitement and brag about its greatness? Shouldn't it be celebrated when a truth about life is well displayed?

Fall From Grace is another perfect example of my confliction. How do we react to a well-made film in which we hate the content, and pretty much all the people in it?

Hate is a strong word. I can't hate these people. That wouldn't be right. That wouldn't be what their Jesus or my Jesus wants. But the folks presented here bring me such turmoil, as a person with great interest in the story of Christ. Because His story can't be their story. It's simply not the same thing -- not even close. I don't ever remember a teaching of Christ causing us to desire war, or want people to die, or want to rise up in violence helping God usher in His end-times.

Such a view is not far off from a word the same people fear and find grossly immoral: jihad.

So here's an accomplished documentary depicting a Bible-tumping, bloodthirsty, supposedly "Christian" people who desire the ushering of jihad for the coming Kingdom. Won't these believed-in end-times come when and if the God they believe in chooses? Why would an all-powerful God even need these people to usher in His big event?

And why do they dwell on the future so much, anyway? Is Jesus doing so little for them here, now? Is their God so limited that he can't bring peace in the world right now, through them, instead of their belief that other religions have to basically die before God can come in and save them from destruction?

What kind of a small God only wants the ones that believe in Him, anyway? I thought this Christ was for all nations. Is it only when they believe that they get to "go up"? And if so, what if some of the people in this film have wrong beliefs about the way they view their precious apocalypse -- do they still get to "go up"?

If I am going to serve this God, if I am going to believe in this story to the point where it touches me, guides me, corrects me when I'm wrong, heals me when I'm sick or wounded -- then I'm willing to let him do this right here, and right now... and tomorrow? Come what may.

If there were a million, or 50 million others concerned with the here and now, maybe we'd usher in the peace God has always claimed as His will for all nations.

But instead we have 50 million people so bloodthirsty for God's war, for God's wrath upon all the wretched unbelievers, for God to replace that Muslim temple in Jerusalem and to erect His own temple so that then, only then, He can come back. As if He can't come back under any circumstance He wants, and as if He won't just put a temple there whenever He wants. And as if He hasn't changed His mind in the Bible on other occasions. Do these people pray every night that God will change His mind and save and bless even the lost?

There are moments where I wish there were only 65 books in the Bible -- the one left out would of course be Revelation. The context of the book, written in its day, is never taken into account -- that it's a form of literature called "apocalyptic." I've not been taught on all the theology around this -- I would like to! -- but I've seen literalism run amuck time and time again. I've seen people pretend they already know the answers when half the questions haven't even been addressed. The book is constantly approached as if written directly to us for contemporary times -- and has been approached that way for thousands of years by thousands of people in hundreds of countries. Which one is right? Perhaps, none?

You can dress up in political garb and mix your American Christianity right in, but when you hope for death and for God to wipe out "The Other," you've got to be missing the point. Are there parts of the Bible that are figurative? Did Jesus always speak direct commands or did he ask sometimes ask meaningful questions? Did he spin parables to lead to one ultimate constant truth, or to create a probing and pondering of our own hearts? Do you have to understand every word he said and every detail in the Big Book in order to get the main point of salvation and peace for all?

My closing thoughts, and this is again about the content and not about the well-made film:

1. From the time of Abraham God has desired to bless all nations. All. Not the ones of your choosing. Not America and the U.K. and all English speaking white people countries. All. Even the ones you don't like. Maybe especially the ones you don't like. Maybe the ones that scare you. All. I do not believe the blessings of God are limited by "Christian" boundaries.

2. I can't understand how rapture theology is Biblical, except by a few old-school non-thinking fundies who opt to literalize one New Testament verse. Add to that a plethora of end-time movies and Tim LaHaye novels and video games, and BOOM! You've got the revolution of Rapture Theology.

3. There are just as many verses in Isaiah that talk about laying down our weapons and taking care of the land, and sexual deviants inheriting the Kingdom, as there are about God wiping out everything and everybody. How can people not see that God wants to wipe out evil -- which is not a fight against flesh and blood? Why do we constantly want to make the enemy someone human, someone "Other," someone other than the evil in our heart?

