Sunday, May 29, 2011

SIFF — Littlerock, On Tour

A double-header this time.

U.S., 2010
SIFF's page
Official site

After their rental car breaks down, Japanese brother and sister Rintaro and Atsuko are stranded for two days in the dead-ender California town of Littlerock, where the chief commodities are "partying," throwing rocks, and (for the few forward-minded) dreaming about being anyplace else. They find themselves at a rowdy party of townies, drawing Atsuko, who speaks no English whatsoever, into a group of brodude locals. Two of the guys immediately set their eyes on her. One is Cory, the sort of awkward misfit who's likely doomed to be somebody's victim all his life. The other is handsome, laconic Jordan, for whom her feelings are, for a while, significantly warmer. The siblings split when Rintaro insists they continue their planned trip to San Francisco but Atsuko chooses to stay with her new friends that, she tells him, are unlike their friends back home.

Even at only 83 minutes, this small, quiet character piece stretches its quantity of story rather thin. But not long after I began wondering where all this was going the final moments arrived, and with them some pleasing resonances and a nicely restrained reveal about the purpose of the siblings' trip, which seeks to perhaps resolve a generation-scarring family history.

For Littlerock, director Mike Ott took the Someone to Watch prize at the Indie Spirit Awards, and I can nod agreeably to that. He frames some striking images, and he deftly handles a low-key mood that hums with a muted tension, pulling us through. His amateur cast also delivers plenty to feel good about here. The film is ultimately too slight to leave a lasting dent in my memory, but I can't deny that this warm look at dislocation and communication is well crafted and carefully performed.

On Tour
France, 2010
SIFF's page
Official site

Here's my one significant SIFF disappoint so far, and the fact of that has me sitting here wondering where I went wrong as a viewer as much as where the film went wrong for me. 

Mathieu Amalric has been on my Go See list ever since The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, so his presence here as not just the star but also the writer-director put On Tour near the top of my SIFF Go See roster. That and its milieu of live-stage showbiz performers, in this case a troupe of American New Burlesque stars — played by authentic American New Burlesque stars — touring the harbor towns of France with their troubled, self-destructive manager Joaquim (Amalric). Amalric derived his "dramedy" story from a memoir by Colette. At the 2010 Cannes Amalric took the main film critics prize as well as the Best Director Award for On Tour. You watch that trailer and how could you not put this one on your Oh-hell-yeah list? Everything here seemed sure-fire to reel me right in.

But instead, On Tour managed to feel wearyingly longer than its 111 minutes. Joaquim's personal conflicts with his past associates, the bridges he burned long ago now that he desperately needs one after an important performance venue has been taken away from him, came off as fragmented, under-supported and, by the three-quarter mark, just so much empty sound and fury. Amalric himself is quite fine as always, and imbues Joaquim, a selfish and self-defeating dick for the most part, with the charm of a once-great impresario now permanently on the skids he greased himself somewhere along the way. Yet the film could have got on just as well without Joaquim, I think, and I probably would have enjoyed it more had that been the case.

Because far more interesting are the burlesque performers, the true-blue artistes playing (after a fashion) themselves: Mimi Le Meaux, Kitten on the Keys, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Evie Lovelle, and Roky Roulette. They are independent-minded professionals getting by in a tough game through brassy tenacity, purposefulness, and their individual singing, dancing, tassel-twirling talents. They come through the screen with greater naturalism, life, and dimension than Joaquim, and with half the script wordage.

Early on, one of the performers shouts to recalcitrant Joaquim from the rehearsal stage, "We don't need you. The show is our show." If only On Tour had taken that as its premise and spine, bringing the performers and their stories to the fore while delivering on the potential of their separation from the manager whose personal failings are at best stalling their careers (their longed-for big debut in Paris is quashed by his unexplicated past history there). That would have been the movie I'd wanted to see.

