September 30, 2009

300 Words About: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Jazz just sounds cooler when it's backing a black and white scene, doesn't it? Gives it an organic, refreshing sound, almost a palpable texture. Jazz under neon blue lights and nightclub smoke makes for a great atmosphere, too, but that's sultry and mysterious and can be too confined by its own setting.

The reason I point this out is because Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (which made waves at Tribeca in April but is still seeking financing for a theatrical release) gives jazz a shot in the arm that not only gets your toe tapping, but your spirit soaring. You're not seduced by the riffs so much as you're invigorated by them.

It's a verite-style romantic musical dramedy that defies categorization precisely because it fits so many descriptions: indie, docudrama, mumblecore, to name a few. At different times it reminded of new cinema (In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Medicine for Melancholy) and classic cinema (the dancing scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders), and it won't work for everyone if only because it's so peculiarly surreal. But I think that's why I loved it, aside from the fact that it was shot on the Boston and Cambridge streets that hold a special nostalgia for me.

September 26, 2009

A Conversation with the Coens & a Look at Their First Decade (1984-1994)

Last night I had the once-in-a-lifetime luck to score a ticket to the 50th Regis Dialogue at the Walker Art Center, a 2 and 1/2 hour discussion between Elvis Mitchell and Joel and Ethan Coen. The conversation kicked off the second week of the Walker's current Coen Brothers retrospective, Joel & Ethan Coen: Raising Cain, and the the good news for those who couldn't get in last night is that the films of the Coens will still be shown in 35mm in the comfy Walker Cinema through October 17th. Click here for the remaining schedule, and note that the Burn After Reading screening is free. 

The brothers also attended the reception following the dialogue, but even as I was literally brushing shoulders with them I couldn't work up the nerve to ask them: in No Country for Old Men, where is Anton Chigurh at the Desert Sands? I did ask Elvis Mitchell but I think we were talking past each other. My question was about the night scene at the hotel where Chigurh is looking through the keyhole, not the day scene when Tommy Lee Jones first arrives and finds Josh Brolin. Elvis was convinced that Chigurh wasn't there, that it was an out of sequence scene. Well obviously, but that's not the scene I'm talking about. By the time I realized the misunderstanding, both Joel and Ethan had wandered away from us left the reception, leaving it a mystery forevermore. Wasting an easy 10 minutes standing right next to the Coens and not asking them a question, let alone that question, is something I'm going to be regretting for a long time. 

What would you have asked the Coens, given the opportunity? Everybody knows that they are among the most private personalities in Hollywood, and Elvis Mitchell deserves props for his attempt at getting them to open up about their childhood and influences. But the Coens are the Coens, and their inherent reluctance to talk makes interviewing them akin to pulling teeth; indeed, it looked like they'd rather have been at the dentist than on the stage. Pregnant pauses were filled by countless "yeah"s and "uh-huh"s, to the point that I was waiting for Mitchell to throw up his hands in defeat (he almost appeared ready to a couple times).

Despite all of this he was still able to squeeze out some interesting insights about their influences and childhood. Although it would have been nice to have a Minnesotan ask them about Minnesota, the truth is that a.) by now the Coens have been New Yorkers longer than they've been Minnesotans, so despite A Serious Man they're probably not as nostalgic for this place as most people think, and b.) Mitchell proved to be a brilliant analyst of their films, surprising even Joel and Ethan with his insights into their literary style and story patterns. Overall I still think it was a really interesting discussion, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't one of my most memorable film experiences. (Here's a longer recap by Tad Simons.)

Now while I still can't claim to be anything close to an expert on their films (I still need to see Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, and several others I've only seen once or twice), I'd like to remain true to my goal of writing something on each of their films before this retrospective ends. So here I'm offering some thoughts on the five films the brothers made in the first decade of their career. I hope to follow this with a second decade (1995-2005) and present day overview as well. Obviously I owe some thoughts to A Serious Man once I see that next weekend, since I've been howling about how good it will be for so long.

(Title screens via the Walker blog.)

Blood Simple (1984) 

As I mentioned last week, I saw Blood Simple for the first time only recently, but it made an immediate impression on my understanding of the rest of the Coen films, particularly No Country for Old Men. The desperate characters, the mind games, the desolate Texas landscape - in just one film they had already established a wholly unique style of storytelling (Ethan claimed the story was inspired by crimes of passion that were prevalent in Texas in the mid-80's). Everything is weaved together so seamlessly that you can't believe they were only in that this was their first feature (interesting trivia: Blood Simple premiered before its theatrical release at the Walker in 1984).

