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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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why Does Herr R Run Amok? (RW Fassbinder, 1970)

Why Does Herr R Run Amok? is truly the kind of film where it's best not to know the ending, to go through the film unsure of the point until the very end (and even then?). But, the nature of the film necessitates that any intelligent (fingers crossed) discussion of the film focus on the ending; so, if you don't mind knowing how Herr R runs amok, or have seen it, then read on. And if you do mind, go see it now and tell me what you think.

Kurt Raab plays Kurt Raab (and there's the first very interesting meta-textual bit!), the titular Herr R who has a lovely wife, a young son, and a job as a draftsman in a small office where everyone, at least on the surface, is friendly to one another. The movie is 75 minutes of Raab's life: his wife's parents come to visit, the neighbors and assorted friends come over for coffee, he works in his office, he visits his son's school, and so on. Most of these encounters are those of the most mundane order, things that we do every day and take no notice of. Fassbinder forces us to notice them, however, with his long, unbroken camera shots and unflinching eye to the small pieces that make up our lives. One particularly beautiful in its portrayal of "nothing" shot is in Herr R's office, where we see what each of the four employees (but, not suprisingly, the superior boss) are working on in pretty good detail. Herr R seems happiest, or at least happy, when he is at his job.

But while many of the scenes are commonplace, a few are so painful I almost couldn't bear to watch. When Herr R goes into the record store and asks the young, beautiful clerks if they could identify a song he heard on the radio. They start out giggling at him behind their hands, and by the end, are fully laughing in his face. The strangest thing is, he doesn't seem to notice or care. The dinner party with his coworkers is another painful event in Herr R's life that he doesn't notice; the looks on his coworkers (and especially boss's) faces when he gives a speech says it all. And when he practically begs his boss to stay and "drink in friendship" with him, it's heartbreaking.

We hear about Herr Rs on the news every once in a while, seemingly normal men who one day snap and kill their families. When Herr R does it, right after changing the volume on the tv and in the middle of listening to a neighbor speak about her upcoming skiing trip, it doesn't make any more sense than hearing about it on the news. We don't know any more about his mental state than those cases on the news, even though we have spent an hour and a half inside his world. He didn't react to the boldfaced disrespects, but snaps at nothing. It's as if he has finally had enough and lets the world know. And when the authorities come for him at work the next day, he hangs himself in the bathroom, leaving behind a mystery that no one will ever understand. Fassbinder doesn't try to solve the mystery; instead, he just shows the audience that the mystery exists. That's the mark of a genius filmmaker.


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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ponette (Jacques Doillon, 1996)

My brother has a theory that no child can be a good, even "real" actor; they just don't have the life experience or the knowledge of human emotion to be believable on the big screen. While I generally agree with him, Ponette is the kind of exception that proves the rule. Four-year-old Victoire Thivisol portrays the title character, a girl who tries to come to terms with the reality that she has lost her mother, with such honesty and emotion that it's hard to believe it's not a documentary (although not surprisingly, Doillon's script was based on interview with real children of that age group about death and grief). Ponette's father is angrier than anything about her mother's death in a car accident (while Ponette was in the car), because she wasn't speeding, she knew the road, and she wasn't drunk. Nothing was wrong, but something went wrong. It's that kind of random accident that can make a person lose faith, and that's what happens to Ponette's father (played admirably by Xavier Beauvois). But Ponette, now living with her religious aunt and cousins, goes off with the cousins to a religious boarding school and at the tender age of four, faces her two family members' religious beliefs head on.

While that may seem unrealistic, Ponette just asks questions and absorbs information from those around her in just the way a small child would. She has such a hard time dealing with her mother's sudden disappearance from her life that she retreats into a fantasy land where she talks to her mother; once those around her tell her she's crazy, she turns to God but gets no immediate answer. A Jewish classmate gives her trials in order to become "a child of God" (they have power over God, she tells Ponette), she prays, she does everything those around her tell her to do, and in the end, she seems to get some sort of closure, but not based on any of that advice.

This movie isn't for those who are impatient (there are pacing problems), or who don't care to see a young child dealing with an existential crisis (I can understand that), but for those who are willing to deal with some genuinely heartbreaking moments (and the inevitable thought, at least for me, of "What if my mother dies?" which is absolutely devastating), Ponette is a beautiful little film starring a beautiful little girl.


