Monday, July 30, 2007

Dogville (Von Trier, 2003)

Wow. Just wow. I'm too stunned to offer any kind of coherent thoughts right now other than it was a mightly blow to the gut and a fascinating piece of cinema unlike anything I have ever seen before. How's this for starters. The entire film takes place on a giant sound-stage with crude props (ex: the various houses are one dimensional in structure like you would find in a stage theatre production, trees, plants and even the dog are outlined in chalk) representing a small town in the middle of no where. The vulnerability of the setting makes the story much more raw and intimate. These are simple folk living peacefully in harmony but when a beautiful stranger wanders into their isolated quiet community there is a ripple effect of consequences that threaten to disrupt the established stability and unravel the ugly truth of humanity. Trier's unflinching assault on the so-called "American dream" is bitter and will no doubt upset many viewers who many not agree with the nihilistic approach.

I'm having difficulty deciphering Lars Von Trier's intentions since Dogville is open to a vast array of interpretations. Personally, it is most effective as a moral case-study in identity and broken promises. There is much to be admired in Trier's unique aesthetic as well as story-telling abilities. John Hurt's impeccable narration aids in driving the narritive forward at a brisk pace, offering witty insight and observation of the town and its people. Despite being 3-hours long, the film is surprisingly entertaining not just from a technical standpoint either. The actual story itself is engrossing by posing a host of complex moral dilemmas and ideals that are interesting to think about. There are also the terrific performances by the entire cast with Nicole Kidman stealing the spot-light as Trier's heroine who is nothing short of extroardinary. A challenging, disturbing and unforgettable film with a shocker of an ending that is bound to raise a few eye-brows.


Saturday, July 28, 2007

Turtles Can Fly (Ghobadi, 2004)

Just a few half-ass thoughts before heading off to bed. Bahman Ghobadi's Lakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand or translated as Turtles can Fly tosses us into a world of politcal crisis, despair and shattered lives all through the perspective of children making this anti-war film even more harrowing.

Taking place somewhere in a remote village in Iraq on the brink of Saddam Hussein's fall from power and the U.S. occupation, the film follows a group of orphaned children living in horrific conditions. They understand that there is a war coming very soon and with the lack of parental supervision, these kids are left to survive on their own. It is also especially dangerous when your surrounded by mine-fields and closed in by barbed wire making it seem like a barricaded concentration camp. If that couldn't be any more depressing, the rainy and damp weather really don't help matters either.

This is not a war film in the sense that there are big battle scenes, outbursts of military warfare and nor is it overtly political despite the reverbating undertones. The focus is an intimately portrayal of young children caught smack dab in the middle of a country on the verge of collapse. The primary concern being the harsh realities that these kids need to face each day and the shocking after-effects of an undemocratic society where there is danger around every corner. At times heart-breakingly overwhelming, there is also a fair dosage of humor and joyfulness that balances out the discouraging gloom. It encourages one to step outside of the box and consider the Iraq war from an innocent child's point of view which could have easily failed in the process if the child actor's were not convincing. As non-professional actors, these kids are completely natural because they can bring their real life experiences to their respective roles since many of them were born and forced to survive in this Hell. A completely underrated film that deserves notice.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 1972)

Been on a bit of a Bergman kick lately and although Cries and Whispers doesn't quite reach the brilliance of Fanny och Alexander (doubtful many other films ever will), it is still quite an accomplishment by the Sweedish master. It's a cold, sterile, emotionally devastating film with haunting imagery and some very strong performances by the lead female actresses. The story takes place entirely within a large mansion circling around a dying woman who is being watched over by her two pompous sisters and their affectionate maid. The entire film bleeds the color red with all its metaphorical implications concerning the human heart and death. The interior decorating of the house is entirely red from the ceilings, walls, floors and even most of the furniture. The claustrophobic setting of pulsating red color schemes effectively contrast with the clothing of the sisters who are dressed predominantly in white. Bergman hits his message home even further in the editing process by using red to transition from scenes with fade in and fade outs. The heavy dose of symbolism does get a tad repetitive though.

