Archive for March 2009

Passion play

March 28, 2009

Steve McQueen’s (no, not that Steve McQueen) Hunger was the winner of last year’s Camera D’Or at Cannes (given to best first feature.) The film focuses on the life of Bobby Sands, a convicted IRA terrorist incarcerated in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. After about 40 minutes of meandering introduction and multiple characters introduced, focused on briefly then almost forgotten, the film tightens it’s focus on Sands’ decision to lead a hunger strike with the goal of gaining “Political prisoner” status for himself and his fellow incarcerated IRA comrades.

First off, I have to say this film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. While the camera may be filming open bed sores, maggots crawling on the hand of a sleeping man or a split image of a British cop crying while his mates brutally beat a naked prisoner, they do so in a way that makes you want to continue watching because of the impressive artistry of the shot. Early scenes of a prisoner’s hand shot in close up playing with a fly on the broken window grate of his cell and a later scene of the same prisoner, naked, standing in front of the same while diffused light and small snowflakes brace his lithe frame. McQueen has been known for some years as an accomplished visual artist and, as with fellow visual masters Anton Corbjin (with “Control”) and Julian Schnabel (with “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) their eye for crafting a striking image is impeccable.

Unfortunately, this film left me strangely cold and unmoved for the most part, but most especially for the main character. Sands is portrayed as an idealized martyr who displays almost no true human emotions throughout most of the film. Never does he appear scared of dying or show any fear of the abuse he receives or care about the sorrow of the loving family he leaves behind. He’s portrayed not unlike Jesus in Mel Gibson’s torture-porn classic “The Passion of the Christ.” Like the man/god portrayed in Gibson film, Sands is not a man but rather an icon, so when McQueen attempts to generate pathos in my heart I felt none. I could not identify with the man in the least because no man can be that hard in the face of their own death. In fact the most sympathetic character is that of the unnamed prison guard played by Stuart Graham, an actor who feels familiar but apparently has done largely TV work. The torment in his eyes as he slowly smokes a cigarette after forcibly cutting the hair and beard and scrubbing the violent body of Sands is wonderful.

I must also say that there is a very very impressive piece of stage acting in the scene wherein Bobby and a priest discuss his motivations and the possible effects of his hunger strike. This is by far the most talky scene in a film where 20 minutes often pass without one line of dialogue. The fact that the film can say more in it’s silence than in much of it’s words is a tribute to the skills of the editors and the director. I think McQueen is a very talented technical director and I look forward to his future films. I only hope that he learns that brutality and unwavering stridency, while admirable to watch on screen, cannot hold a candle to the depiction of a type of humanity that one can actually relate to. As Sands character says to the priest but doesn’t portray, we’re only human.

For those looking for a better film about the struggle for Irish independence and a portrayal of how real people react to the horror of armed struggle, I would without reservation point you towards “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” – perhaps my favorite film of 2006 and one that was unfortunately overlook by myself as well as many in the US when it was first released.

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Golgotha

March 25, 2009

I saw this movie as part of the Boston Underground Film Festival. The movie tells the story of the evil sorceress, Golgotha, how she came to be the way she is, etc. The film is black & white, with the “present” scenes (old Golgotha telling her minion her story) in the style of a late ’30s/early’40s Hollywood production, and the flashback sequences being a mix of Hollywood silent film and German expressionist film (“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “Metropolis,” etc.).

First of all, the movie’s story is extremely simple. There’s are no twists to speak of, no convoluted schemes or double-crosses. The characters and their motivations are pretty much entirely laid out for the viewer. The hook, plot-wise, is seeing how Old Golgotha came to be where and how she is (and who the intruder glimpsed in the opening shots is). This tale is told through flashbacks to Golgotha’s childhood, adolescence, and eventual maturity into a powerful sorceress. I found myself pulled into the idea through the setup, featuring some simple narration, and the exchanges between Old Golgotha and the Minion.

This plot would work fine, I would say, if the film gave us more interesting visuals. For a film that’s supposed to take its cues from German expressionism, it certainly delivers bland visuals. Many scenes shot outdoors would have done better if they had been on a soundstage, with a surreal world around the actors; I can think of no better example than the scene where Prince Debonere fights the dragon. The dragon, naturally, looks like a cheaply made prop. That’s almost unavoidable, and I don’t hold that against the film, as much as I do the harsh juxtaposition of the prop against the cave. The poor quality is emphasized by it’s placement, with its head and neck coming out of a real cave.

