Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Screaming Man. (2010) Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Often when I choose to see a foreign film it's simply out of a curiosity to peek into another culture. Other times I'm looking for global ideas in storytelling, the kind of ideas that stray from the control of western culture. A Screaming Man caters to both of these needs, packing a realist family drama in an artistically shot film, capturing Chad and its land and culture in an absorbing film.

The simple story almost feels like an Old Testament tale, like Abraham, Moses or Joseph -- stories which can be told in a few quick chapters but have been expounded on for generations.

Adam, a former champion swimmer now referred to as "Champ," now pushing sixty, works as a pool attendant at a N'Djamena hotel. He and his son Abdel share the responsibility of the place each day. They go home to mom Mariam at night, who feeds them well and looks after the family's emotional well being. The country is in the throes of a civil war and the military has begun asking families to volunteer -- which in Adam's case would mean signing up his son -- or contribute money to crush the rising rebellion. It is assumed that every family will at some point contribute something. Adam doesn't have any money that he can give.

When new owners take over the hotel and Adam's friend, a long-time chef is let go, change is obviously in the works. Adam is told that the job of pool attendant should be done by one person, there's no need for both him and his son. He's informed that Abdel will be permanently taking over the job, and that he will now being wearing a uniform outside the hotel as the gatekeeper. He goes into a deep, dark depression. The pool has been his life. He sits at the gate opening and closing it for cars that come and honk at him, pulling him out of a zoned state. He is crushed.

In the moment of crisis Adam makes a decision regarding the fate of his son that will ensure he'll be back in his old position. It's not too long before he regrets what he's done, but it is too late. He asks his friend David, the ex-chef, whether he believes in God. Some transgressions might be rectified in the next life but can't be taken care of in this one. Sometimes a lapse in judgment cannot be recovered. This is a film about a decent man who has lived moral life, wrecked by one wrong move. It's about the guilt and consequences of dealing with that one mistake you can never get over.

It is also a film with a very strong crescendo. It might seem like it's very simple when it begins. It seems like it's only got a few tricks left at the half-way point. But the final frames of the story are pointed, as we observe Adam only trying to recover and put the pieces back in place. To compare the opening scene of Adam and Abdel hugging and frolicking in the pool with the final scenes of devastating consequence is a reminder that life can turn on us fast, that we need to guard every choice as fragile and choose wisely in every decision.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Colors of the Mountain. (2011)
Carlos César Arbeláez

This strong debut from director Carlos César Arbeláez hasn't been released yet in its home country, Colombia. It is only beginning to crawl around the festival circuit; Film Movement scooped it up rather quickly. I'm glad they did, I hope they're able to put it in as many US theaters as they can. A war story where war is off-screen, the film centers on childhood innocence, capturing breathtaking mountainside cinematography that would be scrumptiously suited to the big screen.

In remote Colombian villages, families of farmers who peacefully tend the land are forced to choose between military forces and the guerrilla rebels endlessly fighting outside their homes. Manuel, pushing his eighth birthday, has witnessed horrors no kid should be subjected to, the worst being psychological -- a constant fear that dad will soon be carted away to the fight. While milking a cow or working the land, if dad sees the approaching rebels, he hides, and mom tells the group he's gone for the day in town. The rebels tell her to make sure he gets to an upcoming meeting. He never makes it to a meeting in town.

Manuel has his own obsession -- soccer -- and he gets together with other school-skipping kids for constant play. The kids have designed a sort of league, Manuel thinking his team can take on anyone around the village. When his parents celebrate his eighth birthday, Manuel gets a gorgeous professional looking soccer ball in place of the slosh ball they've been kicking around. The kids on his team are amazed and can't wait to give it a whirl. Trekking off for a jaunt of sport, they note the guerrillas already camped in the mountainside location where they play. They decide it might be best to wait until later.

The villages are trying to prosper and live normally, keeping order and hope for all the families. Though the last school teacher was chased off by the rebels, a new hire is excited about the possibility of educating these kids. She settles into her living quarters in the school, lining up all the kids to meet them, first through fifth grade. She puts up with political graffiti on the side of her school and the fact that when she's not around, the building is used for rebel meetings. In her youthful zeal she has no idea she's walking into a hopeless situation.

When a neighbor loses grip on a cow running through the soccer field, all will know in no uncertain terms that this field has been recently mined. Years ago, the military used the place strategically and the rebels need to make sure they cannot land a chopper or walk here again. In a turn of events, the new soccer ball will sit there at the end of the field under a large tree, with the children unable to pick it up for fear of being blown to bits. It sits there for days as they make plans on how to get it. It becomes an obsession, the need to get that ball that glares at them from the end of the field.

Being kids, having that more reckless mentality of a child's mind, they will no doubt attempt to get it. There are several intense, gruelling scenes of Manuel and his friends hanging from the tree, navigating the minefield in order to grasp that childhood object of desire. At one point Manuel's albino friend loses his much needed glasses trying to grab the ball. It's awful to think of him facing his parents -- the loss of glasses being a secondary crime to him being in the minefield in the first place.

The soccer ball and a view of life through Manuel's eyes are center at the heart of this story. In many ways, the film is reminiscent of Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven, though in the Iranian masterpiece the brother's search, that thing in jeopardy, was his sister's shoes. The Colors of the Mountain doesn't get the chance to be as tender as a Majidi film though, because there are always rebels on the land, explosions in the distance, helicopters overhead -- the interruption of normal life by an encroaching war that will not go away. This is a hard, stern look at the life of war-torn children who can no longer grasp at even the simplest of life's pleasures.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Two Missed Cocos.

I missed both of these rom-fem biopics in the theater setting. Released almost exactly a year apart, I remember that I wanted to see them but couldn't fix my schedule to get to either one.

Coco Before Chanel, which made its theatrical run two years ago, is about Coco Chanel's life from maybe her late teens into her early thirties. It is an excellent setup for the second film, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, a film which had its theatrical run last summer, about a later more ordered time in Chanel's life.

I recently caught the DVDs within a few days of each other, and found that seeing them chronologically -- which applies to the release dates as well as the timeline of Chanel's life -- is best. The second film is far more compelling artistically, strengthening my theory about watching the two in this way: they build from a somewhat average but entertaining first film to an incredible climax in the wonderfully rendered latter film, the two time periods of Chanel's life bleeding together like you're taking in a four-hour film or a mini-series.

This is going to be short and sweet, but I wanted to put the experience down now so I can fondly look back on it later. Here are just a few paragraphs on each:

Coco Before Chanel. (2009) Anne Fontaine

Here we have Audrey Tautou (whom I adore) as the ambitious Coco Chanel, beginning in a run down orphanage as a forgotten little girl and quickly making a living as a music hall chanteuse. She's in business with her sister -- the two have several numbers they've put together -- but we immediately see that it's all about survival. The gigs are less about the singing and more about a demeaning and sexist meat market. Approached by men constantly, Coco points to the whores on the other side of the bar. She's in survival mode but she's not going to stoop to that level. The irony being that later, when she ends up a rich mistress, it isn't very different from a whore's existence except for a lavish lifestyle living with a single wealthy john.