There aren't many smiles or happy people found in this film. The suffering of Agnes (Harriet Andersson) as she succumbs to death is deeply tragic and distrubing. She is mostly restrained to the bed, often shrieking in pain. The inevitable is soon approaching and Agnes has accepted her fate. On the other hand, her two sisters are visiciously cold-hearted unable to fully process their sister's death and selfishly lash out at each, digging up old wounds in order to settle unresolved family issues. Anna the maid is the only person that remotely possesses human compassion and her kind-hearted nature generates much warmth amidst all of the cynical misery of the household. Even though the the relationship between the three sisters recieves the most attention, Anna's role is significant in displaying Bergman's themes of death in a relgious context.
The use of flash-backs are slightly jarring and I could have sworn the actress that played one of the sisters was a stand in for the matriarch of the family which confused me to no end. Though beautifully shot, Cries and Whispers left me fairly indifferent save for the final few scenes which allows Agnes a bittersweet farewell as she reflects on a happy memory of spending the day with her two sisters and Anna in the park on a beautiful day in Summer. If only the rest of the film leading up to this epiphany were as rewarding.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

I need to stop buying DVD's!

Seriously, it's an addiction. I Blind-buy DVD's faster than I can actually watch them. Here's the newest haul:

1. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring
2. Boys Don't Cry
3. The Good Girl
4. Solaris (Clooney one)
5. Brokeback Mountain
6. Rashomon
7. Primer

Feel free to rate my newest purchases.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, 1982)

Bergman has never been a director that I instantly warmed up to. Sadly, I have never actually been able to finish one of his films before turning them off; that is until now. Fanny and Alexander is a towering behemoth of a film clocking in around five hours that I found to be a lot more inviting (more than one may suspect judging by its immense length) than his previous films which were impenetrable to me.

Part ghost story, part family saga, this is an epic story in the grandest sense that deals with deeply complex philosophical debates of human existence and universal truths/falsities all seen through the eyes of children; or more specifically, Alexander. I'm not sure why his sister Fanny is included in the title since her role is very small and many of the key scenes revolve around the perspective of the young boy Alexander but that is besides the point. Bergman shapes his film around the innocence of children in order to tackle some very heavy subject matter such as death, religion (more specifically the existence or non-existence of God) and relationships. I am now beginning to see the clearer picture as to why Woody Allen is so attracted to Bergman's work and he may have borrowed a little conventional wisdom and influence from this particular film especially in relation to his 1986 masterpiece Hannah and her Sisters.

A film of striking beauty with elaborate set design, props and costumes, Bergman's use of mise-en-scene is breathtaking. His camera-work is nothing short of extroardinary as it gracefully flows throughout the massive corridors and rooms of the Matriarch's mansion (where most of the story-action takes place) but he also shows great restraint using extended long-takes mostly when it comes to characters giving monologues or to intensely focus on important story-action. The cinematography by long time collaborator Sven Nykvist is simply gorgeous adding a vibrant palette of color schemes to suit the atmosphere which undergoes a dramatical shift between the first and second half of the film.
A unique experience unlike anything else, Fanny and Alexander takes on a spirtual illusiveness whereas one side of my brain was trying to follow the plot and its vast array of characters (Dickens would be proud) while the other side was intensely focused on deciphering and debating the religious connotations suggested by Monsieur Bergman that seemed to transcend time and space. I don't particularly recommend watching this film in one sitting because it can be exhausting albeit an exhilirating one at that. At the end my brain felt completely wracked and a shifting perspective of life itself had invariably taken place. Worthy of the utmost praise, Bergman has crafted a beautiful and existentially profound film with the utmost care that only a true-master of the medium can. A fucking masterpiece if I ever saw one.

[**** (M)]

"This is the end; Beautiful friend. This is the end; My only friend, the end..."

At precisely 10:31 pm, I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I'm feeling mixed emotions right now and can barely muster up the enthusiasm to write this entry. Today marks the beginning of the end and since my time is limited now so I must be brief. I'm overjoyed to having finally discovered how the story ends but there is also this deep sadness knowing that there will be no more Harry Potter books and that my time is up.