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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sister My Sister (Nancy Meckler, 1994)

At the very beginning of Sister My Sister, the two titular sisters, reunited after a long time apart, meet at the door of the older sister's employer. They embrace ecstatically, allowing themselves a moment of unguarded, pure joy before remembering their employer's daughter is watching them through the window. Then they remember they are maids, and regain composure. This is the kind of brilliant, class-minded moment that shines through the entire movie and makes it a thought-inducing puzzle.

The story sounds sensationalistic: the two sisters, Christine and Lea, are reunited as Lea begins to work in the house of Madame Danzard and her daughter Isabelle's house where Christine has been working as a maid. Christine and Lea, unnaturally close (as visualized by a continuous scar they have on their left arms), become closer and closer until something disastrous happens. The all-female production (all the actors are women - and there are really only four - as are the writer and director) could linger on the plight of being a woman in 1930s France, or on the scandalous relationship between the sisters, but instead, class consciousness and the deep nature of family are at the forefront.

Christine and Lea are mistaken for twins; in fact, they could be two halves of the same person. On the other hand, Madame Danzard and Isabelle's relationship could not be more dissimilar; the mother tries to force her love of music and society on her homely, boring daughter, who could obviously not care less. Isabelle clearly wants nothing more to escape from her uber-controlling mother, while Christine and Lea (the child of their relationship) want nothing other than to be with one another at all times. The unescapable bourgeoisie nature of the Danzards suffocates everyone in contact with them. Based on a play, the film is claustrophobic and takes place almost entirely in the Danzards' huge, empty house. There is an enormity of space, but so little life in the Danzards to take it up.

The class divide between the Danzards and the sisters starts out enormous and becomes irreparable and leads to tragedy. The way Lea screams when she thinks she breaks an expensive vase is blood-curdling, and reminds you of the way a murder victim might scream. A telling moment in the film comes early, when, in cleverly parallel scenes, Madame Danzard tells Isabelle that she loves her maid, because they never say anything, and Christine tells Lea she loves working for the Danzards because they "know their place" and stay out of her way, especially in the kitchen. This divergence of values is the key to understanding the way the two pairs relate to one another, although when Isabelle and Lea both try to break their molds by relating to one another on a different level, their respective "partners" lash out at them.

Refreshingly not sensationalistic, but reasonably shocking in its conclusion, Sister My Sister is a criminally (heh) slept on movie that explores class, sexuality, and family ties in ways few films have, or have even tried to do. Some of Meckler's shots (particularly the sisters clutching each other near the end of the film) are incredibly striking, especially since I do not see nearly enough films by woman directors. This distinctly, particularly female production is well worth the rental.


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Monday, September 17, 2007

10 to look forward to

Since the fall movie season usually brings some of the best films of the year (Oscar-bait and the like), here's what I'm looking forward to seeing for the rest of 2007, chronologically (by first release dates):

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, September 28) Ang Lee's return to China is with this film about WWII-era China. Rated NC-17 for graphic sexuality, I can't wait to see how Lee interprets the lust, caution, and all around danger of this era.

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, Septermber 29) The Royal Tenenbaums is in my top five films of all time, and even though Anderson lost me with The Life Aquatic and the early buzz I've read about this film has been largely negative, I will still certainly see this movie as soon as I can. This is the one that makes or breaks Anderson in my eyes; will he continue making the same movie (with varying degrees of success) his whole career, or is he maturing?

The Good Night (Jake Paltrow, October 5) I love Martin Freeman. I wish he was as big of a star in the US as he deserves to be, and maybe The Good Night will get him some of that well-deserved recognition. The movie is about a former pop star who, so tired of his mundane life, gets lost in his dream world, where he meets Penelope Cruz. This has the potential to be The Science of Sleep-lite, but I have high hopes.

30 Days of Night (David Slade, October 19) My list couldn't possibly be all navel-gazing self-revelatory explorations, could it? I replaced the obligatory Saw Halloween release (although I am sure I'll see it, sucker that I am, just to see how they plan on bringing Jigsaw back) with this terrifying-looking movie, based on a graphic novel. How can anyone survive the entire 30 days? Plus, the vampires are more like feral dogs than any traditional elegant vampire.