As a mistress Coco gets to live in a mansion, though she's initially tucked away in a room upstairs to avoid any visiting socialites. Too empowered to be hidden for long, she meets the wealthiest in a burgeoning capitalist culture making hats for rich women and working on their outfits for social gatherings. This is how her talent fully emerges; she goes from being a commodity to filling consumerist desires. It's the beginning of a fashion empire originally launched from a room shamefully hidden away in the house of one who would buy her affections. The man, who lacks generosity and compassion, she grows to detest and later pity. She leaves him for her first real love, Boy, who is smitten by her unbroken nature and overpowering gaze.

She's a character a viewer can begin to hope for, and root for. She will find love, but then she'll quietly obsess over it, lose it, and make a move toward business where she'll trade in any emotional hopes for thriving financially. Her change sets us up for the second film where she is colder, calloused, totally financially independent, and able to exploit whoever or whatever she wants.

This is a good if not great film that has a few moments of emotional tug. When you see what Chanel went through for the nature of survival, it's sometimes a bit sad to watch. Tautou retains her typical ability of lifting the material to meet her acting abilities, but I'd recommend Coco Before Chanel only if you're planning to see both films.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. (2010) Jan Kounen

There are a couple of reasons I really fell in love with this film, which in moments is a stylistic rush, at other times downright sexy.

In the first twenty minutes a life-long historical bewilderment I've had is relayed with incredible force. It's an orchestral concert, with Chanel in the audience. The date is May 29, 1913. If you're a classical music aficionado you recognize this as the date of the riots over the premier of "The Rite of Spring," at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Stravinski's music drew unsuspecting listeners into a fury. They simply weren't ready for the atonality of this art. Chanel, cutting edge in the fashion industry and now a sophisticated urban bourgeoise, immediately finds in Stravinski's music a force to connect with. Here are two people ahead of their time, mindful of the arts and driven by their creative passion. Only their egos are bigger than their passion, and no moral or marriage will keep them apart.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky turns into a smoldering story of raw unemotional sexuality, unhinging the erotic nature of these otherwise restrained characters (think: Henry and June or The Lover). Anna Mouglalis is a completely different Coco than Audrey Tautou -- rightfully so, since it's a person at a different stage in her life. (Don't most of us completely change every ten or fifteen years?) Whatever she once was, whatever she is now, captured in this film is an onscreen siren, one which any man would simultaneously fear, obsess over and ache for. I haven't seen a spitfire woman so smoking red-hot since Giovanna Mezzogiorno in the first half of Vincere.

The film is a visual delight filled with greater splashes of nuance than Coco Before Chanel. It captures Chanel's household, where the two end up living -- along with Stravinsky's wife and children -- with visual passion and a tension that matches the affair. Coco's cool and collected nature is coldly amazing, but from the first film we've seen all the roughened stages setting this callousness in place; she builds an empire on the concepts of female empowerment and beauty but closes herself behind walls of accumulated power, commodities, and isolation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Devil. (2010) John Erick Dowdle

Bojana Novakovic dragged to hell... again.

I know I said the intended use of the rest of March would be set aside for catching up with a few foreign films I hadn't gotten around to, but this little horror/thriller morality tale completely took me by surprise. I popped it in tonight looking only for a quick fix, a bit of lighter fare, but, wow, wish I'd seen this one in the theater. Great little film ripped straight out of I Peter 5:8. M. Night is responsible for the story -- what, has this guy been digging into the Good Book lately? He'd better keep it up. It's certainly better stuff than his last two films.

I put up a speed of a bullet post with possible light spoilers at A&F; if you want to check out a "Reaction on the Fly," it is Here.

EUFF Wrap. (2011)

I was once again grateful to get to so many new films from Europe this year. The fest, made of people who are typically used to members being local, was quite accomodating in helping me obtain tickets over the phone when Ticketmaster couldn't figure out how to make it work for a non-local. The people at the Siskel have always been good to me, and it's nice to feel that kind of warmth from the classiest place to see a film in the Chicago area.

I do feel like I hit a few of the wrong films this year; my Reactions here at Filmsweep were sometimes a mere "Blah," and in other places serious contempt (especially toward the two Swedish films, which as a big fan of the country's films I admit I react against harder). But if it weren't for EUFF, I wouldn't have seen Amer and Letters to Father Jacob on the big screen, where they were both riveting in their own ways and larger than life. I also scooped Korkoro and Trust Me, turning in the first English language write-ups available on the web.

I missed two films I had tickets for: a documentary on the French New Wave called Two In the Wave, which just became available on Netflix, and Danish film Applause, starring Paprika Steen as an actor coming out of rehab -- a film which Ebert loved, and one that I was sad to have had to pass up. But you can't hit 'em all, and that is a film that won't escape a future DVD release.

Thanks again to the Siskel Film Center (great pic of their location above). They'll be launching their Asian showcase in April. Meantime, I hope to fill out the month catching recently released foreigns, which of course I'll shout out about here at the blog.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Letters to Father Jacob. (2009) Klaus Härö

This is a moving little Finnish film, wonderfully made, that reminds me a bit of Babette's Feast, or perhaps the recent Lourdes.

It's about Leila, a woman who has spent twelve years locked away behind bars. She's suddenly pardoned and due to be released and she can't quite figure out why. She argues with the warden that she's supposed to be a "lifer," that she shouldn't be going anywhere, that she was destined to live out her days in jail. She doesn't have anywhere to go anyway, except the one place the warden suggests: she should live with an elderly retired priest named Father Jacob in a remote parsonage in the Finnish countryside. There she will care for his needs and live a life of quiet in the old home.

When she arrives she is clear about what she will or won't do. "I don't do windows," is one of her first phrases to Jacob. She's surprised that Father Jacob is blind, and so old, and that the only thing he wants, the only job he actually desires from her is to read the letters he receives on a daily basis in the mail and dictate as he gently responds.

The letters are from parishioners Jacob has known throughout the course of his ministry. They are petitions for prayer from those who struggle with all kinds of things -- drunken spouses, sick children, depression, and more. They are sent because folks know Jacob is an honorable man; they know he will intercede on their behalf, and if their story is relayed, they know the holy man's words will reach God's heart.

Leila, agnostic but perhaps thinking herself an atheist, humors Jacob and reads the letters. The notes, she believes, can't be better than religious hope -- there's no God to answer Jacob's prayers. But in small moments she is touched by his relentless compassion. He answers every letter he receives and petitions God for help on a daily basis. She sees his dedication even if she thinks it's all for naught.

A third character, the mailman, arrives on bicycle with the letters. Leila waits outside for him every day, gathering the envelopes and sometimes throwing a few out. You might think this is where the love story is going to take place, Leila and the mailman, the mailman and Leila. But Letters to Father Jacob isn't a film about earthly love. He's scared of her. He knows she's an ex-con and immediately puts up walls, avoiding her at all costs, bicycling away from the parsonage when he sees her waiting for him out front. He even goes so far as to stop bringing the mail. When she catches him in a criminal act and nearly beats the fuzz out of him (Leila is no small woman), things in their relationship go from strained to total avoidance.

But Leila is of a hardened type that is well adjusted to these kinds of relationships. She's probably created them a few times before. Constantly unimpressed, sometimes brash and too much to the point, she doesn't joke, barely laughs, and puts up with others rather than enjoying them. Perhaps she has not enjoyed any day with or without anyone else for a long, long time. She's had time to think about her crime during those twelve years incarcerated, and the thinking and constant guilt have eaten away at her soul. She functions in her day to day routines, but any joy of living was sucked out of her a long time ago.

