Friday, February 26, 2010

Resistance (2003) **

Resistance is a standard-issue WWII soap, complete with a marooned American pilot (Bill Paxton), a dishy French-accented farm wife (Julia Ormond) and despicable, but immaculately dressed, Nazis.

The film shows a bit of promise in the early going, as a plucky, courageous kid named Jean (Antoine Van Lierde) helps the injured Paxton elude capture and delivers him via wheelbarrow to Ormond’s cottage, which has one of those secret rooms behind the closet that come in so handy at times like these.

There, Ormond sensuously cleans Paxton’s wounds and rapidly nurtures him back to All-American Boy gee whiz health. Apparently, Paxton’s injuries weren’t really that serious. Despite being the only survivor of a horrific plane crash, all he really needed was a few days rest and a damp cloth. This is the first warning sign of dangerous plot-holes ahead and those fissures only get wider and goofier as the film progresses. One scene in particular is a howler: Paxton staggers down from his attic redoubt, barely able to walk, but within a few minutes he is dancing the jitterbug with Ormond who, despite crushing agrarian poverty, has an impressive collection of hot jazz records.

Meanwhile, Ormond’s husband is away with the guys on a Resistance outing; blowing up bridges and railroads and maybe a little fishing. In his absence, she and Paxton decide that it would be a fine idea to start taking baths together. Yes, “Resistance” gets pretty mushy before we’re through, and yes you can see it all coming a mile away. But it’s not long before the realties of war, and disgruntled husbands, cause this burgeoning romance to come tumbling down.

A few shocking moments are attempted as we reach the conclusion, but they all fail, and the Germans, despite their nifty uniforms, seem as pathetically clueless as the ones on “Hogan’s Heroes”. Worst of all, the great Sandrine Bonnaire is nonsensically wasted in a dinky little role. But that’s fitting. With Resistance, nonsense is par for the course.

The Details

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Involuntary (2008)

In the struggle for the hearts and minds of young Scandinavian filmmakers, Aki Kaurismaki appears to have won out over Ingmar Bergman, at least for now, as the tone of recent Nordic films has shifted from grimly depressing to comically depressing. “Involuntary” fits right in with the new fashion, somehow wringing chuckles and guffaws from an unrelenting atmosphere of austere bleakness.

Despite working in a verite style, director Rubin Ostlund is clearly influenced by Roy Andersson’s micro-managed minimalism, in terms of both composition and storytelling. The script features multiple and concurrent storylines, with bits of each narrative doled out in a seemingly random manner. Through the course of the film we learn about a bus driver with emotional issues, meet two teenage girls prone to mischief, go on a camping trip where male bonding is carried to extremes, and visit a family reunion for a comic reminder of the immiscibility of alcohol and fireworks, along with other, less developed, scenarios.

Ostlund builds a compelling and amusing case that Swedes in the full grip of spring fever lose all notion of personal responsibility, and should not be considered fully responsible for their actions. Thankfully, the viewer is coolly kept at arm’s length from the proceedings, as the various pickles Ostlund’s characters get themselves into are much more fun to observe than to experience, and this sense of detachment allows us to fully appreciate the wide range of human folly on display.

But cleverness can have a limited shelf life, and the film begins to run out of it in the final reel and we were relieved when this assortment of quirky yarns headed to conclusion. In all though, “Involuntary” is an entertaining glimpse into a day in Swedish life, and a worthy addition to the region’s emergence as a banana belt for darkly comic cinema. It makes you wonder what those ironic cut-ups from the north will come up with next.

Who Did What

Monday, February 22, 2010

The World (2004)

The World is an extraordinary film of amazement and wonder. Unfortunately, those wonders are undermined by the film’s sheer, droning bulk. A Beijing park featuring scaled down versions of world landmarks serves as both metaphor and backdrop for a loosely related string of vignettes, all of which concern young people who have traveled far to ultimately meet a quiet kind of bitter disillusion. The emotional world inhabited by the subjects of this film is almost microscopic in nature; their concerns revolve around the stark practicalities of acquiring food and sex, while all around them are ersatz reminders of the greatest achievements of humanity.