To me these not just works of literature that you read once and dispose after you turn the final page. The Harry Potter books are quintessentially why I'm still alive. Many people have the Bible as their book of comfort but for me,it has always been the Harry Potter books that. In no way am I suggesting the superiority of Rowling's series over the importance of the bible but I cannot ignore the fact that it prevented me from committing suicide four years ago. I distinctively remember being moments away from doing something truely horrible when suddenly everything changed after seeing a copy of Order of the Phoenix on the ground in my room. At this point in time I had already read all five Harry Potter books and thought they were decent but hadn't really considered them to be anything special and could barely remember anything that happened in them. I'm so glad I picked up the book and started reading at that precise moment because soon after I was convinced that killing myself would result in me not finding out how the story ends. After I finished OoTP in a few days I went back to book 1 and started reading the series again which was an amazing experience. Rowling's universe is so inviting and I loved getting sucked into her world and following the adventures of the boy wizard and his two friends. All of my problems vanished as I read and a huge burden was lifted off my shoulders. My anger melted away (at least temporarily) and nothing else mattered. As long as the Harry Potter books were within my grasp, I was safe. Unfortunately, such great forms of escapism cannot last forever and today is where it all comes to an end. Self-consciously I knew that post-poning my original plans by using the Potter books as a diversion could only last until I had finished reading the 7th book and now that this day has come, its hard not feeling distraught and frustrated.

Spreading my reading across 4 days insteading of rushing allowed me to bask in all its splendid glory. Rowling does an excellent job of wrapping up the series and even includes a bittersweet epilogue which many would find cheesy but was actually quite heart-warming. Bless you J.K. Rowling for writing such an amazing story and reminding me what it's like to be happy again.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Big Love: Season 1

If you thought managing one wife was stressful enough, try three. A polygamist named Bill Henricksen (Paxton) and his three wives Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicolette (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) along with all their kids are living in the suburbs. It's an odd premise that's ripe for drama and controversy. HBO took a real gamble with this show which almost pays off. Almost. Prior to this show the idea of polygamy was an alien concept and if there's one thing I have learned from watching it is that there is no way I'd be able to follow "the divine principle" of polygamy despite the idea of having the opportunity to sleep with three different wives sounds appealing. There's a misconception that the show makes clear which is that not all polygamists are sex hounds.

The acting all around is fantastic and it was also nice to see a few familar faces from Veronica Mars such as Mac, Beaver and Lily. My problem with this show is that it didn't really leave a lasting impression, several episodes were trivial and the season finale was predictable from a mile away. I don't regret watching it but don't think I'll be rushing out to see Season 2.


Shortbus (Mitchell, 2006)

SEX. It's everywhere you look. The internet is a breeding ground for pornography, sex is used strategically in marketing and advertising campaigns (the infmaous "sex sells"), sex scandals in the media are frequent along with strong emphasis on celebrity love lives. Contemporary society seems obsessed with "sex" and yet it still remains a sensitive subject for most people. Understandably so, it is a delicate divisive issue with so many different viewpoints and it is no surprise that John Cameron Mitchell's (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) lastest work was met with much controversy. Many labeled it as an excuse for him to exploit pornography and it makes me wonder if these people actually watched the film before making such a ridiculous claim. It's true that there are plenty of hardcore sex scenes and Mitchell doesn't shy away from explicitly (and I strongly emphasis this word) showing people engaging in various sex acts.

The opening scene is that of a young man masterbating and then giving himself fellatio until he climaxes into his mouth. It then cuts to a couple in the heat of passion going at it wildly on top of a piano followed by a BDSM session. These are real people that are actually having sex and the camera is not positioned in such a way to create an illusion that these "actors" are pretending to have sex. But isn't that what pornography is? Filming people in real time having sex for others to watch as a way to achieve sexual gratification? Yes, that may true but Mitchell isn't interested in pornography. That's better left for the adult entertainment industry. Instead, he is interested in voyeruism, the role of sex in contemporary society, and how it influences relationships with gentle hints of a post/911 setting.

Following the lives of several New Yorkers which include a sex therapist unable to have a an orgasm, a gay couple struggling to make their relationship work and a dominatrix with a tender heart all trying to deal with their frustratated sex lives. Most of the action story place at an underground sex-club and it is here where the group of friends experience their sexual awakenings. Much of the cast are non-profesional actors which was quite surprising because all of their performances are outstanding. The Altmanesque paradigms are clearly evident as Mitchell follows around his group of characters in a self-contained fashion. He does an excellent job of avoiding artificiality and as a result, takes on a very raw mentality. Intent on creating the most realistic portrayal possible of crestfallen individals hiding behind a facade who are searching for a way to feel sexually liberated, the film is heart-wrenching in its depiction of fragile individuals on the brink of cracking at any moment. As each of the main group of characters slowly open up about their true feelings and desires the film completely switches gears replacing the fascination of sex with humanism. Mitchell is able to achieve something extroardinary here because everything feels so personal. His critique on the difficulties that sex or sexual identity brings to relationships becomes even more poignant this way. A daring and provocative film that is sure to turn heads, Shortbus can be uncomfortable to sit through at times but totally rewarding in the end.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Last Life in the Universe (2003, Ratanaruang)