Kaarina Hazard as Leila was nominated for a Jussi, the Finnish equivalent of the Oscar, and she is perfect in this unglamorous role. Heikki Nousiainen as Father Jacob won the Jussi for the Best Actor award. The two together, the caring and compassionate old preacher and the uncaring and dispassionate ex-con, end up digging thoroughly into each other's backgrounds and psyches, and each are going to learn something valuable about their own self as well as the other.

A miracle or two will take place before the end of the film, but we can't be certain how much it changes Leila's outlook on life. This might be more like real life than any miraculous event that suddenly changes everything about her. We all see miracles all the time, but most will go unnoticed.

With its deep, lovely visuals of the interiors and exteriors of the abandoned church they live by, this is one of those quiet films of subtle nuance that you really want to see on the big screen. But unless you live near a big city you probably won't get that chance. That's a sad fact, but as luck would have it the DVD was just released earlier this month, and the film is available through Netflix. One way or another, I highly encourage you to track it down.

My friend Nathan from Cinema Truth wrote an excellent review that sheds light on the film's Bressonian qualities. It is posted on my buddy Jeffrey Overstreet's site, Looking Closer. I highly encourage you to delve more into Letters to Father Jacob -- that enlightening review is posted Here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Trust Me. (2010) Johan Kling

This is the second seriously awful Swedish film I saw at this year's EUFF -- two out of two for me, which is highly disappointing since Sweden remains the country I've traveled to most outside of America, a country known for some stellar filmmaking. (Bergman, anyone?)

Older filmmaking aside, Sweden's output in recent years has throttled me. Even in the last decade it has become the country I've most looked forward to for masterpiece films that relay wonderfully human stories: Lukas Moodysson (Together, Lilya 4-Ever), Roy Andersson (Songs From the Second Floor), Mikael Håfström (Evil), Tomas Alfredson (Four Shades of Brown, Let the Right One In), and lately Daniel Alfredson and Niels Arden Oplev (The Millennium Trilogy, now being created for US audiences by David Fincher). These are all accomplished directors with great films that, if you still haven't seen, I encourage you to track down the DVDs.

It's just too bad that the two I've seen this year don't live up to any of the films listed above, the largest problem being that nothing happens in these films! Behind Blue Skies, which I railed against Here, is still a step above Trust Me, a film I like the original title for much better. ("Puss" would directly translate as "Kiss." Don't know why that needed to be changed. Actually neither one of the titles makes much sense in the context of a film that barely has a kiss or a lack of trust. Yet I digress.)

The movie reminded me of TV's "Glee." OK, fine, I'm no fan of the wretched boob tube and I've never seen an episode of "Glee," but I've seen its horribly artificial, vacuous and trite commercials, and that whole mess still seems better than the bulk of Trust Me, which has no comedy, no intensity -- no real mood for that matter -- but is a monotony of nothingness which isn't Jarmuschian and intending to be a "cool kind of nothingness," but really wanting to be something. And it isn't.

To give details about the plot would almost pretend that this is a script that actually exists. I prefer to think that the script is pretend and the whole film experience never happened.

But, alas --

It's about a youthful theater group in which most of the actors, for reasons unexplained, don't want to be there, and the building's landlord, for even more unexplained reasons, no longer wants the group on the premises. He's trying to figure out a way to evict them, and of course he will or the story won't be able to progress, and of course it won't work or the story won't get to a happy ending.

The stiff-necked actors and the people that work around the theater are, of course, all in love with someone who is in love with someone else, and the director, of course, can't quite bring things up to speed to get the next play ready for opening night. She's the only one who cares about the production, and even she is unhinged when learning of her fiance's affair with a member in the cast who is, yep, you guessed it, with child. His.

There's a stage gun that will no doubt get used, various pictures taken that will no doubt be revealed, and a mysterious hole in the wall where people watch people take off their clothes. There's also a bum who lives on the premises, unknown to all, and he stinks and the stink is often misunderstood as, well, something else that stinks that I guess is supposed to be funny.

And then there's the fat girl. Unappreciated, unloved, the film gets her drunk and laid backstage, and for one glorious moment you think things in her unnoticed life might begin to turn around. Sadly, they don't. The film seems to hate her, and it reminds me that I never saw a fat girl in all my years in Sweden.

The actors in Trust Me can't bring life to this lifeless script. How would they be able to? There might be some fine actors here, but they've got nothing to work with in such a sap headed story that can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama, and seriously fails at both.

As if legitimizing Trust Me, some in the EUFF crowd attempted to break into a half-hearted applause at the end, at which I cleared my throat quite loudly, even unexpectedly to myself, and realized that the world is starving for something that matters. If it's Trust Me that fills that hole, we're in greater danger than I thought. We're like the humans strung up in The Matrix and the machines have taken over. Hopefully the machines are kind enough to send "Glee" reruns to our decaying brain cells while we lie there like zombies not even existing.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Temptation of St. Tony. (2009) Veiko Õunpuu

Like an art school project that got too deep for its own good, created in black and white flourishes and wearing its baffling abstract influences on its sleeve (Tarr, Lynch), The Temptation of St. Tony was described by EUFF as, "A Euro-modern riff on Bosch’s painting, The Temptation of St. Anthony."

Here is an image of the triptych, widely regarded as a powerful work about a tormented soul urged to participate in sin. However, if you've seen the film, the painting itself might produce a sort of shrugging of the shoulders. Nevertheless:

For a much better view look Here, or Here.

I don't know if I got all that out of the screening I attended, but this seriously strange film is at least as busy as the painting with a cast of odd, indecipherable characters who each bring a temptation or two to central frizzy-haired Henry Spencer-like character, Tony.

There are moments early on when the film is darkly humorous, and rather enjoyably so. It seems like this is going to be a trippy, fun ride. A worn-out looking Tony, leading a funeral procession for his deceased dad with a small band ensemble (big bass drum, out of tune horns) takes mourners on a dirge through an Estonian countryside only to witness one of the strangest car wrecks you'll ever see, a solo accident crashing the car straight into the Baltic, apparently causing another death. The procession obviously notices, stops for a gaper's delay, shrugs the event off, and continues in their mournful march. It's a laughable moment of irony and inhumanity, perfectly setting the tone for all the events Tony's about to be thrust into.

Continuing in a mode of black comedy, a few minutes later at a business dinner the cast is approached by a bum who stares in through the window at either the elegant meal, or the people at the table, or perhaps their wine bottle which he wants. They are all put off, grossed out by the transient and not knowing how to handle the situation. Tony picks up the bottle, walks outside, gives it to the man, who empties it of its contents and saves it with a bag of recyclables he's been carrying all along. Scenes like this provoke ironic laughs, but they rarely show up again as the film envelops us in its non-linear redundancy.

Tony himself is a good-natured fellow, constantly thrown into artificial situations that no one would know how to handle. The fact that some of the situations make no sense, in a film that makes very little sense, actually brings film viewers out of the experience itself and into the realization that we are watching a movie, and at points just waiting for it to end.