For a "road movie," On Tour doesn't actually seem to go anywhere. There are hints and feints toward revealing backstory behind the character of Joaquim and, among his performers, soulful Mimi, but they remain loose strands only. The level of narrative we do get seems unconcerned with following through on whatever strands it presents. What's here isn't enough to prevent On Tour from feeling, to me, as though it's the rough and protracted middle third of a three-part story about choices, making good, and sequined showbiz grit.

It's a colorful but frayed feather boa with both ends clipped.

Music: Sondheim, Company (2007)
Near at hand: almond flax muffins

Pic pick: Screw CGI, no. 2

Click to embiggen (1744 x 600).

Comet Between Fireworks and Lightning
Credit & Copyright: Antti Kemppainen

January 2007, Perth, Australia, Comet McNaught. From Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Previously on Screw CGI.

Friday, May 27, 2011

SIFF — The Thief of Bagdad: Re-imagined by Shadoe Stevens with the Music of E.L.O.

Something else SIFF does that makes me happy: screenings of acclaimed vintage films along with all the new titles. This year we get Powell and Pressberger's Black Narcissus from 1947, Fellini's La Dolce Vita ('60), and this high fantasy spectacle from 1924 starring Douglas Fairbanks, who all but leaps from the screen to radiate sheer boisterous charisma like the Malibu sun.

The Thief of Bagdad: Re-imagined by Shadoe Stevens with the Music of E.L.O.
U.S., 1924/2011
SIFF's page with trailer

When this title first pinged my SIFF radar, my response was a mix of geeky excitement (my fondness for silent-era classics being what it is) and forehead-puckering curiosity. That E.L.O.? Jeff Lynne's overelaborate electro-orchestral pop group that, alongside Abba and Frampton, saturated the '70s airwaves like Chiffon margarine with "Livin' Thing," "Telephone Line," "Mr. Blue Sky"? Plus that Shadoe Stevens? (Okay, honestly, I had to look him up. Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Why? As The Stranger's SIFF Picks put it: Because shut up, that's why.

Actually, I'm on board with any project that exposes new audiences to the great movies from the 1910s and '20s, and this rollicking, ambitious Arabian Nights adventure-romance-fantasy, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and directed by Raoul Walsh, is indeed one of the greats (albeit not one of my top faves from the era). This "re-imagined" version also came with a high buzz quotient from the SIFF programmers.

So I was particularly excited to catch this one on a big screen with a big audience. I was not disappointed.

I won't go deep into the particulars of the film itself (TV Guide and Movie Diva offer fine overviews). I will note that it presents Fairbanks, playing the roguish slacker-thief who must prove himself worthy of the Princess, at his most flamboyantly dashing — all bare-chested vim and lithe athleticism as he runs, leaps, bounds, scales walls, and fights a giant spider under the sea, stopping occasionally to woo his high-born love or strike a swashbuckling pose, fists on hips, head tossed back in a hearty laugh. At 42 (!) he looks damn good doing it and is undoubtedly having a hell of a lot of fun. Watching him here, it's not at all surprising that The Thief of Bagdad was his favorite of all his movies.

The story itself is rudimentary stuff: our hero races his comic-book rivals (princely suitors of an unambiguously odious lot) to collect Plot Coupons in a blithely dispatched quest fantasy to win the Princess. What props it up are the film's ageless fantastical attractions: the gorgeous story-book Bagdad built of curvy dreamscape minarets and willowy arcing interiors like an inspiration for Dr. Seuss; a magic rope, a flying carpet, and, in the spectacle-rich second half, episodes set in the Valley of Fire, the Valley of the Monsters, a Sirens' lair on the ocean floor, the Cavern of Enchanted Trees, the Abode of the Winged Horse, and the Citadel of the Moon.

The vast sets and their screen-filling ornamentation were designed by the great art director William Cameron Menzies, and their grace and opulence still impress. The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive productions of the era, and you can see all over the screen that the money was well spent.

