Sunday, May 31, 2009

Climates (2007)

“Climates” is a Turkish-French co-production, shot on digital video with a very small crew. So small, in fact, that writer-director-videographer-star Nuri Bilge Ceylan did just about everything. And his wife, co-star Ebru Ceylan, apparently did everything else.

Their cottage industry approach to dramatic filmmaking is not only inspirational; it makes their extraordinary results all the more impressive. This is a delicate, slow and thought provoking film. In many scenes the only audio is the sound of a character breathing, the only action an intense stare. Yet out of this minimalism (or perhaps because of it) a story emerges that will haunt you for days.

The Ceylans are totally credible on-screen as a dysfunctional couple who discover that the only thing worse than being separated is being together. Or perhaps it is the other way around, each viewer must decide for himself. If you like your movies all tied up into neat little bundles this is not the film for you.

A reviewer on Netflix accurately described this as “old school Art House cinema”. So bear that in mind and all it implies, as this is the type of picture folks seem to either love or hate. The bonus material is interesting as well. The Ceylans appear to have had a wonderful time at Cannes. They certainly deserve it.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Private Property (2006)

Oh what a tangled web. The Reniers are terrific as twin brothers suffering from a horrendous case of arrested development. They portray 20 somethings who still live at home, roughhouse like school children and, shockingly, still take baths together. They clearly have no intention of ever growing up and going out into the world.

Their behavior is indulged by their divorced parents, who have coddled them for years out of guilt. The boys' idyllic existence is threatened when mom (Isabelle Huppert) decides to sell their rambling farmhouse and use the proceeds to pursue her lifelong dream. The twins' selfish reaction, while disgusting, does have legal merit and indeed that is the conundrum of this film.

As much as you want to kick the young men in the arse, you realize that they are not entirely responsible for their brattishness. In fact, all the characters here are well intentioned, but good intentions are not enough to prevent, and may even aid, the near destruction of this family.

The divergence of opinions about this movie is surprising but understandable. The characters and situations presented in this film are so human, so true to life that you will likely be either repulsed or totally absorbed. Or in this reviewer's case, both.
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Days of Future Passed Part 2

For several years, I lived within walking distance of an old Dobie Gillis style neighborhood grocery store that some eccentric but enterprising soul had transformed into a movie theater. They tended to show second run Hollywood hits on weekends, but Monday through Thursday was devoted to a steady diet of Art House fare. This was before the days of Netflix, before the days of cable TV even, so if one wanted to see a movie one actually had to trim one’s ear hair, become somewhat presentable and go out in public.

It was in the friendly confines of that theatre that I saw my first foreign films, and therefore my first indication that not everywhere in the world was exactly like southern Virginia. People in foreign films didn’t care much about washing their cars, whether the Redskins would make the playoffs or understanding the book of Ephesians in minute detail. They didn’t go deer hunting, listen to car races on the radio (seriously, lots of folks did this) or worry about whether their yards needed mowing.

They did seem to enjoy themselves a lot. They sat down to sumptuous meals that consisted of something other than fried chicken and Pepsi. People ate slowly and talked and laughed and had witty conversations. They went on relaxing and enjoyable vacations. Most families I knew just went to Virginia Beach and ate bologna sandwiches and squabbled.

Characters in foreign films also knew how to be charming, romantic and elegant. Consequently, they had sex more often and with much less effort than my good ol’ boy friends who went out “bird-doggin” women every night. I wasn't sure what "bird-doggin" was, but I did know the women in our neighborhood, and they didn't seem the type that would be easy to bird-dog. Whatever that was.

The romantic aspect alone was enough to peak my interest in learning about European lifestyles, and I became something of a regular at that modest cinema palace. I saw such films as “Amarcord”, “Clair’s Knee”, “Belle Du Jour”, “Weekend”, and, of course, everyone’s naughty fave, the original “Emmanuelle”

The zeitgeist display in “Emmanuelle” was so alien to me that the film may as well have taken place on the planet Saturn. Here you had a group of white people living in a foreign country, Thailand in this case, who weren’t even missionaries! I had been taught that spreading the gospel and military service were the only acceptable reasons for overseas travel.

The women in this film spent their days lazing in the sun, playing tennis, skinny-dipping and having copious sex with strange men and each other. I was dumbfounded. When did they iron? Who shelled their peas? Did they forget about Wednesday night choir practice?

In my mind, this movie defied rational explanation, and it shockingly laid to waste every preconception I had about how adult men and women should conduct themselves. I loved every frame of it.

But, despite it’s strengths, “Emmanuelle” does not get the award for Film Most Uninfluenced By Southern Baptist Thought.