The film divides itself into six parts, represented by Roman numerals, small black letters against a large white backdrop. It continues to follow the considerate Tony, who seems to live in two alternate universes, one with his wife and daughter and the other with a girlfriend he's left the family to be with. In one of the more interesting scenes which probably lasts about twenty minutes and could be turned into an outstanding short film, Tony is silently followed in a dream-like state, camera behind him ala the Dardennes, and he ends up in a cabaret nightclub called the Golden Age where all of the most perfect Lynchian elements come to life. These elements are already suited for the strange and surreal nighttime club experience anyway (think: Betty and Rita at the Club Silencio performance in Mulholland Drive, or anyone in Twin Peaks who had a dream experience with The Red Room of the Black Lodge). The scene extends itself into a cannibalistic nightmare, suggesting man's ability to trounce on another (for any number of reasons), the whole thing witnessed through the eyes of a now shocked Tony. It is seriously an excellent scene, and is easily the scene in the film that puts director Õunpuu on the global map.

I don't want to oversell this film though. It is tedious to sit through, a nightmare in its own right. Of interest in the theater were the loud yawns coming from a young female viewer behind me who obviously wanted everyone at the Siskel to know how thoroughly bored she was with the whole thing (and I honestly can't say that I blame her), countered by the protests coming from an older woman in front of me who was upset about the rude yawning behind us. (Can't say that I blame her, either.) I probably agree more with the woman sitting in back of me than the frustrated lady in front.

But Õunpuu has created something worth discussion here, I'm just not sure I know the crowd that would be interested in discussing it. When I was a kid, a group of film nerds and I loved digging into Eraserhead, constantly fidgeting with the material in attempt to solve the riddle of its mystery. They were always fun discussions, often leading to red faces, heated arguments. I'm not certain that type of discussion could be attempted with St. Tony, because I'm not sure there are any real life parallels you can drag out from all these enigmatic visuals. There are a few moments, though, where the visuals are wildly fun, confrontational and chaotic in a certain sense -- but you wade through much filler to find the golden nuggets.

This was the official Estonian submission for Academy Awards consideration but it didn't make the shortlist for final nomination. Compared to a film like Dogtooth, which can be seen from so many different perspectives, I can see why St. Tony didn't make the cut. While unique and absurd, it is overly long and at times quite forced, and other perspectives will be hard to come by because really any one perspective might be difficult. I will, however, keep my eyes peeled for any future film by Õunpuu, who has an obvious talent for visuals but might need to corral that wild narrative, at least enough to give the audience an idea of what's going on.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fear Me Not. (2008) Kristian Levring

Just a few sentences on a solid DVD I caught between EUFF screenings.

Ulrich Thomsen has nothing to fear except for... fearing himself.

I've been a fan of director Kristian Levring since his knockout desert survivalist film, The King is Alive (Dogme film #3), where passengers on a broken down tour bus present "King Lear" in the sands of a wasteland terrene -- and his Conrad "Heart of Darkness" allusion, The Intended, a trip of a film which I was lucky enough to see on the big screen years ago. (Thanks, Facets!)

I've also loved Ulrich Thomsen in practically everything I've seen him in: Festen (Also known as The Celebration, which was dogme film #1 and a perfect launch to the movement); Per Fly's The Inheritance, another near masterpiece; the original Brothers, long before Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman even heard of it; and a small unknown film called Adam's Apples, which is a great reference for Fear Me Not. These are just a few of the films I've loved him in, and they're probably the easiest to track down. Seriously, I don't think I've seen Thomsen in a stinker.

I've also often bragged about Paprika Steen (no stranger to the dogme movement, as seen Here), whom I have a date with this weekend (the Danish film Applause -- thanks, EUFF!).

It would seem that the combination of many of my favorite artists teaming up for Fear Me Not would create a film perfectly suited to my tastes.

After seeing it, that assumption about sums it up.

It's an excellent film, though perhaps not perfect. Levring actually held back where I wished for greater tension, something he's certainly not had a problem with in the past. However, the story itself is quite intriguing and applicable today to many floating around in the haze of modern "medicine."

Thomsen plays modern day business man, Mikael, who is sliding backwards on the social scale; a mid-life crisis, perhaps, or a breakdown. He might be dealing with depression, not wanting to admit it, or perhaps he's just feeling more aloof, disconnected from the real world when all he does is work, work, work. He's like the guy from Ecclesiastes with two hands full that needs a third hand to grasp for more.

We catch him at the beginning of a leave of absence from work. His wife, Sigrid (Steen), seems a little worried about his lack of desire to go back. His brother-in-law mentions a clinical trial for a new pill of some sort, an anti-depressant, and without hesitation Mikael signs up for the deal. The rest of the story follows how this drug makes Mikael feel stronger at first, but then brings hallucinations that he often drags into reality, hallucinations that get him into trouble.

For instance, sitting at the doctor's office awaiting an appointment regarding the use of the new med, he believes other patients are getting into a ruckus of sorts, and as he leaps into the fray and punches out a man it's revealed that the ruckus never happened, but his blow to the man's face did. He just punched out an innocent man in the doctor's office. Perhaps that's a reason to discontinue the drug.

The trial is cut short due to some other patient reactions, and Mikael, with a four month supply, tells his brother-in-law he has thrown all the meds in the garbage. Which at one point he even does. Too bad, that like a dog back to his own vomit, he heads out to the garbage truck and picks through the trash to get his pills.

At some point it's no longer hallucinations that are putting Mikael over the edge. We actually see his personality change. And to his own detriment he begins chronicling these changes in a journal on his laptop. He becomes abusive to people in and outside of the family, he becomes evasive to people's concerns and outright confrontational when challenged. He hurts several people with terrible schemes hatched out of his head, and we're curious to know why he can't see how horribly the drug has made him.

There is a reveal in Fear Me Not about twenty minutes toward the end of the film that is mind boggling. It at once reverses everything we've understood to this point, and feels like an entire reboot of the film. From that point on, anything can happen, which is a shot of adrenaline at just the right moment.

For fans of this director or these actors or for fans of Scandinavian cinema in general, it is definitely a film worth tracking down. For those who haven't made inroads into Danish cinema quite yet, I might still recommend something like Festen first. But this is one more film from a part of the world that seems to explode with very great, very real and human stories. It's a film that addresses the situation of successful men today as well as how some make it in this world, enhancing themselves, but sometimes the enhancement is destabilizing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Army of Crime. (2009) Robert Guédiguian

There's a fine line between resistance and terrorism, and that's just one of the ideas explored in Robert Guédiguian's latest French pseudo-reality melodrama, The Army of Crime, the second French WWII film screening this week at Chicago's EUFF.

France in 1943 is a country rolling over. They have declared neutrality, but it's a declaration built on nice thoughts, meaningless words. Intimidated citizens are pushed into collaboration with the occupying regime, forced to aid in the transportation of Jews and minorities on cattle cars to Auschwitz. Even the police are involved in the capture and torture of civilians to obtain information about the resistance. It must have been a confusing time to know the right, moral way to resist -- if such a notion of resistance even existed. If you kill a countryman in order to save other countrymen, is the act considered allegiance to France or terrorism? If you throw a grenade into a roomful of Nazi soldiers with wives and other young girls present, have you served your country or only added to an already endless volume of innocent blood?

Like The Battle of Algiers, the 1966 masterpiece which flips the French from its neutral role in Guédiguian's film to the role of outright oppressor (and is even referenced quite a few times here, most notably in a scene where an escapee flees only to be tripped in the street), The Army of Crime explores the idea that resistance absolutely isn't futile, that it's a necessity, but a muddled affair. As Robert McNamara points out in The Fog of War, in order to do good, you may have to engage in acts of evil.

