Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lake Tahoe (2008)

If you saw Fernando Eimbcke’s dryly amusing “Duck Season”, then you know what to expect: leisurely pacing, naturalism on steroids and performances so understated they border on the comatose. Set in a seedy beach town on the Yucatan peninsula, this outing again features young Diego Cantano as Juan, who has just rammed his mom’s car into a telephone pole, and his meandering efforts to have it repaired early one Saturday morning.

As Juan ambles the town’s crumbling streets, his quest takes on Arthurian overtones, as he encounters a variety of oddballs who may, or may not, be able to help him. An aging mechanic with one foot in the grave (Hector Herrera) dispatches Juan to an auto parts store run by a young woman (Daniela Valentine), complete with a perpetually crying baby, who wouldn’t know a spark plug from a tire.

She suggests Juan enlist the aid of her friend David (Juan Carlos Lara), a young man much more interested in Bruce Lee movies and NunChuk flinging than auto repair. As Juan begins to despair for his situation, he makes a quick trip home – actually nothing in this film is quick- where it is apparent something is seriously amiss, and our first hint that there is a hidden, underlying story to this seemingly random, and rambling, journey.

But, through the course of this long and frustrating day, we are able to piece together the life altering events that led to Juan’s accident, and we are filled with a surprising sense of poignancy for this young man and his family. Yet “Lake Tahoe” is primarily a comedy, in the sense that Jim Jarmusch’s films are comedies, and it’s clear that Eimbcke and Jarmusch are kindred spirits behind the camera.

There is something in virtually every scene that will produce a chuckle, or at least a grin, and the entire film is infused with a uniquely subtle comedic sensibility. It will be fun to see where Eimbcke’s next goofy misadventure takes us.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Inheritance (2003)

“The Inheritance” is an interesting, involving Danish corporate drama that presents the viewer with a number of unexpected challenges. The production is competent and slick, the direction and acting consistently strong, the photographic style is appropriately moody and the editing is brisk without being flashy. Yet, there’s very little here in the way of catharsis, in fact, the film has a curious feeling of anti-catharsis, and just about everyone here devolves into a grim, reptilian self interest over the course of the proceedings.

Ulrich Thomsen is excellent as Christoffer, a happily married Stockholm restaurateur, who is summoned back to Denmark to save his family’s steel empire; a concern mired in enormous debt kept hidden for years by fraudulent accounting. Under the urging of his manipulative and controlling mother (an ice cold Ghita Norby) Christoffer institutes a series of draconian reforms designed to attract a buyer for the failing enterprise.

These reforms come at an enormous cost, as the employees, the family and Christoffer’s own humanity are profoundly affected. Despite its austere and intellectually engaging execution, the script treads awfully close to soap opera territory, and there are times when the film feels like the sort of thing regularly found on Lifetime Movie Channel. But there are no pat or heartwarming resolutions here, as it becomes clear that Christoffer’s sense of duty has transformed him, and requires him to pursue a path totally incompatible with his former self.

This conflict forces him to make a choice at the film’s conclusion - a choice that can be viewed as either coldly callous or the ultimate self sacrifice- and director Per Fly’s ambivalent storytelling extends that dilemma to the audience as well. This is not a film for those seeking multiplex yucks; in many ways it is as tough and impenetrable as steel itself.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Whisky (2004)

The next time you get one of those irresistible cravings for an oddball comedy from Uruguay, this esoteric adventure will nicely fill the bill. “Whiskey” is about the life of a middle-aged owner of a dingy textiles factory (Andres Pazos) whose clunky, sputtering knitting machines are devoted entirely to the production of rather odd-looking argyle socks.

When his sophisticated and more successful Brazilian brother Herman (Jorge Bolani) comes for a visit, confirmed bachelor Pazos orders his frumpy but devoted assistant Marta (Mirella Pascual) to “help out”. In other words, pose as his wife and present a veneer of happiness and normalcy. Marta, who has secretly adored Pazos for years, is pleased to comply, and it’s clear she is willing to carry out this charade to a degree far beyond her boss’s comfort zone.

Much of the film’s subtle humor is a result of this conflict, as Pazos quietly struggles to keep Marta’s expectations in check. The threesome eventually visit a deserted, out of season beach resort, and romance finally begin to smolder, but in a surprising and poignant way. The film is pleasingly underplayed and moves at a languid pace, but possibly drags on just a few minutes too long. Yet, within this eccentric construction, there are moments of genuine humor, pathos and empathy.

By the way, “whisky” is a smile-producing word, apparently used by Uruguayan photographers instead of “cheese”. And if you’re a fan of unorthodox foreign comedies, I predict this film will have you smiling as well.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Shadows in Paradise (1983)

Not surprisingly, in this first installment of his Proletariat Trilogy, director Aki Kaurismaki has delivered a stark, grimy, yet oddly comedic tale of taciturn working class Finns going about their daily lives.

An aimlessly adrift garbage collector (Matti Pellonpaa) is awakened from his dull and bleak routine by two unrelated but significant events: the sudden death of his co-worker and a chance meeting with a dour grocery clerk (the wonderful Kati Outinen). Under Helsinki’s grim, foreboding skies, Pellonpaa and Outinen bumble their way into an awkward, comical, but at times, deeply touching romance.