No, that distinction belongs to another cinematic gem, and next time I will tell you all about it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Code Unknown (2000)

Code Unknown is an impressive bit of cinematic storytelling and may well be Michael Haneke's best film so far. The narrative bounces like a pinball from character to character in ways that may seem random at first, but ultimately there's a clear and satisfying logic to the whole progression.

Haneke's greatest strength is his near perfect ability to simulate reality. By consistent and intelligent use of the steadicam, and by carefully constructing his audio tracks, Haneke effectively removes the layer of artifice that usually separates the viewer from the drama. In this film, that technique is taken a step further, as each scene is a single take vignette with no editing and therefore no disruption to the perception of real events occurring in real time.

Some of these scenes are simple, but several involve complex choreography and are rather amazing achievements. Beyond technique, the film features some extraordinary performances as well, for as we gradually scratch deeper and deeper into these characters moments of truth and clarity emerge. Particularly memorable is the sequence where Juliet Binoche and her elderly neighbor (Andree Tainsey) leave the cemetery. Barely a word is spoken, yet it is an absolute gut-punch of a scene.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Princesas (2005)

This well made and thought provoking film explores the class struggles and hierarchies among Madrid's streetwalkers, as established strumpet Caye (Candela Pena) gradually becomes more involved in the hardscrabble life of the newly arrived and mysterious Zulema (Micaela Nevarez). Along the way, we are treated to revealing insights into the lives of prostitutes and how, in the minds of the women involved, it is not that different from more conventional careers.

The story is told through small and at times poignant details, such as the scene where Zulema sits on the curb amid a sea of prostitutes to have her brown-bag lunch, while Caye suffers through yet another Sunday family dinner with her upper-class mother and siblings. Considering the subject matter, Princesas has a surprisingly bright and cheerful look as DP Ramiro Civita strikes just the right balance of grit and glamour. And through the expressive eyes of Candela Pena we experience a new and intriguing world built around an old profession.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Movies to Release on DVD...Now

Man on The Roof (1976)

I saw this on PBS back in the day. I'm a sucker for gritty, grimy cop procedurals and this one is Swedish to boot. So not only is it gritty, its laconic and gloomy too!

I don't remember much about it except it was sort of a "French Connection" rip-off, with lots of handheld shots of detectives getting in and out of Saabs. As I recall, a wounded policemen is shot in his hospital bed to prevent his testimony or something. This shocking event stirs Stockholm's Finest into full blown panic mode.

I've found some stills from the film but, oddly enough, I don't remember it looking so bright and cheerful. Then I remembered I originally watched this film on a 12" b/w TV. It was in color....who knew?

At any rate I recall this as a gripping and absorbing film with a great balance of quirkiness and action. Just the fact that my addled brain even remembers it after all these years means the film must have had something special. There apparently are some bootleg DVDs out there, but I'm holding out for the real thing.

Maybe I will be disappointed if I ever do get to see it...but I'll take the chance.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Festival at Cannes (2001)

This painfully dead-on satire of movie deal making manages to both skewer and celebrate the famous French Riviera schmooze fest. Through a simple and interweaving storyline, we get to know various writers, producers and actors and marvel at how a fleeting idea in a writer's mind can set off an enormous and potentially ruinous chain of events. Zack Norman is just about perfect as a hustling hanger-on who attempts to parlay his gift for gab into a major motion picture, and by cleverly appealing to the egos of everyone he meets, darn near pulls it off. Henry Jaglom has obviously been in the skins of all these characters at one time or another, which accounts for the film's amazing laugh out loud authenticity. I suppose one purpose of the film is to show the hysteria and back-biting that goes on at Cannes, but it still looks like a lot of fun to me. Will someone lend me their press credential? Its that time of year again...

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Days of Future Passed Part 1

Global warming began in earnest in the sweltering summer of 1977, when a simmering cloud of white steam settled over the southeastern United States and, like an unemployed relative, laughed off all suggestions it should leave. I was living in a third floor walk up apartment in one of the few buildings that weren't destroyed in the 1865 burning of Richmond, although most of the current residents wish it had. To such an ancient brownstone, the concept of central air conditioning was as impractical and exotic as molecular teleportation. As a poverty stricken college student I didn’t have the resources to buy one of those newfangled window units and, even if I did, the building’s woefully inadequate asbestos wiring wouldn’t have handled it.

Even my workplace provided no relief. I had a part time job delivering copier paper to university offices. During the summer there weren’t many deliveries to make so I had to sit in the store room, ever poised to answer a phone that never rang. And, as luck would have it, the storeroom was located next to the university’s enormous oil-fired boiler which supplied hot water for much of the campus. Even though there weren’t many students in the dorms, the few who remained apparently had some sort of cleanliness compulsion as that iron contraption ran day and night. The boiler heated not just water but the adjacent area as well, the way a blazing woodstove heats a mountain cabin. As July lumbered into August, I sat there in that stifling dump of an office, reading The Illiad and porcinely sweating, surrounded by reams of paper that seemed on the verge of combustion. So, in my free time, my life became a quest for air conditioning.