The resistance, represented here as a makeshift group of immigrants, are aware of the choices they make daily; the ramifications of their actions will be considered by some heroic, by others dangerous and degenerate. Whether they're a resistance force or a terrorist group isn't just based on the perspective of the side you're on, but often a question of how far you're willing to go for the sake of your own freedom -- the morality of immoral acts, so to speak -- and though I'm not crazy about this film, that's a theme I always find intriguing.

The group's leader is Armenian-born Missak Manouchian, a woodworker and political activist, a poet and a pacifist. At first a conscientious objector to the very idea of a war, he's not someone you might consider leading the laborer division of the Parisian Resistance. But after throwing a grenade into a group of marching SS soldiers, he lead the ragtag group on 30 brutal operations against the Nazis. He goes against his objections over killing because he's in a situation outside the laws of morality.

The operations become more and more elaborate, the group hoping for attention among the citizens and in the press. No matter what feats they boldly pull off, they'll have a harder time getting in with the press. The Germans are a little too smart for that. One of the best ways to understand the Germans' knowledge of the power of the media is to listen to the radio, often heard as a break between scenes:

"When a train derails or locomotives are destroyed, that isn't one less train for the Germans, it means the French will go without," the man on the radio announces. "When a power station or a dam is bombed, when saboteurs blow up a transformer or cut power cables, French workers go idle, French housewives lack electricity, French craftsmen have to down tools..."

The obvious point that these terrorist are really hurting the French.

Later: "Near Chalon-sur-Saône, 18 dead and 32 wounded in an attack. In Grenoble, a terrific explosion causes 1,500 casualties. In Bourg-en-Bresse, pillaging during General Dobenet's funeral. This is the work of foreign terrorists, nearly all Jews. Armenians, Polish Jews, Red Spaniards... We shall answer violence with fair but merciless repression..."

Although spoken in French and riding the airwaves over France, it's obvious where these words are coming from. The news has just reported, blamed, and planned an assaultive attack all at once.

I purposefully called the film a melodrama based on a part of the definition of the word, "emphasizing plot/action at the expense of characterization." It's not a film that is going to stick with me, but it wasn't the worst experience either. But where it attempts at characterization it clearly fails, and it loves to continuously ride along its repetitious plot.

Maybe it's a general feeling I have of being tired with WWII movies, but I found The Army of Crime long winded and lacking in interest. I barely made it through. After taking forty-five minutes to finally set the proper characters in place, the film becomes a basic "Spy vs Spy" routine. They plan, they bomb, the shoot, they plan more, they bomb and shoot more, they get caught, they get tortured, they make more plans and bomb and shoot more until getting caught finally, once and for all. The film tries to dip into the waters of a love story for a moment or two toward the end, but by the time it gets there we're too bored to care. And when the end credits roll and the director admits he had to alter certain events, that it was "necessary to recount this modern legend to help us live here and now," I kinda didn't get it and felt the whole thing was a giant waste of time.

WWII was a horror words cannot even express. The more we study it, we simply know it. We're glad it's no longer with us and we hope to never go back to that kind of a world. I understand that films like this are supposed to be a reminder to us of a world we hope to never go back to, but lately I feel like these films are done to death, that there's a new one on the market every month. And by "on the market," I mean just that. There are so many films that need to make money from these atrocities; they claim to want us to remember so that we never forget, but they feel like the same panhandler you see on the street every day.

The problem with The Army of Crime is that brings nothing new to the genre, and it is a genre that, unfortunately for this film, is beginning to look more mechanical than heartfelt. It's not a good or a bad film, in fact the intentions behind it may have been quite good. The timing, maybe not so much in a film world that is currently saturated with the same stories.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Korkoro. (2010) Tony Gatlif

The first of two EUFF World War II films from France, each showing the cooperation, even the collaboration of the French under an intimidating German regime, Korkoro (also known as Freedom) centers on a group of Roma gypsies splintered and torn apart by the Holocaust. The destruction of property rights and life is a topic usually reserved for Jews in WWII films; here we learn of the similar oppression and slaughter of an entirely different group of people, one largely forgotten and totally unknown to many more.

The year is 1943. A large gypsy family sets course for the region of Burgundy for seasonal work in harvesting like they traditionally do each year. This year they will face greater hostilities. The regime has created laws regarding the nomadic nature of the gypsies -- wandering has become prohibited. The family no longer fits in with the new order. Fortunately for the group a local teacher and a veterinarian/mayor form a quiet opposition, a resistance to Nazi hostility, providing the group with a temporary home -- an unused and empty house where they can stay without a problem.

But problems seem to track the family down from all sides. The neighbors are already scared of a regime they cower from daily, and they don't want the gypsies as their neighbors. In a scene displaying the baser side of humanity they attempt to force the gypsies out. The mayor and the teacher arrive just before all hell breaks loose, and the mayor, Théodore, even threatens to take on the locals lest they back off. They do back off, but Théodore and the pretty teacher pay for their allegiance to the family -- they are soon arrested and beaten by Nazis who could care less whether they are pummeling a man or a woman.

Things are briefly OK for the family, and in a few scenes we get to see them better, meeting a culture that's typically lost on us. Music is a huge release for the family. Dancing and singing with spirited violins and assorted instruments mean much more to them than simple light entertainment. Their music is a meaning of connection, expression and brief escape. Director Gatlif allows quite a bit of room for us to peek in and see their dancing, their frolicking and delight in music which brings a healing ointment through hard times and sorrows.

The group also has some strange spiritual preoccupations. They seem obsessed with ghosts, constantly feeling the presence of spirits and seeing them around every corner. They even bless and anoint the house upon moving in to make sure the spirits go somewhere else. The ghosts are as real to them as any oppression from the Nazi forces; their ability to decipher unknown elements and true evil becomes confused when they're so transfixed.

The main gypsy we'll remember is Taloche, played with a physical presence by James Thiérrée (Charlie Chaplin's grandson), who is more scared of the ghosts than anyone, constantly slipping in cracks and crevices to avoid them. It is Taloche that originally discovers an orphan boy who has been following the group for a time. Taloche dives headfirst into a patch of weeds where the boy is hiding, originally locating him by his scent. They urge the child to leave, but he manages to stick around. He'll be with them through thick and thin.

With the arrest of the teacher and Théodore, the group decides it's time to leave the house and risk the outer elements once again. When they are predictably arrested and hauled off, in a harsh scene filled with faces full of tears, they urge their arrestors to leave the orphan boy behind. "He's not with us! He's not one of us!" they cry. Whether French or German in the arresting squad, no one believes the boy isn't a member of the family. He'll continue to cling to this group like their own new son, and whether they're set free or sent to concentration camps, his fate will accompany the family.

Korkoro is the family tragedy of maybe 12 or 14 people reflecting a time where hundreds of thousands of gypsy families like this were sent into exile and killed. The film tells us that an estimated quarter to a half million gypsies were brutally murdered at the hands of the Nazis out of the two million gypsies living in Europe at the time.

The topic is admirable, and honorable, and Gatlif should be applauded for his efforts. This is the first film I've seen from him, and I understand he has taken on the gypsy cause before, as well as maintaining a personal vision that is pure and unrelated to the worries of how much money films will make. This is certainly a film that will bring light to lost history.

