Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Tree of Life. (2011) Terrence Malick

A Break From June Lite.

Terrence Malick's metaphysical mind job is a film that won't be for everyone, but man, it floored me. It's the first film I've seen that will be in contention for a Top Ten spot when I put together my yearly list at the end of 2011.

I suspect that seeing The Tree of Life in the theater has a lot to do with my reaction. It's such a huge experience, made to order for the Big Screen. It's loaded with universal images, and by that I mean images of the universe; long segments are like a cosmic ode to the Creation story. Indeed, its first frame is even a quote pulled from the end of the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?"

But it is also universal in the Christian sense, like a Christian Universalist. It's visually striking enough to relay a fascination with the cosmos and one family's struggle within it, but ambiguous enough to avoid the pat answers a Christian movie might adhere to.

It also suggests a maternal grace that wrestles with the paternal nature of the world, that the world in itself can be beautiful to our eyes, but it can be a dangerous, disastrous place as well - and that our actions and the actions of those around us can determine how we filter the beauty of grace and the strength of nature.

And Brad Pitt, for the record, is amazing.

I doubt I'll see a better film this year, but I'm sure I'll never see another film quite like it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Blow Out. (1981) Brian De Palma

I'm an audio kinda guy. Always have been. From the time I was sixteen rocking metal for Mr. Jesus; to eighteen going solo with a four-track recorder (and likely a mirror, Narcissist Little Me); to a mid-twenties tormented artiste with Swedish buddies and copious amounts of two-inch tape; to my current love of digital surround sound and the iPod on which I groove, I marvel at the possibilities of Time and Sound in a captivated sensorial type of way.

I once wrote a fifteen page college paper, probably after reading way too much John Cage, on my theory of dimensional black holes lying in-between the notes we actually hear. Diagrams and dimensions and everything. Figure 1-A between G and G-sharp. The paper got an A, with one word from the prof on the cover of my report: "Brilliant!"

I guess I tricked good ol' Professor Brubaker. With that kind of ability, perhaps I should have stayed in school.

I wrote and toured my own songs but also worked in sound solely for others, and I remain fascinated by everything from the chord structures and rhythmic stylings of Radiohead and Blonde Redhead, to the vocalizations of Bon Iver and Iron & Wine, to the layered synth meanderings of Mates of State and The Knife, to the unzipped-pants-rawk of the somewhat spiritually downtrodden Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Starflyer 59.

I was destined to, at the very least, appreciate Blow Out, a film that is essentially about sound. It's about an audio guy with a political conspiracy on his hands and proof of the Reality on tape. (Those who visit here often enough also know I have a thing for Reality. Capital "R.")

I was destined to appreciate this film.


For a film about sound, it sure has some crappy sounds in it. There are some awfully dated moments when background filler sounds like early 80s Spirogyra, a schmaltz-like fusion with half-distorted guitar licks sprung out of 70's-era porn.

And, it's a lot to wade through to get to those final mesmerizing fifteen minutes of pure pop movie bliss. Sure, the ending is killer. But there's a lot of filler to get to the killer.

I don't really get why this is the De Palma film everyone seems to love. It's -- eeh, it's OK. As I've noted in all my De Palma adventures over the course of the past few weeks, the cinematographic style is in moments as self-aware as it is astounding; certain shots are a visual feast. One in particular that stands out spins our eyes around a room where John Travolta discovers all his tapes have been altered. He frantically tears through tape after tape that he's backed up from an original, only to find all of his tapes mysteriously erased. But we only see him poking in and out of frame in his maddening hunt. The camera continually spins in 360 showing us the room, the blanked-out evidence, with Travolta caught in the chaos of his loss and the sounds of all the tape machines, each having been erased with a different mechanical sound. Stylistically, the shot is a great choice, but it ends with a greater exclamation point. We cut to an edit from above, a God's Eye on Travolta, looking down on a defeated man exiting the room, the tapes still playing blanked-out white noise, tape and audio equipment all over the floor.

Travolta as sound man Jack Terry is actually pretty good, and in moments, his sidekick Sally (Nancy Allen with a voice like a feminine abrasive) brings a nice chemistry to their scenes together. They met when he saved her, nearly drowned after the car she was in had a tire blown out and was thrown from a bridge; we learn as we go that a presidential candidate was also in the car with Sally. The tire was no accident, there are tapes with a shot ringing out. The candidate is dead. Sally and Jack could be next.

But are these real characters, like Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star 1981 review? Or are they, to borrow a phrase from a recent article in cineaction, animated simulacra, characters which seem real but serve the simpler purpose of advancing a film's trajectory?

In terms of story, the trajectory feels to me kind of like a dot. Once the blow out takes place, probably around twenty minutes in, it's mostly the same story from there to the end of the film. Little surprise happens. No big reveals. The conspiracy theory at the heart of the story is fun, but by today's conspiracy theory standards, it's actually a little bit tame.

What may save a good portion of the film in my mind is that I love the idea of conspiracy in and of itself. I'm inclined to believe that the media is its own message, and the message is often false. I thoroughly enjoy the stuff of juicy unknowns: the Zapruder tape, the 9/11 documentaries, secret societies and the X-Files. I am certain there's always more going on behind the scenes than we know, and at its best, Blow Out shows exactly how a political cover-up might take place in real time. In that aspect the film is golden.

But once again, even though Travolta is decent in this role, I find myself watching a De Palma film where characters are suffering from under-exposure. Not that we don't see them enough, but they're used so much in advancing the plot that we never know them enough to care about their lives. De Palma, ever masterful on the visual level, injects an incredible amount of style into the film - just not enough to trick me into believing that his style is his substance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dressed To Kill. (1980) Brian De Palma

Essentially, this is the story about a woman in a one-day affair, along with a hooker, a transvestite, a psychologist, a cop, and a nerdy teenage brainiac. These people would never meet at a party, they'd never share a drink at a bar. In fact, nerdy teenager is too young for a drink anyway. Stuffing such a vast blend into one cuu-razy story (and all of the characters' juvenile plasticity) makes the film only worth a look if you're doing a Brian De Palma month like I am. But at this point, I am starting to wish I'd just dedicated the month to Hitchcock.

It's not a very good film at all, but if you'd like to see the best parts of it watch the very first murder scene, and then fast forward to about fifty-eight minutes, the moment when De Palma's signature split screen shows up, and man, does it ever. The use of a TV in two separate rooms combined with excellent design and placement of the shot brings another magical De Palma moment.

Sadly, as in The Fury, the magic is only momentary. A Scooby Doo wrap-up and a chiller thriller finale (ripped straight from the end of Carrie -- hey! That worked, let's do it again) finally pushes Dressed To Kill into the bowels of complete nauseousness.

. . .

As one travels through De Palma's back catalog, you see things that suggest a fascination with the dark side, in particular, the vile nature of exploitative sex.

BFI's review of De Palma's second film but first theatrical release, Murder à la Mod (1968), a film I have yet to see, "Finds various young women... being auditioned by their boyfriend (the offscreen voice is De Palma's own) for a skin flick he's got to make to pay for his divorce." How interesting even in the early part of his career that De Palma's actual voice is being heard; one could say that his "voice" is heard through many of the rest of his films as well. The themes which captivated him early on are scattered throughout his work, never suggestively. Manipulation and bartering through sex, often leading to murder, began early in his oeuvre and continue through much of his career:

In Sisters it was a brutal murder by butcher knife the morning after a one night stand; Obsession leaves us with the idea that incest might be more biologically natural than we'd once thought; Blow Out, blogged here tomorrow, tells of a politician's affair resulting in death; in Scarface (blu-ray coming out this September), most of the sex is gift wrapped like an exchange, quid pro quo; Femme Fatale creates the kind of sex that is so enrapturing one can actually thieve off another's body in the process; Body Double and The Black Dahlia both lens prostitution and pornography in a "cool," glorifying manner, while dealing out a sad end for those who participate in such activities. (These two films want their cake and eat it, too.)

Sex isn't respected or honored in the context of these stories. It's always, "You got it, I want it, I've got this to give if I can get it."

After watching too much De Palma, you sometimes feel you need a cold shower. And just hope that nothing like the picture above gets you while you're in there.

Resembling Carrie, the opening scene of Dressed to Kill is that of a naked woman in the shower. But in comparing the two films, you can actually feel the more shameless way Dressed to Kill is shot. Whereas the opening shower scene in Carrie set the viewer up for an introduction to the innocence and confusion of its lead, a similar scene in Dressed to Kill is hyper-sexualized, focusing blatantly on Angie Dickinson's breasts - she's looking turned on by the bar of soap. The tone is utterly gratuitous, so over the top that it's ridiculous to watch, like an even worse Nine 1/2 Weeks, spiced up with murder so double your fun.