This gives director Zhang Ke Jiu a fertile playground for visual puns, and he often takes advantage by crafting arresting contrasts of his characters' pettiness with their surroundings of physical grandeur. A off balance surrealism pervades the film at times, as the actors appear as indomitable giants next to dioramas of the Pyramids or London Bridge, yet within their own shabby apartments they seem sullen and vulnerable. Having presented this world to us with such painstaking effort, Zhang is occasionally at a loss as to how to proceed with his meticulous observations, and stubbornly opposed to concluding them.

Within this Zen-like tableau are a number of effective, at times even breathtaking scenes, but these are sandwiched with clunky, repetitive moments that do little to enhance our understanding of the film’s complex thesis. Particularly pointless are the tiresome rotoscope animation sequences that occur, for some unknown reason, every time a character receives a text message.

And the film continues to meander well past the point of justified duration, until Zhang's trenchant reflections on modern Chinese life have thoroughly worn-out their welcome and become numbing. About two hours in, a character in abject despair sets fire to the jacket he is wearing. We knew exactly how he felt.

Production Details

Friday, February 19, 2010

Moscow, Belgium (2008)

Alright…this red-blooded American has had it. First, we lose our textile industry to China. Then, we lose our automobile industry to Japan. And now, the nation of Belgium is trying to steal our monopoly on insipid, improbable romantic comedies.

“Moscow, Belgium” so thoroughly wallows in pleasant predictability it seems unfair that one should have to read subtitles to experience such mediocrity. Who knew brooding, caustic Europeans were even capable of such unrelenting blandness? They have learned their lessons well, these industrious Belgians, and if we don’t stay on our toes, they will soon corner the market on America’s last remaining export: Date Movies.

Sure, you scoff now…but that day is coming my friends. And think of the devastation.
Nothing but Flemish (and French, and a little German) spoken on the Lifetime Channel.
Sandra Bullock, reduced to a Walmart greeter.
Zooey Deschanel selling insurance.
Next thing you know, the Dardenne brothers will be making science fiction films with obscenely high budgets.
“Oh it can’t happen here” you say. I‘m here to tell you it can my friends! And it will, if we don’t act. But it’s not too late. Join me in my campaign to resist Flemish perfidy. Tell the Belgians to keep their waffles, their sheep dogs, their delicious full-bodied ales, their massive draft horses and their Congo. In turn, they must keep their endive-pickin’ hands off of our rom-coms.


The Frightening Details

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Nos Amours (1983)

Just when you expect another titillating French romantic drama about young girls and lost innocence, Maurice Pialat takes us on a surprising and highly subjective guided tour of a damaged family’s personal pain. The film is comprised of shifting alliances and points of view, and presents the fragility of family dynamics in ways that range from subtle to harrowing. First, we are introduced to young Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), a budding young heartbreaker, at summer camp.
There, along with swimming and arts and crafts, she has taken up a new activity: the wanton pursuit of boys – and in some cases, men - for a bit of snogging in the moonlit weeds.

But as we think Suzanne’s sexual quest will be the real meat of story, the film takes one of its several leaps forward in time, and we are home in Paris where we meet Suzanne’s brooding boyfriend (Cyr Boitard) and her squabbling, malcontent family led by her father (Pialat) who is deeply suspicious of his daughter’s innocent-sounding “movie dates”.

The pressures in the family’s rambling apartment are palpable, and its walls seem to inch closer in every scene. Suzanne’s only escape from this toxic atmosphere of recrimination is through a series of sexual liaisons that ultimately leave her feeling empty, yet oddly grateful for even a few minutes of affectionate attention.

And it is this gratitude that prompts Suzanne to make a decision about her future that makes us eerily wonder if she is inviting a repeat of family history. Here, Pialat offers an interesting twist on conventional morality, as Suzanne’s late night escapades have an air of warmth and wholesomeness about them, in stark relief to the violent, and at times shocking, confrontations that await her at home.

“A Nos Amours” is a film that presses boundaries and pushes buttons. It forces us out of our comfort zone by involving us in a tableau of equally condemnable characters, yet we can’t judge any of them without revealing our own hypocrisy.

