July 30, 2010

Taking It Home: Restrepo

(Images courtesy Outpost Films)
"Our idea was...let's make the most visceral war film you've ever seen." 

So said photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who partnered with author/journalist Sebastian Junger to create the Sundance-award winning documentary Restrepo, which delivers what's sure to be the most nerve-racking viewing experience of the year so far. Inception plays like a Saturday morning cartoon in comparison. If Restrepo isn't the most visceral war film we've ever seen, it's at least the most visceral movie about the war in Afghanistan that we've yet seen, and the most insightful documentary on the 21st-century soldier's experience since The War Tapes (which, along with the disappointing Gunnar Palace, comprise the few films that actually feature soldiers and not actors). 

Pro-war, anti-war, McChrystal, Wikileaks, whatever. The talking heads and the rest of the U.S. should stop shouting and hand-wringing for a moment to witness what's actually happening on the ground, or at least was in 2007-08. Restrepo follows the deployment of a dozen or so brave American infantrymen from Second Platoon, Battle Company, of the 173rd Airborne, who spent more than a year in Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley. The reasons to see this documentary are as numerous as the opinions about what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan (i.e., the "graveyard of empires"); suffice to say you don't have much business in a conversation about the latter until you've seen the former.

July 28, 2010

Ihr Macht Mich Verrückt

(l to r) Brühl, Bleibtreu, Fürmann...I think.

I revisited Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior last week and, in addition to remembering how terrific the soundtrack was, I was again confounded by the identity of German actor Benno Fürmann. Who I often confuse with the German actor Daniel Brühl. Who I often confuse with the German actor Moritz Bleibtreu. Who I often confuse with Benno Fürmann and Daniel Brühl. To make matters more confusing, all three have starred alongside the German actress Franka Potente.

It's a madly frustrating cycle, and since these three actors continue to drive me crazy (macht mich verrückt) with each movie in which they appear, I'm laying this post out primarily as a point of personal reference. Maybe it will help me finally sort out what they've each starred in. It probably won't work, but it might.

July 22, 2010

Stay Cinematically Healthy by Avoiding Salt in Your Diet

Angelina Jolie: Spreading goodwill (for UNHCR) and taking names...

Well that didn't take long, did it? Or maybe it was just a dream. Only a week after moviegoers were treated to Inception's intelligent and original story (albeit maybe it not quite as intelligent as advertised), it's time for us to bracingly wake up to reality. Or, depending on if the totem is spinning, accept that this is "limbo". Wherever we are, it's a dreadfully dull place, where movies like Salt deliver a steady stream of mind-numbing clichés and altogether stupid plots. This puffy spy thriller is a particularly brainless affair: half-Bond, half-Bourne, half-baked, and, mercifully, half an hour shorter than expected, when it doesn't end but simply stops mid-scene.

Originally produced as a star vehicle for Tom Cruise before he dropped out for what can only be assumed was the disastrous Knight and Day, Salt was rewritten for Angelina Jolie (the "best woman in the world" who, we should remember, "dies for our sins"), who predictably signed on to play yet another sexy assassin. The change in gender of our anti-hero is perfectly appropriate for the purpose of the story, but that doesn't excuse the eye-rolling flourishes of Jolie making kissy faces and tiger scowls during hand-to-hand combat, or inexplicably removing her panties and using them to shroud a security camera.

July 20, 2010

Teza and the Surreal Cinema Experience

Early last year I read a BBC News article about an Ethiopian film, Haile Gerima's Teza, that won the highest award at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (as well as a few awards in Venice the year prior, but losing the Golden Lion to The Wrestler). Considering my father is from Ethiopia, and considering this film was about the political tumult that took place after he left the country three and a half decades ago, and considering that this story has not been shown on film before, and considering I've never been to Ethiopia (and he hasn't been back), I was, to say the least, a little obsessed with tracking this film down.

Assuming that a full U.S. theatrical release was unlikely, I immediately set a Google Alert for the film so I could find out what was happening with it and when it would be released in any format. In the meantime I also contacted the production company on numerous occasions in the hope of receiving a screener copy to review, but never received a response. It was a shot in the dark, but it was still a shot. About six months ago the alerts started picking up speed, and earlier this year the film finally landed on American shores. Fittingly, it would play in a theater in Washington, D.C., home to Gerima and the largest Ethiopian population in the country.

But would it ever come to Minnesota? Impossible, I thought. It bounced around the East Coast (picking up raves along the way), however, and all of a sudden it began moving westward, arriving in Minneapolis last week (thank you, Minnesota Film Arts!). I gathered my family, including my dad, and we set off to Ethiopia on what truly was a unique cinematic adventure.

As Teza progressed, I had the surreal sensation that I was seeing my family history on film. Not a direct representation of it, but a portrait of the place in which my parents lived at a critical juncture in their lives (and also where my brother was born). It displayed the geography and language and extremely dangerous political climate; ultimately, much of what happened in this film affected my parent's decision to leave the country, first living in Austria (my mother's home) before arriving in California, where I was born.

Putting it together, then, I was literally relating my existence to much of the history portrayed in Teza. When you're cognizant of a connection like that while watching it, cognizant of the fact that changes here or decisions there could have significantly altered your life, well it's a bizarre experience.

Teza is a ravishing epic about Ethiopia's rarely discussed modern history, and while it's not a perfect film (of all things, the acting is a bit wooden at times), I'll never forget the experience of sitting in the theater and watching this film while considering that what was on screen actually led to me sitting in the theater and watching this film.

