Borderlands (Zev Berman, 2007): 6.5/10

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975): 7/10

La Guerre Est Finie (Alain Resnais, 1966): 7/10

Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): 8/10

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Location: milwaukee, wi

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Mighty Heart (Michael Winterbottom, 2007)

More briefly than I would like (because in seven hours I have to catch a bus to catch a plane!), I wanted to comment on A Mighty Heart, the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt project that recounts the hellish kidnapping and eventual execution of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan months after the September 11 attacks. While almost everyone (in this country, at least) has probably heard of the Daniel Pearl story, at least I cannot remember specific details of the case, nor, when I heard about it, did it register how horrible it actually was. Although at least one review I've read has said that a problem with the film is the non-monumental status of the Pearl kidnapping, that unlike Paul Greengrass' United 93 (a film I haven't seen), this film does not capture a moment that everyone remembers. The review goes on to say that the eventual happens, and we just watch the characters sit around and wait for it. While this is literally the case, I was wrapped up in the story and could not disagree with the original criticism more. While on the news, the Pearl story might not have registered much past the initial feeling of shock, A Mighty Heart brings it home, right into the front of your mind, so you understand what a personal tragedy this was above all.

I was afraid, going into the film (which I won free preview screening passes too - nothing beats a free movie) that it would have a "Arabs = bad, Americans/Westerners = good" mentality (because that's how so much popular discourse on terrorism goes), but that is not the truth. The villians are villians because of what they do, not who they are (although I have read at least one comment from someone on the right about how this movie promotes the war on terrorism more than anything, which I definitely do not agree with). And much has been made (check out the film's imdb boards for proof) of Jolie's "blackface," which actually looks more like spray-on tanner, in order to play Afro-Cuban Mariane Pearl. The makeup, her accent, and her wig are all distracting, but for only a few minutes. Once truly into the film, all these things that seem ridiculous become perfectly natural, and the unthinkable happens: Angeline Jolie becomes Mariane Pearl. I forgot about her superstar status; she really immerses herself in this role and is really the strongest point in the movie. The scenes after we find out Pearl is actually dead are some of the strongest acting I've seen in a while; hopefully Jolie is remembered for this best performance of her career once award season comes along.

While I do have some problems with the pacing of the film (slow at times), it is really an accomplishment for Jolie and director Winterbottom, who directs it in a cinema-verite style that seems more like a documentary than a drama and works perfectly with the material. So if you're looking for something to see in the theaters this weekend, I surprise myself by recommending A Mighty Heart.


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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Lies (Jang Sun-Woo, 1999)

Although the internet tells me the French translation of the above poster is "fantasies," the US title of Lies fits Jang Sun-Woo's film far better. Whereas fantasties are idealized, romantic versions of what might be, lies are concrete, often dirty things that hide what really happens. The two characters in Sun-Woo's movie lie - to themselves, to each other, and to everyone else in their lives. There's really very little fantasy involved after the initial meeting.

Y is a 38 year old Korean sculptor with a wife studying in Paris, while J is an 18 year old student who wants to lose her virginity before she has a chance to be raped (as she admits in a painful monologue on the state of Korean womanhood). They begin a consentual sexual relationship, where she takes the train to his city every weekend to spend the whole time in bed, which evolves from just sex to extreme BDSM play. The BDSM in the film is entirely real, and when Sun-Woo focuses the camera on the welts and bruises after their sessions, we can really feel the actors' pain. The relationship morphs even further from BDSM enthusiasts to extreme pain/pleasure-seekers, when finally, something has to break.

Apart from Y and J's story, Sun-Woo makes the interesting postmodern choice to film the actors talking about their roles and inserts that footage into the fictional story. We get Sang Hyun Lee, who plays J, taking about how she's nervous about doing nude scenes, and the next scene is Y and J having sex. This brings a second level to the film, and even more lies into the equation.

Most of the negative reviews I've read of the film are about how the sex is excessive, or that it's not titillating. The sex is supposed to be excessive and unsexy - this is a film about reality, and not about, ironically enough, lies. My problems with the film lie in the lack of characterization of Y and J and in my own discomfort with some elements of BDSM. But this is a movie that deserves to be seen by those who are interested in the more extreme, yet human, elements of sexuality.