The acting in the movie is, in a word, spotty. Some of the players are really great. Or at least, they’re able to convey the adequate emotion or expression without words, over-emoting just enough without hamming it up. Not everyone has this gift. Particularly the aforementioned Prince, and his best friend, Fritz. The pair play their roles with a heaping dose of wink towards the audience. Others, though, do a fine job. Especially the actress who plays Old Golgotha; I could have done with 45 minutes of her talking to her minion, I think. And many of the other roles- Young Golgotha, King MacGuffin (ho ho!), the Minion, Sidon- are played very well. But there’s a big difference between silent film-style hamminess, and the high school drama variety that often found its way into the film.

Overall, “Golgotha” feels pretty half-baked. I love the concept, as I love the styles of film it tries to bring together. But while they might get an A for effort, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

The Wrestler (Continuing Ed)

March 24, 2009

I’m not going to review Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler because I’ve nothing to say about this heartwrenching and impeccably executed story that hasn’t been said elsewhere and endlessly. What I am going to do is share some of what I’ve learned subsequently about professional wrestling, as it might be of interest to others who’ve seen the film.

In an early scene, we see Randy cut a slice off a razor blade, and then tape it to his taped wrist. Later, on the mat, he gets it out, slices his own forehead open, then rises to his feet with the blood pouring down his face. At the time I went ahead and suspended my disbelief, because, hang on: This movie takes place today, and it’s about a guy whose heyday was in the eighties – the absolute height of AIDS panic. Surely wrestlers weren’t still deliberately bleeding on each other in the late eighties, right? And certainly not today! But I was wrong on both counts.

According to this article, (and others) this practice (called “blading”) was mostly phased out by the World Wrestling Federation by the mid-eighties, but continues to be used “on occasion” even in WWF pay per view events and it remains a common practice on the low rent circuit Randy is confined to in the film. It’s a great read, but what really caught my eye was this:

The cloak of secrecy was thrown off of blading in the mid-1980s in the now-famous 20/20 exposé on professional wrestling. This is the one where “Dr. D.” David Schultz rang John Stossel’s bells (at Vince McMahon’s urging) and got sued.

John Stossel is an enemy of the people of the first order, so thank God for YouTube. The visual quality is abysmal, but it’ll do, so let’s not complain about a twenty-three year old tape (especially since the audio is perfect). It’s the usual 20/20 high dudgeon, where Stossel keeps insisting that “they fix the matches”, (an assertion that is beside the point to the point of being false), but there’s some great detail about how certain moves work, and a demonstration of the razor blade trick. Also, at the end, Stossel gets a smackdown that is entirely undeserved in context, but karmically OK by me.

9 to 5 – an examination of the dying of the adult DVD industry?

March 23, 2009

The Boston Underground Film Festival is in full swing and while it’s probably best known and loved for it’s plethora of campy, schlocky and gory no-budget horror films it can bring some quality documentaries to it’s lineup as well. One such specimen was 9 to 5: Days in Porn.

After a chance meeting with an adult film editor in the cutting room, director Jens Hoffman spent more than two years meeting and filming some of the best known players in the San Fernando Valley adult film industry – the Hollywood of the genre.

Among his profiles are Mark Speigler, the talent agent who appears to have a bluetooth surgically implanted in his ear. The man is overweight, unshaven and by no means attractive. Nonetheless, he is clearly a deft businessman as he drives a Cadillac SUV. There’s the 19 year old Sasha Grey – the up and coming young actress who entered the industry after sending a Manifesto to Spiegler in which the former film student (who identifies Godard as a primary influence and initially whated to take “Anna Karina” as her stage name) expressed her desire to explore the far reaches of her own sexuality and the sensations of the flesh (Grey is now modeling for American Apparel and starring in Stephen Soderberg’s next film in addition to her adult repitoire.) There’s the Porn doctor: the former actress who now runs a non-profit dedicated to ensuring the physical and mental health of those in the industry. And most heart-warming was Belladonna and her husband, who produces films but says he’d be out of it the next day if his wife left the industry.