All the leads here, especially Fairbanks, display the highly emotive, florid pantomime acting style that by '24 was already heading out of fashion in favor of more naturalistic performances. But nobody gesticulated with snappy, robust gusto like Fairbanks and it's just petty carping to imagine him doing it any other way. His final screen moments deliver one of the most memorable Hero exits in cinema history, in a stunt that could have ended up crushing dozens of day-worker extras if that steel-plate Magic Carpet came crashing down instead of zooming with triumphant flourish over their heads and into the starry Arabian skies.

Silent-film buffs are also treated here to beautiful Anna May Wong as the sparsely clad slave girl aiding and abetting the villainous Yellow Peril Mongol Prince, and Noble Johnson (mostly wasted) as the Prince of the Indies.

The 145-minute print itself was in good shape for an unrestored public-domain master, with only infrequent reminders of the original's 87 years of age. The color tinting was handled with a mindful touch, reproducing the original ochers and blues to good effect.

As for the post-colon "Re-imagined by Shadoe Stevens with the Music of E.L.O.": The newly applied musical scoring worked, often very well, although if you're not a die-hard E.L.O. fan (I'm lukewarm on the subject) some of the choices are repetitive and probably won't dazzle you as being "like the music was written for the film" (as Stevens reports was Jeff Lynne's assessment of an early cut). As the lights came up at the end, a number of my fellow attendees expressed high praise for the doubly retro pop mashup, and I can't say I have firm grounds to disagree with them.

Afterward, as Elizabeth and I were chatting about it at a watering hole in Seattle's Pike Place Market, she said that for her the E.L.O. score was the least interesting part of the event. As a relative newbie to silent-era films, she felt that it was a keener pleasure just to see The Thief of Bagdad in a theater at all.

Stevens himself attended the screening, speaking before and after the show and sitting just a couple rows behind us. Still a SoCal shaggy-blond at 64, Stevens clearly has been allowed access to that secret Goldie Hawn Improbable Youth Extension Treatment Center we all know exists in Hollywood somewhere. To hear him tell it, his youthful enthusiasm stems directly from his first viewing of The Thief of Bagdad as a boy. That experience made a life-shaping impression, as great films are wont to do, and this "re-imagining" is the result of his 30-years-long "obsession" to give "this real piece of 20th century art" a "definitive, perfect-perfect absolute final" musical scoring. With it he can share both the film and his pure fanboy love buttressed by, as he put it, "fanaticism at its most absurd." Before the show started I overheard him tell someone, "I made it for myself," and that sincere fan-geeky passion showed through the frames, earning him the right to place his ostentatiously spelled name up there in the title.

Unfortunately, TToB:RbSSwtMoELO is not a commercial project for wide release outside festivals and special screenings, at least not yet. It's still a work in progress as Stevens solicits studio support and investment funds to refine it with a fully restored print and a new digitally processed color palette inspired by the paintings of Maxfield Parrish, whom Fairbanks had wanted originally for the film's artistic design team. It's a shame that Parrish didn't take the job, so I'd love to see what Stevens might do to help us finally see what might have been.

Stevens told us that over the past thirty years he has put together some fifty different versions of the film in his home studio, laying down music tracks from classical to rock to experimental in various combinations. The all-E.L.O. score is the one he's most satisfied with. Me, I'd snap up a DVD or Blu-ray that brought home The Thief of Bagdad with five or ten or twelve of the diverse audio mixes he's assembled over the years, each score shaping a different experience of the film.

That I woke up today with "Mr. Blue Sky" stuck in my head I won't necessarily count as a negative. But if it happens again tomorrow... well played, Stevens, well played, sir.

Music: Rolf Lislevand, Nuove Musiche
Near at hand: Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2011

"Star Wars" meets "Withnail and I"

By raffjones via Boing Boing.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

For your consideration — Marge: "You liked 'Rashomon'" / Homer: "That's not how I remember it" edition

Film School Rejects: Cannes 2011: And The Winners Are…
and Who Should Have Won Cannes 2011

Guardian: I was a judge at Cannes — "[He] respects honesty, passion. If you are like this, there will be no problem. But if you try to pull your Guardian bullshit with him, your two stars, three stars, you will be seeing stars!"

