Monday, September 28, 2009

Linda Linda Linda (2005)

With the big gig at their high school’s fall festival just a few days away, an all-girl punk band scrambles to reinvent themselves in this delightful, low key comedy. When their lead singer and songwriter (Takayo Mamura) splits over creative differences, remaining members Kei (Yu Kashii), Nozomi (Shiori Shiroko) and Kyoko (Aki Medea) find themselves with no material and no voice to sing it.

They recruit a shy, introverted Korean exchange student named Son (Du-na Bae), primarily because she is the only person available, and the foursome set out to quickly learn some new songs by pulling a series of grueling all night practice sessions. But for a film about rock-n-roll, Linda Linda Linda is surprisingly quiet and sedate, as director Nobohiro Yamashita paints a loving portrait of the gracious, polite intensity that infuses Japanese educational life.

This is no raucous, take-no-prisoners, hormonally crazed American style high school, but rather a pleasant, focused environment, conducive to learning, where students and faculty treat each other with mutual respect, and that is just one of the many aspects that makes this a refreshing film. Band movies and sports movies are quite similar in that they follow a familiar pattern: Challenge - Preparation - Set Back - Renewed Preparation - Payoff. But the best in each genre take that formula and, through small details, make it seem fresh and new.

That is Yamashita’s triumph here, for as we become more involved in the lives of these charming, hard working young girls, and begin to root for them to achieve their goals, we don’t feel the slightest bit manipulated. There is not a moment here that feels false or forced, and that lack of artifice makes the film’s rousing finale all the more cathartic. Do give this film a try; it’s lovable, funny and even a little bit exhilarating. The only downside is you may have the title song stuck in your head for few days.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Czech Dream (2003)

Two film school dilettantes embark on a project designed to prove that everyone else is stupid. Their premise is that consumers will believe anything as long as it is presented in a slick advertising campaign. So they create a fictional warehouse store and launch a media blitz promising low prices on everything from TVs to steaks.

On opening day, thousands of people show up hoping to take advantage of the advertised bargains, only to find that the megastore is nothing more than a cloth facade in an empty lot. And this somehow proves the cleverness of the filmmakers.

The amazing thing to this reviewer was the relatively low amount of outrage at the young men; its surprising they weren't forcibly dragged through the weeds. Supposedly this dull and mean-spirited doc is trying to make some comment on how awful it is that Czech society has become so consumerist. Yes, things were much better when Nazi battalions and Soviet tanks roamed the streets of Prague. Grow up.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kansas City Bomber (1972)

Experience those fabulous 70s with this strangely appealing bit of trashy fluff. Raquel Welch stars as a diva of Roller Derby, a bizarre made-for-TV sport that combined the worst elements of NASCAR and professional wrestling. In 70s liberated style, Welch forsakes home and hearth, leaving her kids (tiny yet still precocious Jodie Foster is one of the brood) with Grandma while she pursues her career.

We become intimately involved in the lives of the various skaters and promoters and Welch's growing fame has profound effects on all of them. This is not a good film by any means but, like munching M&Ms, once you start watching its hard to stop. The film has that grungy, hard-light look that was, if not popular, at least tolerated in the 70s.

Raquel did much of her own skating in this movie, but its pretty obvious when a stunt double was used. Somehow, the double doesn't fill out Welch's team uni in quite the same way. But then, who could?

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Friday, September 18, 2009

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2007)

In the past decade, Wayne Wang has become a successful big-time Hollywood director and deservedly so. But here he takes a break from the formulaic, mainstream star vehicles of recent history and returns to his roots with the type of picture he does best; a gentle, quiet story of Asian-American culture shock. This family drama of almost entry-level simplicity features Henry O as Mr. Shi, a former communist party functionary, now reduced to plodding pensioner, who makes the journey from China to Spokane, Washington to visit his beautiful and mysterious daughter Yilan (Faye Yu), who some years ago fled Beijing for a new life and a new husband in America.

The husband is long gone, and now Yilan, intensely focused on her work, lives a single life that is far from swingin’. Despite his daughter’s claims to the contrary, the traditionally-minded Shi finds it impossible to believe that an unmarried young woman can live a happy life. He spends much time early in the film furtively rifling through Yilan’s possessions searching for clues as to her true nature, and he feels entirely justified in this intrusion.

After all, in Shi’s mind, as the father he has an undeniable right to know every aspect of her life, regardless of the fact that she is pushing 40. This cultural and generational clash lies at the heart of the film, and it is quite interesting to watch the subtle, yet poignant emotional tug-of war between Shi and Yilan, as seemingly every day he finds a new way to assault her personal boundaries.

