Friday, July 30, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #27: Death At A Funeral (2007)

Ah yes...leave it to the Brits to put the "fun" back in "funeral."

Frank Oz (AKA Miss Piggy) brings us this celebrated dark comedy all the way from the UK, documenting an ordinary funeral that goes extraordinarily wrong.

The entire film plays like a really, really good episode of Fawlty Towers in the way that many of the characters buzz around, hiding secrets and lying through their teeth in a vain attempt to maintain order and solemnity at an occasion that is quickly and drastically taking a turn for the funny and ridiculous.

Death At A Funeral makes excellent use of awkward and deadpan humour, but it is also not short on laugh-out-loud moments. And I can't possibly review it without mentioning that it sports close-up of two of the best single facial expressions I've seen captured on film.

In short, there's no lack of golden moments, I assure you.

I think what makes Death At A Funeral so humorous, however, is the fact that most of the characters aren't particularly likable.

If they were people the audience could emotionally bond with, the movie would cease to be a comedy--you would just spend the entire movie cringing and wondering why such bizarre punishments were being bestowed upon such lovely people.

But they aren't lovely. Most of the time, they just suck as people.

I mean, you go from whiny but mostly harmless protagonist Daniel on the one hand to Ewen Bremner's character Justin on the other--easily one of the greatest assholes in British cinema.

And I think that's why it's perfectly OK to laugh at the outlandish antics that go on--that, and the antics that writer Dean Craig comes up with are pretty damn funny in and of themselves.

Overall, I'd highly recommend Death At A Funeral for anyone who hasn't seen a good comedy in a while--it may not make you laugh so hard you pee your pants, know...not everything can be Airplane!

Plus you'll save on laundry.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #51: Morvern Callar (2002)

I'm a sucker for minimalist filmmaking; the sort filled with dreamy, quiet, aimless experiences filled with impenetrable characters embarking on strange and disconnected existential journeys. Morvern Callar is perfectly realised in that regard, and presents you with the sort of film that looks more real than life is.

It's about Morvern Callar, a young woman who finds herself in a profoundly grim but strangely advantageous position, one where a blank and arbitrary universe might be providing her with a way to exist as blankly (or perhaps just a little less so) as it seems to. Morvern is an ambiguous character and hard to read, but as the film progresses one can catch the glimmer of decisions being made if not their reasons, and Morvern takes charge of her life if perhaps to ensure that she doesn't have to.

So: Poetic imagery, great atmosphere, soundtrack, strong acting from Samantha Morton, and existential awesomeness. I dig.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #50: Collapse (2009)

This political and environmental documentary follows the life's work of Michael Ruppert, a law enforcement whistle blower who was first approached by the documentarians to talk about what he had seen in regards to the cocaine the CIA seems to be smuggling into the United States (Ruppert was approached to take part in their operations, and he turned them down. His fiancé, who worked for the CIA, left him shortly afterwards. He thought that was fishy). Turns out he wanted to talk about something else. He apparently called the global economic crisis back in 2006 through his newsletter From The Wilderness, and during that year had been on tour urging people to get into gold, reduce their debt as much as possible, and take a hard look at their mortgages. He was warning people about a coming collapse.

In the doc we basically watch this guy run through a list of topics, providing viewers with his guesses at how things are going and why they are the way they are. It pretty much tells us what we already know: peak oil exists, ethanol is a joke, and we can't maintain our current lifestyle forever. If you've seen The End of Suburbia, it's much the same insight - that peak oil will become no oil, and since everything is oil-based we've got to prepare for a world where everything will stop until we can figure out a new way of living. That the world we've built, that our lifestyles under the resource of oil will have to evolve into something else. We can't get a job in another city. We can't eat oranges from California. To survive we'll have to move locally and grow food locally. Essentially, Ruppert says, the industrial age will end.

Our political ideals will end as well, and will have to be re-written within a new paradigm. One more in step with a world of finite resources and not, as it is today, one dependent on the presumption that growth is infinite - growth of wealth, of standard of living, etc. That we must realise that we have to live within the limitations of the planet. That's the crux of Michael Ruppert.

The guy has 30 years of investigative journalism as his main credential, and his work has become a personal obsession for him. It's frightening to see just how consumed he is, and it adds a bitter desperation to the connections he finds in the news clippings he collects. He's angry, and he's resentful and he admits as much. You get the impression though, sometimes, that he's placing personal links that might not be there, like when he says that there's no doubt in his mind that Rumsfeld and Cheney took personal interest in his actions and the things he was publishing in his newsletter. This is of course unverifiable, and it's apparent that much of the links he sees are investigative inferences without much hope of verification. But what else is someone to do? Leave it all to the higher-ups? Not watch? Not make guesses? Not get angry? Worst case scenario, he's wrong and we pay attention to something that's worth paying attention to.

The director has a voice in the documentary since it's arrayed like an interview, and three or four times in the film addresses Ruppert with some critical questions. One of the last is the concern that it's possible to pick through articles until you can find enough that support the world you're expecting to see. Evidence for the links that you want to make. Ruppert's answer is that he doesn't get into debates anymore. That there is, in fact, no debate. That he doesn't need to, because the things that he and his colleagues have saying will happen once we've hit peak oil has actually been happening. That it's there now, plain to see and beyond question.

The documentary provides no solutions. Only general directives. I learned in the special features that the book supposedly gets more specific.

So: Not sure where I stand on everything he says, but this is certainly the clearest outline of the reasoning behind the sustainability movement that I've seen so far.

Maggie 2010: A Round of Resounding Recs, Part IV

#91. A Prophet

There is pure magic to a film by Audiard. Or perhaps I am just partial to directors who seem to thrive on the verging between worlds. Bahrani's Man Push Cart. Akin's The Edge of Heaven. I don't name-drop for authority but to offer a context, a culture of exemplary film-making around the intersection of worlds.

Jacques Audiard's films have always found worlds intersecting. Read My Lips brought a deaf woman in a cut-throat business firm in line with an ex-con still attuned to the criminal world. The Beat That My Heart Skipped, leagues above its point of inspiration, an American exercise in painful stereotyping called Fingers, brings a man between his mother's world, of music, and his father's world, of crime, to a state of diasporic crisis. Thrown into Audiard's take on the older story is a second bridging of worlds, between the protagonist and a woman who shares with him only the language of the piano.

The intersections in A Prophet are no less striking, moving, and grounding -- so much so that to relate the plot is nothing; betrays nothing of the film's depth. In it, Tahar Rahim plays Malik El Djebena, a young Arab man sent to a French prison, where over time he progresses from pawn to kingpin of its mafia. So what? A man goes to prison -- yes, we have seen this before. A man of one culture/sub-national identity goes to a prison dominated by another culture/sub-national identity -- yes, we have seen this before, too.

But have we seen the particulars of cultural difference melt away? Have we seen the universalism of certain human wants, and needs, and anxieties, and power plays rise up in their stead while we weren't looking? Have we seen the magic of the human mind, the strange personal world-building of the individual consciousness, make itself manifest so fluidly that we as viewers accept without question the validity of Malik's visions as much as we do the walls of his prison and the long arms of his cell-block tyrants?

Audiard understands our proclivity as viewers towards clean narrative, titles, frameworks: indeed, he anticipates them, weaving them into the atmosphere of each scene, each image, with a surety I can ascribe only to a handful of contemporary directors. But Audiard also knows that narrative is only the beginning; that any honest journey into the human condition is not linear or similarly well-defined. And so he leaves us avenues. He leads us to the depths of his characters, his contexts, and lets us decide what lessons to take from them -- what stories to build.