AV Club: Fox Searchlight suggests you see The Tree Of Life while high 

A.V. Club: Pop Pilgrims travels to San Francisco for a look at Jimmy Stewart's apartment in Vertigo (Related posts: It's a Vertigo kind of day, San Francisco) Decade’s Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Movies Viewer's Poll Results

Total Film: The 50 Greatest Simpsons Movie References "Simpsons" Scenes and their Reference Movies

Actualidad Simpson: More Simpsons::Movies refs, in Spanish

duffzone: Simpsons references categorized by topic/title (e.g. The Godfather)

Neenja: And more

Salon: The Muppets are back, and more meta than ever (with trailer) — Hey, I'm not made of stone, y'know.

/Film: Frankenstein Films: Matt Reeves to Direct 'This Dark Endeavor;' David Auburn Writing 'The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein'— My favorite of the Classic Monsters is becoming a meme once again. Empire Online: Frankenstein's Casebook Opened: Ghost House Pictures prep Ackroyd novel — I enjoyed the book a great deal. And a screenplay by David Auburn! I'm sold.

Telegraph: Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It, British Library, review -- An exhibition at the British Library puts the early literary works of the young Brontë sisters next to 'A Clockwork Orange' and 'Alice In Wonderland', and asks some important questions about the genre's history. (A few years ago Elizabeth and I spent three weeks within a few minutes' walk of the BL during one of my favorite Novembers ever.) Here's the British Library's site.

NPR: Kurt Vonnegot on the shapes of stories

Retrofuture: Smell-o-Vision

David Bordwell: On "jump cuts" vs. "match cuts"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

SIFF — Troll Hunter

Every year among the award-hopeful dramas, impassioned documentaries, and deep-feeling character studies steeped in cinéma melancholia, SIFF spices up the scheduling grid by slotting in a handful of no-apologies popcorn flicks. Within that group you can typically find at least one imported Scandinavian scare-'em debuting at a midnight showing. This year it's Troll Hunter, the kind of movie the film-snob in me won't touch with a ten-foot Twizzler; meanwhile my inner monster-kid rushes to be first in line. The monster-kid won, as usual, and Elizabeth and I joined friends at the theater early enough to secure primo balcony seats among an enthusiastic packed-house audience. That's how you should see a film like Troll Hunter. I'm glad we did.

Troll Hunter
Norway, 2010
SIFF's page
Official site

In recent years Norway and its border buddies Sweden and Finland sure have made moody, atmospheric horror movies a top popcult export — Villmark (2003), Cold Prey (2006), Frostbitten (2006), Let the Right One In (2008), Dead Snow (2009), Hidden (2009), Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010).... Hey, it's only natural from the moody, atmospheric land that gave us Beowulf, lutefisk, and Renee Zellweger.

Norway's entry in the "found footage" subgenre, Troll Hunter continues the trend with a Cloverfield-scale monster flick pitting flesh-eating behemoths against puny humans with night-vision cameras and modern weapons, plus a hush-hush secret government agency trying to keep the lid on the monsters' very existence.

What makes Troll Hunter stand out, though, is the welcome addition of a wry comic edge that makes the whole thing more at home under the Horror-Comedy label than Horror-Thriller.

Then Ole says to Sven, "Oh, I thought you said toll bridge."
What makes the formula work is director André Øvredal's straight-faced mockumentary style applied to a tongue-in-cheek premise: the trolls of fairy-tale lore, of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and Brian Froud illustrations, not only exist; lately they're breaking out of "their territory" to dine on livestock and the occasional unlucky tourist.

Oh, and they're big. Really, really big.