But, Reality Check: This film, and many from the director, are not supposed to be a reflection of reality.

So what are we watching? And why?

I guess we are fascinated by stories about people who do that sinful or immoral thing we're not supposed to. Sleep around. Commit murder. Make love in the shower with your bar of soap.

I am personally fascinated by the lens itself, the way it relays image to our eyes and, from there, straight into the soul. I am not persuaded that all stories are really good for us unless we're willing to challenge them, to pick them apart and take them on.

Dressed to Kill, in that sense, feels like voyeurism and a waste of time. Hardcore De Palma fans will find plenty to absorb in the way the camera draws us in, the split screens at the middle, the intrigue over sex, despair and murder.

That we're fascinated by some sort of code that's broken, some sort of gate we're not supposed to go through, makes the watching feel like a lonely fellow addicted to pornography. It's the thing that he can't have that he obsesses over. He's engulfed in it, addicted to it, willing to give his eyes to that thing that escapes him.

We are a strange bird, us humans. We've built the greatest means for entertainment. We can bask in a million different stories at which we'll marvel. But for some of us it always comes back to those things we just can't have: an affair, a cover-up, a murder.

Seems kinda boring when you think about it like that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Fury. (1978) Brian De Palma

This film is a disaster, a far cry from the other horror/paranormal film De Palma directed only two years before, Carrie. The Fury is overstuffed with people, plots and scenes that only exist to get to other scenes, you know, the ones with the action. It's a frustrating viewing experience because it borrows from everywhere and can't settle into any groove or decide what it actually wants to be. Is it a spy film? Is it a film about ESP? Is it a comedy? Is it horror, a drama or a farce? A very rare film can be all of these at once; The Fury is not that film. I wanted to stand up and shout at it, "For crying out loud, pick a side! Any side."

Flashes of De Palma's brilliance are found in pieces lying in the wreckage. One brilliant flash in particular has main character Gillian (Amy Irving, luminous as always as she switches gears from a witness to the paranormal in Carrie to the one who is the paranormal here), tripping on the stairs - her mentor grabs her by the hand to steady her and she instantly has a premonition, gripping his hand which begins to bleed, her thoughts racing to other events that she can see due to him touching her. We see her thoughts as though she stands against a black and white screen behind her. Brilliant "premonition technique" in scenes like this and an engaging-as-always score create masterful moments in this otherwise mess of a film.

Kirk Douglas, who I raved about a few weeks ago when I saw Paths of Glory, is the spy that lost his son, but he looks lost, and he's miserable to watch in a script that goes all over the place and loses itself in its maze. It was interesting to see him at the age he was here, though, and compare him to his son these days. In my head, I kept thinking I was seeing Michael.

It was nice to see Chicago in the seventies, though, and there was at least one very funny line: "I told you we should have moved to Melrose Park."

But really. What an awful mess of a film. All the depth I found in Carrie is not found here. And whereas Carrie had a bombastic, gut-wrenching ending, I had a hard time making it to the end of this cluttered wreck.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Carrie. (1976) Brian De Palma

A standard in horror - 70s b-grade type, but still riffed on three decades later - Carrie probes the rich themes you'll find in any great film, regardless of genre. To limit Carrie to "horror talk" oversimplifies it; the film is loaded with deep, storybook emotion, which makes its terrifying grand finale more memorable. Many films have tried to borrow from Carrie over the years, usually with less appeal, due to the fact that they aim for the style of it without focusing on much of the very substance.

Seeing a crime on the street brings less emotion than seeing a loved one involved in the same crime. Seeing a kid get hurt in a high school football game is harsh, of course! - but seeing your kid hurt in that same game will send you into a state of sheer panic. Human nature suggests we are driven by something deeper, something that resonates inside - not just what we see on a day to day basis. The more our emotions are involved in the life of another, the more seeing that person's suffering will hit us where it actually hurts.

It's the same way in the movies.

Stories have grounded us in each other's lives since oral tradition around the caveman's fire. We bond to one another through the stories of our lives, and the meaningful stories we make up, too. Sharing stories is to our emotional well-being what eating, drinking, and breathing is to us physically. It's a part of the fabric of our being that has extended through thousands of years; it's how humans relate, how we care.

It's for this reason that much of what horror peddles, we simply don't care about. The genre creates a lot of schlock with very little heart. I've often said that I'm a fan of the idea of horror more than a fan of most of the films themselves. Monsters, killing sprees, butcher knives and masks often feel like a glossy item on sale in a window, but when you walk inside you find out there's no store. I have always liked to refer to films like these as "empty scented boxes."

After going back to Carrie, a film which has become one of my favorites from repeated viewings, I noticed a few things that stand out, things which bring deeper meaning, getting us involved long before the carnage that later stamps the film as horror:

Competition. Folks often remember the first scene of Carrie as the locker-room scene, but this is misremembering. The locker-room scene is actually the second scene in the film, which the credits and music play over and which ends with Carrie's first terrifying exposure to her period. The very first scene in the film is on an outdoor volleyball court, one high school team of girls pitted against another in gym, with Carrie unable to help and eventually losing the game for her team when the ball is intentionally hit hard in her direction. The girls exit, her team having lost, one of them swatting Carrie with her baseball cap, another telling her she eats shit.

It's a perfect representation of the pissing contests of girly high school histrionics. Remember the teen girls in your high school hallway that used to scratch at each other like cats in the alleyway? The high school girl in De Palma's film represents puffed up pride from the outside in, the idea that image is better, that beauty is all that matters and that it really is only skin deep. (Think: Mean Girls, but less cute.)

It is no mistake that the very first scene in Carrie is that of cat fighting high school girls caught up in stuck up contests of the exterior. The film seems to suggest that the tragedy at the end could have been stopped from the beginning if it weren't for the need some feel to be seen as better than others, and not just be seen as better, but to constantly expose how others are worse (whether it is actually true or not) - through humiliation, verbal abuse and insults. It's the lie that says we're better than someone else because we can find "fault" in them, instead of looking at ourselves. It's a leap in logic which is a strong historically in the nature of man. It goes back to Cain and Abel, who, rather than celebrating and embracing their differences, chose instead to out-do each other for God's supposed approval.

My point about the competitive nature that sets the events of Carrie in motion sets the framework for much of the following:

Cruelty. It's certainly fair to say that in Carrie, personal competition in the introductory scene also leads to the following scene of utter cruelty. Witness scene number two, the aforementioned naked and half-dressed locker-room scene, where innocence and eroticism, symbolized in the nature of the room itself (any room of naked females eroticizes a scene to the mind of a man), melds as one in Carrie's own body, where, in the words of her own mom, she becomes a woman by receiving her first period.

But the cruelty comes from every angle: Carrie's mom has been cruel enough to not explain the nature of the changes in her body; Carrie lives with constant cruel taunts from the popular crowd; and when she notices the blood between her legs while in the shower, she freaks out, berserk with a gripping fear that something in her body is terribly wrong. It is also cruel that she should even have to see it this way, when in fact the blood is evidence that something is right in her body, perfectly normal. Having no clue of what's happening to her, she screams and shrieks and begs the girls for help. The mob backs her into the shower, throwing tampons and chanting for her to, "Plug it up!" She has no idea what this even means.

The cruel nature of everyone surrounding Carrie's life creates an internal tension, isolating her at first. But when put to the boiling point in Carrie it will bring out a torrential wave of wrath.

Isolation. Carrie is symbolic of the kind of person that has nowhere to go but inward. She has been burnt, used for laughs, and is obviously neglected by her mom. She is cut off from help from anyone outside of herself. She turns to books about science and miracles to try to figure out her uncanny and uncomfortable telekinesis, which seems to be growing stronger in puberty.

The Absence of Men. There is only one man present in the film, and he is a wimp - the principal, a pushover, a blundering rolypoly leader. When Carrie needs a man to simply speak her name, he isn't even up to this simple task. Other males in the film are either ignorant, immature, or horny teenagers with no knowledge of what it takes to be a man. De Palma's high school world portrays the need for a strong man to bring balance to all the chaos and cruelty.

Tommy Ross, the boy who takes her to prom, seems decent enough for a big headed jock, but even he, in his eventual kindness, is too little, too late to the task of saving this world. He's as close to a man as the film is going to get, but he's caught up in the moment too much like a boy to be able to make a man's kind of difference.

One has to wonder where all the real men are.

Spiritual Abuse. Carrie's mom uses Biblical-type language, most of which isn't contextually Biblical and a good portion just thrown in from left field. "The raven was loosed by Eve, and the raven was sin and the first sin was intercourse"?