The film itself was surprisingly graphic – in my opinion to a degree not really necessary to advance the film. A “fountain” scene in particular was just beyond the pale.

By far the most intriguing story was that of Sasha Grey. She’s a very young woman (19 at the time of filming) but one who, while she may not have the most maturity, certainly has a philosophy. While she is definitely not the archetype of the industry star (petite, girl next door figure and dark brown hair) she has apparently gained significant success in her few years of performing. One of the participants notes that people come to the industry for at least one of three reasons: Because they’re a sex addict, because they want to be rich or because they want to be a celebrity. I’m not quite sure which one Sasha is but she appears that she may be on her way to making the jump to a certain type of mainstream fame: something that is almost unheard of.

Sadder and perhaps more common is the story of Mia Rose, who admitted to sleeping with close to 100 men before her 18th birthday and who lives and works with her sister. Late in the film her sister moves out suddenly and without warning and Mia is left to sit lonely with her dog, clearly demonstrating that while she says she is more happy than ever in her life it is still clear that her baggage continues to follow her.

Jens Hoffman was on hand in the theater and took Q and A after the film. He mentioned that most of his filming was done during a significantly revolutionary time in the industry. While video and DVD had dominated since the 1980s, in the last few years the rise of the internet has shifted the locus of power in the field from the West coast to Miami where the biggest web distributors are located.

This film made me convinced that someone needs to make a documentary about “Max Hardcore” – one of the most marginal filmmakers in the industry due to the reputedly extremely violent and transgressive content of his films and the rumors of forcing his actors to perform acts against their will. I would hope that this film would specifically address Max’s court case that the Justice Dept. venue shopped and in which he was convicted of multiple counts of obscenity. My fascination with 1st amendment issues knows no bounds!

I would definitely recommend this documentary for those who are interested in more background of the daily lives and the day to day of this most unusual but most American industry, but beware: as I said, the film is quite graphic, so know what you’re getting into before you bring your granny to the screening.

The best way to read “The Watchmen”

March 20, 2009

Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot claims, in his two weeks on re-examination of the film based upon the graphic novel, that reading The Watchmen is best if you read it aloud to yourself in the voice of the “Comic Book Guy” from the Simpsons. Brilliant! I would venture to say that almost any piece of text that uses words like “abbatoir” casually could use such treatment – like the poetry of 14 year old boys or Hidden songs.

The new Terminator: Salvation trailer

March 14, 2009

Hmm. Looks like the franchise has fully embraced the ideas that Blade Runner explored in 1980 – what’s human, what’s a machine? What’s the difference? Anyhow, stuff blows up pretty good. I’m pretty excited to see how this turns out.

Synecdoche, New York

March 12, 2009

I had the luck to get a netflix copy of Charlie Kaufman’s film from Netflix just as it was released. These are some of life’s small victories.

I was especially excited because after seeing this film in the theater last year I knew immediately that I needed to see it again. Sadly I was not able to as, is unsurprising for a self-reflexive-times-20 film with a runtime of over two hours, it did not stay in theaters long. I recall immediately not grasping exactly whether it’s some sort of masterpiece or a pretentious and self-involved piece of junk (I had a similar reaction to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.) I must say Synecdoche fared much better on second viewing than Aronofsky’s similarly ambitious and uncompromising personal vision.

The first thing I need to say about this film is that I had a tough time telling Samantha Morton and Emily Watson apart before this. The film takes this similarity to a great extreme by having Watson play a version of Morton’s character in the giant theater piece. The only thing that helped me tell them apart is that Morton is signficantly more busty than Watson and doesn’t have an English accent. But let me tell you, you put them in a lineup next and I may not be able to differentiate them! They could pull some Parent Trap stuff if they wanted to!

