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Danger! 50000 Volts! (2002)
Nick Frost Is The Best!
If you're like me, you've got a special place in your heart for Nick Frost. Aside from being a genuinely kind and friendly guy, he's got some of the funniest moments in "Spaced" and "Shaun of the Dead". Giving him his own show was just a matter of time and as host of a somewhat tongue-in-cheek series of safety documentaries, your fan-dom will know no bounds.
With actual experts as guests and properly researched facts, the show comes off somewhere between "Fishing With John" and, and I hate to use such an obvious Brit reference, the first few "Ali G" shows. The difference is, you feel that Nick is just being himself. You can't believe that any of it is scripted and he's genuinely interested in what his guests have to say. Nothing mean-spirited and condescending here.
Over this double disc set that covers the entire first season, he explains to the viewer how to survive everything from a kidnapping to hippo attack to bat wielding thugs. Interspersed are equally hilarious animated vignettes dubbed "Too Dangerous To Film" such as "Forest Fire!", "Avalanche!" and "Lightning". The flash style is funniest enough just for the artist renditions of Frost.
Two things make this a sure winner. First of all, he uses to determine what is the most fearsome arachnid is the funniest thing I've seen this year. Second, the DVD comes with the bonus feature "Danger! 50,000 Zombies!" where Frost re-teams with "Spaced"/"Shaun" co-star Simon Pegg in the only episode that's a complete spoof. Also, look for the Easter Egg with the blooper reel. (Princess Productions)
La sindrome di Stendhal (1996)
Contemporary Giallo from the Argentos
I first saw this film four or five years ago, and I felt then as I do now. This film is not a horror film. It's been wrongly judged in that context due to the director's reputation. But I think history will show that Dario Argento isn't really a horror filmmaker. Horror films actually make up just a small percentage of his films and "The Stendhal Syndrome" is no horror film.
Dario Argento is a genius. As an Italian director in the generation (and tradition) of Antonioni, his films are far more cerebral and avant-garde than the traditional horror fair of even Bava and the like. His films are Freudian investigations that exist somewhere between psychological thriller and horror. The violence is a device more so than a selling point.
It took a little while for "The Stendhal Syndrome" to make it to the States. I don't know why that is. But I'm sure there are some politics behind it as Argento is only too happy to criticize Hollywood and of the bad experiences he's had making films for major American studios. What's strange is that this DVD is on Troma (who I love in a weird way) instead of Anchor Bay who have been releasing most of the old Argento stuff on DVD.
"The Stendhal Syndrome" is something of a return to form for Argento. After a couple of severely hacked films done for American companies and a brief hiatus, this film was his chance to make a film strictly following his own muse and without the business end of the film industry in mind. Working with his daughter, Asia, for the second time he was able to explore darker subject matter. The previous time they worked together was on "Trauma" which, despite being ruined by an editing process aimed at success in the US horror market, still dealt with issues outside of the norm and deeper into his psychoanalytical fascination as the main character suffered from bulimia.
Asia Argento has carved a name for herself as an actor not afraid to play characters who either have severe psychological disorders or who has to face emotionally and physically abusive obstacles. In this film, she is a detective named Anna Manni sent to Florence to track down a serial rapist / killer known as Alfredo. While at the Uffizi Art Museum she not only discovers that she suffers from a mental disorder that makes her hallucinate that she is inside the paintings she's observing (the Stendhal Syndrome, of course). She passes out in the crowded museum only to discover she has a bloody lip and her gun has been stolen from her purse. Of course, it turns out that the gun is stolen by the serial rapist / killer who then becomes the pursuer and finds Argento in her hotel room. In a brutal and horrifying scene, Alfredo rapes the detective in her hotel room setting things in motion to create a long, complex story ending with a Hitchcock-ian twist.
Along the way, there are some classic Argento innovations with shot design and cinematography. Always an innovator that avoided any sort of computer special effects, there are some amazing sequences including a dreamlike sequence where Anna hallucinates that she sees Alfredo murder another one of his victims. In slow motion, we see the bullet leave the gun, through the wall of the victim's cheek, through her body and out the other side. In another sequence, Anna takes medication and we actually see the pills travel down her throat. This drawing of attention to otherwise mundane events is a lot like the gun battle scene in "Three Kings".