At the 34 minute mark, the title of the movie randomly appears. What’s the specific purpose for inserting the title here and not at the beginning of the film? Is it actually significant? At first glance it seems pointless but upon further inspection, it actually serves as an indicator that there is something else at work here.

Two lost souls intermittingly linked by tragedy form a close bond as they both deal with their grief and bitter loneliness. Slowly paced and meditatively somber, Last Life in the Universe owes much of its success to perfectly capturing the disconnectedness the two main characters feel with the rest of the world. Trapped, helpless and utterly alone, they would like nothing better than to just curl up and die. Suicide is an important topic of interest for Thai filmmaker Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and his position on the subject is murky. He does not champion and nor does he condemn it. The first scene quickly establishes the gloomy tone of the film as the camera slowly tilts upwards from scattered books on the floor revealing a dead man with a noose around his neck hanging from the ceiling. The way the director positions the camera and the accompanying understated score makes for quite the haunting image.

Complete opposites, Kenji is as introverted OCD neat freak obsessed with suicide and Noi is a distraught chain-smoker trying to get away from a messy relationship with her boyfriend who is finding it difficult to accept the death of her sister. Their time spent together brings happiness to their otherwise bleak lives and allows them to ease the pain of their internal strife. There’s a poignant moment when Kenju and Noi are driving by the nearby beach with noise of the rushing waves creating a melancholic ambiance and he asks her: “Are you sad?” She responds simply with “Everybody is sad.” In my eyes, this scene represents essentially what Raanaruang is trying to achieve with his film. All human beings suffer through sadness and despair and although the prospect of suicide or running away from your past and just starting brand new is appealing, life isn't always that easy. Ratanaruang doesn’t give his two characters the satisfaction of achieving what he refers to as “bliss” and nor does he offer any easy answers. The film is vastly open-ended and a yakuza sub-plot further confuses matters. I found myself increasingly frustrated trying to figure out just what in the hell Ratanaruang was trying to get across with his film. No doubt it’s challenging requiring a fair amount of thought and those with short attention spans will probably find it wearisome. Personally, I found its contemplative nature compelling and the ending which is completely open to interpretation was stunning in its final few frames.

Fond of extended long-takes, Ratanaruang is a patient filmmaker who keeps his camera at a distance to establish mood and remind the viewer that they are observing the lives of two people who very well could be the last two people on earth making the best of whatever time they have left. Definitely a unique experience that is difficult to shake off.


My Sassy Girl (Jae-young Kwak, 2001)

Recently stumbling across a few old reviews which are laughably bad, I thought it would be interesting to post them over a period of time not only to make my blog seem more content heavy but to reflect on my writing to see whether or not it has gotten worse or improved over the years. Let's begin.


The large film movement going on in South Korean has been quite steadfast in releasing a multitude of films to contend with the foreign markets of movie production. This rapid output has resulted in a wide range of new talent and successful box office receipts and has proven to be quite adamant in bringing Korean cinema to mainstream audiences all over the world. My Sassy Girl happens to be one of the better films to emerge from this movement.

Often bordering on the edge of improbability and complete lunacy, My Sassy Girl is nothing like your typical Hollywood romantic comedy. Despite its absurdity, the film manages to be remarkably tender and just a fun ride to boot. I’m tired of having to sit through romantic comedies that are so predictable and cliche. Boy falls in love with girl, insert montage of the couple holding hands walking on the promenade eating ice-cream set to a pop-song, they break up and then get back together. The End.

Surprisingly, this film is a breath of fresh air; one that manages to successfully take this genre to a whole new level without succumbing to the traps of cliché. Instead, Kwak does a full reversal on different cliches by making them whacky. Coincidence and chance are also used to a certain extent as a plot device without becoming too contrived. Running gags are used for comedic effect and more often than not, they work quite well in generating plenty of laughs. Sure, there may have been several missteps along the way but Kwak never loses sight of his vision to show that love is unpredictable and can be found between two radically different people even in the most bizarre of circumstances.