She makes Carrie repeat this mantra while smacking her in the face with some sort of guide to the "Good Book." It's hard to say exactly what her religious point is, ever, but most of the time she's a power hungry accuser, ensnaring everyone in guilt, heaping her own brand of legalism on top. Whatever she is, whether some kind of Christian or not (pictures of the Last Supper and crucifixes are all over the house, so one is led to believe this is some kind of Christian cult mentality), the word and deed reeks of nothing but abuse. She's a feminine prototype foreshadowing of David Koresh, and will usher in the same Waco-like destruction.

Looking at the description I just wrote, one has to wonder whether she is for Satan and not God.

Justice, wrath or revenge? What happens when Carrie finally does blow her lid, using her powers to wreak havoc on the students and faculty at Prom? Was it premeditated? It doesn't seem so. It looks nothing like the coolly malevolent kids of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, who have planned out the Columbine-like deaths of their peers at school. Carrie, in that awful onslaught, has the look of a zombie, half-crazed or from another world, as if possession has taken over. But we know it's still her.

The vindictive thought has to have crossed her mind already - with her incredible skills in telekinesis she could wipe out her people problems in one fell swoop. The thought of total annihilation has to have already entered her mind. Does this incredibly wrong act seem somehow justified? If she would have lived and been brought to court, would she have been declared temporarily insane or given the death chair?

The viewer knows her story before we see her cruel act, which changes everything about the nature of what we see. We identify with the need for justice, but we end up involved in her revenge. If we celebrate the revenge, we're implicated along with her whether we understand her background or not. The scene of wrath is so effective (aside from the greatest De Palma use of a split screen on record) because we've already traveled some hard road with Carrie. We've seen through her eyes, we've rooted for her both at home and at school. Other horror stories might come up with similar scenarios for the killing scene itself, but it is rare that an audience cares. Carrie is rooted in traditional deep story structure, and Story keeps us involved.

Guilt Complex. In post-traumatic stress, Sue, in her dreams, is scarred forever. Her mother, who believes in nothing more than the hope and the power of human will, is of little help to her battle tattered psyche. Sue was a part of the second-scene locker-room romp, and after Carrie and her boyfriend Tommy has probably grown the most in the film. By the end, she is one of the good guys and not one of the bad. But she will be scarred by layers of guilt forever. This is what happens when a good person gets lost in competitive back biting, cruelty, isolationism and the lot, regardless of her early role in it and her attempt to create something better.

. . .

The wonderful (now retro) creepy background musical stylings, and sound effects ripped straight from the shower scene in Psycho (Aii! Aii!), aid the split screen use at the film's tragic end; these brush strokes combined with Sissy Spacek herself all play a role in how the film throttles the eye with relentless imagery, using sound and creative acting technique to charge ahead hard. It is the imagery one is left with.

But none of that would reach us more than any other horror film out there were it not for the deep delving of the initial horror story.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Obsession. (1976) Brian De Palma

I'm surprised to say that I really, really enjoyed this, even watching it on YouTube on my chest*. If it were shown on as retro-fun in the big city (I'll bet it's been featured in more than a few midnight screenings over the years), I'd be interested in checking it out the way it was meant to be seen - on film.

I saw two basic things when watching Obsession: De Palma honing his craft, fine tuning his skills, and switching from Rear Window and Psycho to Notorious and Vertigo in the way he created tension through lensing, long silences, and the use of a beautifully overwrought score.

It's basically the story of a wealthy land developer, Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson), happily married, whose wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom -- but in a botched police sting the two are involved in an accident, their bodies never recovered. Years later in Florence, Courtland runs into his wife's doppelganger (or -- ?), in the church where he originally met his wife. He instantly falls in love. He can't take his eyes off her, gazing at how closely she resembles his wife, looking as vibrant and young as over a decade ago. It's as if the same woman somehow made her way to Italy, and she hasn't aged a bit in all these years. He follows her everywhere, in the beginning very close to a silent stalking (think: Vertigo). Eventually he gets a dinner date, and puts his plans in motion to bring her back to the states and marry her.

De Palma seems to have a thing for actresses who plays two characters in the same film. French Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold, as Courtland's wife and then the Italian doppelganger, was in her early thirties when Obsession was released, and she has an overwhelming beauty, a mysterious kind of attractiveness that would give any man butterflies in the gut. As a guy, I could continue to talk about that, but I won't say too much more. There's a fine line between being captivated and being a pig, and there are threads on the IMDB message boards that already dig into what certain men think about Geneviève. I find this kind of talk worthless, but acknowledge how much easier it is to watch any film - ever - which has a woman whose beauty transcends time.

Obsession didn't have the same second-half nosedive that I noted in De Palma's earlier film, Sisters. The nosedive here was only in the final fifteen or twenty minutes. But the more I think about how outlandish Obsession became, the more it reminded me of exactly why I liked the first half hour of Sisters. In his review, Ebert referred the film's "overwrought excess," which he relished as its own reward in Obsession. I tend to agree with him, and after Obsession I'm understanding even more the early De Palma comparisons to a contemporary film maverick, Quentin Tarantino. Excessive, overloaded, always over-indulgent but coolly slick, and eye-popping to look at, these kinds of films are hypnotic to watch. Image for image's sake.

I've been wading through the De Palma oeuvre and I've spoken excitedly about returning to Carrie very soon. It's interesting that I consider the entire second half of Sisters to be a nosedive, and the final twenty minutes of Obsession to be, well, not exactly a nosedive, but definitely koo koo, a trip to la-la land -- but I can't wait to see the ending of Carrie again for the first time in many years. It's as if in that film, everything came together for De Palma, from his crazed need for parallel story telling made to suit different perspectives in split screen edits, to a splash or two of the gore he seems to love to gross out his audience with, to his need to finally (Finally!) bring about the most bombastic and traumatic ending one can see. Once De Palma started firing on all cylinders, he made a film like Carrie and also several amazing movies that followed.

It's a joy to watch these films in order as De Palma progresses in his craft.

* This is the first time I remember watching an entire film this way. While it obviously isn't the preferred method for viewing Obsession (or much else), I made it work, and here's how: turn every light out completely, lie down on your back in total darkness - maybe with a blanket, maybe in bed (but don't fall asleep) - put the laptop on a pillow on your chest and use the Earbuds from your iPod for sound. The sound is phenomenal, and the Wifi streaming to a point these days where it works just fine. On my chest, that close to my face, even my small Dell Notebook made me feel like I was in a theater (although you can easily tell the difference between digital on the Net and film), but I can't stress highly enough how great the sound is, and with Obsession, the sound is huge to the feel of the film. YouTube was the only way I could track down Obsession, which isn't available through Netflix. I normally only use my iPod or a laptop for documentaries, and even then it's rare (like on the four-hour train between Grand Rapids and Chicago), but I bent my movie-watching rules to make it work for this film, and honestly, it worked great!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sisters. (1973) Brian De Palma

With persistent references to Read Window and Psycho and an over-indulgent soundtrack which accentuates dread-fueled moments of shock, Sisters was to the 1970s what Final Analysis might have later been to the 90s, or a worse version of Shutter Island might have been to last year. They are films which either rip off or pay homage to Hitch; they borrow and steal with a wink and a nod. But if you're going to steal, why not steal from the best?

It seems like a reasonable question. But if you steal from the best, your work will be remembered for not being the best, but rather a copycat, a reflection or a recurrence. You're the student who wishes he could be as good as the master while he eyes the master's every move.

Such is the fate of the first half hour of Sisters, by Brian De Palma, the director who would make a decades-long career out of tipping his hat to Hitchcock.

The rest of the film is such a nosedive that it wouldn't be fair to even remotely compare it to Hitch. But it is a spectacular nosedive to observe, teetering on the brink between utter stupidity and that phrase that b-movie house managers love, that loathsome phrase, "admirable flop."

The story starts out with some usual Hitch-like moral probings - in this case, situational ethics on a "Peeping Tom" television game show and the more-highly-debated-37-years-ago topic of interracial relationships, seen when a normal black man beds a white woman, a model. This could have been fertile ground in which to dig, except that the man, the only black in the film, is killed off rather quickly from the start. (Bad De Palma!)

At the point of said death the film completely switches gears. We know that if the possibility for rich topics were there for digging before, we're certainly not going to be digging now. We're jolted instead into split screen viewing, murder, and movie sibling psychoanalysis. Things turn somewhat predictable in nature, and when events aren't predictable, they're still predictably dumb. Margot Kidder (later Christopher Reeves' Lois Lane), who plays twin sisters Danielle and Dominique and is the only interesting person in the film, gets traded in for a poorly acted newspaper reporter and an out of nowhere Private Eye, of which the film quarter-bakes the former and nearly forgets about the latter. They should have called this The Descent rather than Sisters - it would have perfectly summed up the script, the acting, the trajectory, and audience interest.

There were, however, a couple of Bests:

Best use of a hideaway bed, ever. Best birthday cake surprise ("Whoops!"). Best fake fake blood I've seen in quite a while. Best non-authentic looking archival asylum footage.