Ultimately, Shi’s insistence forces a confrontation that shows us how deception is deeply ingrained in this family’s history. While this synopsis makes the film sound melodramatic, Wang’s special talent for creating believable family dynamics gives the film a low key, naturalistic edge and allows us to focus on the internals of this deeply human story

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tropical Malady (2005)

As a filmmaker, Apitchatpong Weerasathakul doesn't do a damn thing like you're supposed to. His movies have no plot, no acting, no beginning, no middle and no end. He does long, slow dolly shots of trees and bushes. You're supposed to do long, slow dolly shots of actors expressing deep emotions, not trees and bushes. Who the hell wants to see trees and bushes?

A.W. loves trees and bushes. He loves sounds and shapes and colors. And rain. He is absolutely nuts about rain. He is only interested in people when they are doing the most boring and mundane things imaginable. A man looking at shoes is a major cinematic event to Apitchatpong Weerasathakul. He will begin telling a story, in this film it's a sort of a gay romance, then get sidetracked by looking at trees and bushes and listening to rain. The story may pick up again later on, or it may not...there's a pretty field of green grass over there...lets film that for a while. Wait...set up the dolly...we'll do a dolly shot of the grass. What the hell is he filming now?...ok here are some guys in a hut...they are supposed to be witch doctors or something. Give up.

Resistance is futile. Apitchatpong Weerasathakul does not make films for the logical mind. His films can only be experienced as random sensory input. You must get in his car and let him drive you wherever he wants to go using whatever route he wants to take. The audience has no say in the proceedings. He doesn't care one bit about what you think so shut up. He is like the kid in Art School who forgot to become a cynical money grubber. People persist in calling his films experimental because that is the only way a logical mind can make sense of his oddball constructions. Weerasathakul's films are not experimental in the least. He knows exactly what he is doing. He does not make films for you and me. He makes them for himself. Love'em or hate'em...he couldn't care less. And speaking of oddballs, he's got big, brass ones.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I Can No Longer Hear The Guitar (1991)

A bleak, probing analysis of the enormous lengths people will go to in order to make themselves totally miserable. The film is the story of Gerard and Marianne, whose romance is characterized by moments of deep tenderness interrupted by periods of boredom and paralyzing fear.

Gerard (Benoit Regent) is completely captivated by Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) who is beautiful, bewitching and 110 lbs. of trouble.
Since neither one really trusts the notion of happiness, their brief interludes of domestic bliss cause a slow-simmering panic in each of them, because, to paraphrase their friend Martin (Yann Collette): the worst part of happiness is being afraid you’ll lose it. The couple eventually split, then reunite in an extraordinarily touching scene filmed in, of all places, a toilet. But in the interim, Marianne has developed a destructive habit that pushes Gerard’s patience to the limit. The film then shifts approximately a year into the future, where Gerard has managed to build a new life with a gentle, loving woman and an infant son, but it’s clear he’s still haunted by his feelings for the magical Marianne and, much to his surprise, he hasn’t heard the last from her yet. While this sounds like a melodrama, director Phillip Garrel tells the story (based on his true experience with a pop-star girlfriend) with an intellectually engaging realism.

In a way, Garrel’s approach is reminiscent of an Andrew Wyeth painting; you get the sense that something has just happened or is about to happen, but we never see the critical moment itself. But that is often the way of romantic relationships; we don’t know something profound has happened until we are left sifting through the emotional debris of it’s aftermath. In all, a memorable film that affects your mind as well as your heart, and well worth a look from any fan of European cinema.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Interiors (1978)

After his surprising Oscar win for Annie Hall the Hollywood establishment was gunning for Woody Allen. When this atypical Allen film came out in August of 1978, many critics didn’t just pan it; they savaged it, brutalized it and left it for dead in a New Jersey swamp. Rex Reed, who took a double dose of bitchy pills that morning, proclaimed Diane Keaton’s hair a “rat’s nest”. Vincent Canby offered some faint praise, but admitted he “had no idea what the film was up to”. Interiors examines a middle-class NYC family and the toll of years of emotional damage caused by the controlling, manipulative and quite mentally ill mother (Geraldine Page). E.G. Marshall projects a quiet desperation as the well-meaning father who realizes he must get away from this woman before she consumes his entire life. Diane Keaton, as one of the three daughters, maintains a tough exterior but is torn between caring for her mother and her emotionally needy, hard drinking husband (the great Richard Jordan). Kristen Griffith, as the glamorous daughter who fled to Hollywood to escape her mom’s hysterics, does what little can be done with her under-written part.

But this is Marybeth Hurt’s movie. In her turn as deeply angry Joey, you can feel her skin crawling as she tries to reason with her mother’s warped mind, as well as dealing with her deep sense of failure over not achieving the success her father expected of her. Hurt is further frustrated by wishing to express herself artistically, but not having the talent to do so. Two of Woody’s most talented collaborators were at their artistic peaks during this production - the great cinematographer Gordon Willis and editor Ralph Rosenblum – and their contributions were vital to keeping this complex story on track.

This is a serious adult film that grapples with deeply emotional issues, and despite a few moments of ponderousness, achieves its high objectives. The iconic last shot is a stunner.

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