American Gangster (Ridley Scott, November 2) Very few films are more Oscar-baiting than Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe's third collaboration, American Gangster. The story of a man who is incredibly smart, loyal, and savvy (Denzel Washington), yet decides to apply his strengths to dealing heroin and becoming a huge mob kingpin, and the FBI agent (Crowe) tracking him, this movie also has Common, RZA, and Cuba Gooding Jr. return to respectability (!!).

No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, November 9) This is probably the movie I am most looking forward to. While I like the Coen's movies, for the most part, I wasn't particularly enthused about this movie until I saw the trailer. It blew me away. Javier Bardem is one of my favorite actors, and his cold-as-ice killer gave me chills, plus the desolate country is filmed beautifully. Anything based on a Cormac McCarthy novel can't be bad, either.

I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, December 14) I am a sucker for Will Smith (what can I say, he's charming) and especially for zombie/acopalypse films. This is one of those rare movies I am trying not to hear anything more about.

Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, December 21) My family quite often goes to see a movie on Christmas Day. This will probably be this year's choice. An R-rated (I hope) musical with Johnny Depp and Sacha Baron Cohen? Something for everyone! I can't wait to see Burton's take on this musical, one of the only ones I can stand (probably the disgusting subject matter).

Walk Hard (Jake Kasdan, December 21) The only reason my family won't be seeing this on Christmas Day is because my brother and I will certainly see it on the 21st. But maybe we'll want to see it again. I think this (along with No Country) is my most anticipated movie. John C. Reilly is a gem, a comic genius and great actor rolled into one. This is like a Judd Apatow movie without Seth Rogen. Plus, funny songs, when done right, can be transcendent.

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, December 26) Much like the other Anderson (Wes), this is a make-or-break movie for me and PT. Boogie Nights is close to perfect, but Punch-Drunk Love was mediocre and don't get me started on how much I disliked Magnolia. But Sinclair Lewis is a good place to start, and I think Anderson will successfully sink his teeth into the material.

Now playing: They Might Be Giants - S-E-X-X-Y
via FoxyTunes


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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shoot Em Up (Michael Davis, 2007)

Shoot Em Up is the latest in a recent string of high-energy, bloody-to-the-point-of-ridiculous action movies (Smokin Aces being my favorite of this genre), and it does no disappoint. Do you like a lot of people getting shot/killed in amazing/ridiculous ways? Do you like Clive Owen? Do you like Clive Owen having sex with Monica Bellucci? If you said "YES!" to any of those questions, you're my kind of movie-goer, and you'll love this one.

Owen plays Mr. Smith, a mysterious bum who sees a pregnant woman running down the street from a man with a gun. He follows them in order to save her, and lo and behold, he's an incredible gunsmith and all-around fighter. He delivers the baby (and cuts the umbilical cord by shooting it) but fails to save the mother, so he takes the baby (dubbed Oliver, because Olive Twist is one of the things Mr. Smith doesn't hate) to a lactation-fetish prostitute (Bellucci) who feeds the child and eventually joins Smith on the run from Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti, in a surprisingly evil and hilarious turn), who has an army of thugs who want the baby dead.

There is not a span of three minutes in the film where someone isn't shot, I think, and by the end of the film, writer-director Michael Davis has come up with the most outrageous, but still immensely entertaining, ways to kill someone, including, but not limited to, a gunfight in the air. The three main players are all very well-cast and relish their roles. Owen, as others have pointed out, seems to be playing an extension of his character from Children of Men, in that they are both world-weary men who have to save a baby. But this character is far darker and less world savior than the other film, and much funnier too. This movie had my jaw dropped almost the whole time, and I don't think you can find a much more entertaining 90 minutes in the theater this year.


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Friday, September 14, 2007

Hatchet (Adam Green, 2006)

Hatchet has one of the most straightforward, effective posters I've seen in a while (well, maybe those great Hostel Part 2 posters are right up there). It is indeed a return to old-school (read: 80s) American horror, when jokes were actually funny and gore was real. When movies weren't afraid to be a bit cheesy and still R-rated. When American horror was great. Director Adam Green harkens back to that time with his film, but at the same time makes it contemporary and way more than an homage.