Sometimes I think the Bible has been turned into a Christian idol. It's a book where the interpretation won't be critically thought out, but still held high to justify hatred of the "Other". Sometimes I think the songs sung to Jesus on any given Sunday morning are idol worship of a kind, too. I don't remember Jesus asking us to sing to him.
I remember him saying take care of the poor, the sick, the oppressed -- something God has always been concerned with.

War-mongering and hate have no place in God's New Kingdom. If there's a war to be fought, he can fight it Himself. Until then, the greatest commandment remains: "Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself."

Bottom line: Waiting For Armageddon gets four out of five Netflix stars -- and I hate it.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The September Issue. (2009) R.J. Cutler

It took me a little while to be comfortable with outright rejecting and despising this well-made doc. The basic problem I had is that it is well-made, to the point of confusing me regarding my own intentions for its dismissal. The vapid characters and their void conversations about fashion and clothing that only a rich little princess (or an actress, or a model) would wear are contrasted against a perfectly shot and edited film that plums the depths, so to speak, of Vogue Magazine's editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, and her preparation for their celebrated giant-sized issue, hitting the streets every September. It's their first day of school, with the largest printed edition paving the way for the year to come.

The film feels like it wants to get behind the scenes and take a harder, closer look at Wintour, and find her soul. And a good doc with a good subject might have been able to do so. As it is, she has no soul (again -- so to speak). She is encased in plastic and elastic instead of human skin, pushing everyone and everything for her own utilitarian purposes, which are a fashion that only appeals to other millionaires.

If Wintour were a part of a car, some would say she's the engine, pushing all other parts, the force behind the forward-driving machine. I see her more as the windshield. She's what you see through to get the point across, but honestly you can live without it.

The problem with my immediate criticism is that I was concerned I was only looking at the subject matter and not the accomplishment of the film itself. There have been many documentaries and stories over the years in which I've hated all the main characters and realized that was the filmmaker's point. Such a film will get a highly favorable response from me. The intentions in such cases are clearly made; they've accomplished their goal. With The September Issue, it's a little harder to figure out the filmmaker's intentions. If it's to provide insight into the industry and illustrate the gaping hole at its center, plodded around and avoided by an entire cast of characters involved, then it has succeeded, too, I guess. But I don't that was the intent behind the production and I do not think that is the point. Director Cutler is trying to show something deeper about Wintour, some kind of honor or value -- and sadly, there's simply nothing there.*

So the filmmaker is responsible for this mess, too. He has picked a subject that has no substance, and cares not to admit it, holding himself over everyone else to blame. It would be one thing if Cutler were actually making the point that these people had no substance and that fashion is a sorry form of existence. But that is clearly not the point he's trying to make, and he miserably fails if he's trying to show that these people are to be respected for anything deeper than a cardboard cutout. So this is an all-around failure, and I feel OK admitting that, regardless of its good production values.

*She does appear to love her daughter. I will give her that much. I wish that relationship had been a little more explored. As it is, it is clear that her daughter doesn't want to follow in Wintour's footsteps -- she is in law school.... Which may actually lead her to law -- another exercise in American style over substance. But I'll save that rant for another day.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Stroszek. (1977) Werner Herzog

I've recorded some thoughts here and I don't have time to write an official reaction for the Filmsweep blog, but I must simply say that I adore this film after seeing it for the first time last night.

There's so much to love, and especially when you go back through the commentary and listen to Herzog talk. As you're probably already aware, just listening to him talk anytime, anywhere, is a fun experience. But hearing him talk specifically about how Stroszek was made -- the actors, the non-actors, Bruno S., and the dancing chicken -- is a rich and rewarding experience, full of insight into Herzog's heart. He loves the stories of all kinds of people, and he loves relating them to the world in his films. We never know where the full truth lies with Herzog, but he is nothing less than an adventure every time.