Anyhow, for those who haven’t seen the film, here’s a quick intro: Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman and also, I would assume, Kaufman’s alter ego in the same way Woody Allen does it) is a regional theater director (quite the same as the character he played in 2007’s The Savages) married to Adele (Charlie Kaufman regular Catherine Keener), an artist who paints tiny canvases that can only be looked at under a microscope. Needless to say absurdist Kaufman gags like this are present throughout. They have a four year old daughter Olive and their marriage is clearly about to fall apart. Adele goes to Berlin ostensibly for 1 month and apparently doesn’t return for many years, having divoriced Caden and re-married in the meantime. Shortly after she leaves, Caden is given a MacArthur grant and decides to develop a theater piece in NYC incorporating a huge crew of actors and city-sized sets. This piece eventually comes to include verbatim (or close to verbatim) accounts of his life experiences (see the end of Annie Hall for a similar re-invisioning of a personal narrative.) There are characters playing characters playing characters playing real people. Characters speak for real people as if they were emotional ventriloquists and how can you tell if it’s just an affair or a love-quadrangle if everyone involved is ostensibly the same person?

So, first of all this film is hillarious. There’s a great sight gag that involved Adelle excusing herself from Caden’s opening night performance of Death of a Salesman because she has to ship her paintings…in tiny little plywood boxes the size of a large marble! Hope Davis plays Caden’s therapist and tells of a novel written by a 4 year old about a Neo-Nazi and then commits suicide at 5.

The film is also incredibly touching at moments. Anyone who isn’t affected by the scene wherein Caden reads Olive’s diary that recounts an imagination game that Caden plays with Hazel as a child is just not human. The beauty and joy and tenderness that can exist in a parent/child relationship has rarely been expressed more vividly. And the character of Sammy, a man who follows Caden for 20 years and eventually plays his double in the theater piece (though note that what is theater vs. what is life and the value and meaning of each is a key theme of the film), (who is incidentally played by Tom Noonan, best known by me as the murderer in Manhunter) very ably plays the mirror to the true emotions and thoughts that Caden can’t bring himself to face.

Needless to say just looking at the cast that the acting is top notch – there’s not a false note in the film and while Hoffman is clearly the star the film can easily be called an ensemble as most of the characters (including Diane Weist’s, not introduced until about 1.5 hours in but is given many of the most emotionally wrenching lines and roles in the film) are very well developed.

The film deals with all of the same themes Kaufman has addressed in his previous screenplays: Obsessions with death, identity, longing, writers-block and the difficulty of expected creativity and general ennui. Caden is a quite morose, neurotic, inhibited and despondent character, though the scenes with he shares with his daughter show his brighter side. In the end, though, it’s clear that he is a pretty miserable character, never being able to be comfortable with those who love him, constantly longing for something or someone he feels he has lost and taking solace in the arms of those who seem just as desperate as he. There is a half poetic/half ham-fisted monologue by the theater-piece priest that outlines this sort of restless quite well.

On second viewing I began to look out for more of the small references to the arbitrary nature of time in the film. The first scenes in the Cotard household indicate that the day is September 21, October 31 and November 4 all at once. Years feel like weeks, all further cementing the feeling that one is in some sort of dream haze or some sort of fuge state. In fact, I was convinced on second viewing that Cotard was actually dead through most of the film (though that notion has since been determined silly and incorrect after noting that Caden’s last name is a reference to a psychological disorder in which the patient incorrectly believes that they are dead.) The other mystery that runs throughout is the gradual disintegration of what appears to be the outside world (though it becomes clear 3/4 of the way through the film that differentiation between “the outside” and just another stage set is impossible). There are tanks rolling through the streets, shock troops herding citizens onto buses and revolutionaries marching through the streets and Caden mentions late in the film that the world only contains 13 million people. Oh, and Hazel (Samantha Morton) buys and lives in a house that is perpetually on fire (Freud could decipher this one pretty easily).

Do I know what all of this means? Hell no. Probably never will, but the scope and ambition of this film, the amount of thought it encourages, the spot-on dark humor and the outstanding cast performances all make this a film that everyone who has a bit of patience and heart should see. It’s sort of like Inland Empire in the way the film seems to be an untainted reflection of the film-maker’s mind. But where David Lynch is hallucinatory and violent Kaufman is more introspective and tender. It’s certainly the most naval-gazing film I’ve ever seen and the dialogue goes from everyday conversation to over the top pseudo-philosophizing like throwing a light switch, but hey, I like this kind of stuff.