The movie takes place in (a pre-Katrina, I assume) New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where Ben has been taken by his friends to get over his recent breakup. He thinks all the boobs and beer is boring, so he convinces Marcus to come with him on a haunted bayou tour. From there, nothing goes right. The other passengers include a Girls Gone Wild-type pornographer, a nice Midwestern couple, and a quiet girl who inevitably has some sort of secret. Their boat sinks, and they find themselves at the mercy of Victor Crowley, a local legend that's actually real. Crowley is truly terrifying - a giant, hideously deformed and very angry man. Is he a man or a supernatural being? You're never quite sure. But on to what really matters in the movie: the killings. They're awesome. There's blood all over the place, guts flying from the first scene (with Robert Englund in a great cameo). Crowley's killings are innovative and disgusting, so even though you don't necessarily want to see these people die (they're all actually pretty good, mostly well-developed and likeable), you want to see Victor kill them.

Not only is it gory and suspenseful, it's actually pretty funny, in a comedy way rather than a horror-movie-trying-to-be-funny way. That's refreshing. Ben and Marcus, played respectively by Joel Moore and Deon Richmond, are just a couple of guys you probably went to school with, and deliver their laughs with a definite base in reality. The other characters all have their moments, and none are really neglected until they are killed, which happens in so many horror movies.

Hatchet really represents the emergence of a new horror powerhouse in Adam Green. I saw a preview for Spiral, another Green movie, cowritten with Moore, and I cannot wait to see it as well. Although this movie does have flaws, it's mostly a balls-out return to the good ol days of horror movies. See this movie if it is playing anywhere near you!


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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Halloween (Rob Zombie, 2007)

There has been a huge wave of backlash since last Friday's release of Rob Zombie's "re-imagining" (emphatically not a remake, say the Weinsteins). How can you remake a classic?, some say. Others are most upset about the structure of the film in general. A C.H.U.D. reviewer went so far as to say that Halloween is the worst movie of the year so far. I went into my Friday morning showing (surprisingly full for that time; I could have predicted the box office windfall this movie made) with hopes high, both because I love Rob Zombie (The Devil's Rejects is a great film that gets better with every viewing) and because the original Halloween is never a film that meant that much to me. Sure, I've seen it and I do like it, but I wasn't born when it originally came out and I didn't see it as a child. The sentimental attachment to Carpenter's original (yes yes, the first slasher film - I understand it's importance, I do!) is what has prejudiced many against the film; then again, it's probably what brought many others to the theater in the first place. So, as always, this remake business is a double-edged sword.

But on to the movie itself: if you like Rob Zombie's style, you will probably like this movie. There are all his trademarks: the 70s rock music (now I will never be able to hear "Don't Fear the Reaper" without thinking of Michael Myers' sister laying on her bed listening to her headphones - right after "More cowbell," actually), the freeze-frames and out-of-focus shots during action sequences, the pure brutality and uncomfortable nature of the violence. Michael's first kill, a schoolmate tormentor, is truly blood-chilling. The rest, especially his first Halloween night massacre, aren't any less terrifying. And while Michael's first victims were all "deserving," at least in his mind, Zombie makes it a point to show how being caged up for twenty years can further warp even the most twisted of minds. In the second, present-day half, there's no real logic to Michael's murders. They just are.

Do I even have to recap the plot? Probably not. Zombie focuses his movie (more than half, I believe) on Michael's childhood - his stripper mother (Sheri Moon Zombie, obviously, but who does a surprisingly good job), evil stepdad, uncaring sister, and bullies at school seem to be what tip him over the edge. It's a classic case of nature vs. nurture, and Michael has both working against him (as opposed to the original, where Michael somehow came fully formed out of a perfect suburban household). Dr. Loomis, played by Malcolm McDowell who I always love seeing, is appropriately idealistic and then beaten down by twenty years of caring for Michael with no apparent effects - I thought it was completely believable that he would write a profitable book about Michael, to make up for the years he lost. Myers himself, played by Daeg Faerch as a child and Tyler Mane as an adult, is creepy and silent enough to keep the tension alive.

Sure, there are some weaknesses in the film (the much maligned "How did Michael know where Laurie was?" question, as well as Laurie's general non-kick-ass-ness), but it's a solidly terrifying, yet intensely well-thought out and constructed American horror movie, one of the best of the year. Perhaps many of those dogging the movie now were looking for something to hate. Zombie doesn't make that particularly easy.

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