Kyun-Woo (Tae-hyun Cha) is an engineering student who saves the life of a drunken girl (Ji-hyun Jun) from falling into an oncoming underground subway-car. Barely able to stand up straight and with her eyes rolling in the back of her head, she manages to make it onto subway and is mistaken by the disgruntled passengers as his girlfriend after she brings attention to herself by yelling at some of them including a man who won’t give up his seat to an old man. After throwing up on an elderly man with a toupee (which is grossly hilarious) and passing out on the floor she is mistaken as his girlfriend. He could have just left her lying unconscious on the dirty floor of the subway car and got off at the next stop but he decides take her to a hotel room to sober up. This voluntary gesture of kindness by Kyun-Woo reveals something about his character which will become important as the film goes on – his utmost devotion to a reckless girl who takes him for granted and treats him like a pile of dirt.

Often, I questioned his motives for wanting to stay in a relationship with a girl who is clearly an out-of-control alcoholic but even when she is not drinking she is still a vindictive arrogant bitch. Besides the occasional death threat (“wanna die?”) or the physical abuse she inflicts on Kyun-Woo he still doesn’t give up on her because he wants to “heal her sorrow.” One gets the sense that deep down she is a genuine good person but is a troubled with a heavy conscience. As the film progresses, the reason for her obtuse behavior becomes more clear while Kyun-Woo has to put up with her crazy antics.

“Quirkiness” would be an appropriate term for this film since the characters behave in a manner that seems irrational, especially the girl (she is not referred to by any first name) who is prone to outbursts of physical abusive to the protagonist Kyun-woo and verbally abusive to others. The two lovers also find themselves in the oddest situations such as being held hostage by a solider at an amusement park. They also engage in peculiar ways including one where she forces him to switch shoes because her feet hurt and he ends up walking around in high heels. Or how about the several times they play against each other in a game of squash but Kyun-Woo just keeps getting hit in the face with the ball. He can’t seem to get a break even when it comes to sparring in a Kento match where she inadvertently defeats him with one move. His suffering brought on by the girl is actually quite funny in an ironic sort of way.

Rather unanticipated but creative nonetheless, there are two sequences that seem out of place but are wonderfully composed. The first one is a high-voltage action sequence which is quite impressive in terms of bullet-time and the second one is a samurai fight during the feudal era. They both do not occur in real time but play out in Kyun-Woo’s mind as he is forced by the girl (death threats again) to read her short stories. In his imagination, he and the girl are the main characters in the stories where each time she has to show her bravery and rescue him from peril. It’s ironic how he thinks he is the one who is trying to save her from self-destruction while she happens to the one who is actually saving him. At times, she is clearly a nightmare. He obviously can’t stand her presence and considers running away from her several times. But there is a paradox. When she is not with him, he feels confused and unsure of himself. Truth be told, it is a peculiar relationship where the more he dislikes her, the more he falls in love. I saw the girl as someone who provided a purpose for Kyun-Woo from his otherwise banal life.

Far from revolutionary, the film may be a bit nutty at times but the romance feels genuine. There are a number of tender and sweet moments that bring a sense of exuberance. My favorite scene in the entire film just happens to be one of these moments and it is where Kyun-Woo pays a visit at the girl’s college lecture hall which is compromised of entirely females. She is playing Mozart’s Pachaebel in D Minor on the piano in front of her classmates and he walks in disguised as a delivery boy. Of course, he draws the attention of all the women, especially the girl who is in the middle of her composition. Even though he is nervous, he bucks up the courage and walks down on stage to give her a red rose. It is an emotionally gratifying scene where no words are exchanged. The actor’s rely purely on their facial expressions as they gaze at one another with a sense of joyful happiness; both struggling to keep in their tears. The audience erupts in applause and gives a standing ovation. Kwak directs this scene with such splendor elevating what could have just been a regular cliché scene into something really magical that had me clapping with the rest of the audience members as well.