The description on SIFF's page is correct in pointing out the Scooby Doo vibe found in the three college students comprising the foolishly reckless camera crew ("Mystery, Inc.") that insists on discovering what the reclusive, surly stranger Hans is up to. Reputed to be a poacher shooting bears without a license, Hans instead is using the bear carcasses as a cover to explain the misdeeds of his true nocturnal prey. Hans is solitary and world-weary and hates his "shitty job," but he's the Troll Security Service's go-to expert when it comes to troll eradication, traveling into the deepest woods and near-arctic wastes in his foul-smelling, tricked out Range Rover (that's perforated with giant claw marks) and his troll-killing arsenal. As Hans, Otto Jespersen delivers flinty anti-heroicism like he's crossing Henrik Ibsen with Quint from Jaws. This lone gunman may be a pain in his bosses' side, but he knows and understands these brutes like he's the lead in Deadliest Catch: Grimm Reality!

After a surprise encounter with a three-headed "Tusseladd" — Hans expected it to be a "Ringlefinch"; Troll Hunter creates its own troll taxonomy — the man with the plan agrees to let those meddling kids follow him and record his activities. It isn't long before the three young filmmakers wish they'd stayed home and listened to Björk albums instead.

Much of the film's suspense and deadpan humor comes from coupling old Norwegian folk traditions to a modern-day monster movie. Because sunlight turns trolls to stone (when it doesn't cause them to explode outright), Hans' biggest weapon is a bazooka-like infrared flash gun. Trolls can sniff out "the blood of any Christian man," a verifiable fact after it's discovered that one of the students lied during Hans' questioning on this point. Some trolls do indeed dwell under bridges, so the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff gets a dark-funny shout-out along the way.

Troll Hunter is clever and imaginative and good fun. Almost alarmingly, the film never broke its delicate skin of verisimilitude, that make-believe authenticity on which everything else hangs. Its abundant visual FX mix a vérité style with just the proper piquant of Jarlsberg cheese. The handheld mock-doc approach isn't nearly as annoying as we've seen it in other films such as Blair Witch and Cloverfield. Ample use is made of spectacular Norwegian forests, lakes, and icy mountain ranges, including a climactic battle in the forbidding alpine Jotunheimen range, literally the "Home of the Giants" where Norse mythology places the abode of the Rock Giants and Frost Giants.

Troll Hunter is also draggy in spots and would benefit from a 15-minute trim. Still, stay with it until the final showdown with the Godzilla-sized "Rotnar" that has broken through the electric fence surrounding its deep-forest preserve — Norway's long-distance power grid gets a witty cameo role here — a climax that looks sensational and somehow avoids jumping any giant Norwegian sharks.

This morning Elizabeth and I punctuated our waking-up and getting-ready-for-the-day by randomly exclaiming "Troll!" at key moments. I predict we'll be doing it for weeks.

Music: Dvořák's Symphony No. 9
Near at hand: B.B. King concert poster 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

SIFF — The Trip

The Trip
U.K., 2010
SIFF's page

My love of British comedy is well documented. So it was a sure bet that I'd make a point to catch British comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon once again playing fictionalized versions of themselves  (after 2006's hit-or-miss self-referential Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, again with director Michael Winterbottom). As ever, Steve Coogan (rather, "Steve Coogan") wears lugubrious angst like an up-market rain jacket. Meanwhile, his relaxed, contented friend Brydon again reminds me that I need to look up more of his work.

The Trip is cut together from a six-episode sitcom that aired on BBC2 last fall. Its premise couldn't be simpler: The Observer contracts Coogan to take a culinary road trip through North England's scenic Lake District, Lancashire, and Yorkshire Dales, specifically the remarkably posh restaurants that dot the rolling countryside hamlets there. With his girlfriend in the U.S. (they're "on a break"), Coogan recruits Brydon — long-time friend, colleague, and personality counterpoint — to keep him company.

From there the film's necessarily episodic structure sets the comic duo free to improvise badinage, one-up and poke at each other, and jockey their vocal impressions in competition (various Sean Connerys and Bond villains, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, and most famously Michael Caine). They extemporize on their careers, their aging, their relative celebrity (Brydon's is currently up while Coogan's has flatlined, which gnaws at him relentlessly), and the collision of Coogan's lofty self-image and aspirations toward art-film success in Hollywood with his callow, uneasy relationship with success and people, including himself.