But it's a film I wanted to like more than I actually did. The gypsies are often caricatured, especially Taloche, who comes off a bit like Torisho Mifune in Seven Samurai. He's a bit wild -- a little too much so at times -- making him an unpredictable character who is hard to understand, hard to identify with in a group that is already largely misunderstood.

I was happy to have seen Korkoro, glad to have seen into Gatlif's world which sheds light on an area left out of the textbooks of history. Sadly, the film could have been better built by delivering more realism in its cast so that we care about its cause.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Behind Blue Skies. (2011) Hannes Holm

A big dick fills the screen at the onset of Behind Blue Skies, with a young pretty blond in Lewinski mode, making sure the film won't be distributed in the U.S. anytime soon. It's instant overkill, a very cheap and pointless ploy, especially for a film that isn't about the nature of sex and has no further nudity throughout. It catches you off guard, but it's the only rise in the film, a story that could have used an erection anywhere else.

Bill Skarsgård plays Martin, the boy with the large penis that (excuse me while I clear my throat) becomes a man by learning the drug trade from his girlfriend's dad while working for him at a summer resort. Martin's step into manhood is solidified in a final confrontation with his own father, a moment we've seen coming for at least 95 minutes in a film that's 85 minutes too long already.

Martin's dad is an alcoholic. It's kept as a family secret. He might start with wine at the dinner table but a typical night sends him on a hunt for the vodka bottles stashed away around the house. He's a blackout drinker, the kind that stumbles and swears and tries to throw parties but will be picked up and dropped into bed when he's done. Ugly, angry, violent and unpredictable, he scares Martin and his mom every night, and when they've all awakened the next morning he can't remember what he did. Martin and his mom remember everything, every recurring day, and have no real option but to repress it.

In a recent filmcomment interview with director Mike Leigh regarding his latest, Another Year, Leigh points out the alcoholism that crops up in a few of his films, and notes that when alcoholism is portrayed in film it isn't about the alcohol, but it's more about the pain. He says, "We know that people are driven to alcohol because of the pain, and it's the pain we're talking about."

Had Behind Beautiful Skies stayed with the story of Martin and the family pain in the aftermath of his father's nightly sprees, it might have been an OK film. The scenes between Martin, his mom and his dad are captured with a grave reality. But time isn't spent there, and some very good scenes are lost to the rest of the film. I didn't time it, but I'd be surprised if even twenty minutes are devoted to Martin's home life. It's treated like bookends, setting up family life in the opening chapters so we can come back and confront things in the end. Presenting the story like this with no depth treats it as a movie cliche, even without the bumbling scenes of drug dealing taking place in the film's middle portion. And the middle portion certainly doesn't help the film either, as it stumbles like Martin's drunk dad: out of control, all over the place, it's a disaster and a mess.

The film wants you to look at it like it's all about different classes in Swedish culture. While Martin and his parents are a working class kind of people, the summer resort where he's headed is intended for the rich. A friend's wealthy parents invited Martin there for the summer, and when he arrives his friend takes off with some other snotty rich kids, and Martin takes a job as a bus boy.

He'll get a promotion to waiter, get fired for stealing beer (he's the fall guy), he'll find a girl he really likes, get re-hired on the side by her dad (same employer that fired him, the drug dealer), he'll begin to make drops for the man, learn to siphon the restaurant's cash, and learn how to negotiate between the police and the dealers in staying out of a coming raid -- all of this before he gets to go back home to punch out daddy. The summer scenes are as unbelievable as the coming roundhouse punch, and I can't stress enough how predictable that knockout punch is.

Writer/Director Hannes Holm must be somewhat young to think that being taken under the wing of a drug dealer is going to make you a better person in the end. There are quite a few paths to manhood, and this simply isn't one of them. I heard a few ladies chatting as we walked out of the theater, saying, "Oh, but he was such a nice boy." I rolled my eyes at the thought. Maybe his manners were nice -- as Swedes typically are -- but this kid's actions prove otherwise and should have landed him behind bars. No one forces Martin to go into a life of crime. No one forces him to continue with the drops when he's fully realized what's going on. He takes the job to stay at the resort with the hopes of meeting up again with the girl.

So this is a film about drug runners in Sweden (uh-huh), and a love story between the drug dealer's well adjusted daughter (uh-huh) and Martin, who is supposed to be likable even though he intentionally chooses a life of crime and comes from an alcoholic home (uh-huh), all of which is boring (oh, uh-HUH!), and bookended by a story that could have been an OK twenty minute short film.

I'm sure Martin inwardly blames dad for many of his problems, but there's no guilt or consequences for any of the wrong Martin has actually done. Yeah, he's a nice kid. Yes, he has nice Swedish manners. But this is a shell of a character, which makes him unsympathetic to this viewer as he kind of bounces from one place to the next like a pinball in a pinball machine, regardless of the morality or lack thereof in any new situation where he finds himself. And just because he predictably lands a blow on daddy's head near the end of the story, how does that make him a man?

I'd like to back up, though, and concentrate on Martin's erect penis in the opening scene. I'm trying to figure out why it bugs me the way it does. I'm old enough to have seen anything any other guy my age has seen. It's not the image itself that I find disgusting here. It's its empty use, a cheap tactic that seems thrown in simply to throw off. Were the film a deeper probing even about sex in and of itself, I might have not been as bugged as I was. But this is PG-13 material that ends up in NC-17 territory, all because of less than ten or fifteen seconds of film. Strange choice.

Holm might want to see some of his countryman Lukas Moodysson's films in order to understand when and where to use this explicit stuff. Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever, the story of a sixteen year-old Estonian seeking a new life in Sweden that ends in sex slavery, is a credible and complex topic which might justify a human body being captured like this on film. But even Moodysson's film with a topic centered on sex is more tastefully done. And even when Moodysson is at his ugliest, his most debased, a viewer can still grasp why he's descended into the trash. What is A Hole in My Heart more than a tormenting experience which tries to create another (cliched) "moral of the story"? We can at least understand what Moodysson is intending, due to the context and the nature of the topic. We might not like it, but we get it.

Or maybe I'm just a prude. That could very well be. But I don't think that is the case. Not here.

When Carlos Reygadas makes a film like Battle in Heaven which I rave about regardless of its opening shocker of straight fellatio, there must be a contextual difference as to why I would react so positively to that film and so negatively to Holm's initial perfunctory sex scene, which set a negative tone in my mind for the rest of the film regardless of how dull it really is. Reygadas uses material like this for an actual purpose, dealing with the guilt and consequences of wrong actions, even the ramifications of sex when it is used in as an escape from the body rather than a connection with the soul of another.

There needs to be a point to sexual activity in mainstream film, and in my mind the opening scene in Behind Blue Skies crosses the line into pornography as much as anything in Winterbottom's 9 Songs. The fact that any of these scenes are artistically rendered for whatever purpose doesn't change that it is what it is. I hate to use this description, sounding like the famous US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when describing The Lovers, but, "I know what it is when I see it."

There's muddled, wrong thinking involved in the creation of this story that is more worthy of delving into than the brief opening scene of a functioning penis, but the film as a whole is so long-winded, falling into the "been there, done that" category, that I don't really care to put more thought into it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Amer. (2010) Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Full steam ahead, it's time to blog some reactions to EUFF, and the first film I get to write about absolutely throttled me.