It's not nearly as polished as their other films, but of course they were working with a tiny budget and mostly amateur cast. It actually took me a while to recognize Frances McDormand as Frances McDormand, and I thought Dan Hedaya was enjoyably smug as well. All in all Blood Simple is just a flat-out solid debut, and the stylish scene transitions (the finger pointing, the bed falling) are worth rewinding and rewatching a few times.

September 24, 2009

Sound Unseen 2009: The 10th Anniversary Edition

Travelers on the journey that is the packed Fall 2009 Twin Cities film bonanza will arrive next week at a major landmark: the 10th Annual Sound Unseen Festival, one of the foremost "films-on-music" festival in the country. From Sept. 29 - Oct. 4, nearly two dozen documentaries and feature films will play at the Trylon microcinema and Oak Street Cinema (the latter once again showing its impressive resiliency this fall), and a few more will play at the Walker Art Center and Cedar Cultural Center.

In and around these screenings will be performances by local musical acts representing nearly every genre. Festival co-director Rick Hansen recently told me that he had hoped to get a handful of Sound Unseen alumni (including Atmosphere and Solid Gold) to come and perform for this 10th anniversary, but they're just plain too big now for these small venues. In other words, check out these bands now before you have to pay to see them at a sold-out First Ave. show in a couple years.

The one bit of a bad luck Sound Unseen might face this year is that it falls on the same weekend that A Serious Man opens locally. But on the other hand, that's only playing at the Uptown, so all of the hundreds of people out of luck at the sellouts will have to go elsewhere and see a different movie. 

Either way I'm including the full film schedule here, but I'd like to pick out a few of them to highlight. It's worth mentioning here at some point that last year's Sound Unseen hosted the local premieres of both War Child and Anvil! The Story of Anvil

I haven't seen any of the following but I have a couple on hand that I'm planning to watch; check back next week for reviews:

September 23, 2009

Short Cuts: "I'm Bloody Ibiza!"

About a Boy (2002). Directed by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz; written by Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz, and Paul Weitz, based on the novel by Nick Hornby; starring Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, and Rachel Weisz.

September 21, 2009

Theater Seens: Jurassic Park

If my memory serves me correctly, Jurassic Park was the first movie I saw in a movie theater three times. I've done so with a few movies since (School of Rock being one of them), but I'd never done it before that summer of 1993. For a 12-year old boy it offered a veritable trifecta of awesomeness: 1.) child characters that I could relate to during the fun moments and feel braver and older than in the scary moments; 2.) John Williams' majestic score (just listen to that thing, chills from the first note of the prelude!) for which I would soon be learning to play exhilarating timpani rhythm in the percussion section of my middle school band, and 3.) action-packed adventure, complete with real, living dinosaurs.

It wasn't that the dinosaurs just looked real, it was that they were real, at least for a few moments in my mind. Reflecting back on this movie, I am convinced it was one of the three movies released in the 1990's that changed cinematic visual effects forever, the other two being James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day and James Cameron's Titanic. (As I mentioned in the 2009 movie forecast, I'm hopeful that Cameron will once again deliver an unprecedented sight with Avatar; no, I will not watch a trailer.)

The visual effects in Jurassic Park were so awe-inspiring that they weren't even shown in the trailers - a strategy that studios would be wise to consider to help build word of mouth advertising these days. Interesting to consider, isn't it - a massive budget and not even a money shot to get people excited? In the teaser trailer you saw in late 1992, and in the theatrical trailer that whet your appetite prior to the film's June 1993 release, you didn't see a single dinosaur. Watch them below- just a glimpse of T-Rex's foot, a silhouette, snout and claw of a Velociraptor, the back of a Triceratops, and side view of the head of a Brontosaurus (or maybe it's a Brachiosaurus; my elementary school education is fading), but never a full-on dino shot. The theatrical version might have been the best trailer of the decade in that sense that it showed a lot of facial reactions, but no sense of what these characters were reacting to.

September 20, 2009

REVIEW: Forgiven (B)

Paul Fitzgerald's Forgiven explores a familiar story with a familiar lesson, but it stands apart from most character dramas because of the boldness with which it approaches some pretty thorny subjects: racism, American politics, murder, capital punishment, corruption, betrayal, redemption and, of course, forgiveness. In fact one of the film's weaknesses is a sense that perhaps it bit off more than it could chew, resulting in a narrative that plays like a television series condensed into 81 minutes. At the same time, however, this breadth of focus is also one of Forgiven's strengths because it illustrates how interconnected many of this social issues are.