Comparisons with My Dinner with Andre are inevitable and valid. The Trip simply adds wheels and landscapes with ancient rock walls and herds of sheep, plus of course British humor often as sharp as a fine cheddar. Calling it a British Sideways wouldn't be far off the mark either.

The first hour delivers enough chuckles and fold-over-funny bits to convince us to follow these two anywhere. (Although "Oh no! We're two men in a hotel room with just one bed!" is an old set-up that's thuddingly out of sorts with the fresher material here.) The scene driving through the venerable terrain in the Range Rover, improvising mock kingly dialogue for a BBC historical drama ("Gentlemen, to bed, for we leave at 9:30!" "-ish." -Ish!") will go down as one of this decade's high points in screen funny.

As they dine on fashionably rococo haute cuisine it's clear that neither Coogan nor Brydon knows nor concerns himself much about the often puzzling foodie-wonk delicacies placed before them. (Lollipops "made out of duck fat — why not?") We can simply imagine what The Observer will eventually receive in return for its expense account.

Besides Brydon, Coogan's other (and more vexing) traveling companion — indeed, his most intimate relationship — is his enormous load of anxieties. He carries his wounded-diva narcissism on the surface, and the film's second half does turn the dial up on the underlying poignancy of Coogan's insecurities and mid-life/mid-career trepidations. As Coogan tries to favorably compare himself with Coleridge while on the poet's old turf, even he must see that any resemblance is just wishful thinking. When he beds comely hotel staff in between apprehensive phone calls to his (clearly moving on) girlfriend overseas, we sense that it's less to slake an old swaggering laddish hedonism than it is to prove to himself that his stalled celebrity image is still relevant to somebody somewhere. By the time he puts in a call to his young son to talk about arranging a visit, the plays toward sentiment and pathos feel appliquéd on rather than sincere and natural.

At around the half-way mark, as I began to realize that nothing much was happening here, the film gradually acquired a case of the same-old-same-olds with its nearly unwavering tone and pitch and some recapitulated laughs (such as redundant celebrity impressions). While foisting a story throughline or character arc onto such a freewheeling format would feel intrusive, this theatrical version of The Trip began to feel like what it is: an assemblage pared down from longer material that probably flowed better in six installments televised at weekly intervals.

Soon, though, I got over myself and began to enjoy the movie even more once I embraced the obvious fact that "the plot" isn't even close to The Trip's aim and purpose, and it's a relief that nobody along the way tried to tack-hammer one onto the daily production pages.

Instead, we get a fine, funny study of a friendship, two mates who need each other as counterweights, or maybe as reflective surfaces. Coogan, at least, has found in affable, satisfied Brydon a genuine friend willing to put up with his slings and arrows and tragedian woes. In Brydon, as opposed to his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend or the transitory dalliances along the way or his quote-bellowing fans, Coogan has a true companion willing to laugh with him in their little petty contests, who lets Coogan's drama-queen sensitivities and dissatisfactions roll off his own impervious happiness. Water, duck's back, and the duck's just fine with that.

The pastoral English country scenery is lovely, as you'd expect, all green hills and misty vistas. The stops at hotel restaurants left my mouth set for meals more succulent than theater popcorn. Winterbottom frames it all attractively and unobtrusively, not getting in the way of his leads after winding them up and letting them go.

Coogan and Brydon are a natural Odd Couple pairing with a true-to-life rapport. The parts may be better than the whole, but The Trip is funny enough often enough to please Britcom fans such as myself.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


One of three SIFF screenings of the day, the other two being Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff and Another Earth.

Alert: This movie made me uncharacteristically cranky.