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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)

In today's film climate, it's hard to conceive of a film ending a director's career for reasons other than commercial failure. But Michael Powell's career did effectively end with Peeing Tom, his 1960 thriller starring Carl Boehm as a would-be filmmaker who literally kills with his camera. A review on IMDB compared the furor over this film to that if, today, Steven Spielberg made a graphic film about pedophilia. The film, even today, is shocking in its stark portrayal of obsession and violence, even though there is nothing gory about it.

Boehm is stunning as Mark Lewis, a pathologically shy young cameraman who dreams of becoming a filmmaker. His young neighbor Helen enters his life on a whim and becomes enamored with him, allowing him to let his guard (and camera) down in some situations, but he becomes more obsessed in others. In his secret life, Mark has been killing women and filming their moment of death. Through archival footage of his own family, we find out that Mark's father (played by Powell), a scientist, did cruel and disturbing experiments on the nature of film on his son as a child, something that profoundly scarred the man. The more we find out about Mark, the more we deeply pity yet despise him, a paradoxical mix of emotions that muddles what might otherwise be a clear-cut moral story.

Peeping Tom was released the same year as Psycho, which became the more famous of the films. Hitchcock was hailed while Powell was shunned. But looking back on the two films today, because of Tom's obscurity, it still retains a definite shock value, and leaves the viewer unsettled, whereas Psycho has become ingrained in popular culture so that its shocks mean nothing anymore. Powell, one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, made a daring and brilliant film, full of horror and beauty (the colors and overall cinematography are stunning), that deserves to be seen.


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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Night Train Murders (Aldo Lado, 1975)

One of the films Eli Roth name-checked and raved about during the Q&A I attended (thus I had to see it), Night Train Murders was envisioned by its producer, and inevitably marketed, as "Last House on the Left...on a train!" I am not a big fan of the Wes Craven original (neither did I like The Hills Have Eyes but loved Alexandre Aja's remake, go figure), but I definitely wanted to check this out because of how Roth described it as a big influence on Hostel Part II. Am I glad that I did, not only because I enjoyed the film itself, but also because it shed some light on Roth's sequel (that scene on the train couldn't have been more influenced by this movie). As you might have guessed, the film follows two college girls who take a train from Germany to Italy for Christmas and meet some very unsavory characters. If you've seen Last House on the Left, you can imagine what comes next.

Although Night Train Murders necessarily has a more convoluted plot than LHotL (why did everyone get on that second train?), it is ultimately more disturbing and effecting than Craven's movie because of Lado's underlying social criticism. Although there is very little gore and no nudity in the film, it was banned in England and became one of the video nasties (and, according to wikipedia, is still banned in the UK today). Why? The only answer is because of the disturbing social commentary that lies underneath. The villians of the movie are two drug-addicted thieves, and an upper-class woman that they meet on the train and who orchestrates all the rest of the goings-on. The woman, played by Macha Meril, is delightfully cold and evil, but not so much that it feels unrealistic. The scariest thing about this film is that 30 years later, I feel this could still happen. I feel it could happen to me.

The bonus material on the DVD includes an interview with Lado in which he talks about exactly what he wanted to do with the film, including the commentary he wanted and the fact that he had never (and still has never) seen Last House on the Left. He took a template that a money-hungry producer gave him and made it his own, the sign of a true filmmaker. This is opening my giallo floodgates, and should be seen by anyone who loves a subtext to their thrills.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Princess Tam-Tam (Edmond Greville, 1935)

In this simple tale, Max de Mirecourt (Albert Prejean), tired of his French socialite life, goes to Algeria to get some inspiration for his newest novel. While there, he meets Alwina (Josephine Baker), a native woman who strikes his fancy as extremely beautiful, yet naive in that way that colonialists thought of the colonized. He decides to "civilize" her, and when that task is complete, brings her back to France for her society debut, all the while writing a novel about it. In a related subplot, his wife is maybe having an affair with an Indian maharaja, yet becomes incredibly jealous of Alwina's place in her husband's life.

Sure, it's a complete rip-off of My Fair Lady, but the plot isn't that important here. The film is a showcase for Baker, who, although she was very famous in France at the time, was still, as a black woman, given mostly terrible roles. Alwina is no different; it has shocked me that the reviews (mostly on Netflix) that I have read have described the film as not racist. The film, while not blatantly racist (the Parisian women apparently base their dislike of Alwina on her beauty and not her skin color), the colonialist attitude in the film is out of control. Alwina is a child when the movie starts, not knowing what shoes are or what "confused" means. Only when Max enters her life does she learn the "finer things" in life. But on the other hand, even though these attitudes are present in the film, Alwina is really the heroine of the movie. The audience understands her eventual frustration with the boredom of Parisian upper crust society, and when she sneaks out to a jazz club and dances in a "native" way, we applaud her. Isn't it, after all, the exact same boredom that Max felt in the beginning of the film? So while the film and its characters patronize Alwina, she is shown as the wisest character in the movie. Quite revolutionary for its time!