Earlier this year I described Hunger as one of the best films about prison I'd ever seen. Even now, I do not regret that description, for while A Prophet is far and away the best film I've seen this year to date, it's also not a film "about prison" or even "about a prisoner." Rather, Audiard's work transcends: This is a film about a man pared by circumstance to his deepest, most inward-looking self; about the lingering impressions that arise in our minds from the choices we make; and about the tendency towards life, and not just survival, that beats deeply enough in some of us to represent the very best, the most human, in us all.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #26: Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989)

At its most basic, Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is a movie about love gone wrong.

Horribly, horribly wrong.

But then again, why does it feel so right?

I liked Crimes and Misdemeanors a lot. In a recent discussion with a friend, I described it as a sort of renovation of Allen's 2005 feature, Match Point.

"It's sort of like Match Point done right," I said.

"But I liked Match Point!" said she.

"Then you'll love Crimes and Misdemeanors!" I said. "It's basically the same thing, except it's funny rather than ridiculously dramatic, and instead of Scarlett Johansson, you get Anjelica Huston."

My friend paused. "...nice." she replied.

And it is!

Although Match Point was made much later than Crimes and Misdemeanors, the latter feels like an improvement on the former.

You have the same essential storyline--a man has an affair with a woman who gets overly clingy, and angsty relationship drama ensues. But Crimes and Misdemeanors brings more to the table--to turn a phrase, it puts more in the soup.

For example, in addition to the primary story about an optometrist's infidelity, there's a parallel storyline involving a married documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern (Woody Allen), who falls in love with his new production assistant (Mia Farrow), who is sought after by the annoyingly charismatic Lester (Alan Alda).

And the primary storyline, which features the impeccably apt Martin Landau as the promiscuous Judah Rosenthal, also has component parts, including a rocky relationship with an estranged brother, and a successful optometry practice that brings him into contact with a contrastingly benevolent rabbi and a genuinely good man who is going blind. (Arguably one of the most philosophical aspects of the film).

But coming back to my original point about love gone wrong, the film is full of examples.

Everything you expect to work out in Crimes and Misdemeanors doesn't, and everything you expect not to work out, does.

It's a very poetic look at love and human relationships, because it presents the non-Hollywoodized and arguably more realistic view of humanity's strongest emotion.

The fact is, people get bored. Then they get lonely. Then they make poor decisions, and before you know it, things go completely awry.

This happens all the time, but so rarely does it happen in the movies without being carefully and brought back into balance.

In that regard, Crimes and Misdemeanors bravely squashes the Hollywood standard by refusing to pick a genre, resisting a nice, clean ending, and giving all the right outcomes to all the wrong characters.

...and the one-liners aren't bad either.

If you're interested in a movie that breaks the rules and doesn't apologize, I say look no further. You can find Crimes and Misdemeanors in the Woody Allen section, or on my Staff Picks shelf.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 27 July, 2010


Art of the Steal, The
Black Irish
Clash of the Titans (2010) (also BluRay)
Everything You Wanted to Know About Gay Porn Stars: Complete Series
Food Matters
Operation: Endgame
Repo Men
Terribly Happy
Warlords, The


Atomic Brain / Love After Death / Incredible Petrified World
Avere Vent'anni
Boiler Room
Columbia Film Noir Classics 2 (Human Desire / The Brothers Rico / Nightfall / Pushover / City of Fear)
Fifth Cord, The
Film Noir Classic Collection 5 (Cornered / Desperate / The Phenix City Story / Deadline at Dawn / Armored Car Robbery / Crime in the Streets / Dial 1119 / Backfire)
Forbidden World
Galaxy of Terror
Heartbreak House
I Spit on Your Corpse
Joy & Joan
Long, Hot Summer, The
Mighty Gorga / One Million AC/DC
Mr. Smith Gets a Hustler
Night at the Roxbury, A
Night of the Bloody Apes / Feast of Flesh
Only Son, The
Pearls of the Crown, The
Savage Streets
Secret of the Grain, The (Criterion)
Silent Running
Story of a Cheat, The
Tender Mercies
There Was a Father
Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield, The / Labyrinth of Sex
Women's Prison Massacre
Zombies vs. Satan Double Feature (Wiseguys vs. Zombies / Meat for Satan's Icebox)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Round of Resounding Recs, Part III

#90. Rushmore

To date, director Wes Anderson has six films in the Criterion Collection; and of them, Rushmore was the only I had not seen. There is no doubting that Anderson's style -- both as director and as writer -- is simultaneously distinct and readily pigeon-holed. (To get a sense for this curious juxtaposition, one need look no further than this spoof trailer of God of War, the epic action videogame, as a film as it might look if written and directed by Wes Anderson.) It's also easy to understand why someone might tire of this film style, which calls attention to its own artifice at every turn by stringing its unnaturally clear-sighted characters through soft-spoken, high-stake absurdities of plot. I certainly felt I'd seen enough of Anderson to understand his game, his ends, and his means, much as I loved the last, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Nonetheless, I watched Rushmore. Now I wish I'd started with this film, which for me was truly the clearest execution of Anderson's particular thesis. I don't hazard to say "best" -- but, clearest.

Rushmore follows Max Fischer (David Schwartzman), a private school student verging on expulsion because he is too busy immersing himself in every possible creative outlet at Rushmore to focus on minor matters like his actual classes. Max falls in love with a teacher (Olivia Williams). Max makes friends with a depressed millionaire (Bill Murray), father to two sons he fails to see himself in. Max tells lies. Max makes plans. Max never seems to follow through on anything except his plays. Max makes an even bigger mess of things. Then things make a mess of Max.

All throughout the film, Anderson makes exaggerated use of gesture, position, and action. People exist in a space, at a time, static, and then they make a motion that takes them out of that space. They don't survive in most spaces -- especially the ones that bring them in close proximity to other people -- and so they return to their original spaces. Pauses between lines are important: without them, there would be none of this consciousness of artifice that both marks his work, and allows his lines to live as something above and beyond the high school play superficiality they would imbue if spoken at normal rhythms with more of an investment in physical movement.

So that's when it hits you: Anderson's great thesis. Emotion is place. Emotion is specific people. Emotion is a concrete object, in other words, for those of us who feel displaced. For the rest there is movement, there is unconscious action and speech. For them emotion is an abstract, but for everyone else deliberation stands in. For people displaced, emotion can be a wall, and walls can be run into. Walls can hurt. It holds no logical accuracy whatsoever, but for people in Anderson's films, if emotion is a building material, then with the right building materials it follows that the world can be made to resemble the emotions we most want.

So thinks Max when he tries to build an aquarium to establish his love. Or a surfeit of school club positions to secure his place in the school (ideally, it seems, forever). Even his love interest is later found to have sustained a concrete place where certain emotions can live on. The millionaire, meanwhile, makes a home out of his love for a woman.

This device is by no means unique among Anderson's films. In Royal Tenenbaums one character attempts to find a sense of security in an outfit and manner of readiness. In The Life Aquatic the vessel itself is a microcosm of attempted stability. In Fantastic Mr. Fox the selection of home gives the titular fox his sense of purpose and identity back.

But in Rushmore the device is at its most self-evident: it bleeds through the lines and the plot points like it does in no other. So suddenly a scene emerges with very typical Anderson-style strangeness--a new and strange location; characters standing strangely about one another; something still stranger and more unexpected going on between them all. And that's when the second revelation hits: If emotion is place, then (again defying the principles of formal logic -- just as humans always do) all place reflects emotion. Thus wherever we are, whatever we're doing, if we're among the emotionally displaced, we're always going to be trying to interpret the emotion of that space, that action, that scene, in a way that makes sense of ourselves and our lives. And that act, repeated throughout the whole of our displacement, becomes life -- at least as we know it. Maybe also as it is.

In Rushmore, Max's plays make a regular appearance in relation to the plot. These plays are elaborate, otherworldly pieces of a production quality you would never find in any real school. Yet as this whole conceit of Anderson's so perfectly demonstrates, the most elaborate artifice of the most elaborate production still fails to match the immensity of artifice that exists among the people in his films. ... Who are, of course, themselves giving an elaborate and artificial performance for us in the audience. Which, if this two-point trending continues, means we in the real world must be giving the most elaborate and painstaking performances of all.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #49: Tarkan Vs. The Vikings (1971)

I am going to talk about Turkey.