The film on a whole is wonderfully executed but it is the chemistry between the two leads which makes it work so well. However, Ji-hyun Jun is the foundation of the film’s success as the distraught girl. She is simply fantastic and delivers a wide-range of emotions convincingly. When she cries, you feel her pain. If she is acting disapprovingly or on one of her drunken rants, all that overburden of sadness coupled with grief feels so real. She is a tortured soul and Jun fleshes out her character with great veracity. I can’t recommend this film enough for those who are looking for something different from the ordinary fare of romantic comedies. Emotionally gratifying and often very funny, if you can find a copy of this film please don’t hesitate to give it a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that there is a whole lot of filmmaking talent just waiting to be discovered from other foreign countries.


Review written September, 2005.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Apocalypto (Gibson, 2006)

Warning: Possible Spoilers!

Mel Gibson is back in the directing chair after the much controversial Passion of the Christ and this time he's tackling the mythos of the Mayan culture. Or is he? Regardless of his intentions, it is clear that he is a skilled director capable of superb visual storytelling. Some accuse him of being obsessed with blood/gore and more interested in brutal carnage than telling an actual story. I disagree. Much like Peckinpah, Gibson uses violence in such a way that it isn't mere exploitation for "shock value" but rather as a form of expression. There may not be some deeply profound reasoning behind it other than for pure entertainment value which is all fine and dandy but for a film like Apocalyptico which concerns itself with aboriginal culture, acts of violence are vital to relgious beliefs as well as survival for this ancient civilization. Gibson isn't afraid to turn his camera away from the harsh practices of unspeakable acts committed by these people and anyone with weak stomachs are bound to feel squeamish. Take the Tenochtitlan/human sacrifice scene which shows how disposable other human beings are when it comes to pleasing the Gods. Decapitation and the extraction of live beating hearts (reminscent of Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom) in all its gory detail are on full display.

This is visceral filmmaking at its best that feels very raw because of its simple structure. As a well crafted piece of cinema, Gibson's film is bombastically intense that remains riveting from the first frame to the last. Comprisingly of non-professional actors, the basic plot revolves around the decaying Mayan civilization as famine plagues the land. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) belongs to a small tribe living in harmony deep in the the jungle far removed from the Mayans. Life is good, his hunting party take pride in collecting food and even joke around about the sexual dysfunction of one their members. The beginning starts off as very light-hearted but completely switches gear into much darker territory. What was once a peaceful group of people living together is shattered as their village is invaded by a clan of Mayans who murder, rape the women and capture many as prisoners. Luckily, Jaguar is able to keep his pregant wife and son safe by lowering them into a giant hole in the ground before getting captured himself. Taken to the ancient Mayan temples to be sacrificed to the Gods, Jaguar manages to escape and now has to race against time to save his family still trapped in the hole as well as trying to out-run a brute-squad of Mayan warriors led by Big Boss Nasty who are chasing him down.

Gibson has some real skill behind the camera and along with his cinematography Dean Semler, they use the gorgeous back-drop of the large jungle as a playground for one of the most suspenseful and exhilariting chase sequences I have ever seen. It's a shame that Gibson's personal life overshadowed this film causing it to make peanuts at the box-office and was barely recognized at the Academy Awards except for sound editing and make-up which are trivial categories. It should have undoubtably been considered a nominee for best cinematography, best editing, best original score and of course, Best Director. Apocalypto showcases Gibson at the height of his game. Step aside Braveheart, this is Gibson's most accomplished effort to date and one of the best films of 2006. What are you waiting for? Go and see this film immediately!


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1927)

Well, I finally got around to viewing my first Buster Keaton film and it was slightly disappointing. I'm probably going to be lynched for my position here so its best to offer justification for such a blasphemous statement or else face the consequences.

It's not that I flat out despised it with ever fiber of my being but it really tested my patience and wasn't that funny. Then again, that isn't necessarily a valid criticism since my pre-conceived notions was that it was going to be a slap-stick type comedy with a lot of running gags of hilarity. Consider my bewilderment when it turned out that wasn't entirely the case. Of course, Keaton is known for his amazing stunts and there was plenty to admire in his acrobatic flair except nothing he really did made me burst out laughing. A few chuckles here and there. Mainly just a profound admiration for Keaton and the risks he took in this film.

I can only imagine how audiences reacted to Keaton's film in 1927 which apparently was one of most expensive films to make at the time. The technical innovations employed here must have been a real treat and watching it in the present day, I'll be hard pressed to find someone who didn't at least appreciate Keaton's skill at pulling off some of these scenes without the aid of CGI. Taking place during the American Civil War, the majority of the film focuses on a train chase sequence which has our Southern hero frantically trying to get away from union troops via railroad. I honestly could not anticpate what Keaton would do next and he has plently of clever surprises up his sleeves along the way. My only problem is that the gag felt dragged out even though it was amusing to watch it unfold.