After receiving a pardon from the Governor of North Carolina mere moments before his execution for a murder conviction, Ronald Bradler (Russell Hornsby) finds himself suddenly back in society, aimless, jobless, and very near to hopeless. He had maintained his innocence of the crime to the execution gurney, and now, angry about the years he lost on death row and the social stigma attached to his identity as a convicted felon, he's seeking retribution. His primary target is the former D.A. who prosecuted the case against him, Peter Miles (Paul Fitzgerald, who also wrote and directed the film). The timing couldn't be worse for Miles; he is in the home stretch of a U.S. Senate campaign and can't afford any skeletons in his closet aside from the drug and alcohol abuse he's already admitted.

The real seed of Bradler's frustration is the implicit role he felt his race played in the case - until he learns of known evidence that could have cleared him just weeks after the trial. When Miles denies any wrongdoing and brushes off Bradler's meeting requests by telling him to "move on" and "get on with your life", well let's just say things get out of hand quickly.

Forgiven arrives at a time in this country when accusations of racism and power are beginning to enter almost every national conversation. About education, about health care, about taxes, about unemployment and, most recently, about civility. I'm a little surprised prison populations and the justice system haven't received any attention in 2009, but if Forgiven hits the right chord it has the potential to be a catalyst. I don't think that's Fitzgerald's motive, however, so it's unfair to peg Forgiven as an "issue" movie, but rather one that attempts to test a viewer's sympathy for its characters as they stumble through a difficult situation - a situation that requires conditional forgiveness for unconditionally terrible crimes. Fitzgerald and Hornsby offer strong performances, but the acting in general is a bit uneven, with a few strained, emotional outbursts that unfortunately reminded me of the overacting in 21 Grams.

And while I ultimately found the ending to be a little more disturbing than it may have been designed to be, I think that caused Forgiven to linger for a few days, challenging me to consider the motives and justifications of its character's actions. I'm blessed not to have yet experienced a "wrong" in my life that would beg the question of forgiveness at this level
(i.e., rape, murder, war crimes, imprisonment, etc.), but this movie in some way makes me consider how I would act under such circumstances. And in doing that - in asking challenging questions and not necessarily offering easy answers, Forgiven achieves its goal.

Writing - 8
Acting - 7
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 42/50= 84% = B

Forgiven is currently available on Amazon's Video On Demand, and can also be added to your Netflix queue in advance of its DVD release.

September 17, 2009

TCBFF and Another Swing at Juno

Check out my capsule preview of the seventh annual Twin Cities Black Film Festival (TCBFF, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue) in tomorrow's Minneapolis Star Tribune. I'm not going to make it to any of the screenings, but I think The Wiz on Friday night and Harlem Mart 125: The American Dream on Sunday afternoon are a couple of the highlights. Too bad because I'd like to check out the Capri Theater. Nice locations for the festival parties, too - the Guthrie, the Favor Cafe and the Aloft Hotel.
Also, on the occasion of the release of Jennifer's Body this weekend, I'd like to pose a question: what's worse - the new movie (and its RT rating), or the fact that Diablo Cody has an Academy Award for her writing? In case we've forgotten, this is the kind of dialogue between high-schoolers that made critics and audiences gush:

Leah: Yo Yo Yiggady Yo.
Juno MacGuff: I'm at suicide risk.
Leah: Juno?
Juno MacGuff: No, it's Morgan Freeman. Do you have any bones that need collecting?
Leah: Only the one in my pants...
Juno MacGuff: I'm pregnant.
Leah: What? Honest to blog?
Juno MacGuff: Yeah. Yeah, it's Bleekers.
Leah: It's probably just a food baby. Did you have a big lunch?
Juno MacGuff: No, this is not a food baby all right? I've taken like three pregnancy tests, and I'm forshizz up the spout.
Leah: How did you even generate enough pee for three pregnancy tests? That's amazing...
Juno MacGuff: I don't know, I drank like, ten tons of Sunny D... Anyway dude, I'm telling you I'm pregnant and you're acting shockingly cavalier.
Leah: Is this for real? Like, for real for real?
Juno MacGuff: Unfortunately, yes.
Leah: Oh my GOD. Oh shit! Phuket, Thailand!