Another surreal moment happens when Anna reflects back to her first contact with one of Alfredo's victims. Rather than say it's a dream or use some sort of obvious special effect, the shot is designed so she can walk directly from one set to another. By betraying the cinematic illusion created by sets, it's an interesting twist on a dream sequence.
Argento has always been good with heightening tension with simple over the top acts done without fanfare. During the rape scene, one horrifying image that stayed with me was when Alfredo produced a razor blade out of his mouth during the rape scene. He claims that he needs to cut her lip so she looked just as she did when she passed out in the museum. The importance of that dialog offsets the fact that he's had a sharp razor in his mouth the entire time.
There are other Argento stand-bys. Soundscape is always very important to his film especially when used to heighten paranoia. Like some moments in "Suspiria", there are sequences in the film that use obtuse audio overdubs of chattering voices. While part of the background, they're recorded so manic and unrealistically, they become a reflection of the protagonist's psyche.
That day in the art museum becomes the factor that binds together Anna's disorder with her victimization by Alfredo. The use of this type of logic plays large in the film and forces the viewer to make a lot of otherwise unrealistic leaps of faith. That's always been part of Argento's style. His intellectual approach and matter of fact form of arguing his characters logic helps make it all believable no matter how absurd. Surrealism and special effects are blatant and never hidden. There are no tricks here that he doesn't want you to see.
A lot of people argue that this is one of his lesser works. I disagree. While nowhere in the area of "Profundo Rosso" or "Four Flies On Grey Velvet", I found the film to be gripping and fascinating. I suppose if you're looking for a horror film like "Suspiria" or "Opera", you'll be disappointed. But I think that this film is one of his better. It's certainly his best in recent times and I really can't think of another film like it.
The "Breaking Away" of Ping Pong...
There's a lot of great stuff coming from Japan these days and it's not on horror flicks about stylized spirits and discordant ghostly sounds. "Ping Pong" has something and it captures a feel that many people I know who have visited Japan felt on first viewing "Lost In Translation". It looks like Tokyo and it looks like hyper-real Tokyo at the same time.
But this is a very, very different story from "Lost In Translation". Based on a manga, this is a surreal and existential and neo-Zen comedy about the competitive world of young ping pong players in modern Japan. Peco and Smile are two players who have been friends since their youth. Peco (Yosuke Kubozuka of "Go" and "Tomie: Replay") is the brash and outrageous champion who crushes all opponents while rubbing their face in it. Smile (Arata from "Afterlife") is the better player (he's called Smile because he never does - Excellent!) but isn't especially interested and often loses on purpose to Peco out of some sort of loyalty. Not only does this anger his coach (a former ping pong star) but it gives Peco a further inflated ego.
During an inter-school competition, both are defeated. Peco loses to the champ of the disciplinarian, militaristic school of skinheads named Dragon (newcomer Shido Nakamura). Smile loses to China (Sam Lee of "Gen-X Cops" and "Public Toilet"), so named, as that's where he is a pro and he's just in Japan to kick start his career (sort of like when a ball player gets sent back down to the minors for a tune-up). Needless to say, the rest of the movie involves the two needing to pick themselves up off the floor solving the inequities of their friendship along the way. And of course, it all is heading back to a great rematch.
This is a lot of fun as the competitions are startling in their originality and quite beautiful at times. There are some amazing epiphanies from one character re-christening himself in a river, one of the skinheads getting his due and when Dragon learns to play ping pong completely for pleasure.
I'll also say this; the soundtrack is amazing. I don't know who any of these groups are. They're all Japanese. But we were all jumping up and down to the music the first time we saw it. If you have an all-region DVD player, I would suggest you get the Japanese disc as it comes with a feature where you can watch the whole movie with just the music soundtrack.
Imagine the Sound (1981)
The Shock of the New, Back Then...
"Imagine The Sound" is my favorite jazz documentary and is one of my favorite documentaries of all time. It's the most informative ANYTHING I've come across in terms of describing and discussing free and avant-garde jazz. The film, which was the first feature documentary made by Ron Mann ("Grass", "Comicbook Confidential"), was actually made in 1981, over a decade after the explosion of experimental jazz. Focusing on four important and celebrated figures (Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon) allowing them to reflect on their careers and those around them that, in many ways, defined the sound of '60s jazz.