The first viewing in my "June Lite" month has only reinforced my initial bias towards De Palma. There is little doubt this is going to be a fun month, as long as I remember the eye candy I'm in for. There's little protein in this diet, lots of sweet stuff involved, but I'm certain there will be unforgettable moments as I continue forward on the timeline of these films. (I personally can't wait to return to Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables again.)

But like the split screens De Palma is known for - a technique I actually kinda dig - Sisters can be divided exactly in half. Most of the first half is interesting, retro-chic, suspenseful and creepy. The unraveling of the second half turns the whole of the film into a laughable, ludicrous mess of a wreck, as predictable as a train on tracks headed over a cliff.

June Lite. (2011)

I hate to pick on Brian De Palma. I really do. I like his films, the ones I've seen anyway, so I feel kinda bad taking a month to chronologically focus on his output while I refer to the ordeal as "June Lite."

I guess there are two reasons why I chose to use June like this:

1. I'm currently taking on other artistic endeavors and don't have time for much in-depth writing in my reactions to film. I'm taking this month off to simply go "lite."

2. De Palma's films perfectly cater to my need to be "lite" for a little while. While fun in terms of style and form, the films give me little to actually chew over, nothing much to think about in depth. I don't find much "spiritual significance" or nourishment in De Palma films, but I know several of the movies are stylistic showpieces, great for eye candy, and that's fine for me right now. They are exactly what I need at this point in time - I can watch as many as I want, and not feel the need to think or write too much.

So my concentration on De Palma this month will give me a reprieve from thinking! - while not losing ground with those all important two words: Film and Fun. There are sixteen De Palma films I'd like to get to. We'll see whether that goal can be achieved.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Non-lollipop Docs.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. (2011) Morgan Spurlock

This idea is sheer genius.

Morgan Spurlock made a name for himself by simple ideas executed with his magnetic humor and panache, but not without heart. In Super-Size Me (2004) it was, "What would happen if I ate three full meals a day -- at McDonald's -- for a month? How would that affect my health and my family life?" In Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden (2008) it was, "Where in the world IS Osama Bin Laden? And who would I meet if I flew to the other side of the world to find him myself?" His latest, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, is Spurlock saying, "I'm an indie documentary filmmaker: How can I get funding for my art?"

Simple ideas, fun editing technique and Spurlock's own personality -- a mixture of charisma, charm, and bad-boy antics that the good-girls love -- make his films altogether enjoyable, but I think The Greatest Movie Ever Sold was the most fun I've had at a cinema this year.

Spurlock has created a doc inside of a doc about product placement in (where else?) the movies. He accomplishes this by completely selling out. Hounding company after company to finance his feature, he gets the cash he needs by placing their products in the film itself. As such, he is held by contractual obligations to only endorse the products from the companies in his film -- he can only drink Pom Wonderful ("The Greatest Drink Ever Made!"), he can only wear Old Navy ("The Greatest Clothes Ever Worn!"), he can only fly jetBlue ("The Greatest Airline in the World!") and he can only stay in Hyatt hotels ("The Greatest Hotel Ever Visited!"). My personal favorite was the choice for the film's music, "The Greatest Song I Ever Heard," played by OK Go, "The Greatest Band in the World!"

What we end up with is a transparent and honest doc about money and marketing, and how the very nature of writing and creating is changed by corporations who bypass the artist for the exposure of their product. The film is laugh out loud hilarious and almost unconventional in its transparency, especially after last year's I'm Still Here, Catfish, and Exit Through the Gift Shop -- documentaries in which you didn't know where real-life truth was separated from fictional reenactment or all out lie -- The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is the polar opposite of those "docs," so utterly real that it gets eaten up and altered by its own reality. Spurlock, like many filmmakers before him, realizes half way through the production that he is no longer running the show, but the products now are. This is unanticipated, but of course appreciated in the context of this film.

And he didn't even mention McDonalds. (Somewhat disappointing, I would have loved to see him have the Big Mac as "The Greatest Hamburger Ever Sold!")

As an aside, the movie provided two buzzwords that I know I'll be using in the near future: Faction, a cross between fact and fiction (a word which advertisers must love) and Docbuster, a documentary blockbuster, of which there probably aren't many. (The last time I remember being in a packed house for a documentary feature -- festivals aside -- was for Bowling For Columbine back in 2003.)

I really enjoy Spurlock's onscreen demeanor. His points are often simple, but still worth saying, and the way he presents a topic is highly entertaining. I drove eight miles home on a highway after the viewing and must have seen twenty billboards, at least, in those eight miles. I don't remember seeing them on the same trip before I saw the film.

The Other Side of Immigration. (2009) Roy Germano

Roy Germanos' 55 minute freelance exposé packs more in its short running time than some docs do in twice its length.

Efficient, educational and illuminating, The Other Side of Immigration is too short for mainstream distribution but has been on iTunes for a few months and recently became available for streaming via Netflix. An official selection at university events and many renown film festivals, the doc has already won several awards, including the 2011 American Library Association Notable Video Award. (I found my DVD copy at the KDL Library in Grandville, Michigan. Thanks, Grandville!)

Interviewing hundreds of Mexicans, specifically those on the northern border seasonally migrating to the U.S. for work, and members of the families who miss them, the doc relays the plight of the illegal worker who wants to keep food on the plate in his home country. He's working in U.S. wealth in order to keep his family back home afloat.

When some in the U.S. encounter (or more likely hear about) illegals without taking time to understand their background, it leads to misconceptions about the nature of these hard, driven workers. All too often we get selfish about protecting our borders without fully thinking through the nature of the migrating issue. Those most seemingly concerned about the border issue are really only silently enforcing their white prejudice.

The typical migrant's desire is to work seasonally and then return home. It doesn't feel to the migrant like a choice, but rather, a duty. If you think it's hard to find a job in the U.S., try finding a job in Mexico. When Mexicans can't find work at home, they come here and work hard at jobs Americans refuse to do. In the process they also put up with a lot of uneducated bigotry about who they are and what they do. They're seen as a threat, but its more threatening to the one doing the migrating than to any citizen observing from their safety at home. The migrant has to pay thousands of dollars just to be smuggled across the border, and there have been many who haven't even made it that far.

The film's website does a fine job explaining its importance in education, but I can sum up my own reasons for seeing it, too: it sheds light on a subject Americans have created lot of fear around but perhaps do not fully understand. Hence, the importance of education. Hence, the importance of the film.

The question becomes: do we want to understand the problems our neighbors to the south face? If we recognize a serious issue between "us" and "them", do we then decide that we're as globally minded as our nightly news suggests, or are we only globally minded when it benefits us, like when we use other countries for outsourcing jobs and fight terrorists in far away lands? We post band-aid guards to patrol our borders unless we're shipping in food from other countries. We are a globally minded nation when it comes to sucking oil out of another country's ground, or selling our products across the ocean. I am ashamed of the way my country is so "globally minded."

But there's hope at the end of The Other Side of Immigration. The case is made that Visas are a potential answer to current border "solutions" that have never worked to solve anything anyway. It's an interesting take, one that I'd like to learn more about, and I'd gladly support a politician who had the guts to put this on his agenda.

In the Realms of the Unreal. (2004)  Jessica Yu

"Am I a real enemy of the cross, or a very sorry saint?" questions the voice of Henry Darger, a pure art practitioner who died in 1973 as a poor old janitor shut away from the world in an apartment in Chicago. An outsider from birth who grew to excel in Outsider Art, Henry's work was posthumously discovered by the same people he distanced himself from when he was alive. He kept completely to himself in his later years, the recluse only breaking his silence to come out of the house and work as the custodian at a local Catholic church.

He didn't talk to anyone, but all of the residents in his apartment complex have memories of the conversations that were held in his room behind closed doors. It sounded like many people were in that lonely place, adults and kids alike. The truth is that no one was there but Henry, who spoke in voices to himself as he whittled away at his craft.

His craft is front and center in Jessica Yu's In The Realms of The Unreal, the title of the film based on the title of Henry's 15 volume book, suggested to be the world's largest novel approaching over 15,000 pages. In those pages Henry's mind is on display as he imagines a story about the Vivain girls, seven little princesses and their adventures on an alternate Earth that orbits a larger planet of spiritual beings. Like Lewis and Narnia, Darger's fairytale land has a name, and of course this is the "Realms of the Unreal."

Henry, a declared schizophrenic and an institutionalized child orphan, attended Mass every day by the time he was older and working on the novel. His work is a reflection, but fictionalized in story book format, of what he went through early in life. Thousands of pages of journal entries, stories, hundreds of paintings (many over ten feet long) were created by him, the volume of work amazing even before you consider the book. All of this work is fascinated by the divide between religion and amorality, sanity and insanity, obedience and lashing out, innocence and domination. He had an odd relationship with a God who was ever present in his stories, a loving but stern Catholic-looking dictator God whom he felt at ease to question regarding his life's lot.