Here are a few of the movies that lost to Juno for Best Original Screenplay:
Lars and the Real Girl
I'm Not There
Across the Universe
In the Valley of Elah
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Knocked Up
Eastern Promises
Hot Fuzz

Tragically, the Oscar win is one doodle that can't be un-did, Homeskillet.

September 14, 2009

Coens Set to Begin Raising Cain This Friday

My anticipation for A Serious Man is going to reach a fever pitch over the next few weeks with the opening of the Walker Art Center's 50th Regis Dialogue & Retrospective: Joel & Ethan Coen: Raising Cain, a nearly monthlong celebration of every film the brothers have directed, including receptions and a conversation with the Coens themselves next Friday, Sept. 25 (Tickets: $45, or $100 including admission to the private reception). No official word yet on a local premiere of A Serious Man as part of this series, which would be a little surprising. The film just premiered in Toronto but there's no chance I'm checking the pulse of the reaction. It'll be all I can do to avoid the trailer over the next few weeks.

Anyway, as if the appetite was not already thoroughly whetted for this series (via the Walker blog):

In other news, I saw Blood Simple for the first time this weekend and feel like I all of a sudden have a new appreciation for their work, particularly the shadows and shivers of No Country for Old Men. In fact, I'm laying out an ambitious plan to write at least some capsule thoughts on every Coen movie before this series wraps up at the Walker. Wish me luck.

September 10, 2009

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Lorna, Basterds, Slumdog, and Sellouts

[Note: This series is comprised of scattered thoughts on various movie-related topics. I was simply looking for a word that started with the letter "g" that means collection or assortment. Lest you think I'm some elitist wordsmith, I'd never heard of "gallimaufry" and I don't even know how to say it, but it was the only other option the thesaurus provided aside from "goulash" (too foody) and "garbage" (no).]

I suppose I should explain my reasoning for this since it's the first time around. I'm basically imagining these to be mini-reviews and commentaries on all kinds of movie bits that don't really deserve their own post. Sometimes I have an opinion about a recent movie but I don't feel like writing a proper review. Other times I have a random thought or remembrance about a movie, or I read an article or blog post that stirs an idea in my mind. I figure if I record them here I'm less likely to forget them. Here goes...

Lorna's Silence (A-)

Local film critic Colin Covert recently used the term "ethical thriller" to describe the film genre that includes movies like Lorna's Silence. I love that categorization, and if this is what the Dardenne brothers are masters of then I need to see more of their films, probably starting with the much buzzed about L'enfant from a few years ago.

There's something about this kind of puzzle-piece filmmaking that gets me every time: no setup, no introduction to the characters, no sense about anything at all. We're just blindly dropped in the middle of the story, with only our critical thinking ability, patience, and focused attention to lead us out. If you like to be spoon fed plot details, this is obviously not the kind of movie for you.

Two other great nuggets about this movie are its exploration of illegal immigration (Albanians in Belgium, a refreshing break from the norm) and the revelatory performance by Arta Dobroshi as Lorna, who looks so much different in the photo gallery on her IMDb profile that I wouldn't have thought it was the same person. Even more unbelievable is the fact that this is only her third acting role. It earned her a Best Actress nomination at the European Film Awards but she lost, somewhat deservedly, to Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long.


Tarantino and a Terrific Trio

I didn't think a movie could be dissected to death more than The Dark Knight was last year, but here Inglourious Basterds is, another movie that draws a primarily male fanbase like kittens to fresh milk. Or Nazis to fresh milk, as it were.

I'm not a Tarantino fanboy, having passively watched the Kill Bills and skipping Grindhouse/Death Proof entirely (something I'm sure I'll have to remedy since the feature length version of Machete is due out in the next year). But I love his movies from the 90's, and to the extent that Inglourious Basterds is like those movies, well I love it, too. So that's about half the movie, and the rest I could do without. Even though the majority of dialogue in Tarantino movies is eye-rollingly witty banter between killer and victim, it still makes for an entertaining show (repetitive and increasingly stale with each movie, but entertaining nonetheless).

Though I can't deny the talent this guy has behind the camera, I also can't help but think he would be absolute repulsive in casual conversation. Part of it has to do with what seems like a real fetish with violence, and part of it has to do with quotes like this: (on Landa) "I knew Landa was one of the best characters I’ve ever written...I literally had to consider I might have written an unplayable part."; (on the misspelling of the film's title) "Here's the thing. I'm never going to explain that. You do an artistic flourish like that, and to explain it would just take the piss out of it and invalidate the whole stroke in the first place."

