Archive for September, 2009

Birthdays, VIFF, Canadian puppets, Kimchi Western. And Woody Allen.

Posted in Miscellaneous with tags , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

Cinema Truth turns one year old today.  And except for the name change partway through, this is the same blog that began September 24, 2008.  This is the first blog (of three or so) that I’ve managed to actually make it to one year of sustained use, so today is a bit of a mild personal milestone.  To the loyal readers, thanks for your insightful comments, and to the Google picture visitors, thanks for the hit counts.  While you’re clicking through to that image, have a look around.  I promise I’ll do the same when I come looking for that Aguirre-and-pipe-player screenshot that surely someone out there has online.

In terms of festivities, there isn’t much planned.  I watched Woody Allen’s excellent MANHATTAN (1979) yesterday, and since I have Diane Keaton: Art Snob on the brain, I think a few chuckles are in order:

I will note, as a sad counterpoint to my very first post, that I’ll be seeing less films at VIFF this year; indeed I may not get out to the festival at all amid the demands of schoolwork, pre-production, work, and other obligations and interests.

edison-leo poster

Speaking of VIFF, this may be a good time to talk quickly about EDISON & LEO, a film I saw at last year’s festival.  Directed by Neil Burns, it bears the honor of being the first Canadian stop-motion feature.  It’s the kind of story that seems hellbent on owning the term “quirky,” – it’s about a mad scientist with an electricity-powered son, vengeful mystical First Nations women, and Manitoba – but it doesn’t trip up in its own little excesses to the point where it’s just an exercise in obscure silliness.  The film has plenty of charm, both visual and verbal, to power through the uneven sections.

The film has apparently been released to DVD by TVA Films; as far as I’m aware, it didn’t receive theatrical distribution.  For a genuine milestone in Canadian cinema, this is a shame.  Seek out the DVD.  Support this film.  Hopefully Neil Burns is working on something new; it’s early yet, but based on EDISON, I think Canada may have found its Tim Burton.  Burns pulls off genuinely effective and beautifully rendered storytelling, warts and all.  A trailer may be found here, though it does a fairly appalling job at showing the film’s strengths.

good-the-bad-the-weird-poster1

And while we’re hopping between streams here, I still can’t believe that the THE GOOD THE BAD THE WEIRD, that Korean love letter to Sergio Leone, has yet to receive North American distribution.  It has (or had, if the window of opportunity has closed) huge crossover appeal as an action-comedy, and yet nobody sprang for it.  If you have  a chance of seeing it, grab it tightly.  It’s the closest thing we’ve had to Indiana Jones-style adventure in twenty years, and with 100% less CG aliens.

I’m looking forward to another year here at Cinema Truth.  There are some exciting things planned for this fall and winter, and I hope you’ll join me on the journey.  Onwards and upwards…

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Review Bag III: Van Sant, Cuaron, Cronenberg, Herzog!

Posted in Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2009 by Nathan Douglas


elephantElephant (2003) Gus Van Sant

Its first two-thirds are utterly hypnotizing and fascinating – that may be because I’m still relatively close to the high school experience, and can still relate to that age and it’s frame of mind – but even so, I think Van Sant has captured a gentle form of lightning in a bottle: the floating, aimless feeling of North American adolescent life.  PARANOID PARK explores this even more so, and effectively, but I feel like ELEPHANT does a better job of it by not being focused around one individual.  By showing its universality among students, Van Sant more strongly documents its impact on daily lives; it’s the sort of sense that doesn’t take a lot of time to sink in, but multiplies its effect each time it is presented anew.  That the film’s “climax” – and really, that’s not what it is – is where the film stumbles is curious; I found the simple exploration of high school life to be more poignant and affecting than the inevitable massacre.  And even though the massacre isn’t tacked on, it still ends up feeling like that.  Mike D’Angelo calls it pornography for the way it holds us in suspense for an hour, waiting for the promised violence, and I can agree to a point with his argument that Van Sant is shamelessly manipulating us, sometimes too cheaply, but overall I’d say it transcends those flaws and offers a potent portrait of teen malaise.  It’s first sixty minutes are masterful; it’s last twenty are merely effective.

Solo Con Tu Pareja (1991) Alfonso Cuaronsolo con tu pareja dream

It’s saucy and entertaining, which is about all you need for a functioning sex farce.  Cuaron, as always, skews deeper than the well-staged hijinks in his exploration of a man – Tomas – and his inner turmoil with his tomcat ways.  Perhaps what’s most striking is Cuaron’s collaboration with CHILDREN OF MEN cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a partnership that in its infancy yields rich, dark images.  If this were an American film made today, it would be given the Wes Anderson originated indie look (which acts like yellow was never discovered before), or something rougher and more documentary-like (as Cuaron went with Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN).  The cuteness of that style would rob this story of its gravitas; even as Tomas runs around in this preposterous plot, his problems are magnified and given great importance on a psychological level, simply because of the contrast, saturation, and overall visual detail of each frame.  As it is, it is the best looking screwball sex comedy I’ve ever seen.