Perhaps this wasn't the greatest starting point in Keaton's filmography or maybe my expectations were too high since this film did appear recently at #18 on AFI's top 100 movies of 2007 list and the constant praise it receives by respected film buffs and critics like Roger Ebert. Factor in my lack of exposure to silent cinema and it's clear to see why I wasn;t completely won over by this supposed masterpiece.

Keaton has plenty of charmisa and his fearlessness is truely worthy of recognition. I only wish there was some way to view this film with 1927 eyes. Never fear, this is definitely not the end for Mr. Keaton. Hopefully with time after viewing more of his work, I'll return to The General and discover a newfound admiration for it.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)

Much praise has been heaped upon this seminal film by Werner Herzog and even though my expectations were kept in check, it was still a major disappointment. On a technical level, there is much to be admired in Herzog’s directing abilities especially in the opening sequence which is absolutely mesmerizing. The way he positions his camera to focus on an army of travelers moving down a massive mountain side in a light fog is truly a sight to be behold. The ominous score that methodically pulsates along with the humdrum narration creates a dream-like quality that is very engrossing. Positioned on an adjacent mountain, Herzog slowly zooms in on the brigade of individuals descending further and further down which seems to last for ages. Unfortunately, as wonderful as this beginning scene is, not much that follows was truly interesting to me.

Klaus Kinski plays the ruthless captain Aguirre who will risk the lives of his own men in his selfish quest to seek the City of Gold: El Dorado. His performance is truly maddening and his bug-eyed stare is merciless. There are many close-up shots of his face where the tortured insanity is perfectly captured. He stumbles around in a drunken manner mostly yelling and even in his more muted scenes remains utterly terrifying. I can’t recall a performance that was as maddening as Kinski here. This man clearly has issues. Just observe the way he stares at his fellow soldiers with that insane glare in his eye or his creepy behavior towards his daughter. As the story progresses he becomes increasingly insane and for his performance alone, the film is worth a viewing.

Herzog is more interested in the journey rather than the destination. Whether or not Aguirre and his followers are able to reach their goal is not important here because he is more intent on using the basic set-up as a means to exploring various themes such as greed, power, madness, colonization and most importantly man vs. nature. Herzog is successful in getting across his ideas but the extremely sluggish pace diminished my interest in anything he was trying to get across despite establishing a hypnotic mood. Unfortunately, the hypnosis was much too effective and I felt bored throughout most of the film. At least the spider monkeys were cool.


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Scanner Darkly (Linklater, 2006)

Richard Linklater belongs to that small group of young American filmmakers who are building a reputation as an auteur with a unique vision which include the likes of P.T. Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan and David Gordon Green just to name a few. He has a several “Hollywood productions” under his belt and can’t be held fully responsible for the abysmal Bad News Bears since it was a job he more than likely took to pay the bills (or at least that’s the theory I am sticking to) but has also created two masterpieces with Before Sunrise/Before Sunset which in my opinion stand as two of the most beautiful romances in cinematic history.

His latest project is a daring experiment; implementing a more finely tuned aesthetic of the rotoscoping technique which he first used in the philosophical/mind trip Waking Life (2001). Here he tackles the adaptation of a Philip K. Dick science fiction short story about a near future America being plagued by drug addiction or more specifically, Substance D, a lethal and highly addictive drug that is tearing the country apart. The film carries a significant social relevance pertaining to the major drug epidemic which is a major problem in present-day America.

Believe it or not, Keanu Reeves actually delivers a solid performance as a narc who gets assigned to monitor the day-to-day lives of a group of friends who are under the suspicion of being involved in the usage/distribution of the dangerous drug. The trademark Linklater dialogue is present and this time around he has bigger name actors to work with including Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and the awesome Robert Downy Jr. who seems to be popping up in a lot of great films recently What follows, I dare not reveal except to note that the film cleverly touches upon the ideas of paranoia, identity, privacy, and conspiracies in the form of a hallucinatory puzzle. The ending is a total shocker and it is in these closing moments where the intricacies of the story are fully realized. There is a whole lot more going on beneath those strikingly lucid visuals.