Have you ever had a similar "meta" experience with a film closely related to your family or your life? Are there movies that capture historical events or social changes that reach you on a deeper level because of your direct (or indirect) connection to them?

July 19, 2010

The 10 Best Things About Inception(!)

1. It's not a sequel!

2. There won't be a sequel! (?)

3. It's not in 3-D! (And looks significantly better because of it!)

4. You can actually have "intelligent" conversations about it with other people while using cool words like "limbo", "projection", and "inception"!

6. The violence is family-friendly!

7. Ellen Page's character doesn't know the meaning of sarcasm!

8. The "compounded time" arithmetic distracts you from the film's actual running time!

9. Tom Berenger!

10. !

July 14, 2010

Taking It Home: 9500 Liberty

Has anyone in Arizona talked to these people? 

You may have heard about a controversial ordinance that was recently passed which requires police officers to question any individual they have probable cause to suspect is an undocumented immigrant. You may have heard about the ensuing protests and planned boycotts, and the election year hand-wringing by the involved politicians, and the fiery "man on the street" rhetoric about God and country. 

But this isn't Arizona's Support our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070) of 2010. It's a county ordinance in Virginia from 2007. The same kind of law elicited the same kind of reactions, but without the same level of attention - until now. Indeed, there exists a unique opportunity to see a glimpse of the future by simply taking a look at the past in the fascinating new documentary 9500 Liberty, directed by Asian-Americans (and Coffee Party founders) Annabel Park and Eric Byler. The film is coincidentally rolling into theaters across the country this month, including in Arizona on July 27 - only two days before SB 1070 goes into effect.

If you've been paying attention to the Arizona dilemma (and if you're an American of any color you should be, since this will affect everyone), you owe it to yourself to watch this engrossing film and then spend some focused time deliberating and discussing it. What 9500 Liberty confirms, not surprisingly, is that there are no easy answers to the problem of illegal immigration. Moreover, it underscores how much of this debate - on both sides - is driven not by rational logic, but by emotional panic.

It becomes apparent while watching 9500 Liberty that the Arizona bill will be a trumpeted success in some aspects and a humiliating failure in others. The trick will be learning how to navigate between the rhetoric and the reality while maintaining a big picture perspective on the future of the United States. At the end of the day, and as it has for every controversial social change this country has experienced, this question remains begging: What will adapt first - laws or people? The American Constitution or the constitution of America?

July 8, 2010

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Robin Hood, L'Enfant, Cruise's Curse, Toy Story 3, and The Two Escobars

Robin Hood (B+)

After too many months away from the movies I jumped in with both feet last week, starting with a big spring blockbuster that I didn't want to let get away from me on the big screen. In the last installment of Gallimaufry I declared my love for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, as well as the Robin Hood brand as a whole. Out of the loop as I've been from the movies scene in 2010, I completely forgot that Ridley Scott's version was meant to be an introduction to the title character.

You could understand, then, why I was growing restless as the movie went on and on with only minor teases of the charm, wit, humor, and romance that I associated with Robin and his merry men. Ridley's crew was comprised of weathered patriots fighting a ruthless (and inexplicably baldheaded?) villain for the honor of King Richard's crown. Embarrassingly, I was left scratching my head all the way until the finale, after which a title card reminded us that "now the legend begins". Ahhh, that's right! I'm thickheaded like that sometimes.

July 1, 2010

Why You Should See The Last Airbender

To review: two of M. Night Shyamalan's films are among the Five Worst Movies I Have Ever Seen. 

Since The Happening, though, I've tried to look at and, yes, even appreciate Shyamalan's films as milestones in cinema history. It's incredibly rare that movies this distinctively awful are seen by so many millions of people - nearly all of whom, ironically, would consider them unwatchable. The opening of a Shyamalan film is truly a social phenomenon in my eyes, much different than the latest teen fiction trilogy installment or fanboy-frothworthy video game adaptation.

Ask yourself, how often are you around to witness a formerly celebrated artist's career - be it a musician, writer, or painter - dramatically crumble through no fault or circumstance (i.e., drugs, mental illness) other than their own bad ideas?

I'm not asking you to appreciate the art of Shyamalan's films, but rather the rarity of his career. This is a filmmaker - by most accounts supremely talented (at what? I couldn't say) - who despite obscenely negative reviews still continues to write and direct blockbuster films with major studio backing. It would be as if LeBron James were to suddenly go ice cold for the next decade with his new team (oh, let's say 2.5 points per game and the team wins fewer than 20 games every year), and yet still command sell-out crowds and an eight-figure signing bonus for his next contract.

Looking at it another way, Shyamalan has officially moved into car wreck/natural disaster/graphic war images territory. Despite your deepest fears or your most sincere moral judgments you just can't look away, and when you take a step back you realize you are witnessing a piece of history in the making.

Yes, when our kids are watching Shyamalan's films in shocked awe at midnight screenings 25 years from now (let's be optimistic and assume people will still visit movie theaters in 25 years), you can tell them that you recognized at the time the significance of these films. You knew that you were bearing witness to "a hate crime against film lovers", and that his films brought out the most superlatively creative writing from critics around the world. You knew that these weren't just "bad" movies, but among the worst original productions coming out of a very dark period in Hollywood.

If you don't see The Last Airbender for yourself, see it for future generations. See it for history.
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