Plus, there's music. The music in this film is brilliant. The new and original pieces by all four of them are surprisingly fresh and inspired despite it being recorded in the stagnant early '80s. Simple edits with interestingly framed shots work to the directors advantage as the music is emphasized and never distracted from by the film-making.
The interviews are all really great as well. Cecil Taylor mixes splashes of profundity with a delivery that is both conversational and challenging. Like his music, it's not enough to just listen to it and let it wash over you. Even his conversation is presented in a way that forces you to work to get the inner meaning or at least whatever meaning he's trying to get across. His solo piano performances are whacked out and at times have as much to do with performance art as they do with music. One of the film's high points is Taylor reading one of his freaked out, stream of consciousness poems.
Paul Bley is also a bit strange in his delivery. His choice of words is strange and intriguing as if it were written by David Mamett or something. But this isn't pretension. He's just a little off kilter with the rest of the world. His stories are brilliant and self-deprecating descriptions of the early days at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles and the Five Spot in New York with Ornette Coleman and the scene that would eventually produce the album "Free Jazz". Bley's solo piano performances are great deconstructions of familiar musical territory and the withdrawal of aesthetic tools of standard time and tonality.
Archie Shepp is exactly what you expect and want. With one foot in the musical revolution and one foot in the political revolution, Shepp speaks with equal adoration and respect for Coltrane and Malcolm X. In some ways, his music is the most accessible of the four as he in some ways bridges part of the gap between Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. It's great to hear his candid stories like how he found his style by trying to be like Coltrane and eventually giving up because he couldn't do it.
Bill Dixon is the least known of the three and for whatever reason, the most fascinating. Like Shepp, he developed his style by playing with Taylor. But his trumpet playing has more to do with almost industrial sounds of the city. It's car horns blending into soothing other world rhythms pierced by Morse code blips. His interviews are so lucid and down to Earth, you find yourself clinging to every word. Not only does he accurately describe a loft scene that included all the big players like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy hanging out and jamming with other musicians many of whom were never heard from again. But he also connects it to everything else that was going on in New York City at the time like the Judson Dance Theater where Rauschenberg was doing work. The connection between the jazz avant-garde of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy and the artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns is never talked about. But there it is, documented in this film.
Really, this is a great film even if the music isn't your cup of tea. It may be a little difficult to relate to some of the music. But the stories are great and they do get across the sincerity and intentions of the artists, which may cause the listener to further, explore the free jazz of the '60s.
But then again, there are only four artists covered here. It's great and engaging and I would recommend it to anyone. But it does leave me feeling like there is a sad lack of good, if not great, jazz documentaries.
The War On Terror...
It's funny, but the recent Criterion DVD release of "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" gives it a whole new perspective. Next to "The Legend of Rita", "Lost Honor" is almost like "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead". But in this case, it's dead serious.
Katharina Blum is a normal German woman who has a one-night state with a man she meets at a party. Later, she finds out that he is an anarchist and part of a Baader-Meinhoff-type gang; the group Rita from "Legend of Rita" is supposed to be a member of.
Responding to the activities of German urban guerrillas, there is a national dragnet to hunt them down. Blum is arrested and gets caught up in the hunt, revealing a myopic government at it's most abusive. Equally revealing is the insidious nature of the media and it's role in repression. You can't help but get a chill watching it not because you can't believe it ever happened. But because you can't believe it happens all the time. Life in America is a lot like Katharina Blum's for many people.
Schlöndorff is an intellectual. Both of these films are great reflections of that. They're smart, challenging while being well paced and lithe. "Lost Honor" marked the directorial debut of Margarethe Von Trotta (in some ways a protégé of Schlöndorff's not to mention lover) who would go on to great things including "Rosa Luxembourg".
Die Stille nach dem Schuß (2000)
The "Badlands" of the Baader-Meinhoff gang...
Okay, so I was really primed to love "The Legend of Rita". And, yes, no surprise, I love this movie. Here's why: First of all, it's an objective film about the European left in all its shapes and sizes. Rita is a member of a radical group of German urban guerrillas somewhat based on the Baader-Meinhoff gang and somewhat based on the Hash Rebels. She kills a police officer, but unlike Western mainstream cinema, we still sympathize with her and identify with her struggle. She is aided by the East German Stasi, who see as normal people doing a job they believe in, rather than as the Stalinistic secret police we're told to believe they were. We see East Berlin as a difficult place to live. But not as the colorless, endless ghetto with bread lines that books and films have also told us. It's an objective film.