The search for a cool, not necessarily well lighted place basically had 2 criteria: it had to be a place where one could spend a lot of time without spending a lot of money and also a place where one wasn’t likely to be arrested for loitering. At first, the somewhat filthy neighborhood bar known as Hababa’s seemed the perfect spot. It even had one of those “Come on In, It’s Kool Inside” cardboard signs on the door that were given out by cigarette jobbers in the 1960s. I’m sure you’ve seen them, they usually featured an illustration of a penguin clad in scarf and toque merrily puffing away on a coffin nail. Hababa’s was one of those dark, dingy joints that you just know is a front for some sort of scurrilous enterprise. I’d wager that if the squalid bathrooms could talk, they’d spin harrowing yarns of drug dealing, prostitution and projectile vomiting.

But Hababa’s draw was not just the aggressive A.C. The owners had the foresight to offer draft beer for only 25 cents a pull, every week night until about 9 o’clock. And while I technically wasn’t old enough to drink, no one at Hababa’s gave a flying fig. I suppose if you are running a white slavery ring out the back, worrying about Virginia’s ABC laws seemed like sweating the small stuff.

All went well until one night when a buddy and I were having one of our deep philosophical discussions, fueled by the fine products of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company of Saint Louis. Missouri, when the barkeep overheard me allude to my friend that, in my opinion, the right side won the Civil War. Well, in most of the world this would be considered a noncontroversial, indeed even sensible, position. But within the state boundaries of Virginia one just didn’t say such things in public. Not in 1977 anyway. My friend and I immediately had our sudsy glasses yanked, as the bartender growled at us in Vuhginya patois: “Yall git the hail artta heah!” My buddy and I just looked at him in stunned silence. “Gwan witch ya…rye now!!” he repeated and, for emphasis, pointed at the door with a stabbing motion. I then noticed that his arm was a complex web of ropy sinews, well defined musculature and massive veins throbbing with intense vexation. My friend and I decided perhaps it was best to take our custom elsewhere, but I would like it known that we did not actually run to the door as local legend has it. No, I was just walking.

You see, I’ve always been a fast walker.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

God Grew Tired of Us (2006)

In this riveting doc, we learn all about the tortures endured by the Sudanese "Lost Boys" and the challenges they continue to face trying to build new lives in America. Director Christopher Quinn's approach is simplicity itself. First, we visit the boys in their squalid Kenyan refugee camp where we hear harrowing tales of the campaign of genocide the Sudanese government has been waging against them for a generation and the extraordinary measures the young men were forced to take in order to survive.

Then the camera objectively follows a select group of boys as they embark on the lengthy flight to the U.S., where a strange new world, far beyond their experience, awaits them.

There are several quite amusing scenes as the young men adjust to modern life - they are confused by Santa Claus and fascinated by scantily clad women on TV, for instance - but they are unable to forget their loved ones left behind in Africa and they are often overcome by a poignant homesickness.

Our local church sponsored several of these young men back in 2004 and they attended the church school and were regulars at services. They have all graduated now and have gone off into the world to seek their fortunes. I did not know anything about their terrible history or why they were there and I never took the time to converse with them or offer any sort of assistance. After seeing this film, I deeply regret that missed opportunity.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Syndromes and a Century (2007)

I don't know which is more difficult, describing this film or pronouncing the director's name. Syndromes has no obvious narrative structure; rather it is an assemblage of mise-en- scene vignettes depicting the daily lives of a small group of Thai medical professionals. Each is filmed at a discreet, respectful distance, leaving the audience with only the characters' words and movements as clues to their personalities. No revealing close ups or deep psychological examinations here. Yet these Candid Camera type scenes are surprisingly effective: some are deeply poignant and others are quite funny.

In fact, I can't remember a film I've seen this year that made me laugh more. That being said, this is not a film for everyone. Stylistically, the closest comparison would be a mixture of Eric Rohmer, Yasujiro Ozu and Jim Jarmusch, with a healthy dose of zen philosophy thrown into the mix. This film quietly celebrates attributes virtually non-existent in cinema today: calmness, gentleness and compassion. And all of it told in the meditative music that is the Thai language. A number of influential film bloggers proclaimed this the best film of 2007, topping such stalwarts as No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood. I must admit, I'm inclined to agree.

Below is a link to the trailer which, although it makes the film seem much bleaker than it really is, will give you sense of the pacing and imagery.

Syndromes Trailer

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