Turkey’s typically drab and melodramatic cinematic output was slim to nil until the late 1960s hit the country like Attila the Hun. Turkey’s film industry exploded in the blink of an eye, and what once was the meagre production of a handful of films a year became approximately three hundred, at its apex. This explosion resulted in the creation of a mad host of exploitation films, filled with all the violence, sadism, sex, and senseless nudity that defined the genre. Drawing much inspiration from 1930s and 1940s American serials (the likes of Zorro, Flash Gordon, and Tarzan), the Turkish pop cinema often showcased the ultra-cliché: testosterone-powered soldiers, masked superheroes, and indomitable barbarian sword-slingers. These films shamelessly ripped material from popular Hollywood films, stealing soundtracks and even going so far as to insert whole film sequences. Of the most famous is the notorious ‘The Man Who Saves the World’ (1982), or ‘Turkish Star Wars’ as its affectionately called. Check it out on, it’s all there.

As TV took hold in the 70s, the Turkish cinema began to flounder. Distributors began to insist on racier sex scenes in an attempt to draw people back into the theatres. It worked, and for a time the theatres were packed tighter than ever before. According to Aytekin Akkaya (of Turkish Star Wars fame), the cultural climate was all but sexually free, and the soft-core sex scenes that the films contained (mostly little more than topless women, in truth) were a necessary release.

By the time the 80s rolled around, the Turkish cinema had just about exhausted itself, and American cinema had taken its place upon Turkish screens. Sadly, the bulk of the films produced during this period of boom are lost – many films were actually destroyed for the silver contained in the negatives.

BUT TARKAN VS. THE VIKINGS REMAINS. And you must see it. Based off a popular Turkish comic book, Tarkan features a patriotic Turkish barbarian, upholding Turkish ideals, fighting Vikings and giant octopi, and laying with Valkyries and exotic oriental assassins. For your trouble you’ll get to see another film on the dvd, one titled The Deathless Devil (1973). This one’s a superhero film, and while perhaps not as grand, it is well worth the watch if you’ve some friends handy. You’ll even get to see the featurette from which, in the spirit of Turkey, I have stolen the material for this article.

So: I can't express how much I love this movie.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 20 July, 2010

Altitude Falling
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Being Human: Season 1
Cop Out
Greatest, The
Horseman, The
Look Around You: Season 1
Losers, The (also BluRay)
Love the Beast
MST3K: Beast of Yucca Flats
MST3K: Crash of the Moons
MST3K: Jack Frost
MST3K: Lost Continent
Nollywood Babylon
Runaways, The
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage
Ultimate Heist

Pose Reviews A Movie. #25: Beetlejuice (1988)

For a movie that's as old as I am, Beetlejuice holds up pretty well!

I've decided to continue my Tim Burton retrospective by taking a look at his zany post-mortem comedy featuring the first performances of a few actors who would become staples in his later films. Michael Keaton (Batman, Batman Returns), Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands) and Jeffrey Jones (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow) all appear in Burton's 1988 endeavor, and I must say they're quite suitably cast.

The film also includes Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as the recently deceased protagonists of the film, and Catherine O'Hara, whose performance as the stark-raving mad artiste who drives her family insane is by far one of the highlights of the film.

The premise of Beetlejuice is unique and wildly creative--something Burton's films don't offer anymore. The story follows the afterlife experiences of Adam and Barbara Maitland, a married couple who, to quote The Doors, "break on through to the other side" after their car takes an unanticipated detour into a river.

The afterlife, however, is cleverly depicted not as a terrifying nightmare, but a bureaucratic headache. The Maitlands take a considerable amount of time to figure out what has happened to them, and once they do, they are given only an easily distracted caseworker and an extremely cryptic instruction manual (pun intended) on life after death to help them through.

But as though this post-existence existential crisis wasn't enough for the Maitlands, they also have to contend with the new occupants of their home--the relentlessly irritating Deetz family, consisting of Ma (Catherine O'Hara), Pa (Jeffrey Jones) and angsty teen (Winona Ryder).

The Maitland ghosts attempt to rid themselves of the Deetz family on their own, but when their attempts are continually foiled, they turn to a 'bio-exorcist' who specializes in ridding the dead of living, breathing vermin.

His name? Juice. Beetle Juice.

It's a wacky concept to be sure, but a fun ride overall. The actors are all very committed to their roles, and Burton does what he does best by creating a creepy, haunting aesthetic to balance off the goofiness of the script.

Finally, it's also worth noting the immense amount of skill possessed by the makeup artists who worked on Beetlejuice. A recent discussion with a friend of mine regarding the virtues of practical makeup as opposed to CGI effects gave me a new perspective on the value of good makeup artistry, and the Oscar-winning Beetlejuice exemplifies the power of makeup-done-right. (But you'll have to watch to see what I mean!)

Overall, Burton's post Pee-Weenian, pre-Batmanian hit reminds us what imaginative film can be like. While nowadays everything seems to be either an adaptation, a sequel or a remake, it helps to remember that twenty years ago, Hollywood was willing to take a chance on a crazy concept like Beetlejuice, and it paid off.

But don't get me wrong. I liked Predators as much as the next guy.

Pose Reviews A Movie. #24: Batman Returns (1992)

Well, at least they didn't go with the originally proposed title, Batman, Again.

Alright, I'm just going to go ahead and say it. It's really, really hard to take the old Batman movies seriously now that Christopher Nolan has given the whole franchise a masked facelift, making the Caped Crusader (and his villains) appropriately badass once again.

However, I don't mean to assume that Tim Burton's 1992 follow-up to Batman was necessarily meant to be taken seriously in the first place. Or maybe the early nineties were a simpler era than I remember, having been five years old at the time.

Regardless, Batman Returns is a fine though irresistibly campy piece of film with a solid gothic aesthetic--art direction may be the only thing Tim Burton does well, but you have to admit, he does it really well.

Batman Returns also spawned a trend in villains which would be followed with the arguably more crappy Batman Forever and Batman & Robin whereby an already established baddie is joined by a newer scoundrel who develops their evil counterpart part-way through the movie.

In this case, we have Oswald Cobblepot, The Penguin, whose deformity at the time of birth led his parents to abandon him in the sewers of Gotham City in order to:

a) have him raised by penguins
and b) allow for a lengthy opening title sequence

Catwoman, on the other hand, arrives on the scene when her mortal alter-ego is thrown out of a window and bitten repeatedly by black cats--a process which apparently turns you both feline, evil and crazy if the cats go at it long enough.

These are probably two of the weirdest origin stories in the Batman villain catalogue, but once their plans to take over Gotham City are in place (despite rather flimsy motivations), their villainous agenda turns to the one force that can stop them...

...Michael Keaton?

OK, OK, I know that Michael Keaton used to be Burton's right-hand man, having starred in Beetlejuice and Burton's first Batman, and yes, he's certainly no worse than Val Kilmer in Batman Forever or George Clooney in Batman & Robin and sure, his Batman voice isn't as ridiculous as Christian Bale's but...Michael Keaton?

I didn't buy it. I just feel like he doesn't have Bruce Wayne's cool charm (which is odd, considering his performance in Johnny Dangerously) OR Batman's cunning and machismo. All in all, I just don't think he fits the bill.

Could it be that Tim Burton just gets attached to certain actors, and casts them in places they don't belong just because he wants them in his movies?

Nahhh! Helena Bonham Carter was a GREAT choice for The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland! (Nervous laughter).

I do want to applaud two of Burton's casting decisions though.