Second of all, it's a film where the main character is a woman driven by her ideological convictions AS WELL AS her loves and desires. If Hollywood made the film, unrequited love or some sort of sexual frustration would drive her. Her political convictions and dedication to leftist revolution are what give her strong character and is not her Achilles heel.
The film follows Rita as a young member of a radical group in '70s Berlin. While traveling back from Lebanon, a series of events leads her to make friends with the Stasi who aid her and her companions throughout their misadventures. After killing a cop during a police chase, she creates a new identity and lives a normal life in the East.
From there the film follows her life and the end of the Cold War (World War III). I know most of the world was celebrating Glasnost. But to me, it felt like such a huge failure. Now, I may be an anarchist and I may have the same problems many of you had with the Soviet Union. But the fall of communism still felt like defeat. And for revolutionaries around the world, including people like Rita many of whom were turned over to the invading right wing bureaucrats, it was a palpable defeat.
Cassavetes on Crack
Amos Kollek must be crazy. "Fiona" is a film not only about prostitutes and crack addicts. It was an entire supporting cast of the real deal. Not just extras, several of the main characters are actual prostitutes and crack addicts with much of the film shot in a NYC crack house / crash pad. This is about as heavy duty as you can get without it being a documentary. Actually, this is beyond documentary because Kollek is no quiet observer. He's in there as a director working closely with the drug addicts and prostitutes. It's Dogma taken in a weird, dangerous and, inadvertently, titillating direction.
The story follows a young woman, Fiona (Anna Thomson) from her recollections of being sexually abused in a foster home to her adventures on the streets. The plot turns Oedipal as we meet her mother, who is a much more weathered prostitute working the same streets. Eventually, their paths meet and our streetwise Ophelia finally transcends her destiny by taking control of it.
Yeah, it's a simple plot. But the plot is really just a hanger with which a series of vignettes, both shocking and touching, are draped. Kollek's previous film, "Sue" (which also starred Anna Thomson), let him wear his influences on his sleeve as it clearly brings Cassavettes to mind. "Fiona" lets him take it to it's logical extent which, while most people will remember the grim moments, also allowed for some very real moments unlike anything you'll see at the multi-plex.
Hwajangshil eodieyo? (2002)
A Fecal Epic
Dong Dong is the God of Toilets. He was born in a toilet, he lives near a toilet and he understands life through toilets. The public toilet is a way of understanding world cultures whether it's his friends (Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Somali) or around the world. The public toilet is unique to its surroundings, which, as a common and natural function, is ultimately above judgment. Disdain and even disgust at other culture's public toilets can even be jingoistic.
"Public Toilet" is a film by Fruit Chan who has taken his internal camera and externalized it, audience be damned. The idea of the public toilet is the thread that goes from surface to subtext to depth and back. He's not interested in making a linear film and in the end has created something of a lo-fi epic. Using Digital Video with little or no concern to aesthetic quality or standard practices, he has made something beautiful and not just because of it's projected realism. The footage is ugly as hell at times and the repetition of dirty footage becomes a style of it's own. Ultimately, it becomes appealing in the way that Super 8 home movies have become beautiful. Chan is years ahead of his time.
Shot on location at the Great Wall, Hong Kong, Beijing, Korea, Rome, India, the variety of images are blunt and fluctuate in the filth of DV. But this helps to tell the story. Hey, it's a film called "Public Toilet". Were you expecting Merchant / Ivory? Spanning three continents, the film follows the lives of three different groups. The first is Dong Dong and his pals. His grandma is in a coma. His friend, Tony's little brother is also in the hospital with no cure. The two set off in different directions to find cures. The trip leads them across three continents and finds only existential solutions. Tony travels in India where he finds two brothers who speak Cantonese. They're going to India for the first time to help their dying father and to bathe in the Ganji. Dong Dong goes to Korea where he seeks a number of solutions.