Could he be any more smug?

Variations on my facial expression if I were in a conversation with Quentin Tarantino...

At least we can be thankful the guy doesn't act in his own movies. On the contrary, he casts the perfect actors to play his "unplayable" characters. Christophe Waltz (left) is an absolute revelation, a force to be reckoned with both in the film and in the Oscar race. It's at least the best performance in the last two years, and arguably better than DD-L's Daniel Plainview.

Daniel Brühl (middle) was driving me crazy throughout Inglourious Basterds. I knew I had seen him in another movie, I knew I had greatly enjoyed him in another movie, and I had no idea what it was. 2 Days in Paris? Hmm, yes but no. The Bourne Ultimatum? No...ah, of course! The Edukators, an UMOTM if there ever was one.

And then there is Michael Fassbender who has, with Hunger and Inglourious Basterds, quite possibly risen to the top of my "must-watch" list, perhaps bumping Christian Bale out of the spot he's held for the last few years. This guy is absolutely terrific in some really challenging roles. I'm not crazy about his upcoming movies, but I'll deal.

As superb as these three actors are in Basterds, their combined excellence is almost negatively outweighed by Eli Roth's cartoonish, buffoonish, look-I'm-in-the-same-movie-as-Brad-Pitt smirkiness. It's unbearable.

For my thoughts on Inglourious Basterds as a whole, I'll direct you to the excellent review written by Manohla Dargis.


Revisiting the Slumdog Soundtrack

Some songs from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack came up on my MP3 player the other day. I hadn't heard them for a few months but found that I enjoyed them just as much as when my giddiness about the movie was at its peak. I also realized that said giddiness about the movie was partly due to the music of A.R. Rahman. If you didn't like the music in this movie, it must have been hard to connect with it in an emotional or otherwise meaningful way. In other words, all of the people who hated this movie (and boy, they were a vocal group, weren't they?) probably hated, or at least disliked, the music as well.

Sold Out, Shut Out

A couple of weeks ago was a free screening of Into Temptation, a locally-filmed drama starring Jeremy Sisto and Kristin Chenoweth. The trailer shows some great shots of Minneapolis, which piqued my interest much more than the story of a suicidal prostitute and the priest that tries to save her. Of course I only watched the trailer after the fact, so I guess I'm not sure why I went in the first place if the story didn't grab me.

Turns out it grabbed a lot of other people's interest, though, because the Edina was packed to the gills. I found out the hard way, showing up a few minutes before showtime to find that a waiting list had formed for no shows and empty seats. A seat opened here, a couple seats opened there. The name above me on the list got in; I didn't. Since I was the last one on the list, that means that I was literally the only person who showed up for this movie and didn't get to see it.

It was my own fault of course (my excuse this time: I was getting my bike fixed and running late), and it's definitely not the first time this has happened. My refusal to watch trailers, even inside the theater, means that I usually time my arrival to my seat for 10-12 minutes after the posted showtime, or 15-20 minutes for summer blockbusters that have up to 47 trailers before the movie. For screenings like Into Temptation, I usually show up "right on time", meaning right at the stated showtime, not 10 minutes early like a normal person.

So it's always a guessing game as to where I'll be able to sit in the theater, if I'll truly miss the last preview or, in some cases, if I'll even get into the theater at all. I rarely go to the movies on the busiest nights (Fri/Sat), so when I'm shut out because of a sellout on a weeknight I'm usually pretty frustrated. Makes no sense, I know. How can I complain about something that's my own fault?

September 9, 2009

300 Words About: Afghan Star

[Afghan Star was scheduled to open this Friday, September 11, at the Landmark Lagoon Cinema. It has just been dropped from the booking schedule and I have no idea if/when it will actually arrive.]
I don't know why I've never warmed to "American Idol" at any time during the last decade (can you believe it's been nine years?), but I think part of the reason is because it's always seemed to be less like a singing competition and more like a pop-friendly talent show. This is exactly what it is supposed to be, of course, but my point is that it's not really about well these people can sing. It's about how good they look as pop stars.

You need look no further than Susan Boyle, who became an overnight celebrity, literally a household name, not because she could sing well (she couldn't), but because she didn't look like she could sing well. Maybe it says something about Western influence in Afghanistan that "Afghan Star", the equivalent of "Idol", appears to be just as image-obsessed as its American predecessor. But that's where the similarities end.