That is not to say that I loved it. I think that will only be determined after I see it a few more times. But man, oh man, is it one to admire. I long for a second screening, grateful I was able to catch it the first time in the right place -- a packed-house theater with grown men shrieking behind me, and big, bad, rattling and bellowing speakers.

Horror from Belgium, Amer instantly brought to mind two reference points that might be helpful for anyone deciding whether or not to see it.

The first is Kill Bill, which is actually more gruesome and bloodthirsty with its enjoyment of arms and heads cut off and flying through the air, drenching anything close by in the red of its blood. Amer has nothing like those barbaric scenes, although in quick instances it comes close. Where Amer is similar to Tarantino's revenge epic is in its rapid eye edits, its intensely cut visuals which are fascinating as they flicker by, and in its use of unnatural and amplified sound, an incredibly eclectic audio design. When Uma Thurman spins her head or pulls out a sword in Kill Bill, the exaggerated sound effects hail back to early Bruce Lee and 70s Kung Fu flicks; in Amer, when an eye blinks or a corpse is present, or when the victim is struggling in the clutches of her killer, the sound hails back to retro horror, mostly gialli, which the visual stylings reference, too.

The second film that so quickly springs to mind is Ti West's The House of the Devil, a guilty pleasure of mine from last year. That film paid homage to earlier horror classics in its creepy Halloween-like score, its babysitter left alone in a large house, and Satanism lurking in the back of the script. It was set in the mid-80s and built as if it were made then, using cameras from the era and edited in the exact same fashion as those slasher flicks you saw on HBO as a teen. It's the retro-chic, throwback feel that is similar to Amer, and if you've ever enjoyed a film by Dario Argento, you're destined to love Amer.

The plot is so fucked over it is impossible to coherently describe. If it has more than fifteen lines of dialogue, well, I'll eat my hat. This is a film based strictly on sight and sound. It lives by it and dies by it, and to decipher its plot is somewhat meaningless.

But I can try.

Like the panels in a triptych, the film shows three moments in the life of heroine Ana. (Anton Bitel in his Sight & Sound review wonderfully notes that her three-lettered palindromic name reflects the film's "tripartite cyclical structure.") Each Ana is played by a different actress: Cassandra Forêt as Ana enfant, a scared innocent, perhaps aged eight or nine; hottie Charlotte Eugène Guibbaud as Ana adolescente, mid-teen and ready to sexually burst and challenge (perhaps replace) the old bag mom; and the captivating Marie Bos as Ana Adule, repressed and reacting to everything the first two Ana's have already seen.

Not since Un Chien Andalou in 1929 has an eye been so fearfully relayed. (And I just realized that Buñuel's startling plot-less short could be another apt reference for Amer.)

After the death of her grandfather, his corpse laid out downstairs, Ana enfant locks herself away in her room, constantly covering the keyhole through which the family housemaid, supposed a witch, gazes in with one ugly eye. Ana eventually grazes downstairs, curious about the corpse, and takes a watch from her grandfather's hand. She breaks off a finger in the process. His eyes open, the housemaid witch reemerges, and Ana is wrapped up in her black shawl, which we see through her eyes.

Ana adolescente walks into town with her mom. Her burgeoning sexuality is pitted against the fact that her once beautiful mother needs to get the gray out. She is heading in to get her hair dyed. As Ana waits outside with a schoolboy she's too mature for, she wanders from the salon and notices a biker gang outside. She walks provocatively in front of them, her thoughts racing with a rebel teenage eros. Her mom tracks her down and gives her a biting little slap on the face. We're never certain whether her mom is being protective or jealous. The two make their way back home.

Ana Adule returns years later to the villa where all this began. The home is dilapidated now, no one has been here or lived here for years. Ana fantasizes about the taxi driver who drives her there and some locals that take her boxes outside the home's gates. The film from this place completely explodes. One, perhaps two killers are stalking Ana, and at least one will kill her by the film's end.

The film is sexually provocative, but unlike much of contemporary horror, not a whole lot of skin is shown. You might find it here or there, but it doesn't need to be shown. It's embedded into the psyche of every element.

In moments along the way, one tone of pure color stands out and is nearly blinding. Red, green, and blue are predominant, and when they're used they seem to go on for minutes at a time. I cannot describe the creepiness of these scenes, nor can I describe the alarming mood of the sound. Like Lynch at his best, Amer influences mostly through suggestion. You're on the edge of your seat and don't always know why. Then, like Rob Zombie -- but for only seconds at a time -- you are fully introduced to the spectrum of horror that abounds.

The film is excessive, over the top, overflowing with references to Italian horror, and writhing as if possessed with atonal image and sound. It is not for the faint of heart, but not prone to the gore of, say, Suspiria. There are moments that it's all just too much to take in, and I'd be open to those who said their mind began to wander.

But it is moody more than anything, and the mood is salient terror, with a suspense that builds to a tragic climax which leaves you desirous to experience it again.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Transcendent Man. (2011) Robert Barry Ptolemy

Futurist Ray Kurzweil has a dream.

It's a foreshadowing, a prediction of an age when sickness and death will disappear, blinded eyes will see and the deaf will hear again. "Humans" lucky enough to be alive during this age will gain exponential growth in intelligence. It's the culmination of the ages -- mankind's Utopian moment of perfection.

He's not talking about God or heaven. Those things for him do not exist. At least, not until we create them.

He gets dreamy-eyed when describing our next evolutionary step, a thought he constantly obsesses over whether in writing or lecturing or inventing. The convergence of the body with technology, the two woven into one sole fabric, he says, is beginning now and will accelerate over the next few decades.

That chip in your cell phone today is a million times smaller, cheaper, and more powerful than the same computer years ago that took up half a building and was shared by thousands of students. Being one of the original kids who worked with early computers like this, Kurzweil has seen first-hand how technology evolves exponentially. He wonders why, if everything is getting smaller by the decade, chips won't be implanted in blood cells in the next twenty or thirty years.

Remember The Matrix and The Terminator? Until now we thought all this was simply fiction.

Remember The Borg, that Star Trek pseudo-race of flesh and technology combined? Maybe they're not the bad guys after all. From Wikipedia:

Whereas cybernetics are used by other races in the science fiction world (and in recent times the real world) to repair bodily damage and birth defects, the Borg voluntarily submit to cybernetic enhancement as a means of achieving what they believe to be perfection (they also force their idea of perfection on others).

The idea of "forced perception" is perhaps closer to Kurzweil's ideas than he'd like to admit. He seems to think that because he wants this, everyone else wants this, and that it is not only our destiny but the most moral next step for human progress.

All of this is happening on the same timeline as the "Singularity" -- when computer chips and machines become life-like, self-aware in their decisions. By that time they should have already assimilated us, so this is something we need to pay close attention to.

While apocalyptic movies like The Terminator and The Matrix (and much of David Cronenberg's films) have a gloom and doom dystopian future, Kurzweil's ideas of assimilation are much more upbeat. The enhancement from strictly bio to bio-mechanical can only be seen as a good thing, he says. Nothing but good has come from science and technology so far, and he sees nothing but good happening when we give ourselves over to it completely.

He's a passionate visionary. No doubt about that. And the documentary about Kurzweil and his work is fascinating, well thought out, mind-blowing in places. But behind his passion is a suffering heart, bruised from the death of his father and hopeful that the heart disease that killed him is not hereditary.

A part of what drives this visionary man is the fear that he might die like his dad. Perhaps, even the fear of death itself, regardless of how it happens.