Kudos to the A&F Top 100 again. It's a collaborative experience that keeps us learning and growing with each new challenge it brings.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Song of Bernadette. (1943) Henry King

I first heard about Lourdes when seeing and reviewing the film of the same name. That modern-day movie focuses on the legitimacy of the miracles said to take place there. By focusing on one young woman's story it asked questions about the millions of pilgrims who trek there each year, and whether those who claim healing are reading miracles into their stories, adjusting their beliefs accordingly. As a non-Catholic with great interest in all the stories surrounding the Story of Christ, the film left me with a longing for resolution even as it dangled its main character unresolved -- she was clearly authentic in her belief that physical healing took place in her frail body. But was the event an authoritative miracle, or an isolated abomination of nature?

Lourdes ended nowhere near the resolved tone of a tonic, making it hard to forget or simply put out of your mind. It's like that prayer you think may or may not have been answered -- you just don't know. As my introduction to the small French town, it left me hoping that one day I'd travel there and touch the wall of rock called Massabielle myself, personally encountering the holiness of the revered setting. So when a friend pointed out the A&F Top 100, and a film that showed the origin of the Lourdes story, suffice it to say I was more than a little enthused.

The Song of Bernadette differs from Lourdes in that it's a Hollywood classic, it's in black and white, and its female lead, Jennifer Jones, took home an Oscar for her performance. But it shares similarities in that it probes the authenticity of the miracles, with characters casting a shadow of doubt over rays of hope, and an actress that is soooo delightful.

The greatest difference is this: where Lourdes can be so probing it can leave you in a foul state of over-thinking, The Song of Bernadette lifts you out of yourself, as if caught up to heaven in rapture.

The ever-so-simple, true-to-life story is that of Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858, at the age of fourteen, had visions of Mary the Mother of God at Massabielle. An asthma sufferer, Bernadette was rarely in school and made no claims to a Christian education -- she didn't even make claims to recognize the apparition and simply referred to the visions as a beautiful "lady." Very soon her sisters and family came to see the lady, too, which eventually brought tens, twenties and hundreds of townspeople following close behind.

Bernadette had eighteen Marian visions, and she was the only person to see "the lady" each time. This caused quite an uproar in the community, particularly in a stern Catholic environment where politicians and priests quarreled for jurisdiction over the miraculous. Had she been born a few decades earlier she'd have most likely been branded a heretic; should she have continued in heresy the punishment would have been severe. One need look no further than Carl Dreyer's masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc to know that France has not been kind to its heretics.

Several miracles and a flow of spring water at Massabielle, where there had been no spring before, got the authorities off Bernadette's back and brought thousands of folk from surrounding communities. The film follows Bernadette into a convent and all the way through her early demise, tugging on heart strings the whole way. In that way it reminded me of Murnau's Sunrise. I knew it was tugging at all the right strings, but I didn't even throw up a fight. It was too enjoyable to not let myself be fully immersed in.

Jennifer Jones (1919-2009) as Bernadette is so sweet, so expressive, and entirely convincing in the role. She's filled with such child-like wonder, especially when entranced in her visions. Her child-like wonder spilled over to the crowd at Lourdes, and it spills out of the screen as well. It fills the viewer with wonder. Her friendly, gentle, and spirited manner is enhanced by lush, symmetric cinematography and exceptional lighting techniques that bring this monochrome palette to life. An hour into The Song of Bernadette and you've forgotten you're watching black and white. Color seems to express itself everywhere. Perhaps it lurks quietly between every frame of the film.

I don't believe a film like this can even be made today, much less garner all the accolades and sport the crowning achievement of an Oscar for its lead. Those who have the financing to create such a large and lavish production wouldn't even attempt it. They'd first say it wouldn't sell, and instead invest in a more skeptical story enhanced (or de-enhanced) with loads of unnecessary CGI. It would take a whole new kind of miracle for a modern-day studio to notice the pulsing heart that's celebrated in this kind of golden cinema.

Next year when our community again sets out to re-create our Top 100 films of art and faith, I hope my contribution in voting will continue to resuscitate this overlooked Hollywood gem, causing others to seek it out. I know I overlooked it for far too long. Now I'm happy to push it up the ranks of the list rather than have it sit at its lonely position at the end.