Production Details

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bunchy's Scrapbook: Wrasslers Edition

Back in the 60s and 70s my Dad and I used to watch professional wrestling on TV. This was back before cable or satellite, and wrestling was basically a regional sport, with a handful of promoters dividing up the country based on TV market. Our area’s grapplers were based in Charlotte, which was sort of the Hollywood of wrestling at that time. Here’s some of the guys I remember, and I’ve included their real names whenever I could find them.

Haystacks Calhoun (William Dee)

Probably the first wrestler I remember, and after looking at him, you can see why. I don’t remember if he was a good guy (A babyface, in wrestling parlance) or a bad guy (a heel). I just remember he was a great big tub, and strong as an ox. I think he is actually lifting up two cows in this photo.

The Bolos

Tag teams were popular in the southeast, and these two guys were the first masked wrestlers I remember. God, they were nasty. They used to carry small pieces of metal in their boots, and use them to smash open the heads of the opposition. Supposedly one of them was named Tony Renesto, and he served as the spokesman in interviews. He was quite articulate. They both sweated a lot.

The Scott Brothers

George and Sandy were from Canada, and had a large following in our area. They were true wrestlers, trained in all the classic holds and maneuvers. Babyfaces to the core, the Scotts always abided by the rules (there actually were a few) and their clean, athletic style was fun to watch. George always ended his interviews by saying “Hello to all the sick and shut-ins”. Classy.

Rip Hawke and Swede Hansen

As much a comedy act as anything, Rip and Swede were wildly successful heels that you just loved to hate. Rip was possibly the world’s most conceited man, and during interviews, often insisted that the camera zoom in tight on his profile, which he felt was movie star quality. These two enjoyed a long run in the wrestling profession, and became stars all over the world. After retirement from wrestling, Rip invented “Popcorn on the Cob”, which is sold at Disneyworld.

Super Destroyer

There were several guys running around the world calling themselves Super Destroyer. Supposedly ours was named Don Jardine and when not wrestling, was the sweetest guy in the world. In the ring however, he was mean as a snake and, even in the fake world of wrestling, nearly unbeatable. His dominance in our area was so strong he was actually hurting business, so the promoters brought in a very special guy to challenge him…

Andre the Giant

This simple country boy from France wanted nothing more than to be a farmer, but he had to settle for international fame and fortune instead. André René Roussimoff ‘s enormous proportions were caused by acromegaly, a rare disorder of the pituitary gland. At over 7 feet tall and 540 pounds, Andre made quick work of the Super Destroyer, and anyone else foolish enough to get in the ring with him. Andre also enjoyed a prolific film career, appearing in The Princess Bride and several other movies and TV shows. While in Paris for his father’s funeral, Andre died in his sleep at the age of 46. His ashes were scattered near Ellerbee, NC.

Mil Mascaras (Aaron Rodríguez)

The greatest wrestler I ever saw. Mil Mascaras had it all: speed, athleticism, agility and extraordinary showmanship. He didn’t just defeat opponents; he dazzled them to the point that they simply lost hope and gave up. Unpopular with promoters because he refused to throw matches or engage in hyped up feuds, Mil Mascaras was the closest thing to a true sportsman pro wrestling ever produced. Today at the age of 67, he’s still wrestling and still wildly popular.

Ric Flair

One of the most successful wrestlers in history, Ric Flair basically took Gorgeous George’s prissy gimmicks and butched them up for southern audiences. As this picture attests, Flair had a real talent for creating mayhem, and metal folding chairs were one of his favorite weapons. He was also a shameless self promoter and it was just as dangerous to be between him and a microphone as it was to be in the ring with him. Although I found his Deliverance redneck shtick so tedious I lost interest in wrestling altogether, Ric is still regarded as near royalty in the Carolinas.

I got a lot of help from the following websites:

Mid-Atlantic Gateway

Obsessed With Wrestling

Wrestling Memories

Check them out for more information and great pictures.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Grocer's Son (2007)

This light romantic drama takes place in lush, sun-swept Provence, and is just the tonic for the wintertime blues. The story is one we have seen many times before; a family emergency forces a young man (Nicolas Cazale) to leave his life in the city and dutifully return to his parent’s humble home, which also happens to be the site of many unpleasant childhood memories and unresolved issues. Director Eric Guirado then takes us on an ambling promenade toward catharsis; a journey as relaxing and delightful as the French countryside.