Yu's doc must have no doubt been a hard one to make. Unlike the similar and more recent Marwencol, where the artist is still alive and can be interviewed, Darger's story is built from only three pictures of himself and the self-taught art brut he left behind. His story is also relayed from neighbors who had to put things together long after his death. They might have known he was seriously strange when he was living, but after his death and all that was found they had to consider the puzzle in a different light, they had to put the pieces back in place with new information.

Darger's story isn't told without some discrepancies here and there, but it paints a picture of an isolated man, abandoned to his own sense of design, simultaneously lashing out at and loving a hard to fathom God, and like his Creator, alone in the creating process. Henry picked up on creation where God left off.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston. (2005)  Jeff Feuerzeig

The Devil and Daniel Johnston feels like a first cousin to In The Realms of the Unreal (and the recent Marwencol, too) in its depiction of strango weirdo "outsider" art. Not that Johnston can be classified "outsider" the same way someone like Henry Darger can, because his underground success in the 80s and the fact that he works around the world in some fashion today puts him on the inside, or at least not fully outside, even though he's clearly not your average Joe. But his thinking, the way that he creates, the ideas that are constantly colliding in his head -- he clearly is and has always been "outside" the norm. In the same world that continually turns "alternative" into "mainstream," it's good to still have a few artists like this around.

Johnston's parents, who are extensively interviewed along with his brothers and sister and friends, make the claim that Johnston was born different, that he has always been the outsider, that this is how he was from birth. He drove his family crazy as a teenager, separating himself from the family's Church of Christ roots, and delving deep into art, no matter the medium: drawing, painting, music, recording, acting and making films with his Super 8 camera. He artfully edited those films together and the doc shows a good deal of his early footage, giving us an idea of the kind of "out there" talented teenager Johnston was.

Somewhere along the line (his parents claim it was around Junior High), Johnston started getting a little more "off" than "outside". He started becoming socially weird, anti-normal, not pursuing anything other than writing songs and drawing pictures alone. Didn't do his homework. Probably skipped on his chores. Drove his suburban Christian parents up the wall when they saw some of his end product and referred to it as Satanic.

Johnston ended up in Austin, Texas, where his music began to draw crowds. This is where I have to separate my reaction to Johnston's music from the film itself. I have a deep respect for the film and find is subject matter admirable and interesting. The music, in my opinion, is grating, and Johnston comes off as a never-developing hack who has no interest in honing the few chords he knows into true talent. He's been doing this for years and he can't even tune a guitar.

His lyrics? Heartfelt. Sometimes gripping. Very emotional. It's good to know from the film's post-script that his tunes are mostly being played by other people, because there were moments where I couldn't tell the difference between Johnston's piano playing and that of my five year-old who likes to play thunder and lightning on the piano. But I'll consent that the lyrics are a mixture of the profound and the poetic, rich, rewarding, and reaching out.

Johnston moved to New York, began tripping on LSD and completely lost his mind in that city. A few key scenes show members of Sonic Youth trying to find him while he wanders the streets of NYC. From that point he visits mental institutions on a consistent basis. Those close to him talk as if he had a mental illness of some sort all along, but the only illness that is ever referred to is depression. If his mental illness is the reason for all the breakdowns, the film certainly doesn't back that suggestion up with any concrete evidence. It's much easier to conclude that he was an alienated artist who grew up in a repressive religious family, that he left home and went on an acid trip, met some form of Jesus in a Lonnie Frisbee-like hallucinogenic experience and simply never came back to reality.

And that's the kicker, and the reason to see the film. Johnston may have rejected those familial Church of Christ leanings earlier in his life, he may have thought his parents and siblings a little nuts for Mr. Jesus. But he couldn't get away from Jesus or the church or the blood that saves or the Devil that chases. He's felt the Devil pursuing him all his life; we witness him preaching (and probably high) at many of his performances. The struggle between light and dark is evident in Johnston, and his brain and personality and the way he functions certainly altered from the typical human experience, but it's hard to pin down the source that the struggle came from. Whether it's a previous mental condition that arrived earlier in life or the drugs he started taking later, I guess it's good to know Johnston's got Jesus there to help him through it all, regardless.

I would never buy Daniel Johnston's music on its own, but the doc is worth enduring his music to see.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Paths of Glory. (1957) Stanley Kubrick

I have an aversion to classic American black and white war movies. They've just never been my thing. As far as war movies go, I personally think the conflict in Vietnam produced much more interesting cinema. I've been throttled by films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. They're films that stand the test of time and never let up in intensity. They are as eye opening today as the first time you saw them decades ago.

Due to my own bias, I wasn't prepared to think that Paths of Glory, a film about the French in the first World War, would also be something I'd consider as "eye opening today" as it was when it was made. But it isn't a typical war film. It's older, sure, and in black and white, but it's issues aren't the kind you can divide into neat little categories. It's a film that rides a gray area dealing with backsliding personnel from your own unit, conflicts inside the team you're already on - and whether we ignore, confront or support a team member's actions when he is clearly making an immoral choice. These ideas get internalized toward the end of the film, too, showing a roomful of soldiers drinking and laughing it up in a barroom scene that brings the horror of war closer to home. The film goes from wondering about the other men you're fighting alongside to wondering about the fight within yourself.

Paths of Glory is the true story of three men unjustly accused of mutiny by retreating from battle, a battle their superiors knew they'd lose but planned anyway. The film's depiction of history got it banned, not playing in France until nearly eighteen years after it was made.

The use of long tracking shots in Paths of Glory is masterful, especially in the trenches before the major battle scene, and in the battle itself. As a camera travels right to left and the soldiers try to advance, we're in the thick of it with them, right there in the battle with explosions and bodies piling up all over the battlefield. Later, a final march toward a firing squad is also masterfully done in a long tracking shot, the men moving toward a backward moving camera, the same technique used in the beginning in the trenches.

The cinematography in Paths of Glory is as astounding as the story. The two combined made a believer out of me. It's another example of a fine film I've been introduced to because of the A&F Top 100.

Of course, Kubrick's later war story, which I also sat down to watch for the first time in over a decade, I kinda still like, too:

Full Metal Jacket. (1987)  Stanley Kubrick

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Straight Story. (1999) David Lynch

In the eighteen months in which I've blogged here at Filmsweep, I've probably tackled all sorts of strange subjects, some weird ideas in film. Some of the weird ideas are also some of the most fun to examine and pick apart. And speaking of weird, this isn't the first film I've blogged that is directed by Mr. David Lynch.

Additionally, it isn't the first G-rated film I've blogged. (Unless I'm forced by Child #1 or Child #2, more likely both at the same time, I'm just not much of a G-Rated kind of guy.)

But this is the first (and only) G-Rated film that I (or anyone else) will be able to track down by the master of the absurd, the swami of the surreal, Mr. Lynch. (And why do I always sing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," switching Grinch for Lynch in my head?)

The Straight Story feels like Lynch paused from all the weirdness, took a long, deep breath, stepped outside of koo-koo Land if only for a moment, and wrote a story that doesn't contain any of his typical Strangely Bizarre - no small feat for the auteur who seems to have landed from the world of the strangely bizarre.

You might have seen the trailers, and you might have avoided The Straight Story for the same reasons I did. "Wow, does that look sappy." "Oh my word, it just looks so sentimental." And I'm not going to lie about it - I'd shy away from the word "sappy," but I am certain that "sentimental" captures portions just right. On first appearance, the film looks nothing like typical Lynch.

If you're familiar with the film then you already know it's about an old guy, Alvin, that rides a lawn mower from Iowa (which he pronounces with a hard "A", "I-Oh-WAY") to Wisconsin, to meet with his brother, who is suffering from a stroke and whom Alvin had a falling out with years ago. Don't ask why he rides the lawn mower, at least not yet. He just does.

Along the way he shares a meal of a wiener with a pregnant hitchhiker, gazes at a cross-country bicycle marathon, finds a half-crazed woman who just ran over her thirteenth deer in seven weeks, lives it up with some frolicking college kids, and meets a few grown-ups who help when his mower goes out of control on the downward side of a very large hill. In quite a few of these moments the old guy is a typical wise old movie-man scholar, maybe the Morgan Freeman type: has seen a few things, even done a few more, he's known the good, the bad, and the ugly. The wrinkles on his face, like the rings inside a tree, can't be made through buying or selling - only aging.