If you lose in the final rounds of "American Idol" you can still count on a good five year career as a singer. If you lose in "Afghan Star" it can mean a return to the daily struggle in a war-torn country, which is not so bad when compared with the death threats contestants (particularly female contestants) encounter if they simply present the wrong image of themselves on the show. These people are playing for keeps, which makes Afghan Star, the documentary about four finalists in the third season of the show, a compelling cultural study. And also 88 minutes of sweet relief from Ryan Seacrest.

I won't spoil the movie by revealing who wins the competition, but if you really want to remain in suspense, stop reading now. I'll only say that I expected some dramatic twists - maybe even extremely dramatic twists - that never materialized. It's certainly for the best as far as the subjects are concerned, but based on the synopsis and poster (of course I didn't watch the trailer until after the movie), I thought I was in for something much more disturbing.

Not that I would have liked to see that, but as it happens the only real weakness of Afghan Star is that these disturbing issues aren't fully explored. We learn that dancing on stage is bad, women have completely lost their identities under Taliban rule, and contestants represent each of Afghanistan's ethnic groups. I guess I just wanted a little more depth, a few more voices.

Nevertheless, I think I'd much rather watch Afghan Star (or "Afghan Star", the actual show) than "American Idol" because the stakes are real. Even the host of the season of "Afghan Star" that's profiled in the movie is desperate to cash in on the show's success: having arrived in the U.S. for the first time earlier this year to promote the film at the Sundance Film Festival, he skipped out on his flight back home.

September 7, 2009

Tony Manero Dances at the Walker This Weekend

Before the 50th Regis Dialogue and Retrospective with Joel and Ethan Coen kicks off this month, the Walker Art Center is screening a couple of recently buzzed-about films. Next Wednesday a one-time free screening of No Impact Man will be held, and this weekend the Chilean 2009 Oscar submission, Tony Manero, will be shown in the Walker Cinema. Tickets are, as always, $8 for the public and $6 for Walker members.

From the description on the Walker's website:

"In an intense film set against the backdrop of General Pinochet’s late 1970s Chile, Alfredo Castro plays Raúl Peralta, an aging lowlife obsessed with Tony Manero, John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever. The film is rife with plot twists, and Peralta’s bleak and darkly comic reality descends into an unrestrained world that mimics the totalitarian regime all around him; he will stop at nothing to become his idol."

I haven't seen many films about Chilean life during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; the only other one I can think of is the above average Machuca from a few years ago. So as I was reading up a bit on the Pinochet timeline I discovered irony in the fact that Tony Manero will be premiering here on September 11, which is the same date in 1973 that Pinochet overthrew Allende in a bloody coup d'état.

That coincidence is not nearly as bizarre as the film itself, and I can say without hesitation that Tony Manero is one of the most discomfiting movies I've seen this year.
Alfredo Castro delivers a perfectly restrained performance as Peralta - it's an older and decidedly creepier version of Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Bickle's isolation and violent disgust is self-initiated and a little less focused, while Peralta's angst is environmentally imposed and specifically targeted toward those who impede his assumption of the identity of Travolta's Tony Manero.

There are obviously a lot of layers of cultural significance here, but for my money Tony Manero is maybe just a little too twisted to deliver its message most effectively, that message having been described by director Pablo Lorrain in a recent interview as follows:

“I wanted to tell the little story of a man obsessed with what is foreign to him, who lives in a country going through the cultural process which defined our actual way of acting and relating to the world. A prowl on the process of a common man and what surrounds him; or as well, a fragment of something bigger that cannot be seen, because finally, the dance of Raul Peralta’s is, to me, the dance of all Latin-Americans. The dangerous air of underdevelopment and it’s delirious wild abandon that saw itself very much exposed and threatened during the seventies, in the middle of the military dictatorships that struck our region.”

I don't think it's out of the realm of possibilities that someone like Peralta may have existed during the Pinochet era, but ultimately I feel like the frequently cringe-worthy scenes in Tony Manero say more about psychosis, or at least about this particular character's quirks, than they do about life under Pinochet (I would make the same argument about Taxi Driver not painting a very complete portrait of 1976 New York, either).