The whole film, however conventional and uncomfortable to modern sensabilities it is, is incredibly gorgeous. And Baker completely steals the show - her face, her voice, her mannerisms, her dance moves, and her SMILE! This movie is worth twice the price of the rental just to bask in Baker for 80 minutes. So while the movie is only okay (although there is a very clever twist at the end that I admittedly did not see coming), it is worth seeing both as a historical document and an 80 minutes homage to the eternal majesty that is Josephine Baker.


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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2006)

As every review I have read has already said, Away From Her is a beautiful, delicate film about aging based on a short story by Alice Munro and made with surprising insight by 28 year old actress Sarah Polley. While this may come as a huge surprise to those who have not seen Polley in Atom Egoyan's films, her performances (especially in The Sweet Hereafter - link?) prepared me for this film of uncommon depth and empathy. Egoyan is in fact an executive producer on the film, and it bears the stamp of his influence on Polley's craft. The performances, especially from Julie Christie as Fiona, the woman dealing with the onset and quick progression of Alzheimer's, and Gordon Pinset as her husband, are stellar and realistic, incredibly moving in their delicacy yet power.

The reason I could not love this movie like I wanted to, though, was simply because of its honesty. My paternal grandma has advanced Alzheimer's, and every single thing in this movie rang true. Christie's character goes, in about a month, from forgetting words and places to not recognizing her husband, and although that seems radical, it is what happens. She remembers particular incidents long after her husband thinks her mind is long gone, something that still, even in these last days of the disease, happens to my grandmother; she has no idea who my brother or I are, but will ask him how his baseball team is doing. The nursing home in the film is also exactly as my experience has been; "balloon badminton," as funny as it sounds, is something I've witnessed, as well as the divide between the more removed administration and the more empathetic nurses. So if this movie has a fault, it is within me. I almost couldn't stand to watch the movie because of my own life experience; a few times, I felt like I almost had to get up and leave.

But if this was an intense experience for me, is that not indicative of the power of film? Perhaps I only now realized the intensity and enormity of this disease that has been a part of my family's life for five years now, through these characters that I never knew. It's something that is a part of my life every day, I have become accustomed to the decline, the tragedy of the disappearing mind, but only seeing others dealing with exactly what my family has been made me realize exactly how terrible it is. So congratulations to Polley (who's script is a little better than the direction, although there are some achingly beautiful moments) and the entire cast (it's really a five-character movie, and one of those characters doesn't even speak once but manages to convey a world of feelings) on a wonderful movie, but I do want to acknowledge that this will be a hard movie for some to watch. Hard, but important.


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Monday, June 04, 2007

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007)

Remember when I said Hostel Part Two was my most anticipated movie of 2007? Well, Knocked Up was second on that list. And instead of a real review, I present: Things I Learned From Knocked Up.

1. Women really want to have babies.
This is number one for a reason. Alison (Katherine Heigl, who is actually far better and more likeable than I expected) has no reason to have a baby with Ben (Seth Rogen, more on him later), but she does anyway. With no explanation. Let me repeat, no explanation. She's a young professional who is not in a relationship, yet she decides to keep this baby. I'm not saying she should have gotten an abortion (which is referred to in only the shadiest of terms, "taking care of it," etc.), but some, any explanation of why the hell Alison would keep this baby would be nice. This isn't nit-picking, I don't think, just the most basic of character development.

2. Women are all whiny bitches, or Judd Apatow does not understand women.
It's one or the other. I'm leaning toward the latter. Not only is Alison a shell of a character, more or less, even worse is Leslie Mann's character, Alison's sister Debbie. She's barely there (what does she do except sit around the house and go out at night?), she's superficial, a total bitch, and exceptionally whiny all the time. There is literally nothing in her character that made her likeable to me, or explained why her husband Pete (Paul Rudd, we'll get to him soon enough) loved her. Or why anyone would want to be around her ever. Besides the hormonal-woman jokes (and we all know how utterly hilarious those are), there's nothing to Debbie. If I was Mann, Apatow would be in the doghouse for that empty character.