Kurzweil takes what looks like hundreds of vitamins and pills a day to fight off any oncoming hereditary issues. He also mentions that in the fight to prevent his own death is the hope that one day he might bring back his dad. "Death is supposed to be a finale, but it's actually a loss of everyone you care about," he says. While the film doesn't explicitly say how he might be able to bring his dad back, it is assumed that this will be done through the same DNA Kurzweil wants to alter with nanobots, the achievement happening sometime after Kurzweil's full transformation to a superior being. He will then have access to information that will reveal how this can be done.

Later he speaks about the evolutionary plan as a whole: "Nanobots will infuse all the matter around us with information. Rocks, trees, everything will become these intelligent computers.It's at that point we can expand out into the rest of the Universe. We will be sending basically nanotechnology infused with Artificial Intelligence -- swarms of those will go out into the Universe and basically find other matter and energy that we can then harness to expand the overall intelligence of our human machine civilization. If the Universe will wake up, it will become intelligent. And that will multiply our intelligence trillions and trillions fold. We can't really contemplate. That's really the main reason this is called the 'Singularity.' But regardless of what you call it, it will be the Universe waking up. So does God exist? Well, I would say, Not yet."

Without admitting it up front, Kurzweil makes a case that there is a standard present that the body isn't currently achieving. I don't know if this is something he has really thought through, but I'd like to know where he thinks the standard comes from. Who says the body should be better than it is? By what reasoning should there be no sickness? Why should there be no death? If a standard actually exists that says that these things really are bad, doesn't that suggest a plan already in place that's supposed to correct them?

He's also missing the current beauty that already surrounds him, both in the creation of his own body as well as the heavenly bodies above.

This... (I'm simply staring into the palm of my hand)... isn't already a sign of intelligence? We need technology to bring out the intelligence in creation?

I'm as confused as Kurzweil. I go back and forth on the God issue myself, but at least I recognize that if there is a standard, it didn't necessarily come from our heads. There's as much wrong in the body as there is in our own wrong choices and actions. We see daily evidence in the local news of those who won't improve, won't advance, people who are willing to trade in their morality instead of desiring to become better. I don't think mankind is ready for the "Singularity," even if Kurzweil says it is inevitable.

The whole film feels much like last year's excellent Collapse, the revelatory film about Michael Ruppert who also made predictions. Ruppert's prophetic thoughts were along the lines of the coming oil crash and the ensuing state of world collapse. Kurzweil is like the anti-Ruppert. There is no approaching nightmare. Technology saves us from everything. He's the flip-side to Ruppert, where everything that can go wrong won't. Praise to the little chips. Hopefully we can get them in the blood stream real soon.

The film is excellent and enthralling. Kurzweil himself is naive. Perhaps like many of us, he's stacked all his eggs in one basket. Unfortunately for him, his basket has some gaping holes in it.

But it's a great film to watch for the suggestive probings of the future alone. It's a film that gets the brain cells firing. It's fun to consider that we might someday be a part of a collective. Some of us even think that this is possible without technology.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Waste Land. (2010)
Lucy Walker, Karen Harley and João Jardim

Every once in a while a documentary comes along that's so illuminating and alive with life that you soak in the images of a filmmaker you learn to trust, you believe he is at least trying to relay a truth -- and the "truth" takes on a capital "T" in your heart. Sometimes when someone aims at a truth, they actually hit the stuff, and those moments are stirring. It seems we're sometimes starved for Truth, that we actually need it in order to believe in Reality.

Waste Land is once such film that strives for "Truth," and settles wonderfully into a humane "Reality." It should sit alongside other fine docs that have done a similar service, films we remember so well because they've been faithful to a truth, and yet hopeful and breathing with the full of human potential: Stevie, My Flesh and Blood, Young at Heart, Born Into Brothels, Doctors Without Borders, The Fog of War, Budrus. These are hallmark works that challenge us to give, change, and overcome the odds -- the self-imposed ones as well as the cultural. These films to me are a picture embodiment of the age-old expression of success: "What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve!"

Waste Land is an achievement in more than one way: as a doc fully capturing both progress and art, and as a springboard for the merging of art with social justice. It starts out as a phase in the life of artist Vic Muniz, a Brazilian New Yorker. He's a master of his trade, a culturally-savvy avant-garde pioneer, globally known for large-scale works which dabble in multiple mediums in their design. In the past, Muniz has been fascinated with elements of the earth ranging from chocolate to sugar, cotton, wire and thread. In Waste Land you find him in Rio in the largest trash dump in the world, working with local catadores -- trash pickers by choice -- creating art from trash, with empty wine bottles and cans, lids and used tires, computer wires and diapers and rotten food parts.

Muniz photos the pickers in retroactive art poses, each scene created with what they've been picking and wading through. He then blows up the photo, creating an outline as large as a basketball court, and sets it on the floor in his hideaway studio. Teams of workers fill in the outline with more refuse dragged in from the dump. He takes a second photo from above, blowing up the new creation to gigantic proportions, making an extra-large poster-size photo that's framed and entered in exhibits at quite a few art museums. The works are auctioned off to the highest bidder.

I don't know how much of the money Muniz made from the project he ended up keeping himself. What I do know are the tears on many faces after selling their work for cash. The end credits show the project did a lot of good for many of the workers, even leading to the establishment of classes for those who had nothing to do with the project. Teachings are now offered to better their lives and get out of a picker's life, if that's what they want. Many of the pickers end up financially helping their families and transitioning to other jobs -- when before they'd thought that was out of reach.

What Muniz does, with and for these people, challenges every viewer to bring as much of heaven to earth as we can. That here, and now, there is a calling to benefit others; that if we're only living for ourselves we have truly missed the mark. We can't all do something on the scale of Muniz and his art project, but there's a right way to live, using what we have to benefit the world. To not offer the very best of ourselves is to withhold our best potential.

This is a story very much like Born Into Brothels which shows how art can be more than just a soul-stirring experience. Sure, it moves us, but it can also move us to a better place, moving the marrow in our bones to a desire to move and change the world.

It was interesting to see it the night before the Oscars and compare it with the other nominations for Best Documentary. Exit Through the Gift Shop is basically tricking people with art. The year's winner, Inside Job is about soulless bastards who live to empower themselves to riches and suck the life from others in the process. I do wish Waste Land would have won in this category. It is rare that a truthful film can be so inspirational.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March Madness. (2011)

One of the highlights of the 2010 year for me was in March, catching some great films at the 13th Annual European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

I attended eleven films there last year, including Finland's hard to find Forbidden Fruit, which landed at the #2 position on my Top Ten year-end list.

To say that I'm excited for March 2011 would be an understatement. The 14th Annual EUFF is under way and I've made plans for nine films this year. These are brand new productions from various countries like France, Sweden, Belgium, Finland, Estonia, Denmark and the like. One film in particular I've been looking forward to for some time, Finland's Letters to Father Jakob, still unreleased in the U.S., I'll be seeing on the big screen on March 19. I am stoked out of my gourd.

When I can't be at EUFF I'll be using March to write about recent foreigns I missed on their initial run, or films still seeking distribution: White Material, Enter the Void, Waste Land, A Screaming Man and The Colors of the Mountain are just a few I have in mind.

With films like these the odds have spiked through the roof that we'll see green by the end of the month.