I guess I can't say it any simpler than this: Gosh, I really love this film. Truly. It's the easiest five stars I've recorded at Netflix in years.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I Can't Sleep. (1994) Claire Denis

Kingdoms are always colliding in the films of Claire Denis. Perhaps the boundaries were first pushed in her 1988 debut, Chocolat, where they were first tested inside a country's borders. Though later films like L'intrus were more global in their scope, migration and immigration have always been steadfast in the common-ground world she depicts. I Can't Sleep is early in her oeuvre, and has all the bumps you'd expect from an upcoming director's work. But it's the textbook example you'd expect to find on the road to her finding the right voice.

Much of the reader-response criticism in reaction to the film have not treated it kindly over the years. Part of the problem in the misinterpretation of I Can't Sleep is in attempting to come to terms with it as a murder mystery. Murder does have a role here; daily reports in Parisian papers are filled with warnings about a serial killer stalking lonely, elderly women. But the killings aren't the central theme. They're only a facet in an advancing plot.

It's probably easier to understand this while looking back on all of Denis's work than it was at the time of the film's release, but in retrospect her ideas better emerge. There is a common thread of globalization that weaves through much of her work.  Films like Chocolat and Beau travail, Nénette et Boni and 35 rhums --and especially L'intrus, the one I flounder with but love in hindsight with every new Denis I see -- are similar in their study of Parisians, whether at home settling into city housing, or abroad, migrating to Africa or around the globe. They're a fragile emerging group grappling with the similarities and differences in all of us, in a tough to understand 21st Century melting pot.

So watching I Can't Sleep now is like seeing a picture of a high school senior, but someone you know as an adult with a large house and kids. Denis is concerned with the globe and how we interact on the face of it; she voices that concern more maturely these days, but the voice is still the same as in her earlier, blossoming works.

America isn't alone or unique in dealing with the perils or pleasures of global immigration. Denis's Paris is at the forefront of a diverse New Europe, one with roots in the traditional countries but as mixed as any American city. Everywhere you go in Paris you're welcomed with Lithuanian, African, Russian and American accents. Travelers and immigrants, legal and illegal are depicted in the film the same way they're integrated into a society still coming to terms with how to fit them in. Cops and African-French and homosexuals and kin from the Eastern block -- Lithuanians and American travelers, car thieves, moms, dads, children and pets -- they're all in Denis's Paris. Some with I.D. cards, and some not.

That we get to see and study the group as a whole in a small spare film about a serial killer suggests there's more at work here than a simple murder mystery. Rather, we focus less on plot and more on the people. The killer could be any one of us, but then again so could the lover or helper. We're never alone as we struggle the streets together, collectively individualistic, hoping for peace and perhaps unity for all.

The unity will come, but as we get used to new faces in old surroundings, it's going to be a slow boil, taking years to fully process. But it comes in the way we play together. It comes in the way we love. The way we laugh and dance* together -- the way we infuriate and frustrate one another -- together -- and when the infuriating and frustrating is all said and done done, finding peaceful ways to inhabit the earth.

*There is a dance scene in I Can't Sleep that is a direct familial foreshadowing of that most popular coming of age dance scene in 35 rhums. In the latter it was between a father, a daughter, and her soon-to-be lover. Here it is a mother and two sons continually cutting into each other's dance, almost begging their mom for attention. She invests her time and love in them both. It can be seen as another wonderful metaphor regarding the continuing process of globalization.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Ink. (2009) Jamin Winans

One of the regular posters at A&F created a thread for Ink, and I'm so glad he did or I wouldn't have been introduced to this fine, fun
sci-fi indie that surprised me with its originality and knocked me out with its passionate form. It's well acted and holds your attention with rapid, blink-of-the-eye edits. It never lets down in imagination, and keeps you constantly guessing ahead while thoroughly enjoying the moment you're in.