You can decide yourself this weekend:

September 4, 2009

REVIEW: Take Out (A)

I believe the only moment in the extraordinary Take Out that made me laugh occurred while main character Ming Ding (Charles Jang) was sweeping the sidewalk. He has one of those telescoping dust pans and brooms, and as he tries to sweep the pile into the pan, a stubborn wet piece of paper remains stuck on the cement. After three or four unsuccessful sweeps over it, he just has to bend down and pick the stupid thing up. This is a fill-in shot that lasts not more than three or four seconds, but it perfectly captures the essence of Ming Ding's frustrating situation. I sympathetically chuckled to myself, "Man, isn't that life?".

Completed in 2004 but not released on DVD until this week, Take Out is an unassuming early effort from filmmaker Sean Baker and his writing partner, Shih-Ching Tsou. The film received a very limited theatrical release last summer, but the few critics who saw it were unanimously and enthusiastically impressed. I can only add to the chorus of praise for this movie; were I to know what year to place it in it would definitely be in my Top 10. If you know my taste you won't be surprised, of course, since Take Out is another neorealistic, slice-of-life look at American culture, in this case focusing on the underworld of illegal immigration.

Ming Ding has left his wife and young child in China, smuggled through Canada by a group of unforgiving loan sharks. He makes a living, if you can call it that, as a bicycle delivery guy for a busy Chinese take-out joint on the Upper West Side. Having fallen behind on loan payments to his smugglers, Ming is giving an ultimatum one fateful morning: Pay back at least $800 of his debt that night, or see his entire debt double. How do you make $800 delivering Chinese food in just a day?

The only way he knows how: anxiously bicycling through the pouring rain all day and having cranky New Yorkers slam doors in his face, tease him about his inability to speak English, leave him coins as tips, and complain about their orders. The circumstances in which Ming works are stressful to begin with, but the added burden of his debt on this day makes every otherwise mundane interaction feel incredibly tense. Will some kind soul save Ming with a huge tip? Of course not - that doesn't happen in real life, and Take Out is about real life.

And you thought you had a bad day at work...

A person who is bored by Take Out is a person, I would argue, who is uninterested in people, uninterested in the human condition. Years ago that may have been me, someone consumed by their own existence and oblivious to the unending daily challenges faced by the other almost 7 billion people living around me. I had a heady knowledge of the world and its problems, but it was probably the four years of living in a city and commuting daily on a subway during college that really helped me study people in a new way. Where did these people come from? Where are they going? What is their story? Many of them may have surely been in the exact same situation as Ming Ding, stuck in a new country and working themselves to death in pursuit of the American Dream. In that way Take Out has much in common with Ramin Bahrani's films (especially Man Push Cart), but it's much more disturbing.

Take Out certainly sympathizes with Ming's plight, but it doesn't glorify in any way the life of a new immigrant. Ming is isolated, miserable, tired, and lacking any of the social or legal supports that so many of us take for granted. A scene in which Ming gazes at a photo of his wife and child is, in its heartbreaking silence, one of the most genuinely moving portrayals of immigrant loneliness I've ever seen. Credit is due equally to the way the scene is placed in the timeline of the story, and also the awe-inspiring performance by Charles Jang.

The acting all the way through this film is top-notch, and all the more impressive because several of the cast members are making their acting debuts. Of course, with a $3,000 - yes, $3,000 - budget, you can't afford a lot of professional talent, but every dollar of that budget was well spent. Baker and Tsou, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, could not even afford to close down the actual restaurant in which Take Out was filmed. The customers are real (several bring to mind the Chinese restaurant skit from The Fugees album, "The Score") and "Big Sister" was played by the woman who actual managed the place. The shots of food being prepared are shots of food being prepared for actual customers. It's all real and rich and absolutely mesmerizing to watch; the snappy editing moves things along in a way that doesn't allow you take your eyes off the screen.

I am perplexed as to why Take Out did not make a bigger splash in theaters or on the festival circuit. It did earn an extremely well-deserved Independent Spirit Award nomination for the John Cassavetes Award (for best film with a budget under $500,000), but lost to In Search of a Midnight Kiss. Ironically, one of the other nominees was Sean Baker's second feature film, Prince of Broadway (fingers crossed that it will see a theatrical release soon). It should say something that Baker had two films nominated in the same year. To find out why, I recommend taking a night to watch Take Out on DVD. Order some Chinese food - and make sure to tip your delivery person well.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 48/50= 96% = A

+ Official website for Take Out
+ Buy Take Out on DVD
+ Add Take Out to your Netflix queue

September 2, 2009

Taking It Home: The Battle of Algiers

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

How often has this scene played out in real life in Baghdad in recent years?