One? Michael Gough as Alfred. I love that guy! He's so old and awkward and scrawny, a kind of Hans Moleman in the flesh. So you almost don't expect him to do anything the entire movie, and then all of a sudden he bails Batman out of a dicey situation and you're like, "Ohh, that Alfred!"

It's just the best feeling.

And two? Christopher. Fucking. Walken.

It's so good to see you, Mr. Walken. And your major role as Max Schrek (and its accompanying hair) makes my heart sing. If only you had been cast as Batman. Now that would be worth Returning for!

For me, Christopher Walken is totally the highlight of this movie. Hands down, 100%. But if you're in the mood for a campy superhero movie, but you don't want to go the Adam West route, take a nostalgia trip and join Penguin, Catwoman, Christopher Walken and the big black bat for a Christmas you'll never forget!

...oh yeah, I forgot to mention. It's also a Christmas movie.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #48: Secrets of a Co-Ed (1942)

I must hide my secrets away.

An earlier work of Gun Crazy (1950) director Joseph H. Lewis. The film is a warning to all the young women restless with the salty sweat burn of young lust. As a gangster puts it in the film: “Awwww, women! They’re the cause of everything!”

A young woman named Brenda secretly desires a life free from restraints and obedience. She’s infantilised by a patriarchal world of crooked lawyers and nonchalantly violent gangsters afflicted by the beauties of women. Brenda passes up on a well-to-do life with a young lawyer-to-be for a hood named Nick who likes to shoot people. Brenda meanwhile writes about all her woes in a diary. Her “secrets,” she calls them, and the diary gets referred to unnecessarily as “the secrets of a co-ed.” Twice.

Once Brenda and Nick run away together, Nick mentions that a “crazy fortune teller” once told him about famous couples like Romeo and Juliet, Mark Antony and Cleo, people who lived crazy for each other no matter what. Apparently, the fortune teller was a huge jerk, since he/she left out the bits about PAINFUL DEATH. Spoiler: Nick dies. And because she finds Nick’s body, Brenda’s pegged as the killer. Makes sense to me. She who smelt it dealt it.

There are two shots sort-a-maybe-kinda worth seeing. One consists of a zoom on a possibly phallic cigar, moodily crushed in hand by Brenda’s angry father after he orders Nick dead for dating his daughter. The other is during the final minute. Brenda is seen through a fireplace fire, sitting, rising, and tossing her diary into the flames. She metaphorically avoids the flames of hell and walks away with the good boy she was getting bored with at the start of the film. Her secrets are probably lost for all time.

So: Currently I am waiting for an inter-dimensional spaceman to channel the contents of that diary directly into my brain. When that day comes, woe unto thee, for my arrows will blot out the sun.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Maggie 2010: School's In

#89. Summer Heights High

You might recognize this as "the Aussie series with the guy who plays three main characters in a school system mockumentary." You'd be right. In eight episodes, director and writer Chris Lilley integrates himself with the children of Summer Heights High as a) narcissistic private-school exchange student Ja'mie King, b) unruly Polynesian breakdancer Jonah Takalua, and c) Mr. G, a drama teacher with wildly unchecked ambitions about turning the school into a centre for the performing arts starring--who else?--Mr. G.

It was the latter persona that brought me to this film: Mr. G is eminently quotable, his King-of-the-molehill mentality outrageous, and the road he takes to achieve his ends, gob-smackingly offensive. (Hint: When a child dies in high school, how many of you think about turning her story into a song-and-dance extravaganza about sex and drugs?) Lilley has everything about this man down pat -- every movement, every self-absorbed offense against the school system, every biting commentary about the absurdity of self-aggrandizing power politics.

Lilley also proves himself perfectly suited to playing a spoiled and vapid brat, using the character of Ja'mie to tease out every backstabbing tendency in the world of high school cliques, and to draw to the fore the universality (between public and private school alike) of kids just being... well, kids. Chris Lilley's body language, his speech patterns, and the story-lines he pursues for this character are pitch perfect. There is no doubt that Lilley can act like a selfish little girl really, really well.

But Lilley's third character is his actual, underplayed masterpiece -- and this is what dawned on me in the course of viewing what in all other respects is a comedy, a mockumentary, a hyperbolic, artificially developed play on the high school drama. All of this -- all the hilarious absurdities and plot-lines therein -- is a vehicle for a few very powerful and not-so-funny truths, of which Jonah's character exemplifies the worst. I've seen this truth before, in The Class. But in Summer Heights High, primed to laugh? Primed to be relaxed and to take everything as a joke? The story of Jonah hits the hardest. Personally, it made me cry. And how often does a comedy do that?

As Jonah, Lilley plays to behavioural perfection a student who reacts to his illiteracy, and with it his embarrassment about not being able to do schoolwork set before him, by acting out. By being a terror to his teachers and a bully to his classmates. He lashes out for attention in every way imaginable, and his teachers and the school counsellor try everything in their power to discipline him, to make them bow to their authority: to control him.

Only one teacher, his ESL teacher, doesn't fixate on these disciplinarian tactics. With a smile and infinite patience, she focuses on the lessons and gently steers Jonah towards them through positive reinforcement. Nonetheless, it's fear of expulsion, for the fourth time in two years, that shifts Jonah's attitude over the course of this series' eight episodes. But is it enough? Is it too late? There are scenes near the end of this series--between the lead up to Ja'mie's end of term formal and Mr. G's musical spectacle--that will devastate you.

Without the blatant comedy of the first two story-lines, this third tale of Summer Heights High wouldn't be possible, as it certainly wouldn't be regarded as a comedy of its own most of the way through. What Lilley accomplishes here is thus intelligent, subtle, and shows infinite respect for comedy as a serious vehicle for stories about the human condition. Summer Heights High is a remarkable work of artifice masking powerful truths. You will laugh. You will enjoy. And your heart may also break, in time.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #47: Cartoon Noir (1999)

Feel like some short film? Animated short film perhaps? Something that isn't terribly funny? Consider Cartoon Noir.

Noir presents you with six short films plucked from the murky skulls of an array of animators, hailing from such cultural planetary zones as Portugal, Poland, the USA, The UK, and the Czech Republic. Animation styles vary from film to film, moving, for example, from chiaroscuro to stop-motion to detailed and colourful paintwork, each mode affecting tone and subject matter like wet black birds on a wire - unsettling and proportionate and balanced and with voltage. In regards to tone or atmosphere or whatever you’d like to call it, the films should give you a taste of the romantic, the morose, the bizarre, the eerie, the bleak, and even, finally, the life-affirming. Each tale contains a dark sensibility, whether it be a brooding Dostoevsky-inspired murder story or an endearing fable about a cat caught in the night and in love. Forgotten mannequins in a warehouse or (my personal favourite) a suicide witnessed by a horrified and concerned Mickey Mouse parody. Even a poem about a baked monkey. Everybody loves monkeys.

So: Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Round of Resounding Recs, Part III

#88. Summer Hours

For many, film is a form of entertainment not meant to impinge on their sense of reality. Film should have a coherent plot-line, clear adversaries, exciting stand-offs, and either a victorious ending for the morally justified character or a darn good reason for his or her failure therein.

This is the film I want people who feel this way to view. The rest of you can watch, too. Everyone should watch this film. Summer Hours isn't about family, or death; the plot-line sustains dissonance without adversaries; and the ending is what it is, with no clear sense of right or wrong really possible. Even films I love deeply for their celebration of human life -- Man on Wire, The White Diamond, Ikiru, Wings of Desire -- don't achieve the level of quiet authority present here without some sort of cheat, some extraordinary circumstance that puts the nature of humanity in sharp question.

Summer Hours has no such cheat. It follows the last summer hours a family spends together -- three generations luxuriating on a quiet French estate ripe with the artistic heritage of a long-dead family member -- before the mother of three grown children passes on, and life moves with a force that is both gentle and insoluble to undermine one son's best laid plans to preserve the estate for the generation to come. At first I thought the family art itself might be a cheat, but I found it instead to be a kindness, for in the story of that art we see a modicum more actual preservation, in some form, of a life lived than most.