July Screening Log (2007)

02/07: Cars (2006) - 8
03/07: Hot Fuzz (2007) - 8.5
03/07: American Psycho (2000) - 6.5
08/07: All the Real Girls (2003) - 10

I'm pretty sure All the Real Girls is a masterpiece. David Gordon Green's southern romance is so beautifully poetic whilst taking on a dreamy atmosphere that is effective in conveying the feelings and emotions of being in love but unable to fully express it. There are so many heartfelt moments compassionately presented here that are profoundly moving and even though the story isn't particularly original, Green artistically creates a unique experience of the joys and pains of falling in love. Quietly understated and slow paced, this isn't a film for everyone but those willing to give it a chance might discover something truely sublime here. 10/10

10/07: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972) - See review
10/07: Art School Confidential (2006) - 4.0
11/07: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007) - 8
14/07: Lady in the Water (2006) - 8.5
14/07: Blood Diamond (Zwick, 2006) - 7.0
15/07: Wonder Boys (Hanson, 2000) - 7.0
15/07: Shopgirl (Tucker, 2005) - 3.0
15/07: Raising Arizona (Coen, 1987) - 7.0
17/07: The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1927) - See Review
18/07: Apocalypto (Gibson, 2006) - 8.5
22/07: Last Life in the Universe (2003) - See Review
22/07: Shortbus (Mitchell, 2006) - See Review
25/07: Fanny Och Alexander (Bergman, 1982) - See Review
25/07: Perfume: Story of a Murderer (Twyker, 2006) - 8.0
26/07: Traffic (Soderbergh, 2000) - 8.0
26/07: Babel (Innarritu, 2006) - 6.0
27/07: Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 1972) - 8.0
27/07: Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975) - 3.0

I still can't believe this is the same guy that directed The Truman Show. A group of young girls at a strict boarding school in Australia go on a field trip to an anicent rock site where four of them wander up the rocky slopes vanishing without a trace. An intriguing premise with potential to develop into something worthwhile ends up being a total borefest. Nothing happens. Plot is thrown out the window in favor of mystery except Weir doesn't give us any reason to care.

27/07: House of Games (Mamet, 1987) - 6.0
28/07: Pump up the Volume (Moyle, 1990) - 7.0
28/07: Turtles Can Flay (Ghobadi, 2004) - 9.0
29/07: Wolf Creek (McLean, 2005) - 6.5
30/07: Dogville (Trier, 2003) - 9.0
31/07: The Painted Veil (Curran, 2006) - 7.0
31/07: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Greenaway, 1989): 8.0
31/07: À ma soeur! (Breillat, 2001): 2.0

Me, You and Everyone You Know (July, 2005)

There’s something intimately special about this little gem which until quite recently flew completely under my radar. Miranda July’s debut Me, You and Everyone You Know is to me, what cinema is all about: A unique storytelling voice, complex/engaging characters and just bursting with creativity. She’s a modest filmmaker with a free spirit who conveys a deep sense of compassion for her characters despite their flaws. There isn’t so much a plot as there are vignettes of each of the characters lives interwoven together within a thematic framework. Rarely do you encounter characters with such veracity where it feels like you could just step outside your door and bump right into them.

Odd as much as it is utterly compelling, July’s film feels almost on the breaking point of being too slight at times. Miraculously, she avoids this pratfall by finding the perfect balance between melancholy and humor to great effect. It allows the free flowing narrative to take on a tangible poignancy. Instead of focusing on big revelatory plot devices, she decides to keep her story relatively simple. It would be an understatement to label this film as an exercise in quirkiness (not too found of this word) because even though the characters are idiosyncratic, they remain genuinely human. July masterfully observes candid moments that seem almost irrelevant and makes them special.

To make a comparison, I’d classify it as Magnolia’s (P.T. Anderson, 1999) little sister sprinkled with a little Todd Solondz for good measure. The key difference here is July’s sense of palatable optimism. That isn’t to say that Anderson and Solondz offer more bleak representations of human experiences because contentment can be found in their work as well but Miranda July comes across as being someone who understands the importance of human compassion on a level that so refreshingly devoid of any cynicism. The result is a rare experience that is profoundly moving and a film you just want to watch again as a means of inspiration. Easily the best film of 2005 for me.