3. Unfortunately, Seth Rogen can not yet carry a movie.
Unlike Steve Carell, Apatow's last unlikely leading man, Rogen isn't at that point yet where I cared enough about his character to remain invested in the movie. He's more annoying than endearing, and I resent the implication that, because he is 23 and doesn't have his life figured out, he's a loser. I know plenty of 23-year-olds without their lives figured out (myself to be in their ranks in a few months), and they're just fine, thank you.

4. Paul Rudd is amazing.
Okay, I didn't need this movie to teach me that, but he was the definite highlight of the movie. Every single line of his, almost, had me in tears. Can he please be a leading man, like now? I don't know many girls not in love with him.

5. If you just stay with the father of your baby, who you barely know and seems like a terrible fit for you, everything will turn out fine! Really!
I know (okay, hope) Apatow didn't mean for this movie to fit in with the right-wing, anti-choice agenda, but it does. 100%. The title of this point isn't an exaggeration, but the moral of the movie. The more I think about it, the more upset I get.

6. The 40 Year Old Virgin was a great movie.
Where did that Judd Apatow go?

All my (huge) problems aside, there are some hilarious moments in the movie, enough to make it worth seeing, but don't be expecting too much. I certainly was.


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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Hostel: Part Two (Eli Roth, 2007)

Hostel: Part Two was probably my most anticipated film of 2007. Not only did I love Hostel, both for its content and its unabashed return to R-rated horror, I have been thoroughly charmed by writer/director Eli Roth's presence since then. He has proven himself, in everything I have seen/read of him, to be a genuine horror fan, a guy who loves gore but is also funny, intelligent, and well-spoken about said gore. So when I got the chance to go to a preview screening of the sequel with a Roth Q&A afterward, it didn't matter to me that it was three hours' drive both ways and a work night. This was something I had to do, and it was completely worth it.

I don't want to divulge much about the movie, because the shocks are there, and real. The plot is seemingly the same as in the first movie; three American students, this time female, are studying abroad in Italy and are convinced by a native to go to Slovakia for a spa weekend. Bloody havoc ensues. But as opposed to the last movie, where the first half of the movie was tits & ass, and then cut right to torture, this movie has tension all the way through, beginning right away where the first movie let off: Paxton on a train, missing a few fingers. I loved the choice to start the movie immediately where the last ended, really making it part two and not some hokey sequel (something Roth said was very much a conscious choice on his part).

The gore is good, the shocks are good, the conclusion is very satisfying, but what surprised me most was the wicked, hilarious humor throughout the film. A few at the Q&A said it was broad and almost took away from the horror, but to me, it added to it. If we the audience are laughing during all this, what does that say about us? What does that say about human nature? Not only is it funny, it's bitingly clever - just when I thought I had the entire thing figured out, things change. There's no weak twist, just unexpected changes. The whole film is a very tight ship, with moments of intense terror (both violent and of human nature) and equally intense drama and humor.

The high point of the experience was definitely getting to interact with Roth himself. When his plane was an hour delayed, instead of making the audience wait for him, he called in and teleconferenced with us until he could make it. All in all, he talked for about an hour (way longer than I expected), giving (hilarious) anecdotes about making this film and his others, dealing with the MPAA (he had almost only good things to say, suprisingly enough), advice on how to make small-budget movies seem not so small, and answering any and every question with refreshing honesty. The man is someone who so obviously cares about horror films and especially about his fans; he made a point of saying several times that he made this movie for us, and all he wanted to do was make a better, more satfying sequel for the people who loved the first movie.

One thing Roth wanted from everyone who saw the film, and that I am happy to oblige, is to tell everyone what a great movie this is, and urge everyone we know to see it the first weekend (next weekend, June 8). Because even though this movie has been produced through the studio system, it doesn't have the huge backing of a, say, Ocean's 13, which opens the same weekend and has tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars poured into its marketing alone, whereas this movie cost less than ten million to make, and can't be as widely advertised because of it's R rating. So, if you love horror, if you want to show your support for a movie like this and show the studios that people would rather see a smart, taut gore film than a PG-13 schlockfest, SEE HOSTEL PART TWO NEXT WEEKEND. I know I'll be there Friday night. You should be, too.


Here are a few pictures of Roth speaking, including one of me and him (excuse the camera phone blurriness, I was afraid of being murdered by the MPAA).

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