A film by director Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours went almost directly to the Criterion collection -- but don't watch it because of that. The film stars the ever-elegant Juliette Binoche as one of three siblings debating next steps after their mother's death (Charles Bering and Jereme Renier are others) -- but don't watch it because of that, either.

Rather, watch Summer Hours because you doubt a film can ever get past artifice to perform in the muted, underplayed way that real life often does. Watch it because you want a moment that feels genuine, and startlingly simple, too. Watch it because somewhere, sometime, you read or heard Pablo Picasso's statement, "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," and you've always wondered how little of a lie could be got away with without sacrificing the art. Watch it, maybe, because death comes to us all; and the celebration of life, only to those who choose it. Please choose this exquisite little slice of life.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pose Reviews A...TV Show?! #23: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season One)

Despite being among the target demographic for Buffy The Vampire Slayer while it was actually on television, it took me till now to actually sit down and watch it.

And both to my surprise, and the surprise of die-hard Buffy fans who tend to think the first season is sheer swill, and explain it away with a desperate "it gets better after this," I actually dug it!

Yep, it's safe to say that I've been bitten by the Buffy bug. And given that it's only a bug and not some larger, more sinister creature of the night, I think I got off light.

There are three things that make Buffy so enjoyable, in this converted cynic's opinion...

First, it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Most of the time.

There are certainly instances of melodrama in the first season, but they're usually offset by corny and occasionally self-reflexive one-liners, and charming humour that may inspire more "aww's" than guffaws, but still work to keep the show lighthearted.

It also helps that, despite its outlandish premise, the plot of Buffy manages to covers its bases.

Although some of the explanations for the weird and wonderful phenomena that occur on the show are a little thin, they're there, and if you can suspend your disbelief, you can enjoy the hell out of some of the more ridiculous episodes. (No pun intended.)

Secondly? The characters on Buffy are just so freakin' endearing.

I didn't realize Buffy was a kind of paranormal-themed Freaks and Geeks, but lo and behold, the elements are there!

Buffy herself has trouble leading a normal teenager's life of listening to awful music and sulking, given that she's responsible for guarding humanity against the forces of evil.

And her friends, the adorably awkward Willow (played by American Pie's and How I Met Your Mother's Alyson Hannigan) and the delightfully sarcastic Xander (played by Nicholas Brendon, who isn't really famous but looks like the guy from Boy Meets World) are going through their own growin' pains--more social than biological, but pains nonetheless. (Oh, and occasionally they get punched. Hard. Which I guess just qualifies as "pains" without the "growin'".)

And thirdly? Season One has vintage cred. HARDCORE vintage cred.

Remember, it's from 1997, so some of the episodes make really awesome, outdated references.

Especially the episode where a demon haunts the internet.

Oh yes.

And keep in mind, this is the internet circa 1997, so there are frequent references to floppy disks and modems, made in total seriousness given that they were the height of technological achievement at the time.

And it's hilarious.

All in all, season one of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is cute, campy and thoroughly enjoyable--plus, it gears you up for six more seasons which I've heard get pretty spectacular.

I'd definitely recommend it as a fun twelve hours of entertainment, not to mention a great throwback to the nineties.

Oh yeah, and there's also vampires.

New to the Store: Week of 13 July, 2010

8: The Mormon Proposition
Bounty Hunter, The
Diary of a Nymphomaniac
Girl by the Lake, The
God's Offices
Order of Myths, The
Pornography: A Thriller
Saint John of Las Vegas
Saving Marriage
Spongebob Squarepants: Triton's Revenge
WLU Fringe Festival 2010

Monday, July 12, 2010

Pose Reviews A Movie. #22: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008)

My diagnosis? Decidedly NOT horrible.

Ever since writing my second one-act play, Heroman!: A Play In One Act, Ill confess I've developed an inextinguishable adoration for stories involving obscure superheroes.

But I'm always willing to settle for tales about obscure supervillains.

My play, which I can't help but mention is now available for rent at GenX as part of the 2010 Laurier Fr!nge Festival DVD, centres around a self-proclaimed minor superhero who deals only with minor inconveniences as opposed to burdening himself with larger catastrophes.

Dr. Horrible, on the other hand, sets his sights considerably higher than the humble Heroman, despite their similar degree of obscurity.

With his ambitious 'freeze ray,' a weapon which allegedly stops time, Dr. Horrible plans to take over the world and win the coveted admiration of the ultimate supervillain, known only as Bad Horse.

Things get progressively more complicated for our anti-hero, however, as he deals with frustrations presented by his nemesis, the seemingly benevolent and irritatingly charismatic Captain Hammer, and the unrequited crush he has on his dream-girl, Penny.

Dr. Horrible may operate on a relatively simple fairy-tale-esque premise, but it isn't entirely predictable--and it certainly doesn't hurt that it's freakin' hilarious.

It isn't difficult to see where Dr. Horrible gets its wild popularity.

Joss Whedon and his brothers, Zack and Jed made Dr. Horrible strictly for online distribution. However, it was so popular that it ended up getting wide distribution on DVD.


Well, both the dialogue and the music is tremendously well-written, and Neil Patrick Harris takes a script that's already witty and clever and makes it flat-out funny.

What did I like most about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog? I can't decide.

What three things did I like most about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog? OK, that I can do.

1. The songs about Bad Horse.
-->You'll have to watch to see what I'm talking about, but these little ditties are classics.

2. Moist
-->Dr. Horrible's inexplicably sweaty sidekick, whose super power is (gasp) the ability to make people feel uncomfortably damp.

3. The Laundromat
-->This won't give anything away, but Dr. Horrible meets his love interest, Penny in a laundromat.

Given that Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was originally intended for online distribution only, it's nice to see the Whedons revert to some societal roots with a more quaint, community-oriented origin story for the story's romance.

It might be a strange element to pick as a favourite, but it demonstrates that Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has a surprising depth to it--it may not be Charlie Kaufman deep, but it isn't Judd Apatow shallow either.

Overall, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog made me laugh a lot more frequently than many comedies I've seen of late. And at only 45 minutes, you can watch it twice--perhaps the second time with the creative musical full-length audio commentary, in which the Whedons sing about the making of the film.

Yep. Gooooood times.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #46: Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Miyazaki always shows such remarkable ability to give you a bright and sunny world filled with colour and cool breezes, and it keeps me coming back to his films time and time again. He also clearly loves flying machines, as his films tend be full of them, and the sense of hugeness and warm open air he always achieves tickles my need for atmosphere pretty damn well. I was happy to find that Kiki delivers on both of those Miyazaki fronts.

Like Ponyo, this one is geared a little more towards children, and operates on a much lighter scale than some of his more intense works. While light, friendly, and warm it still presents you with the complexity that I think Ponyo didn't possess (and wasn't intended to, no doubt). This made Kiki a little more satisfying for me, since it speaks to an intelligence that moves into the inspirational.

So: Might just give you the recharge of spirit you may or may not need!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wendy's Films of 2010 #89 and #90: Step Up (2006) and Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)

Every once in a while I have a desire to watch something I know is shitty, but will be satisfying on a superficial level. For a long time I didn't realize that I wasn't really getting anything out of these films and they encompassed about 50% of my viewing time. I've probably seen just about every crappy, mainstream romantic comedy released between 1998 and 2008; and though I'm not ashamed, I'm certainly not going to claim any present day satisfaction from those escapades. I'm trying to recall which film it was that made me realize that these were mostly a waste of my time, but it was sometime between He's Just Not That Into You, Valentine's Day and All About Steve that I started to opt out of just about every new romcom that showed up in theatres.