Her talent for finding trouble, and his odd, protective attraction to her, land the couple in some tight spots and causes Pellonpaa sleepless nights and, eventually, a few blows to the head with a discarded 2x4. While Scandinavian black comedies aren’t known for their lush musical scores, here Kaurismaki uses a lively, sophisticated jazz piano track contrasted with rockabilly blues as symbols for the class struggle that underlies every aspect of this story. With simple shot design and straightforward editorial choices, Kaurimaki keeps his techniques quiet and that forces the audience to look beyond the subtle - almost disengaged - physical characterizations of his actors, and into the deeper, quirkier reality within.

Those who favor traditional Hollywood fare will likely find this a difficult film to sit through and it’s clearly not designed to please a large audience. But those who appreciate the unique dark humor of the Nordics will find it worthwhile. Kaurismaki even throws in a compelling moral to boot: Life is short. If there’s something you want to do, you better get crackin’.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006)

Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania with an iron fist for nearly a quarter of a century, but even this brutal dictator was helpless against the tidal wave of freedom that washed over Eastern Europe 20 years ago. This film, set in the last year of his reign, is the story of one family's daily struggle to cope in this repressive and fearful atmosphere. Through small and telling details, we see the mounting pressures that ultimately led to a violent and bloody revolution.

Doroteea Petre does a wonderful job as Eva Matei, a fiery teenager who bristles at the thought of living the rest of her life in Romania, and will risk everything to escape. Timotei Duma, as her younger brother, feels compelled by a higher calling, the outright assassination of Ceausescu, and he and his pals from second grade devise a goofy but plausible scheme to do just that.

Their parents, played by Carmen Ungureanu and Mircea Diaconu, are equally dissatisfied, but are so broken down by years of traumatic domination that all they can do is mournfully complain. The film has an episodic, almost scrapbook feel to it, as the key events in this story slowly form a chilling mosaic of life under tyranny, and the challenges faced by those who stubbornly cling to their individuality.

Particularly affecting is the scene where Eva's cowardly boyfriend, who is in training to be a government thug, allows her to take the blame for his own act of seditious vandalism. Director Catalin Mitulescu presents the story with the confidence of first hand experience, and effectively reduces a sweeping political epic to basic human terms.

Since securing its freedom, Eastern Europe has produced a number of outstanding, yet simple dramas of individuals in conflict with society, both pre and post Soviet. And that's good news for film lovers, as these folks have interesting and profound stories to tell.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day 2009

May we as a nation strive to be worthy of the sacrifices made by our bravest and best.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Bunchy's Scrapbook - Superhero Edition

I wasn't always into prissy foreign films. As a child, I was somewhat normal and adored the Cape-and-Tights crowd...


Of all the incarnations of the Caped Crusader, I've always been partial to this mess from 1949, the serial Batman and Robin.

It was as bad as it looks. But it was inspirational. Robert Lowrey as Batman proved you could drink beer and eat pizza and still be heroic.

And it was still better than any version directed by Joel Schumaker.


To me, George Reeves will always be The Man of Steel. Even when stricken with amnesia, as he is above.
In this episode, he recovers his memory in time to save the world by blowing up an asteroid with a tiny atom bomb.

(click to embiggen)

No one stuck the takeoff like George.


I've never seen this crappy looking serial, but it's hard to imagine a wimpier transition from comic to screen.
No wonder Cap just looks pissed all the time.


Where would our heroes be without their villians?

No one donned the, uh, ears better than Julie. Just purrrrrrfect.


Sam Raimi and his team have done a wonderful job of bringing Spidey to the screen. No snarky sarcasm needed here.


Before he went big-time and got his own talk show, Space Ghost used to save the universe on a regular basis. As shown here, he always called the bad guys on his video phone before he kicked their asses.


Contrary to popular belief, Zorro did have a superpower. As played by Guy Williams, he was gifted with super-coolness.

In fact, there's only been one Zorro I liked better...


Yeah, I'm totally nuts about this guy, have been since 1964. He didn't just fight crime, he fought the worst kind of crime: tyranny and injustice inflicted on honest, hard working people to enrich a privileged and corrupt elite.

We need him today, actually.

The fact that Netflix doesn't carry this is a damn shame.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Portraits Chinois (1996)

In this ensemble comedy, a group of 30ish Parisian professionals scramble to sort out career, romance and all the other scary issues people at that age worry about. Power couple Ada (Helena Bonham Carter) and Paul (Jean Philippe Esoffey) have purchased one of those fabulous Paris apartments overlooking the river and, at a house warming party, we are introduced to their amusing network of envious friends and neurotic coworkers.

Bonham Carter is the anchor of the story, as the pressures and intrigues at her fashion design studio serve as the catalyst for much of what follows. Over the course of the film, we become intimately involved in the lives of all of these ambitious young folks, and share their successes, failures, sexual dalliances and occasional disfunctions.

Voice-Overs are used to contrast what characters are really thinking with their public actions, and while this may seem heavy-handed, it actually works to great comedic affect in this scenario. Director Martine Dugawson has apparently made a close study of the Woody Allen filmography, as the film has the look and feel of Allen products of this period.

At heart, this is a film about friendship and yes, while there are times we would all like to tell our friends to jump into the Seine, ultimately, we really do need them. In all, “Portraits Chinoise” is a light and enjoyable endeavor that never takes itself too seriously, and has a pleasing, almost innocent, 1990s vibe.

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