This tangentially connects him with another story of a young Korean man who finds a woman living in his outdoor porta-toilet. Taking her to a doctor, he finds she has no bones. She claims to be a creature of the sea and therefore is like him and alien at the same time. For this, he thinks she is from the North. His best friend is also ill and takes off on a trip to find his own cure. Knowing he only has about ten years to live, he says a final good-bye to his friend not wanting to put that off for a decade.
Dong Dong travels to New York to find his cure. In Times Square he is almost oblivious speaking on his cell phone and standing in a tunnel of snow that connects him to the snow in China outside of the public toilet. While there, he meets a Chinese hit-man on his last job. He's quitting at the request of his girlfriend. She is at the Great Wall looking for a healer to help her ill mother.
Another story involves Dong Dong's friend who has returned to Italy but that story seems to have been cut short because of the tragic death of actor Pietero Dilleti.
Terminal illness is a theme that Fruit Chan has visited before and it represents Hong Kong and China's future. Not based around Hong Kong, in this film it takes the form of new China searching out its identity and future. Pusan is false histories. Manhattan is violent death for cash. India is the possibility of rebirth. But none dominate and the answer isn't provided or even supposed by the filmmaker.
Control Room (2004)
If You Think Micheal Moore Is A Bad Filmmaker With Good Ideas...
For me, Al-Jazeera means one thing: proof. When I think of how skewed and yellow video journalism is, I remember that millions and millions of people in the world are getting their news from Al-Jazeera. That's my proof that there is hope for the world. That they are willing to challenge and question everything from Arab leaders to the United States to the nature of unbiased news coverage
Since their start in 1996, they've been slammed in the Arab world for being too pro-American and by the US for being pro-Al Qaeda. As most good lefties know, that usually means you're doing something right. I have much respect for Al-Jazeera and was excited to know that a documentary was being made about them and their take on the War with Iraq.
The film "Control Room" is further proof. With time-tested verité technique, we see what it is like to run Al-Jazeera and what kinds of people make up the staff from the translators to the journalists. The film travels back and forth between the stations headquarters in Qatar and CentCom which is the main press briefing room set up by the US military in Iraq. It's a breath of fresh air to see an entire network of people who are smart and committed to the idea of debate and communication. I don't think you could find that at any of the major news networks in the States. Their operations, anecdotes and analysis are worthy of a documentary alone.
But there are specific moments in the film that are especially profound and upsetting even to a long-time commie like myself. First and foremost, there is the death of an Al-Jazeera journalist. Before the troops entered Baghdad, the US committed air strikes on civilian targets including the building housing Al-Jazeera. In the attack, one of their correspondents is killed along with three other journalists. There is footage of the journalist facing him head-on right up until seconds before the attack. That along with a plea for justice from the journalist's wife and a completely absurd justification for the attack from the US is both infuriating and literally sickening.
The second most important moment in the film is the so-called liberation of Baghdad. As a result of the attack on Al-Jazeera, their remaining correspondents were forced to return home to Qatar where the network is based. Now recognized as a target of the US military, Iraqis were naturally hesitant to house anyone representing the station. In the end, only the ridiculous foreign press was there to cover the troops coming into the town square and the people toppling over the statue of Saddam Hussein. What's most illuminating is the analysis from the Al-Jazeera journalists as they watch the events unfold. Senior Producer Samir Khader talks about how he's from Iraq. He's lived in Iraq. The people that toppled the statue were not Iraqi. They didn't look Iraqi and they didn't have Iraqi accents. Another journalist wonders why there are only a dozen people celebrating. Where were the village people? Where were the women from the area? How is it that one of them just happened to have the old Iraqi flag in his pocket? Had he "just kept it there for the past ten years?" Producer Deema Khatib wonders where the troops were. Where was the army? It becomes very obvious, as people have been muttering for some time now that it was all a faked, staged event for Western "news" cameras.
Finally there is the case of Lt. Josh Rushing. Throughout the film, he is the American representative that has debates and discussions with the many Arab journalists. Despite having to take the absurd position of defending US aggression, he is intelligent and empathetic. At one point he becomes self-analytical and candid talking about how he had seen images of dead Iraqi casualties one day and it didn't affect him. The next day, he was footage of American casualties and it made him sick. At that point he really had to face himself and while still in the process at least recognize how much he hates war. That story doesn't end there. With the release of the film, the Pentagon ordered Rushing not to comment on the film. Offended by this gesture, he is now seeking to leave the Marines.