One of the benefits of my ignorance of film history is that I get to enjoy watching so many classics for the first time, often without any idea of what I'm going to experience, for better or for worse. Picking up on a tip from Rick Olson at Coosa Creek Cinema last December, I sought out the Battle of Algiers. And I'm here to report, after a period of bewildered shock, that it's one of the greatest films I've ever seen.

I must shamefully admit that
going against all film etiquette and common sense...I didn't watch this in one sitting (do as I say, not as I do). I started it way too late one night and, though completely engrossed I stopped it a natural pause about halfway through, before resuming a few nights later. This may have been for the best anyway, as there are so many courses served in this meal that a pause for digestion is probably appropriate. As such, this is the kind of film that almost demands a second viewing.

Regardless of how much you know or want to know about the French occupation of Algeria, this movie is required viewing because of the literally breathtaking similarities between that situation and the current American situation in Iraq. The use of torture, the U.N. involvement, the urban warfare, the tactics of insurgents, and on and on and on and on. Not since watching The Fog of War again a few years ago have been so floored by the idea of history repeating itself.

Apart from the striking historical relevancy, there are few other really fascinating aspects to The Battle of Algiers. For starters, it's based on "Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger", the book written in prison by Saadi Yacef, a former leader in the National Liberation Front (FLN). So the historical account, while somewhat one-sided, is accurate and offers fascinating insights into the motives behind an insurgency. Above all of this, Yacef himself stars in the movie as the leader of the FLN!

Yes, filmed on location in Algiers only a few years after the events it portrays took place, The Battle of Algiers exists as an almost delayed-time documentary; nearly all of the people on screen actually lived through the violent years of the French occupation. The combination of the physical location (and lack of a need for a production designer), the authenticity of the actors and extras, and the incredibly gripping cinematography makes for a stunning historical record, almost better, at least visually, than an actual documentary could have produced.

Then there's the haunting, lingering, poignant, simply unforgettable score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, which inexplicably did not receive one of the three Oscar nominations garnered by The Battle of Algiers (Director, Original Screenplay, and Foreign Film). You might also recognize the score from its use in the recent Inglourious Basterds, added for no other reason than for Tarantino to "pay homage" to yet another classic film.

I can forgive Tarantino for boasting about his film knowledge, but I can't forgive another note of trivia about this movie. As you can see from the text in the trailer below (which was produced in 2004 for the re-release of the film), The Battle of Algiers was screened at the Pentagon during the early months of the Iraq War (August 27, 2003, to be exact).
The idea was, one would imagine, to show the U.S. military brass what not to do in Iraq. A flier was made for the screening, which was attended by about 40 military and civilian experts.

It read as follows:

"How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

The following week in the New York Times, Michael Kaufman analyzed the significance of this screening. Think about it - the mightiest military in the world is possibly developing their strategy based on a movie. I don't think that's inherently wrong, it just goes to show the power of film. And in the case of Iraq it was probably a good idea; as Kaufman astutely observed, "At the moment it is hard to specify exactly how the Algerian experience and the burden of the film apply to the situation in Iraq, but as the flier for the Pentagon showing suggested, the conditions that the French faced in Algeria are similar to those the United States is finding in Iraq."

That's painfully obvious to us now, but keep in mind it really was not at the time. This was only six months after Saddam's statue was toppled, only five months after President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished". So the question then becomes, if both the public and the U.S. military agreed that they were facing an identical situation at that point in the war (before Abu Ghraib, before Fallujah, before the Iraq Study Group, before the surge), why did they continue to follow the French strategy?

After all, though the French eventually won The Battle of Algiers, they ultimately lost the war two years later after a spontaneous and peaceful uprising by the Algerian citizens. The old saying of "win the battle but lose the war" could not better describe what happened. I know it's easy to scoff at the U.S. military's decisions as we enter the middle of the seventh year of this war, but rewind back to late 2003 and it's still baffling to consider why they followed a historical precedent that ultimately failed. What made them think they could achieve a different outcome? (There is a Wikipedia entry comparing the two situations if you're interested.)

It's not meant to be a rhetorical question or a smug criticism. I'm honestly curious as to how the U.S. military incorporated the lessons from The Battle of Algiers into the Iraq War strategy.

If you have not seen this movie, immediately add it to your Netflix queue. If you've been following along with the Iraq War since 2003 you'll be shocked and possibly outraged. If you haven't been following along, well consider this a crash course in what's happened - for the second time.

What did you take home?

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