It's a multi-dimensional tale about a little girl, her up and down relationship with her dad, and the supernatural beings that influence their decisions, their surroundings, and their future together. The beings are somewhat typical of the "good vs. bad" scenario that reminds me of angels and demons in the old Frank Peretti book,
This Present Darkness
. In this case the would-be angels are called "Storytellers," beings which can influence good dreams at night and fight for your healthy existence on earth, and the would-be demons are "Incubi," who give you bad dreams and want to steal and destroy your hope.

There's also a third set of characters who kind of wander between these two extremes. The main character, Ink, is one of these -- or at least you think he is for a time -- and when little girl Emma falls into a coma, he kidnaps her to his hidden dark world. Warfare in the heavens, or at least in other dimensions (depending on your interpretation), ensues.

Whether it is intended I don't know, but there's a wealth of Judeo-Christian symbolism to be found. Aside from the rather obvious Peretti-style symbolism, there's also the Storytellers' complete dedication to their selfless cause, eventually leading to sacrifice in order to save someone else. There's also one rich scene in particular that describes the common rhythm of life, the ebb and flow we collectively experience. Finding that rhythm, breathing in that moment, understanding your place in life and following your calling is the implied expression of a believer's role in the world.

Ink is its own film, but immediate comparisons have to be made. It simply harkens back to other sources. The highly stylized expressionism reminded me of The Cell, maybe even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; the dimensional soul-searching, the longing to get a grip on life and death made it seem like a much better version of The Fountain; the behind the scenes Incubi and Storytellers are reminiscent of the wonder of the angels in Wings of Desire; but most of all I was reminded of Dark City, in its hope for human redemption in fighting against the darkness, and in the sacrifice that brings overcoming change.

It also feels like Primer or Memento, in that you know you want to revisit it again -- maybe more than once, maybe even once a year.

A husband and wife team called the Winans pulled the whole production together. You can tell from their commentary on the DVD Extras -- a commentary I still want to finish just to see if they mention any of the Christian-like ideas -- that they enjoy each other and loved working together on Ink, and they're very proud of their accomplishment. They should be. The post-production work is phenomenal, and for an indie sci-fi film, it's an incredibly masterful experience.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (2009)
Niels Arden Oplev

I always thought it would be so utterly cool to have photographic memory. The girl in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is
Lisbeth Salander, wonderfully played by Swedish TV star Noomi Rapace, and she's been blessed with this gift. But as it turns out, depending on what life's thrown at you or maybe stains of guilt in your past, photographic memory is a blessing in some ways and not so much in others. I never considered that this gift could be a thorn in the flesh when you'd rather try to bury some things in the past.

I really loved the film -- I can't wait to see it again, and I'd love to see it one more time on the big screen. It has quite a few little stories that run at the same time, but we follow one more thoroughly than the others. Then, suddenly when you think it's over, there's so much more -- because all the other little stories begin wrapping up, and they all wrap up quite nicely.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is essentially a thriller about a disgraced journalist (Michael Nyqvist, who you might remember as Rolf in Lukas Moodysson's Together), and a troubled young computer hacker (Rapace), who are teamed up investigating the disappearance of an industrialist's niece, a crime which took place decades ago.
I won't dig too deeply into this one other than to say it's a great story with wonderful chemistry between the leads, and the ending really leaves you wanting more.

It reminded me of Just Another Love Story, the thrilling Danish noir from 2007 that left me reeling on the edge of my seat. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn't quite leave you reeling at the end, because you've already been reeling before you get to the end, and then it takes its time resolving leftover questions in the background, turning it into such a satisfying experience.

The film is based on the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's international best seller, a phenomenon that has become one of the highest selling translated novels in the U.S. (2 million copies as of 2008). If you haven't read it and you're anywhere near a bookstore, you've seen it. You even see it on the book shelf at the train station.

The film is the first of the "Millennium" trilogy, all based on the novels, and I haven't looked forward to a following work this much in a long time. Those who know me know that I love the idea of a trilogy -- hard as it is to pull off -- even though I hate the idea of sequels. (Loathing consistency is also one of my film watching character defects.)

The Girl Who Played with Fire opens here in Chicago July 2. I will be away from Chicagoland for the holiday, but I'll be first in line the following week.