"Control Room" is a movie about the War with Iraq. But that's not the half of it. It's a movie that will hopefully widen the debate about television and what is objective journalism in this country. It's also another stone catapulted through the wall of Arab stereotypes. It's also an intelligent and engaging film that is as challenging as it is satisfying.
La fleur du mal (2003)
Another Bourgeois Crime
Incest that isn't incest is also a theme in Chabrol's latest "La Fleur Du Mal". A brother and a sister, who are engaged in a physical relationship, are siblings due to a marriage and not blood. Again, guilt is so far removed that even their parents had always hoped they would become a couple.
The film starts with the brother returning from a four-year stint in the states. He is picked up by his father who seems to be an affable and simple guy. His stepmother is a local politician who comes across as grossly ambitious pushing her family to the side with the characters vaguely implying at some infidelity with her running mate. His sister, it seems, is attracted to him while he rejects her.
But all this is half-truth as slowly unravels in this light mystery about upper middle class decadence and what they think is communication. There is the mystery in the foreground, in public discussion, about the family's relationship to Nazi collaborators in the past. There is a secondary mystery out of the public eye that becomes the most important about the father, his own motives, and how they grow closer and closer to the family.
Chabrol's influence from Baudelaire, well as a fan of both, I don't really get it. I see this movie, like some of Chabrol's other critiques of the petit-bourgeois, more of an alternate reality that I'm not privy to. It's socialism of the privileged, and it's intriguingly perverse. The incest is safe while alluring. The murder is secondary and unresolved by the films end. The film closes with credits running during a party while a corpse waits unacknowledged. What will become of the characters ends up being unimportant.
In many ways, this is Chabrol at his most sophisticated. The need to move between audience-aimed actions is replaced by built-up realism. The dialog is smart and the uneven story progression seems especially real. He's sacrificed his scathing wit to allow for the characters to organically develop at the limitations of their own wisdom.
Part of the original nouvelle vogue and as important historically as Truffaut and Godard, this is just one part of a larger body of work matching that of Eric Rohmer and Stephen Frears.
The Dreamers (2003)
Observers of the Band of Outsiders
The first time I saw this film, I really felt like it was made for me. You can probably understand why. First of all, Paris, May 1968, you know what goes down. Second, three people brought together by their love of film in the '60s. I was at the edge of my seat slack jawed. It's the kind of movie I wish everyone could appreciate and made me desperate to find someone to talk to that could understand this movie the same way I did.
The story follows Michael Pitt though your identifying with him as a main character comes and goes. He is a young student studying for the year in Paris in 1968. He meets two fairly affluent twins, Theo and Isabelle, whose poet father and British mother are going away for a while. They meet at Cinematheque Francaise, which was the most important place at the time for film lovers. It's where Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard and others would come to discuss film. It was the essentially the birthplace of Cahiers Du Cinema. The first time we see Michael there, they are showing "Sock Corridor" and we get to see some of the key moments of one of Sam Fuller's greatest works.
With their parents away, they invite Michael to move in with them. They are intrigued by his intellect and his encyclopedic knowledge of film. From there they live a life half in and half out of film constantly quoting and referring to films such as "Breathless", "Freaks", "Blonde Venus" and one of my all time favorites "Mouchette" while the director encourages them by switching from the three characters to the actual film footage seamlessly. In one amazing sequence, the trio reenacts the classic scene of Anna Karina and friends racing through the Louvre in "Band of Outsiders". The three are determined to break the films record of nine minutes and 45 seconds. Bertolucci switches back and forth between the original Godard film and his recreation to dizzying effect. For fans of the film, it's titillating and decadent far beyond any of the sex the film (as well as director) is known for.
Sex is a big part of the film as the twins try to be aloof, but are as ultimately affected as Michael. During one of their many film quizzes, Michael is drawn into having sex with Isabelle. Only when they're done does he realize that for all her freeness and sophistication, she was a virgin. It is one of the few moments when she is completely emotional and not playing a part as she cries in his arms.