And yet, just because there's wisdom, or because you've aged and have those strong encouraging words, it doesn't mean you've always been wise, or have always done the thing that's right. In many ways, this is a film about a stubborn old geezer riding his way to repentance, on the downward side of a roller coaster life of aches and addictions, moments of joy and moments of doom. Alvin got back from the Great War years ago and, having to deal with the atrocities that accompany war, turned to the bottle to get him through, and he didn't look back for years. He may have lost a grandchild due to his drunkenness, and it's obvious he's lost relationships with some of his kids - his wife gave birth fourteen times and seven survived, but we only get the chance to meet one (Sissy Spacek). (And we wonder why he couldn't get a ride? Why he's actually on the lawn mower to begin with?)

That's what makes it an interesting film. It's not the idea of a funny old codger on his cross-country lawn mower, but it's his history - His Story, however harsh his background is. We're witnessing a survivor, a man who not only survived the Great War but the wars within himself. He's not wiser because he's older, it doesn't work that way. He's wiser because he has obviously faced himself. He took the long gaze into what Arcade Fire refers to as the "Black Mirror." He chose to deal with his own stink, he faced Reality and seems to have beaten his demons.

Alvin is willing to drive that mower for weeks at a time to get to a brother that's been dealt a physical hardship, because he's lived long enough to realize the importance of close ties, the importance of making peace and returning to relational health. No matter what was said in the past, a brother is still a brother. It's a bond that will always be, and it might be forever if they reconcile now.

So while it is a beautiful film with wonderful, hope-filled themes, it's also got that background Lynchian ethos that we've loved in films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive. It's a departure in the Lynchian oeuvre that I've avoided for sentimental reasons, and yet it's a sentimental film I know I'll go back to again and again over the years.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Of Gods and Men. (2011) Xavier Beauvois

The 2010 Cannes Grand Prix winner came to Grand Rapids this week. Of Gods and Men is the true-to-life story of nine Trappist monks in Algeria during the country's civil war in the mid-nineties. A peaceful lot (they are monks - duh!), practicing prayer, song and communion, they work in an impoverished Muslim community bringing medicine and clothing needs through their humanitarian outreach. They live a quiet life and help people that don't share their faith or beliefs.

These extraordinary men are caught off guard when they are threatened by terrorists claiming something horrible will happen should they refuse to get out of the church, flee the country and head back to France. The men decide to stay, and the results are tragic.

It's a film I'm going to have to see more than once to make up my mind about. Quite honestly at this point, I can't decide whether their decision is the right one. But no matter what they choose, there will be good and bad ramifications - for them, for the people they daily help, perhaps for the good of the country itself. Watching them fear and discuss and try and figure out this quandary is akin to watching any Christian try to figure out what the right choices are, what that next right step might be. For that reason, for that honest depiction, the film is a winner and deserves to be wrestled with.

It's an absorbing film, though. And I think I'll enjoy the chance to make up my mind about it when I do get the chance to see it again. Hopefully it will come out on DVD sooner rather than later.

My friend Steven Greydanus has some wonderful reflections on the film Here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ponette. (1996) Jacques Doillon

The eyes of a child, what they see and choose to see is fascinating. Sea shells are diamonds, firetrucks and fireflies are flickering stars. Children are built with sheer imagination, inherent imagination, much larger than the knowledge they possess because they've had so little time in Reality. They haven't yet had the chance to find out how the world really works, which keeps them innocent, unafraid to probe, always seeking knowledge but not necessarily agreeing when logic is presented.

The grandiose dreams of children are loftier than the imagination of an adult - our experience holds an adult mind back. And yet when it comes to mystery, specifically the mystery of the heavens - or of God and mankind and how Creation is supposed to work, the mystery of what's out there that we can't see or even what happens to a soul after a last breath - the adults pretend to understand when explaining it to a child. We explain a meaning of life that we aren't able to come to terms with ourselves.

A child might believe whatever an adult tells them, and between this and the daily encounters with other selfish kids, hurt is formed, children grow into adults, and an adult child imagines less but has an even lesser appreciation for the wonder of the heavens - the mystery.

Ponette is a film that not only captures this tension perfectly, but uses the language of children to show the absurd views that adults try to share, sometimes indoctrinating the minds of the kids without a clue of their own ineptitude.

It's also a beautiful, lovely film of children themselves, trying to grapple with a time of crisis, and it might have one of the greatest performances ever caught on film - a performance from a four year-old little girl.

There really is no other film quite like Ponette. From a gentle little girl that tries to understand the death of her mom, to her friends that try to console her, to other kids that sometimes blame her for mom's death, to her tear-stained eyes that constantly pray to God and mommy at night: If Jesus can come back from the dead, why can't my mommy?

Such a simple question from the mind of a child. It is one of many simple questions that turns upside down, completely flipping into the profound. This is a film that will keep you in thought for a long, long time. The film is somewhat about a miracle, but in many ways the performances here are nothing short of miraculous on their own.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Human Resources Manager. (2011) Eran Riklis

In light of the announcement that the good folk at Film Movement are launching a new niche club focusing on the bi-monthly release of Jewish-themed films, it isn't a surprise to find The Human Resources Manager, an Israeli production, sent out to subscriber mailboxes as the May "Film of the Month." As a pale U.S. Caucasian who considers his story and heritage an extension of the Old Testament, the news that a New York company is interested in getting undistributed but deserving Jewish films to the public leaves a wonderful ring in my ears -- but the global film lover in me worries that the company's new focus will disrupt a wealth of quality films they already deliver from around the globe.

The Human Resources Manager mostly bypasses my worry, being an Israeli film with very Jewish-sounding background music taking place mostly in Romania, and having the feel of one of the better films of the Romanian new wave. From that movement, The Human Resources Manager reminded me of two films in particular: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, for its absurdist portrayal of social care (in that film it was health care), and The Other Irene, with its very similar subject matter about a deceased woman transported mysteriously from another country in her coffin. Whereas in The Other Irene the mystery was about what happened to the woman before she was put in the coffin, in The Human Resources Manager it's a more practical mystery: what to do with the coffin the body is in.

The story begins with an unnamed Human Resources Manager receiving bad press in Jerusalem when the city paper finds a worker dead from a suicide bombing and no one from the company has noticed her missing. HR guy's boss, unimpressed with his work (she claims he's not even there when he's there), sends him away to arrange for her burial in Romania in a publicity stunt to make the company look more compassionate. The journalist who broke the story, referred to as "The Weasel," tags along for the trip snapping pictures at all the wrong moments, attacked a few times for his indecency. Needless to say, HR guy can't stand the journalist's presence, he's a constant reminder of the fraudulent face of the company, but he can't get rid of him either -- the weasel's pics will show the care of the company.

While aiming to help the grieving family in Romania, HR guy is disappointing his own family back back home in Israel. They expected him home for family reasons, but once again he is missing due to work. He carries a tension that hangs between doing the right thing for himself or for the face of his company, as well as knowing that his absence is helping another family more than his own.

The only person named in the film is the Romanian deceased worker, Yulia, who at this point, as one Romanian official points out when the troupe is arrested carrying her body to her burial place, could probably care less where or how she is buried. Everyone else in the story has an opinion and does care, including Yulia's mom, who they travel a journey of several days taking the body to. All the conflicting opinions about Yulia's final resting place suggests that each of us has different ideas about death and the importance of a proper burial. Likewise, we have different motives and interests in following the dead to their place of rest.

The film is about a dead person, certainly. But it's more about our reaction to death than it is about death itself.

The biggest problem with THRM is that it climaxes about an hour in and never really goes anywhere from there. Yes, there will be another irony at the very end, and I think it's worth watching for that. But it's a shame the film couldn't sustain the same tempo from which it began. It goes from a highly engaging film of mixed motives to a bit of a bore in the end.

But The Human Resources Manager, much like any department the film depicts, is just engaging enough to keep watching even when it slows down a bit. Relational issues are front and center, but are only fresh with new encounters. The film reminded me of Jaffa, another Israeli film about a clash between cultures -- a "nice" film that could have delved much deeper. I'm happy Film Movement has its attention on global cinema, I honestly think life would be worse without their presence on the scene -- but from what I read daily in various blogs and magazines, there are much better films worthy of their attention.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Super. (2011) James Gunn

With all the heart of the 2006 Michael Rapaport ordinary-guy cum super-hero Special and a wee bit of the thrillish gore from Kick-Ass, but surpassing both films and easily holding its own in the faux superhero film canon, Super gives us the first powerless hero that I can remember who receives his calling from a Christian Television show and a vision from no other source than God Himself. Whether our hero lives up to God's calling or simply falls into the well established genre pattern of redemptive violence (a term that describes a myth, the way of the gun that only works at the movies) is hard to say. The film, however, is thoroughly engaging, from the onscreen visuals to its thumping heart.

An entertaining hodgepodge that meshes corny comic pastiche with a spiritual need for a life's calling, Super comes off as a winner, something I wouldn't have believed going in. It's hard enough to believe in a new superhero film even when it takes itself seriously, but these "comedies" are even harder to put much stock in. Super is a film that won me over regardless of any bias I had going in.