As it hurtles towards its conclusion, it starts to really touch on its thematic depth, beautifully expressed in facial hints and simple statements by Tomas, reflecting on the weight of his sins, finally admitting to his heartbroken crush, Clarisa, that “it was wrong” to sleep with all of those women, a bad habit developed like a child stepping on bugs: “You like the crunch but you don’t know why.”  There’s a real poignancy waiting to be brought to the surface, but Cuaron never quite seals the deal – instead, Tomas’ and Clarisa’s fatalism-tinged coupling, while expected, doesn’t offer the sort of closure that we seek vicariously through Tomas.  Perhaps this is because of the easy out of making Clarisa’s fiancé a cad, thus justifying her own immoral antics in movie-world logic.  Perhaps it’s because she spends time raging against bed-hoppers — a rant that draws Tomas into confessing his own randy ways — and then ignores said feelings to have a quickie with the lothario.  He needs more than more lusty sex, and while the deal gets sweetened by their marriage (a real commitment from the Tom Jones), the film ends on a surprisingly mixed note: Tomas eyes a pair of women in an airport while heading to his wife’s flight, but staying (I think) faithful.  It’s a simple acknowledgement of the effects of a reckless sexual lifestyle, the sort of fast living that leaves scars long after the original wounds are self-inflicted.

While the more dramatic elements don’t mesh as well as hoped for with the comedy, it’s not the sort of combination that destroys itself.  The drama is shaky, but the black comedy proves darkly delicious.  The two columns coexist and work within their own terms; the result is a mostly agreeable blend of spice and bitterness, undercooked just enough to disappoint.  On most levels, this is a brilliant debut, but the most important one misses the boat.

A History of Violence (2005) David Cronenberga-history-of-violence-dinner

The first scene is a stunningly precise piece of cinema, perfectly pitched (particularly in the sound design), strikingly atmospheric; full of mystery and dread, all conveyed in a simple shot of two men leaving a motel.  In its 4-5 minute running time, it puts the entirety of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to shame, covering similar territory in instilling horror at human evil.  These two killers are more terrifying than any Anton Chigurh; their banal, psychotic bloodletting is completely believable over Chigurh’s semantically informed murdering.  That the rest of the film doesn’t live up to this first scene’s promise isn’t a strike against it, as it’s weaker moments (particularly the high school scenes) are offset by an electrifying finale, a truly shattering and intimate moment between soul mates; we share every second, every ripple of unspoken knowledge.  These actors’ faces – Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello – contain enough tortured life, and grace, to power ten more films.  What comes in between these two perfect scenes is compelling enough, helped along by the reliable Ed Harris, and a show-stopping William Hurt.  Not a perfect film, but maybe a masterpiece.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) Werner Herzogaguirre_monkey

I knew AGUIERRE was a great film after six minutes.  It is madness, first captured in emulsion, and then reflected back at the audience in waves of sorrow, frustration, and failure.  Herzog’s camera drinks it all in like a documentary on conquistadors.  Herzog is famous for speaking of the need for new images; AGUIERRE is like a deranged coffee table book made to fulfill that need.

Madness is the order of the day, and madmen are to be found both in front of and behind the camera.  The tone veers from dour fatalism into surrealist Pythonism, before settling on a sort of bemused observation as Aguirre chases monkeys around his festering raft.  As Aguirre, Klaus Kinski wears one expression for most of the film, and somehow contains a careening world within that visage.  It’s a film that exhilarates and saddens, for the same reason: nothing like this will ever be seen again, so strong is its ambition, so terrible are its circumstances.  There is only one Herzog.  In my mind, the closest film of comparison is APOCALYPSE NOW, but even that masterpiece takes its time to make its case.  Aguirre’s first few minutes are the descent into a world without reason, and it spends its remaining time preventing us from climbing out of that pit.  That Herzog plots such a predicament and wrestles one of the greatest films ever made out of it is indeed an achievement.

Wisdom From Father Cocteau

Posted in Miscellaneous with tags , , , on September 13, 2009 by Nathan Douglas

I’m slowly working my way through The Art of Cinema, a collection of writings on film by Jean Cocteau.  One passage, from the essay ‘Poetry in Cinematography,’ is too good to not share:

And if the man who carries out a work of cinematography offers us the essence of his heart and soul, precisely because he cannot control the impulse to do so; if he submits himself to undertaking a humble task and this essence escapes from his innermost being, an essence and charm that owe their effect to the very fact that they are uncalculated; then how do you expect this essence and this charm to work when the audience, his true collaborator, responds with ill-mannered indifference to this proposal of a marriage of love?

If the public goes out of its way to lose its childhood faculties, if it pretends to be an incredulous grown-up unable to slip into that sphere where the unreal becomes matter-of-fact, if it insists on hardening itself against the euphoria it is being offered, if it makes fun of things that are beyond it instead of attempting to raise itself to their level, in short, if it will play the sceptic when confronted with the mysteries of religion and art, I am no longer surprised when people complain that producers are inclined to make only films of the most lethal vulgarity.

This craving to understand (when the world that people inhabit and acts of God are apparently incoherent, contradictory and incomprehensible), this craving to understand, I say, shuts them off from all the great and exquisite imprecisions that art deploys in the solitudes where men no longer try to understand, but to feel.

This is why I am fascinated by cinematography, which goes beyond the little audience for theatre and is that much more likely to reach those few souls in the world who are searching for food and dying of hunger.

Magnifique.