The twins themselves are trapped in what can best be described a Platonic incest. This is where Bertolucci starts mining in familiar areas. His exploration of sexuality and un-discussed areas of possibility have been a theme in most of his twenty or so films. I first remember being fascinated by "Luna" when I was a kid. I had been in love Jill Clayburgh for some, probably Oedipal reason. In that 1979 film, she has an affair with her teen son. While moody and erotic, the film was dealing with such a taboo subject; it seemed like know one knew how to describe it other than surreal. It really wasn't. It was very real only dealing with an area of sexuality in a mostly objective manner.
The backdrop of the film is Paris in 1968. I've probably written too much about this already. The student over-population in Nanterre mixed with their isolation outside of Paris mixed with the boredom of being a student while the world was erupting lead to massive political upheaval. By May, the students and workers were together having brought the entire country to a standstill. It was the closest thing to revolution in Europe since the Spanish Revolution. The three characters in this film don't represent what was really happening in the streets and that is probably a good thing because a lot of the film's success is its hands off attitude towards politics. Mathew is smug in his bourgeois ideas of non-violence and his fear of collectivization. Theo is completely dogmatic in his ill-informed Mao-ism ignorant to the fact that he is from the bourgeois and has totally alienated himself from the street battles happening daily. Isabelle lives for her brother and is ultimately un-phased by the world outside of their apartment.
Bertolucci, for me anyway, is sort of hit or miss. It's fascinating to me that a man that can make "The Conformist" and "Last Tango In Paris" could also make "Besieged". It's hard to separate analysis and my deeper feelings about this movie. It's a love letter to May '68 and it's beautiful.
Morvern Callar (2002)
Samantha Morton Is Indestructible
MORVERN CALLAR (directed by Lynne Ramsay) I love Samantha Morton. I love that she says what she says, does what she does and ultimately has enough self-confidence to not give a sh*t about what anyone else thinks. In many ways, she's the new Jennifer Jason Leigh and that's a great thing.
Morvern is a young Scottish girl who comes home one Winter night to find that her boyfriend has killed himself. He's lying naked on the floor where he'll stay for a little while. After going thoroughly through his suicide note, it doesn't seem so outrageous that she not call the police (he's not going anywhere) but instead goes to a raucous Christmas party where she loses herself.
From there she becomes and even more complex and intriguing character. Her sorrow is masked with a disturbing lust for life. Her dead boyfriend was a former writer with one last manuscript that she promptly assigns her name to, gets it published and spends her first royalty check indulging with her best friend, played wonderfully by Kathleen McDermott, in food, drugs and eventually sex as they head off to Spain for some hedonistic fun in the sun. Only when faced with a long empty Spanish road by herself does she finally allow her grief to at all interfere with her joie de vivre.
"Morvern Callar" is the latest from Lynne Ramsay, director of '99s excellent "Ratcatcher". It's rhythm is time-stopping and observational no matter how much activity is happening in the scene. The parties are as contemplative as Morvern alone in the cold apartment with her boyfriend's corpse. Hopefully Samantha Morton will take this and the equally incredible "Under The Skin" and make more of a meal out of this area of her seemingly endless plate of talent.
Il mio viaggio in Italia (1999)
Because the Academy Awards Don't Mean A Thing...
MY VOYAGE TO ITALY (directed by Martin Scorsese) What is it that's so relaxing about Martin Scorsese's voice? I don't know. I've talked to a few different people and we all find his voice to be so comforting. Plus he's smart. I loved his contribution to BFI's 100 Years of Cinema (released in the states as "A Personal Journey") and I really love the documentary "Martin Scorsese Directs" from the American Masters series. I've watched them both over and over.
So now I can add another documentary to that list with "My Voyage To Italy". Studying the most important age in film worldwide, Neo Realism, he examines the main players and their major films in a way that is engaging without condescension or over-statistical, boredom. The guy really loves movies and he knows what's important.
His film history is just one of many alternative histories to the one championed by film critics static in their culture and prejudices. In writing about Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini and my hero Antonioni he writes about what he loves and what he sees as important. He even picks films that were seen as disasters financially and critically pointing out how their importance was more profound than such predictable criteria. For example, Rossellini's "Voyage To Italy" was a critical and financial failure but what championed by the Cahiers Du Cinema writers like Godard and Truffaut.
Scorcese's narration is smart and so loving that from anyone else you would think it pitiful. But in this situation, it's inspiring and just great storytelling.