The film's got some stars with staying power, too. When restaurant cook Frank (Rainn Wilson - Dwight from "The Office") loses his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) to a drug relapse, she ends up living with the seedy gangster Jacques (Kevin Bacon) who happily keeps her habit in supply in exchange for having her. Getting on his knees bedside to pray, Frank gets the vision that he's a child of God, chosen to take on the enemy in the streets. Soon he dons himself in red and he's transformed into the Crimson Bolt, out to fight crime if he can find it, which takes a little while for him to figure out. Every hero needs a sidekick, and Frank's been visiting the comic book store to learn more about his new trade. The store's cashier Libby (the ever-adorable Ellen Page) will be transformed into Boltie, and the two will track Sarah down at Jacques' remote and secured fortress.

Super is pastiche art, compilation filmmaking where much of what we see is borrowed from previous sources. Sometimes it lifts elements in a tongue-in-cheek way, cleverly amusing as it borrows from 60s Batman TV (BAM! POW!). In other moments it reminded me of Tarantino, Robocop and Sin City. Perhaps a lower budget Tarantino, Robocop and Sin City.

But the film wouldn't have won me over without that element that is front and center -- as I mentioned before, it's got great heart.

Crimson Bolt and Boltie are clearly sociopathic, and we witness them, especially early in their careers, quick to jump the gun and kick the shit out of even the smallest of criminal acts: a line jumper at the movies gets his brains bashed in, a fellow that might have keyed someone's car is nearly beaten to death. But my interest in where the film takes these characters is two-fold: 1.) The need for a calling, a vocation, which is seen in both characters as greater than the need for revenge, and 2.) The calling of God that is on them (or at least on Crimson Bolt), which is questionable at best, but then again, what Old Testament prophet wasn't seen as half-crazed or at least questionably psychotic? Ezekiel, tied in ropes to lie on his left side for over a year? The plagues of Moses? The fire of Elijah? The prophet Jonah who gave the world's shortest prophesy and got the greatest results of them all?

There is little doubt that the same God that sent a pestilence killing 70,000 men because King David took a census could use a confused sociopath who, separated from his wife, is lost in the world and will find life's meaning fighting crime. The finger of God that touched Frank's brain and throws him into vigilante justice very well could have been the Real Deal. To rule that out is claiming a knowledge of All. But more than likely, the vision Frank got he only received because his brain is already warped. He is interested in the law and finding all those who break it, but what happens to a few of the lawbreakers he finds can hardly be referred to as just.

The film knows this, though, and plays in the themes of Frank's head to perfection. When it's all said and done, the audience can decide whether the actions of Frank are of God, or are even just -- but the film is smart enough to give us a side to land on, it suggests that there's a decent explanation.

It's also a smart enough film to steer away from a sequel, which makes it desirable to go back and see again.

I guess we can refer to Frank as an anti-hero. He's in that Travis Bickle/Michael Douglas Falling Down kind of mould. But from the laughs in the film's beginning to the serious sense of closure that we get, this is an anti-hero that I think gets a chance to grow. I really do hope we never see a sequel. It would help me to think that Frank moves forward.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Little Sparrows. (2011) Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen

"For My Mother," reads the post-script to Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen's gentle drama about a mom, her final bout with breast cancer, a distant father aiming to make up for lost time, and their three grown daughters -- still seen by mom as the "little sparrows," which she'll have symbolically and beautifully tattooed on her skin.

Shot in hand-held, dogme-like fashion, with a moody background waltz made from pianos and accordions and acoustic guitar strumming, Little Sparrows feels like a cross between indie cinema and a Lifetime channel event. On Mother's Day it would be a good film for the women of the house to take in while the men do the dishes and clean up from the meal; it is unique for a bonding experience between grown-up daughters and their moms, but one for the guys to skip and either watch the NBA playoffs or go out for a round of golf.

The film tells the simple story of a mom (Susan) whose cancer has returned and spread and she knows she doesn't have much time left. She wishes for a happy family get-together at Christmas, which may be the last Christmas she is able to see, certainly the last Christmas she'll be home for. Her husband James, an actor who has put his work first over the years, is the first to receive the news. As he confronts his own sadness and is told by Susan to keep it together for the sake of their daughters, they begin plans for Christmas, when the three daughters and their grandchildren will be home, and the news that will need to be shared. The film shifts and we then get the stories of each daughter, sometimes speaking directly to the camera but mostly told in reenactment. The film jumps in time between the Christmas party and the separate lives of the women, and it shifts perspective on a few events that bring excellent insight into how all three deal with the situation of their mom and her cancer.

Anna, the middle child is an actor like her dad. She is married to filmmaker Mark but is having an affair. The fact that Mark is a thickheaded, doltish jerk doesn't change the fact that both Anna and her lover Rick know that the whole thing is wrong. What we will learn from Anna is that we might feel that we have power and control over even the craziest of situations in our lives. Sadly, we either don't, or if we do it will still be released from our grasp.

Christine, the youngest of the three, is a closet lesbian and has been her whole life. She is a med student and still living at home. She brings the two most interesting scenes to the film: the first is when she and her lover bump into Anna and Rick downtown. This is obviously awkward for all. Christine doesn't know about Rick, and Anna doesn't know about her little sister's closeted sexuality. The second scene is a quite funny story that Christine relays to her mom in a hospital bed. It has to do with orange juice and a carpeted white library floor and the spilling of a liter of the orange stuff and sneaking out. And like the orange juice, in regard to the cancer, Christine will walk away, not wanting to face it when her sisters meet to tell them about mom. But she will grow in this tale, replacing fear with an inner strength that perhaps even she didn't know she was capable of.

The eldest sister Nina is a widow with two children of her own. She has felt for years that she needs to be the glue that holds everyone together, but when she married an alcoholic and he died, her guilt left her unraveling for years. It has been five years since her husband's death, and Nina keeps her feelings and needs securely locked away. She bumps into Simon, the Best Man from her wedding, in a grocery store. Simon is still alone, still working the same job, same old Simon from years ago. Nina casually mentions it to Susan, and mom has hopes that Nina will find love.

All three of the women will be consoled by their dying mom in a reversal of sorts that makes sense. We often think that a dying person's need is to be consoled as they are taken care of. It might be the other way around. That person's final mission could very well be to take the tears of those close to them, to breathe life to their loved ones even if it comes from their dying breath. There are beautiful scenes in Little Sparrows where Susan has the opportunity to reach out, suggesting that perhaps even in death or in a dying state, the best way to live is giving to others.

The film in places is like a shot of estrogen, one of the reasons I gave for kicking the men out before seeing it. But it does have a holistic feel, where the dying and the living are in a healing state together.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Station Agent. (2003) Thomas McCarthy

This film was getting excellent reviews and I wanted to see it when it came to theaters in 2003, but looking back through my online posts and journals I see that the choice of what to see went to a few other films instead: Bus 174, an Iranian Films showcase (Abadan and Tehran 7:00 A.M.), and Pieces of April. I don't feel bad about seeing any of those in front of The Station Agent, they are all quality films and in the case of the two Iranian films they are films that never received distribution. But The Station Agent is one of those movies I'm sorry I didn't get back to earlier. I stumbled across the DVD at the library the other day, and after my recent screening of Win Win, which I quite enjoyed, I realized The Station Agent was an earlier film by the same director, and I remembered all the critical praise.

It's such a lovely film that I'd have no problem placing it alongside others as a new classic. Like Lars and the Real Girl, it's a film that brings a sense of satisfaction and even peace at the end, a movie I know I'll be revisiting down the road. And I don't think I'll look at a train, or a dwarf, the same way ever again.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Traveler. (1974) Abbas Kiarostami

This 37 year-old black and white gem from Kiarostami is tucked away as an extra on the Criterion release of Close-Up, a documentary which I blogged about yesterday. The only information we get prior to watching the relatively unknown film is from Criterion's quick blurb:

At one point in Close-Up, the main figure, Hossein Sabzian, says, "I am the child from the film The Traveler who's left behind." Made in 1974, Abbas Kiarostami's The Traveler tells the story of a young boy who goes to great lengths to take a bus trip to see his favorite soccer team. Kiarostami has said that he considers the film to be his first authentic feature.

It makes sense then, that the story opens with the boy, Qassem, in a scene that lasts over a minute, late for school playing soccer with his friends. Another kid reminds him of where he is supposed to be, and he collects his small soccer goals and the ball and heads to school. When he shows up for class, he's got the excuse planned out but the teacher has heard his excuses before. "Where the hell have you been?" asks the man, perturbed that the kid is late for school once again. "I had a toothache," says Qassem, his head wrapped like he's been to a cartoon dentist. "Toothache my foot!" cries the teacher. "It's infected," says Qassem. He's allowed to sit in the class, but it doesn't last long anyway. He's kicked out in less than five minutes for reading a soccer magazine instead of the book the class is studying.