Cazale has taken over his father’s grocery van, which wheezes and sputters over the rocky Provencal hills, bringing radishes and cans of peas to his elderly, and amusingly eccentric, clientele. Cazale is often accompanied by his would-be girlfriend Clair (Clotilde Hesme) whose bubbly personality charms the gruff pensioners into buying much more than usual, and the van slowly becomes a surprisingly profitable enterprise.

Cazale learns much about dealing with people, especially suspicious rustics, and the importance of personal relationships in small town life. As the story unspools, there are a few turning points that could have been played for wrenching melodrama, but Guirado wisely keeps the proceedings squarely in the realm of understated naturalism, and we never feel manipulated by trumped- up plot devices or pat resolutions.

Deep seated family resentments are confronted one-by-one, and even Cazale’s glumly diligent parents discover new and joyful possibilities in their own lives. “The Grocer’s Son” is a film of charming moments and gentle epiphanies. It takes a well-worn narrative roadmap and, through an unexpected generosity of spirit, finds a fresh and involving path.

Production Details

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Between Days (2006)

Set in snowy Toronto, So Yong Kim’s contemporary tale of adolescent angst is one of the most starkly under produced films you will ever see. 15 year old Aimie (Jiseon Kim) and her mom (Bokja Kim) have recently immigrated to Canada from South Korea. Friendless in a bleak new world, Aimie becomes fixated on a schoolmate named Tran (Taegu Andy Kang), a slightly dangerous boy who occasionally reveals glimpses of tenderness underneath his street tough veneer. They begin hanging out together after school, and much of the film is devoted to simple verite-style scenes of the pair engaged in a variety of mundane activities typical of teenagers. The film bogs down a bit during this middle act, as the scenes of video arcades, waiting for buses and watching television get a little repetitive. Much of film is shot with long lenses, resulting in a compression of space that gives Aimie’s apartment a claustrophobic tinge.

We feel the aimlessness and ennui that drive the pair’s relationship, like two abandoned boats drifting wherever the currents take them. Eventually, sexual pressures creep into the relationship, and Aimie must decide if she is completely ready to leave childhood behind. This is a self-consciously arty sort of picture that screams “Enter me in a Film Festival”, and therefore will try the patience of some viewers. Still there is much here to admire, as Aimie, reeling from all the abrupt new changes in her life, seeks to delay her big transition to adulthood as long as possible, and hang on to any shred of innocence and sentimentality left in her battered soul. We may not always like her, but we do understand her, as Aimie learns an important lesson about love that’s as cold and bitter as the Canadian winter.

Production Details

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Some Quick Ones...

Time of the Wolf (2003)

Add a star if you're a paranoid schizophrenic. This contemptible production is a sadistic exercise in unrelenting grimness. Huppert pukes, a horse is shot and sliced open, a child dies from dehydration, middle-age women exchange sex for a drink of water, little Benny's nose bleeds incessantly...sheesh, enough already. The apocalypse will be really bad. I get it.

More Info

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Bad beyond mortal endurance. Pierce Brosnan sings. Middle age women pretend to be disco stars. The horror, the horror. The turkeys are hitting the ground like bags of wet cement. Oh the humanity.

More Info

Father Ted, Series 3 (1997)

Greatest moments in TV comedy: Lucy stomping grapes, Ed Ames' hatchet throw with Johnny Carson, Python's Spanish Inquisition, Seinfeld's Master of My Domain, and "Speed 3" from this disc. Just watch the fecking thing. Now.

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Tout Va Bien (1972)

Jane Fonda further established her art house bona fides in this tale of rebellions great and small. Godard, when not tripping over Marxist boilerplate, displays his considerable technical chops as a filmmaker. There are a number of innovative visual ideas here: the obvious staginess of the factory environment, the amazingly choreographed long tracking shots and the workers march with it's holocaust overtones, to name a few.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Rohmer in Retrospect: La Collectionneuse (1967)

Director, writer and critic Eric Rohmer passed away on January 11, 2010, at the age of 89. In this series, we will be examining some of his lesser known films.