That being said, I was feeling pretty persuadable one day and the younger sister of a good friend suggested that we watch not only Step Up, but its sequel Step Up 2: The Streets. For a few minutes while attempting to remember the films., it was actually pretty difficult to separate the two in my memory and I found myself mingling the stories in my head. Mixing up one dance sequence with characters from the other film, giving Channing Tatum Briana Evigan's booty, and mixing up their various hoodie/sweatpant combinations. Really, it says something about the films that I can write about them both without having to specify any differences. One's about a boy, one's about a girl. They both end up at the same school, they both succeed, they both fall in love.

I wouldn't exactly call these two gems romantic comedies, or gems for that matter, but they follow Hollywood's generic mode of mainstream romance films, specially those for teens. They're intended to be inspirational, sending the message that even those growing up in less wealthy situations can achieve greatness. The problem being that they don't really have to work for it. Sure, they practice dancing, but both Tatum and Evigan already have the talent when their stories commence, they just need a bit of tweaking before setting out onto the world stage. I'm guessing it's really not that easy in the real world. But then, the moral of these stories aren't really about working hard and making it, the films are a money making machine that just want you to think that you can do anything you set your mind to for a couple weeks. Not to mention that you'll fall in love in the process: that's just a wee bonus of being in a Hollywood film.

When I think back on my teenage years and my love of Save the Last Dance I'll admit I probably would have loved these films. Perhaps I'm just getting too cynical or maybe I'm more analytical, but I just can't fall for them anymore.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Round of Resounding Recs, Part II

#87. Departures

When Daigo Kobayashi's orchestra is dissolved, the devoted cellist (Masahiro Motoki) moves back to his old hometown with wife in tow, to find work and make a fresh start of life. Answering a help wanted ad for an agency working with "Departures," Daigo discovers the position is actually for an "encoffiner," someone who prepares the dead in such a way that gives them back the best character of their lives before cremation. By accepting this position, Daigo puts himself on a path of self-exploration that yields sweet, comic, and nourishing insights into the nature both of death and of life.

This is Departures in a nutshell, though there are some tremendous nuances that merit mention for the role they play in keeping the magic of this piece alive. First, it is important to understand that funeral professionals still endure the implicit social stratification that, in Japanese culture, once held that touching the dead was a matter of severe uncleanliness, making the professional himself unclean and reviled. So when Daigo moves from respected cellist to Nokanshi, he suffers an immediate social loss and his wife leaves him.

Why, then, does Daigo pursue this position, under the gentle tutelage of expert Nokanshi Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), in the face of so much social embarrassment and loss of prestige? The answer lies cleverly, subtly, in the fact that loss surrounds us all, in many forms. For Daigo, the greatest loss in his life to date has been that of his father, who left when he was just a small child, and whose identity remains blurred from all of Daigo's recollection. Yojiro Takita proves himself to be an expert director in the way he plays on viewers' hopes and expectations for a reunion of father and son throughout this piece, with every new older male face young Daigo is exposed to causing viewers to feel they've cracked the mystery prematurely.

Would that life were so simple. Viewers may take heart, at least, in the fact that they aren't the only ones to make such immediate prejudgments of import: As Daigo observes Ikuei perform his duties, he bears witness to the tremendous transformation that overcomes even the most revolted Japanese citizens when faced both with the spectre of death, and the infinite kindness with which their loved ones are by Ikuei laid to rest. And yes, there is comedy in this--sweet, life-affirming comedy. In light, deft strokes director Takita has given us a tale of ultimate compassion and understanding that doesn't first weigh upon the heart. I especially recommend Departures to viewers who've never before engaged contemporary Japanese cinema, but who are--you'll pardon the pun--dying to take the plunge.

Maggie 2010: A Round of Resounding Recs, Part I

#86. Days of Heaven

One of the films on last week's list of family-friendly flicks with non-white leads, Pather Panchali, is known for meandering narration, a style noted in some reviews to be culturally specific. This may well be true, but as both that film and Days of Heaven situate themselves around the lives of lower-class narrators, I'm left wondering if poverty is the real uniting thread for this stylistic choice.

Days of Heaven follows three migrant labourers travelling to the Texas Panhandle for work in 1916. A very young and strapping Richard Gere plays Bill, whose violence at a steel mill has forced him, his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), and our narrator, younger sister Linda (Linda Manz), to make this journey from the city. Despite their destitution, some social moors of the time still weigh heavily upon them, leading Bill and Abby to pretend to be brother and sister to prevent gossip among other labourers. This has profound consequences when they reach the wheat fields of a very rich man given a medical death sentence of just a year or two: When the shy farmer (Sam Shepard) takes a liking to Abby, Bill encourages her to accept his advances for their collective betterment down the road. Everything gets infinitely more complicated when the farmer survives his illness.

Is this a scheme, as the farmer's foreman suspects? Are these migrant labourers using this poor man? Or is this in fact a sacrifice Abby is forced to make for her true love, of her true love? Do the trappings of wealth prove a better life than the one they had before? And since younger sister Linda is still a child, what can be said of her role as observer to so much deceit? How many people here are helpless victims of circumstance? How many are not?

These are questions the film asks, and firmly leaves unanswered, which make the tale itself exquisite. But it is not for this film's plot that I most thoroughly recommend Days of Heaven: rather, the cinematography, the unapproachable selection of stunning rural imagery, the supreme awareness of space and surroundings, matched with a regular muteness of soundtrack in favour of Linda's thickly accented musings, gives this film an atmosphere like no other. A treat for your senses, Days of Heaven is rare testament to both the wild irreverence and ethical imprecision of day-to-day life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #45 (I skipped 43!): Capitaine Alatriste (2006)

This one's a 17th century period piece chronicling the Spanish golden age through the eyes of a Spanish mercenary (Viggo Mortensen) known as Captain Alatriste. The 'Captain' title is merely an affectation, since the man holds no rank and is dirt poor. But he can swing a sword with the best of them.

In general,
Alatriste feels a bit too much like TV and not enough like a film. It struck me as the Spanish answer to the Tudors, and even looks to me to be lit like television. It's apparently based on a series of novels, which explains why it feels much too crammed with plot points and characters that never seem to add up with the correct weight. Each scene pushes for too much drama between too many characters that have the pretense of being established, but haven't been given the time to be so. It ends up feeling mostly contrived, presenting the audience with contrived characters engaging in contrived love affairs. Not much has weight in Alatriste. Even the political intrigue of the Spanish court gets delivered by random characters just walking up to secondary characters and whispering what they know, and the information just doesn't feel earned.

Scenes bounce along fairly quickly without much time to invest in what you're seeing, and start to feel like they've been clipped just a bit too much. The acting is mostly not very good, and you might find that there's little facial expression in favour of a Spanish stoicism.

I was interested enough to watch most of the whole thing for a handful of reasons. Firstly, the period. The Spanish golden age is not often looked at outside of 'New World Discovery' movies that make vague mention of a powerful court. Here you actually see that powerful court on its home turf. Secondly, like in the Tudors, the costumes enthrall me. If I could get away with wearing a fancy doublet, I'd probably do it. I'll take a shower to wash the shame off after the review. Lastly, I like that Alatriste, as a soldier, is not an invincible pro. He can get hurt in his fights, and sometimes does. Pretty badly too.