The film is about obsession, specifically childhood obsession, and in this case Qassem's unhealthy obsession with the sport. He daydreams about it, buys soccer magazines he can't afford, skips school, and rather than doing his homework he sneaks out on his mom to play. But what do you know when you're a kid? Qassem's mental faculties aren't developed to the point where he understands the idea of an unhealthy obsession. When his illiterate mom nags him to keep up his schoolwork, or when his teacher gets upset to the point of spanking his hands with a switch, all Qassem knows is the difference between the adult world and his, that there are things adults expect that don't top his list of priorities.

Some kids, no matter what you do as a parent or teacher, simply don't get it. Qassem is even more obsessed with soccer than the kids from this year's Colombian film, The Colors of the Mountain. He finds out about a professional game taking place in Tehran, and though he'd have to raise money for a bus ride and a ticket to the event, and though he'd be skipping school and lying to mom and dad in the process, and though he might lose a few of his friends in the way he procures his funding, he sets his sights on the game, on being there to see it live, on hanging out with the men and rooting and jeering and cheering his team to a win.

The results of the trip to Tehran will be tragic, but I don't know if this kid will learn his lesson. There is a definite moral of the story in The Traveler -- that unhealthy obsession gets you nowhere.

I did have to laugh early on in the tale. When mom shows up at the school to discuss Qassem with his teacher, the conversation that takes place is so foreign to how we deal with kids today. I wonder if just a tad of the abrasive way the man confronts Qassem's mom (and later Qassem) might be something worth looking into for handling some kids today:

Mom: Sir, I'm Qassem Julayi's mother.

Teacher: Well, well. What brings you here?

Mom: He goes to bed every night without doing his homework. When I ask, he says he's done it. I'm here to find out if he's doing his schoolwork and coming to school. I can't read or write...

Teacher: (Heated) You come once a year to see if the little vagrant is coming to school? He's made my life hell and turned the whole school upside down. He's not a child - he's a monster.

Mom: What can I do? I ask if he's done all his homework, and he says yes. He goes to bed early and gets up early. He leaves for school before the other kids. I ask him, "Where's your homework?" He says he did it at school, or on the way, or out in the yard, or on the roof. How am I to know? I can't read... Then the neighbor's child tells me Qassem's not coming to school. So I've come to see you to find out if he's doing his schoolwork. You're in charge here...

Teacher: (Angry) That's right! If a chicken snuck out of your yard, you'd follow it halfway across town. In all these years have you ever come to see what he's up to? Have you even come to see what the school looks like? Now you come and say, "You're in charge."

Mom: (Quietly, frustrated) Just last night he acquired a new habit I don't like one bit. Last night I put five tomans under the rug. This morning I served their breakfast and gave him the five rials he'd asked for. After he left, I tidied up, and when I went to get the five tomans, they were gone. No one else goes in that room. What do I do about this new habit of his?

Teacher: What do you expect from such an ill-bred boy with parents like you? What am I supposed to do with him?

What we're witnessing here is a single conversation depicting the eternal struggle in parenting, teaching, mentoring and the like. There is never a guarantee. No birth is ever gift wrapped. You try to do the right things to raise a child, but two plus two doesn't always equal four. The teacher blames the parent, the parent requests more help from the teacher, but that kid will still be on the bus to Tehran to check out a game instead of getting on the right road for his life. In the process, he'll let everyone down and feel like a fool, and I'll bet he gets the spanking of his life. I just hope he learns from the tragedy that is about to take place and finds some balance with his unhealthy obsession.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Close-Up. (1990) Abbas Kiarostami

On the commentary track for Criterion's Close-Up DVD, Chicago critic Jonathon Rosenbaum describes that many of Abbas Kiarostami's films are about people who are lost. I thought back to earlier Kiarostami films I've seen and he's right. (As usual!) There is a sense of loss, and it is displayed both internally and externally as a recurring motif in all of the Kiarostami films I've seen. A man seems emotionally lost in a new town in The Wind Will Carry Us, and in Taste of Cherry another poor soul drives all over town and the countryside frantically searching for someone to bury him after he kills himself. I also thought of the more recent Certified Copy, and though Juliette Binoche and William Shimell aren't necessarily lost as they plod along on the streets in Tuscany, they do meander aimlessly for a better portion of the film. In fact, as Rosenbaum points out, an earlier title of one of Kiarostami's films is Where Is the Friend's Home?

In Close-Up we have a character so lost in his own misfortune that he simply gives up on himself and pretends he's someone else.

With the recurring motif of lostness there is also a recurring Kiarostami trope which aims to break through the fourth wall of a given performance. Fans of last year's Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop and I'm Still Here might be interested in this Iranian blending of documentary filmmaking and reenactment, where the lines between reality and imagination are somewhat blurred, and your perceptions and allegiances shift between characters by the moment.

What we know to be true about the following story is this: a man was put in jail and taken to court for fraudulently claiming to be a famous Iranian film director. Another famous Iranian filmmaker liked the case, got involved, and made a film about it ala cinéma vérité.

An every day average but currently unemployed man named Hossain Sabzian is carrying a copy of the book The Cyclist on a bus as he travels around town. The passenger next to him, Mahrokh Ahankhah, notes the book is a film she's seen with her husband and two grown sons (the film I blogged two days ago here). She comments on it to Sabzian, and Sabzian (who looks like director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to the point where I was confused) claims he is the man behind The Cyclist, Makhmalbaf himself. He autographs it and gives her the copy. She's amazed to find the great director taking a ride on public transit. He claims he likes to use the bus to travel around town in search of new subjects for his films.

It might have all ended there, but Sazbian is invited to the Anankhah home, where he is introduced by mom to the family, who are all very interested in art and filmmaking. Sazbian, in full Makhmalbaf mode, says he's interested in doing a film in the house using the Anankhah family as actors. Of course they are all delighted, but dad remains skeptical. After a few days of prep and a full surveying of the house, it is revealed that whoever this man is, he is not Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and he is arrested and taken to court on counts of fraud and attempted fraud.

It is assumed that since he surveyed the house, he obviously was intending to burglarize it.

As Sazbian sat in a jail cell awaiting his court date, Kiarostami got involved in the case. He visits Sazbian in jail, camera on, gets his permission to film him, and talks to him about filming the trial and reenacting parts of the story. Sazbian is eager to relay this story to the world. This is a guy who has had no real attention before. He's divorced, without work, probably broke, a Nobody. He was a Somebody when playing the part of Makhmalbaf, until he was busted for the whole ordeal. All the sudden with Kiarostami's involvement, he's got a chance to be a Somebody again.

Kiarostami creates a film about the crime and its people using the original players, everyone playing their own part. Scenes that took place in real life are reenacted by the very same people in order to show what happened earlier in their lives. It's a reflection of a previous event, which calls attention to the reality of film itself. We don't always know which scenes are happening right now (most of the time we can guess), and even if we figure out which ones are reenacted, they won't be the same as what they were before Kiarostami started filming. Are people ever the same when the cameras are on?

At the start, in a move of pure genius, Kiarostami drops us right in the middle of the story during the arrest of Sazbian in the Anankhah family's home. But we never go inside. We stay on the outside with a cab driver, who is waiting for the cops to bring Sazbian out. We think, "What is going on inside the house?" We can't know for certain, but we do see the cops bring Sazbian out and take him away in the taxi. From this point the film moves through the story's timeline in a non-linear fashion, until later when we finally get to see the scene we were so curious about in the beginning. By making us wait for it, Kiarostami adds tension to the story, but it isn't a noticeable tension -- it's simply ground we wish would get covered.

When we finally do witness Sazbian's arrest, and watch the actual courtroom proceedings, we're never really sure if he's playing himself or still in a role. This is another slight tension that simply hangs in the air for a while, until Makhmalbaf actually shows up in the film. When the two finally meet face to face it is a tender conclusion in which a full answer is given, and it tells us that we may have been deceived once or twice, but everything suddenly feels so wonderfully humane.

After the viewing, I thought about the different roles I've played in life, from son to father, musician to minister, worker to drifter to writer and more. I wonder if any of those roles are accurate about "who is the real me." I've even erected this "Persona," that in some ways creates a mystique around my Internet presence, but more than that it gives me freedom to write exactly how I want.

Like Sazbian in Close-Up, I wonder how often we think it would be better to drop out of our own lives and become someone else. How much of that kind of thought plays into the sports we watch, the magazines we consume, American Idol, reality shows, Charlie Sheen? Is the Reality of who we are more than what we believe or do or see in others? And what is that thing Reality stares at when we shift our gaze to the mirror?