La Collectionneuse is best viewed as a transitional work, and Rohmer’s first attempt at adapting his patented talky romance format to feature length. The two previous entries in the Moral Tales series, La Boulangère de Monceau and Suzanne’s Career, both produced in 1963, were B/W shorts, shot in Paris in a gritty, documentary style. La Collectionneuse was filmed in color by the great Nestor Almendros (who would go on to win an Oscar for Days of Heaven) and takes place in the rural south of France, in one of those stone farmhouses that make American tourists swoon.

A Parisian named Adrian (Patrick Bauchau), who has taken navel-gazing to an art form, has come to the villa for one of those interminable French holidays. He shares the house with his friend Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle) and a free-sprited – to put it mildy - young woman named Haydee (Haydee Politoff). Haydee’s vacation plans consist almost entirely of having sex with, well, everyone. Everyone except Adrian, that is.

In an interesting reversal of the usual sexual politics, it is Haydee who views sex as a series of one night conquests, and she ‘collects’ trysts with men the way others collect stamps or rare coins. All of this throws the handsome, and quite spoiled, Adrian into a blasé sort of tizzy, as he finds himself unable to seduce the unselective Haydee, and his self esteem, which is basically his entire raison d’être, is mortally threatened.

Despite having a loyal fanbase, La Collectionneuse is not one of this reviewer’s favorite Rohmer films. There are issues with the casting – usually Rohmer’s strong suit – that prevent the film from fully capitalizing on its intriguing premise. Patrick Bachau (who has gone on to have a long and successful career, including the wonderful HBO series Carnivale) seems generally too ambivalent considering he's supposedly The Worlds Most Self Absorbed Man, and Haydee Politoff (who went on to do a couple of low budget vampire movies) simply isn't very interesting.

The slightly tomboy-ish ingénue is a Rohmer archetype, serving as the narrative lynchpin in much of his future work, and here, through Politoff’s shortcomings, we gain a deeper appreciation of the many times the director would get this character exactly right. Politoff was 20 years old when the film was made, but she photographs much younger, giving the film an accidental unattractive edge; it’s as if we’re watching the story of an older man obsessed with a bit of slutty jailbait. This is an idea Rohmer would explore with much more finesse a few years later in Clare’s Knee, and there he pulls it off thoughtfully and with a minimum of ickyness.

La Collectionneuse is a bumpy ride that will appeal mainly to hard-core Rohmer fans and completists. But we do get a peek at the evolution of the director’s unique brand of insightful humanism.

Production Details

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lemon Tree (2008)

This film reduces the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to a simple story about values, and makes us feel the full measure of the conflict in a way no CNN documentary ever could. To a Palestinian widow named Salma (Hiam Abbas, who you may remember from “The Visitor”), her grove of lemon trees represent a meager livelihood and a connection to her dead father, who planted and nurtured the orchard from twigs.

To the Israeli Defence Minister (Doron Tavory), who has arrogantly built a palatial estate on the adjoining lot, the grove represents a security risk, since terrorists could conceivability use the canopy of trees as a hiding place. We see the Israelis’ justifiable mania for security, as Tavory orders wire fences and guard towers to be erected, and Salma’s once beautiful and peaceful oasis begins to resemble a prison camp.

The story then takes on aspects of a courtroom drama, as Salma enlists the aid of a kind-hearted Palestinian lawyer (Ali Suliman), and the pair pursues Salma’s complaints to the highest levels of the justice system. The story has a few weaknesses, most notably a lack of balance, as all the Palestinian characters are portrayed as gentle, hard working souls possessed of an attractive, ironic humor, while all the Israelis appear to be stubborn, selfish and somewhat sleazy.

The one exception is Tavory’s elegant wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), an interior designer who appears to have sympathy for Salma’s plight. There are numerous scenes where the two very different women stare wistfully at each other across the divide of Tavory’s fence, but the viewer feels a bit cheated as this potential catharsis is never realized.

Still, the film is well worth our continued attention for its devastating final scene, where the court’s Solomon-esque solution is finally enacted, at tremendous emotional and aesthetic cost to both parties.

Production Details