WATTSTAX (dir. by Mel Stuart) Late one night when I was a kid, I was watching TV by myself like I did almost every weekend in the wee hours (I still can't sleep). I came across "Wattstax" one night and it blew me away. I had never heard of the Watts Riots. I certainly had never heard of the Wattstax concert. It was a totally eye-opening experience.
Now over 30 years later, "Wattstax" is finally out on DVD and it's beautiful. It's probably the best music documentary ever made. Seven years after the riots in Watts, a concert was thrown at the LA Coliseum where 100,000 people came out to remember the event. The film covers the concert with amazing sound quality and some of the only live footage I've ever seen by amazing groups like the Staples, the Emotions, the totally amazing Bar-Kays You also get the criminally underrated Carla Thomas with one of the greatest voices of all time coming through crystal clear in this new digital release.
Along with the music you get the classic between song banter with Rufus Thomas and the audience, you get Richard Pryor at his peak, you get Melvin Van Peebles doing his thing and you get Jesse Jackson hosting. Most fascinating to me, however, are the many interviews with just regular folks in Watts. Completely engrossing, the comments are sad, funny and let you emotionally know what the concert was about.
Off The Pigs!!!
BAADASSSSS (dir. by Mario Van Peebles) Man, I was so f*cking excited when I heard that this film was being made. When I was a kid, I would spend weekends with my Dad. There are two things I remember doing. One was shopping for model ships and airplanes from World War II. The other was going to see two or three movies in an afternoon. We saw EVERY Hong Kong action movie and EVERY blaxploitation flick that came out in the early '70s. So Melvin Van Peebles and "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" holds a special place for me in my memories.
Based on his father's book, Mario Van Peebles recreated the story of the making of "Sweet Sweetback " and the incredible struggle it took to get it funded and distributed. First, the major studios wanted nothing to do with a film about a black man turned revolutionary who kills a cop and gets away with it. They didn't want anyone making a film where city cops are exposed as racist and crooked. The racist unions wouldn't allow him to make a movie with a crew of whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. To make matters worse, real racist cops step in and arrest half of the crew illegally.
Basically, this film is "American Splendor" meets "Reds". It's the story of a guy working outside of the system eventually developing support from committed people who understood his vision with the ultimate triumph being the movie itself. Like "Reds", there are talking heads giving testimonials throughout. My favorite scene in "American Splendor" is the final moment where you get to see Harvey's actual retirement party with no actors and all real people. At the end of "Baadasssss" you get to see the real people and I thought I was going to cry. It's a great movie all the way to the very last second.
Diarios de motocicleta (2004)
Like A Kerouac I Can Stand...
MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, THE (dir. by Walter Salles) I just caught this before it left the theaters and I'm glad I did. Like most of you, I read this at THAT age when I was also reading stuff like Malcolm X's autobiography and the Tao of Pooh. I'm still down with it all. I waited until the last minute mostly because I was sort of worried this would seem trite or simplistic to me now.
In fact, "The Motorcycle Diaries" is a beautiful and for the most part understated look at Che's legendary trip across South America that led to his political awakening. Rather than give you some really obvious political rite of passage, you get a beautiful story about the love of the people and the land. More so than his Marxist adopted philosophy, you get to see how the trip evolved his ideas of internationalism. Out of the theater, the audience can analyze for themselves how internationalism is something you feel and how revolution is not something you can simply learn in college.
Director Walter Salles knows what he's doing. The film is as warm and concerned as his other films like "Central Station" and "Behind The Sun". His footage of Machu Picchu is as beautiful as "Aguirre". He must have found the exact same stoop that Herzog used.
Gael Garcia Bernal is great as the pre-revolutionary Che. Actually, he's the pre-Che Che. I don't know if I've seen him in a movie I didn't like. "Amores Perros", "Y Tu Mama Tambien", "Crime of Padre Amaro" and even "Don't Tempt Me". I'm really curious about "Cuba Libre". I'm not really familiar with Rodrigo De La Serna. But he's great as Alberto Granado, Che's travel partner.
Hey, I like communist movies. I like communist everything. But this movie is beautiful to watch no matter what you think of Che. It's one of those movies that I just can't imagine transferring to the small screen with even half of its power.
It's great to see that the new found popularity and power of Latino and Latina stars has lead to such great biopics that reach large North American audiences starting with Frida and now this.