Kudos to The Music Box Theatre's Music Box Films, a young upstart distribution network aimed at independent and foreign films. I've attended their theatre for years; the distribution company they've put together is the perfect, logical extension of their obvious love of the art-house. As the art-house becomes more mainstream, as in productions like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it's nice to see the success of "the little movie house that could." I wish them continued success in all their future efforts.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Road. (2009) John Hillcoat

Edited: June 4, 2010.

I'm not pleased with the writing I did on The Road; it was too reactionary even for my reactionary little blog. Maybe one day I will see it again, and perhaps at that time I won't even hate it as much as I do now. I'll certainly let others try to make a decent case for it in the meantime, but until the day comes where I can be persuaded of its merits, I'll fondly remember The Road as the one that goes down best with Jonestown Kool-Aid -- a wrenching film which grovels in and brings on abject despair.

Harry Brown. (2009) Daniel Barber

It's not as if Harry Brown isn't a strong film. By even the highest of standards it's a technically accomplished, very powerful production. There's nothing slick or tricky about the camera or its cinematography, but all the stark details of this hard city neighborhood are perfectly (read: hopelessly) rendered, and they're pivotal to the maze in which we find the title character.

Michael Caine, too, is stellar, as ex-serviceman and widower Brown --a man pushed to the edge to take up arms against his aggressor.
His blended elderly statesman appeal with a tough-as-nails approach drudge up long forgotten T.V. images of Edward Woodward's
"The Equalizer." Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is found in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, a film about a retired bad-boy cowboy in the Wild Wild West trying to forget vile actions from years ago. It takes time for Brown, as it took for Eastwood's Munny, to slide back into that former hardened bad-boy with balls role. The passing of Brown's wife, and then the murder of his friend by a group of street thugs, bring Brown as the anti-hero to the underground tunnel where his buddy was murdered, which is the U.K. Wild Wild West. He battles youngins and youth, and he battles his aging, aching body.

Clint Eastwood and the Wild Wild West are actually a good point of entry to Harry Brown. If the movie were a man, it'd be the strong, silent type, with a darkened edge and mysterious past.

There was a day when getting the bad guys made for a wonderful Friday night at the movies. After all, no one cares if the bad guy dies, right? He's the perfect target for our bloodlust excitement. But over the years we've gone from the Wild Wild West and the bad guys to general bloodlust and a desire for un-targeted vengeance,
to bloodlust for bloodlust's sake, to the hip and cool younger generation who can laugh and guffaw at the torture and mutilation of others. I personally don't care if it's the bad guy being tortured or not -- this kind of social interaction cannot possibly be healthy.

The brutality in Harry Brown -- and there are moments when it is extremely brutal -- has the necessary payoff in which the bad guys get it in the end. But that's just not how life works. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Sometimes the bad guys get away.

What Harry Brown the film does is perpetuate an age-old lie. The myth of redemptive violence goes back thousands of years in our collective consciousness. It basically says the way of the gun is best and it's clearly the only solution. It tells us natural selection puts a gun in a man's hand; that he can redeem a wrongdoing with his own form of violence, his own will to destruction. Violence, in this myth, brings justice.

But it is only a myth. It always has been. Ninety-nine percent of the time, violence begets more violence. You slap me, I slap you back, but harder. You slap me back, harder still, so I get my big brother, who gets his dad, who gets his dad's baseball bat, who...

Violent acts against another typically lead to an even more violent act.

I'm no pacifist, but I cling to a truth that tells me we are fed far too many myths that we blithely buy into, and our viewing habits are fed enough violence in the guise of redemption that are gobbled up as true without fully thinking it through.

I can get past violence in film if I believe there is a greater good, a larger schema brought to light in the story. That is violence that is justified in my mind. But in Harry Brown there's nothing but the shell of a myth that's deceived millions of people for thousands of blood-soaked years.

Harry Brown is a blasting, tense, roller coaster of a movie where crime-ridden ghettos should be ready to face the Dark Knight. But it's also an example of a horrid ideal that can scar your soul when you idly buy into it -- that violence is the best and only answer to the darkness.