So: If you like the Tudors and wish it had more swordplay, check Alatriste out. If not, there's plenty of other movies more worthy of your time.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #45: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

I realise that this is probably nonsense to many a movie-goer, but Robert Downey jr. consistently annoys the living tapeworms out of me. I just can't digest his line deliveries very well, and neither can the tapeworms. The flippant and breakneck banter I've come to link to Downey pretty much ruined the Iron Man flicks for me, as in those movies - more pronouncedly in the second - the banter reaches a level something like 'extreme biohazard'. This review is starting off with a real tilt towards the biological, and I'm not entirely sure why. Hm. Oh well.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is infectious. The dialogue comes very close to annoying Downey syndrome, but manages to reel back just enough to strike me mostly as charming. It's written by Shane Black, who apparently wrote the first Lethal Weapon movie. And Last Action Hero. Yep. (Holy shit - that's the creeping familiarity that's been lurking in my unconscious since watching this movie. That's why Downey bothers me. I think he reminds me of Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, and I've never been keen on the Lethal Weapon series. Downey gets characters with the same flippant attitude, the same borderline madness. Here I'd like to apologise to Mr. Downey Jr. for comparing him to Mel Gib-racist-sexist-son.) The drama unfolds in an archetypal but satisfying way, and features a man who isn't what he thought he'd be when he grew up and a woman in the same boat. She's also 'the one that got away' and he hasn't quite given up. All the clever banter that moves between them gets interrupted now and again by ugly moments made all the more ugly for being couched in what is seemingly a comedy.

Anywho, I must talk about Tarantino factor now because Kiss Kiss has a definite post-Tarantino vibe to it. That might be good or bad depending on your feelings toward the big T, but the echoes of his post-modern style are of course here to stay in cinema, and he's oft emulated and never matched. Kiss Kiss manages to do better than most on that front, which is surprising given that it goes further where Tarantino tends to wisely stop: while T-man's movies are culturally referential and draw attention to cinema as being deliberate representations or constructions, his movies never quite become aware of themselves. With the exception, I think, of Kill Bill, they don't stop and say "Hey, I'm a movie." Kiss Kiss is aware of itself. Downey works as a cheeky narrator who openly acknowledges that you're watching a film. Characters namedrop their favourite movies from time to time, letting you know that it was written by someone who considers themselves pretty fairly steeped in movie-culture. While this can easily become trite, it manages here to add something wistful and idealistic. Something that speaks about our desires and where we place them.

Lastly, I always get a kick out of Val Kilmer, and his role as Gay Perry, a tough and unrelentingly acerbic counterpart to Downey is a treat to watch. I kind of want a movie about Gay Perry.

So: A meta, stylish, and funny bit of wish-fulfillment. Val Kilmer rules.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New to the Store: Week of 6 July, 2010

Have we ever mentioned how slow the summer months are, good titles-wise? 'cos they are.

Brooklyn's Finest
Cooking with Stella
Doc Martin: Series 4
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The (also BluRay)
Last Chance to See
Single Man, A (also BluRay)
Wind Journeys, The

Wendy's Films of 2010 #87 and #88: Ong Bak 2 (2008) and Saved! (2004)

A while back Maggie and I embarked on an evening of film. We started off with the sequel to Ong-Bak, a film which brought the impressive martial arts skills of Tony Jaa to the world's attention. I remember writing in my review that I'd "have to see" if I'd see Ong Bak 2, and I can't really say that I'm that glad I did see it. It really has no relation to the first film, with the exception of Tony Jaa playing a character named Tien who develops skill in Muay Thai martial arts and uses it to fight off the film's villains. It jumps back into 1431, when Tien's noble parents are killed by Lord Rajasena, who once served under Tien's father. When Tien is older, he is presented with the opportunity to revenge the death of his parents and does it with style. My problem is that even though there were a few good fight sequences, they weren't nearly as impressive entertaining as those in the first film. I could have forgiven the unrelated plot if Jaa's ass-kicking skills had at least been kick ass. I'm 85% sure I won't be seeing the 3rd film, even though **PLOT SPOILER** the second ends with a huge cliff hanger.**

I must say I enjoyed the second film of the evening more than the first. I wasn't expecting Saved! to be as good as it was, but I quite enjoyed it. Entertaining was Macaulay Culkin's return to mainstream film after years of nothing but a couple of TV roles and a few minuscule films. Really, he hadn't been in anything since Richie Rich, a movie I hold quite dear as a favourite from my childhood, though I'm certain it's actually terrible. In any case, Saved! is about a high school student who gets pregnant after attempting to "save" her boyfriend from his affection for other men. She is ostricized from her best friends (including Mandy Moore's awesome Jesus extremist Hilary Faye), and must allow herself to be saved by her Christian school's Jewish outcast and badass Cassandra and Faye's wheelchair bound brother Roland (Culkin), who both see themselves and atheists. I liked most that the film wasn't necessarily preaching against believing in something, but against extremist ideology and the suppression of choice.

Pose Reviews a Movie. #21: The Bothersome Man (2006)

This hidden gem from the Norway section is one of my greatest finds in all my years of renting from GenX.

I definitely recommend The Bothersome Man, but only to a particular type of person. Are you likely to like, or be bothered by The Bothersome Man? Let's find out.

First, you need to be comfortable with movies that leave you confused. It also helps to be comfortable with movies that start you off confused. If you're the kind of person who enjoys movies that have secrets, I can tell already that you're up for it.

(Or, to put it more simply, if you like watching Lost, you can definitely count yourself in for The Bothersome Man.)

If you're still not sure about your confusion tolerance, try gaging your reaction to the film's premise.

A man, bearded and noticeably disheveled, finds himself the sole occupant of a coach bus.

He is dropped off in the middle of the desert, and promptly picked up by a man who informs him that he has been expecting him.

The two then proceed to travel by car to a nameless city where he inexplicably finds himself with an apartment, a job, and a closet full of clothes. So he shaves, goes to sleep, wakes up and goes to work.

And that's it. That's the first two minutes.

Who is this man? Where is this man? And why is he just as confused as his audience? Maybe you'll have to watch to find out.


If this premise intrigues you, then it's safe to say you should bother with The Bothersome Man.

But if not, don't count yourself out yet--this film also suits lovers of dystopian fiction.

Without going too far into the specific details of the movie, the society presented in The Bothersome Man is one of the most creepily vivid and mysteriously beautiful visions of dystopia that I've ever seen.

If you liked either:

i) Yevgeny Zamyatin's We
ii) Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
iii) George Orwell's 1984,

then I definitely suggest you check out this film.

Frankly, it's hard to do something new with a dystopian setting, since it's been dealt with in literature and film for decades. But I really admire the way The Bothersome Man constructs and handles its dystopia.

The film drops hints about the peculiarities of its setting, but try as you might, it's hard to be certain that you know what's going on.

The element of surprise is always present in The Bothersome Man, and that's easily its most charismatic quality.

So there you have it. If you're someone who embraces confusion, open-endedness and the invitation to draw your own conclusions from a film, I can suggest nothing better than The Bothersome Man.

And if you can think of nothing worse? Well, we've got about 14,000 other films to choose from.

You can find this one in the Norway section, or on my Staff Picks shelf.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #44: Body Snatchers (1993)

Ugh. You can't hear it, but there's a terrifying wail coming out of that inhuman face.

I'm a fan of the classic communist-fearing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and I was moved to tears and fits of hysterical shouting when I discovered that this 90s update is really very good as well.

Director Abel Ferrara isn't afraid to move his camera in interesting ways, and the movie really thrives for it. A held shot, for example, on a sleeping woman can suddenly turn very sinister with a seemingly simple and slow tilt of the camera and a slight colour change. In general, the special effects in the film are genuinely horrifying: people are invaded by disgusting, worming, creeping tendrils that hook into you like alien veins because that's what they fucking well are supposed to be. Family members crumble to dust, half-grown duplicates writhe and crack with blood, and pod people gestate in their disgusting pods before our eyes.

Body Snatchers feels relentless and tense, and its most horrifying aspect is the constant sense that the characters in the film are too late. Too late to survive, too late to save the day.

So: Really very creepy. Something moved in my bed that night and I had to sit up and stare for a few seconds.

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #42: Shutter Island (2010)

It had been years since I'd seen a Scorsese film and I was really excited to learn - I had it from a good amount of people - that Shutter Island was worth the watch. I'd also had it from some that it was an unsatisfying experience due to the movie's twist, a twist so large it could be seen from a mile away. Or, in this case, thirty or forty minutes into the movie.

Well, on watching Shutter it's certainly true that the twist is obvious, but I didn't find the movie diminished for it. I don't think the movie ever tries overly hard to hide its plot secrets, and instead wants you to figure out what's going on early enough to follow the psychological movements of the protagonist with an extra insight. The crux of the film isn't the plot reveal, it's the haunting choice that's made during the movie's final minute. The plot itself is pretty much a MacGuffin.

So: Great amosphere, great visuals, and an ending I really liked.

Maggie 2010: Family-Friendly Films with Non-White Leads

This week The Last Airbender hits theatres, and I won't be watching. Whatever your feelings on the issue of racebending, I was recently shaken by how utterly rare a new mainstream film featuring non-white leads truly is. The packaging for these films is even worse: even Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as Nelson-freaking-Mandela, portrays the actor as an aside to Matt Damon. And when a POC does appear front-and-centre, it's always with a nod to blatant stereotyping--spoof genre flicks like Black Dynamite, action flicks like Ninja Assassin. (This isn't surprising when you look at studies of casting bias in Hollywood, by the way.) In short, we could really have used a film version of the hit 2005 TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, that celebrated the Asiatic and Inuit influence of the original in its casting choices. In its stead, I hope the following list will serve as a decent resource and stepping stone for viewers looking to diversify their family-friendly viewing experiences.

Now, this is by no means a comprehensive list, but after viewing this TED talk featuring Nigerian author Chimanda Adichie, I decided I wanted to stick to films that don't just reiterate one over-played, invariably victimizing story of various cultures. It also helps that almost all such films have ratings over PG-13, whereas here I am trying to start a list of films accessible to families of all age ranges. (And yes, for the purposes of avoiding the "one story" problem, Disney films like Mulan, The Jungle Book, and Aladdin are definitely out.) To each film I have attached a rating in the following hierarchy: 1) Canadian/Ontario if possible, 2) Canadian in general if no Ontario-specific listing exists, 3) US if no Canadian rating exists, and 4) Australian if no Canadian or US rating exists. All the films listed below are available/will soon be available at Gen-X!

Please, please, please add to this list in the comments portion. I am absolutely not an authority on this subject, and thus welcome as many legitimate add-ons as the fine, intelligent readers of this blog can come up with. Happy viewing!

Family-Friendly Films with Non-White Leads

Akeelah & the Bee (CDA:G)

A feel-good drama wherein African-American schoolgirl (Keke Palmer) earns the help of an old African-American spelling bee champ (Laurence Fishburne) on her own road to national acclaim.

Babies (US:PG)

A light documentary exploring one year in the life of four babies from around the world (Mongolia, San Francisco/USA, Namibia, Tokyo).

Bride & Prejudice (CDA:G)

A re-envisioning of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Bollywood-style.

Cave of the Yellow Dog, The (US:G)

A light drama about a young nomadic Mongolian girl and the little dog she befriends against her parents' wishes.

Game Plan, The
(CDA: G)

A mainstream comedy about an African-American NFL bachelor (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) whose life is transformed by custody of his eight-year-old daughter (Madison Pettis).

Good Hair (CDA:PG)

A lighthearted documentary by Chris Rock about African-American hairstyles, in honour of his daughter.

Great Debaters, The (US:PG-13)

A fictionalized accounting (inspired by a true story, though sadly distorted on a few key facts) of an all-African-American debating team that in the midst of segregation and threat of lynching takes on Harvard. (Denzel Washington [actor and director!], Forest Whitaker, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett)

Grave of the Fireflies, The (CDA:PG)

A serious drama done in the style of Japanese animation, which documents the tragedy (read: very unhappy ending/beginning) of two Japanese siblings increasingly isolated and starved in the civilian fall-out endured during the last months of World War II.

Kirikou and the Sorceress (AUS:G)

An educational cartoon about a boy from West African folklore, who at birth is wise enough to solve his village's many problems. NB: Most of the people in this film are nude; when asked to air-brush pants and bras onto the characters to broaden the film's reach into North America, director Michael Ocelot refused on the grounds that he wanted to stay faithful to the culture from whence this folklore emerged. (I also recommend the mid-quel Kirikou and the Wild Beasts, which is unfortunately unrated but just as refreshingly educational.)

Not One Less (AUS:G)

A quiet drama about a 13-year-old rural Chinese girl (Minzhi Wei) put in charge of a remote school during the real teacher's absence, who strikes out on a rescue mission when one of the boys in her care abandons his education to find work in the city.

Osama (CDA:PG-13)

A serious drama about an Afgani family of three women under the Taliban regime who have no choice but to send the daughter (Marina Golbahari) out masquerading as a man so the family won't starve. (NB: Very unhappy ending!)

Pather Panchali (CDA:PG)

A quiet drama, representing a distinct narrative style, by Satyajit Ray from 1958 about a Bengali boy (Subir Bannerjee) whose family struggles between long-term dreams and day-to-day poverty in the 1920s.

Princess and the Frog, The (CDA:G)

A Disney re-envisioning of the classic Grimm's Fairy Tale, this film is the story of an African-American girl in 1920s New Orleans who kisses the titular frog prince, finds herself cursed as well, and sets out on an adventure towards true happiness.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (USA:PG)

A serious drama inspired by the true story of three Australian Aboriginal girls who attempted a daring escape from an oppressive government policy in 1931 by setting out on a 1,000-mile journey through the Outback home.

Sita Sings the Blues (AUS:PG)

A musical tale spun from the tragic Hindu story of deities Lord Rama and his faithful wife Sita, set to varying animation styles as Sita endures test after test to prove her devotion after conspiracy among other deities separates her from her love.

Story of the Weeping Camel, The (US:PG)

An endearing drama about a family of Mongolian nomads who seek the help of a musician, in keeping with cultural ritual, when a camel calf in their herd is rejected by its mother.

Whale Rider (CDA:PG)

A coming-of-age adventure situated around the story of a young Maori girl whose destiny lies in breaking a thousand-year-old all-male lineage of leaders in her tribe.

Pose Reviews a Movie. #20: Heat (1995)

There was a time before Miami Vice when Michael Mann actually made good movies.

Heat is undoubtedly one of them.

Not only is it chock-full of badassery, supplied simultaneously by Al Pacino as "the cop" and Robert De Niro as "the robber," it's also far more complex than a simple game of cops and robbers.

What I liked most about the film is that it presents both sides of the law as equally flawed and sympathetic. You get to see the story unfold both through the eyes of both the LAPD and the career criminals they're chasing, and you spend most of the film unsure of who to root for.

The fact is, both sides in Heat are very, very good at what they do. Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer play extremely skilled plunderers, whose Robin-Hood-esque morals lead them to target fortunes that are either federally insured or possessed by the very rich, while Pacino investigates their crimes with intelligent wit and vigor, and is always hot on the heels of the heisters.

You really get the sense that you're watching the best of the best, on both sides, and it's really exciting to watch the clever antics of the police and theives alike (Clash reference, anyone?) keeping the almost three-hour movie from getting tedious.

The film is also greatly supported by a phenomenal cast. I've already mentioned Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer, but you also get Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore (AKA Tom Arnold's talented equivalent), Ashley Judd, Danny Trejo, Henry Rollins, Hank Azaria, Dennis Haysbert and a young Natalie Portman.

It's kind of like watching the Oscars if they were interesting and only attended by cool people.

And it's also worth mentioning that Mann's script is pretty damn awesome. He doesn't necessarily pull any fantastic tricks behind the camera for this one, but with the screenplay he has prepared for it, it hardly matters.

Overall, Heat is a very human crime drama--not only does it present the perspective of criminal and law enforcer alike, but it also looks at how these roles affect the people behind them.

isn't out to paint good guys and bad guys--it just tells a story. And it tells it very well.