Presented by Angels & Airwaves
USA, 2011
SIFF's page

LOVE (all caps, ::teeth grating::) sure is glossy and technically impressive, alright. Writer-director William Eubank knows how to put great-looking images on a screen. (From the evidence here, if he directed a Civil War film I'd see it in a heartbeat as long as someone else wrote the screenplay.) The film's narrative premise — an astronaut, alone on the International Space Station in the year 2039, is cut off and abandoned by Earth after an unknown cataclysm wipes out human civilization below — is conceptually a strong one, and for the most part it's well presented (before it descends into disjointed, fatuous incoherence). I applaud that it's a 100% independent production, as Eubank mentioned in his opening remarks. A real labor of love, years in the making. No question.

But goddamn. What a load of tedious, baldly derivative (the ghost of Stanley Kubrick has already phoned his lawyer), vapid abstruseness that's "deep" only in quotation marks in the manner of a sophomore poetry major who can't stop bonging out to vintage '70s-'80s art-rock and yet still misses the finer points of the Alan Parsons Project, Rick Wakeman's concept spectacles, and Yes album cover art. (Not surprisingly then, LOVE emerged from a concept album by progressive rockers Angels & Airwaves. The film's Wikipedia page has that history.)

The plot, if that's what we can call it, opens with an extended Civil War sequence focusing on a captain in a doomed battle, then jumps forward to its near-future scenario with the astronaut. In the orbital station, the isolated space traveler discovers the captain's diary from 1864 (seriously?). The writer-director's intention behind this moment might have been to suggest some sort of metaphysical link between the captain and the astronaut, to kindle a sense of awe in the inexplicable joining of two doomed men across time and space.

Instead, it's a ridiculous, seemingly desperate moment, absurd and "mysterious" but not in any good way that's evocative or grabbing. I suspect quite strongly, based on the evidence presented on the screen, that Eubank shoehorned footage from an aborted Civil War film into an undeveloped and unworkable sci-fi premise, hoping that through some alchemy the two would fuse and transform shit into Shinola.

There's no Shinola here.

By the half-way mark, I wasn't so much watching it as simply staring at it, like an aquarium filled with pretty fish that I wished would do something, maybe interact with one another or eat fish flakes ... anything.

LOVE's attempts to shine a blacklight bulb on the wall-poster themes of Connection, Communication, and Love (rather, LOVE) — and then missing each target entirely — would be funny if the whole experience wasn't such a dreary exercise in wanky grandiloquence and clear but wasted talent.

Generally speaking, movies, particular indies, that hang their hats on being "ambiguous" or "narratively challenging" or "interpretive" are not a barrier to entry for me. As regular readers here know, I can appreciate a less-is-more approach or the challenge of filling in blanks myself. LOVE, though, just keeps piling on the more like potatoes and gravy at Country Kitchen, bloating the interpretive ambiguities until they practically sweat poseur grandstanding and ostentatious impenetrability. The result is pretty, yes, but also ultimately counter-productive and, in its final moments, LOL pretentious in the arch manner of creativity stuck in the notebook doodlings of adolescence.

The guy sitting next to me: twenty-something, pleasant, chatty, thrilled to have come all the way from Boston just for this screening because he's such a fan of Angels & Airwaves. As the lights came up at the end, I got up and wished him a good visit to Seattle. He just sat there, stony-faced, as if calculating a way to get his round-trip airfare back.

Oh, and the squad of logo-bearing "astronauts" positioned inside the theater like an FM radio "Morning Zoo" ribbon-cutting at the mall's new Apple Store — just don't.

Besides, while standing in line I received word that my friend Kij had just won her second Nebula Award. And I'm not going to let this sample of dull ponderousness harsh that buzz.

I mean, goddamn.

Music: Simone
Near at hand: A bumblebee the size of an Everlasting Gobstopper thumping against the inside of the window (what the?)

SIFF — Another Earth

One of three SIFF screenings of the day, the other two being Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff and LOVE.

Another Earth
USA, 2011
SIFF's page
Official site

Another Earth is a film I utterly loved as I exited the theater. It moved me, impressed me as a modestly budgeted indie, and gave me a movie-going experience that flipped my expectations (which were admittedly few, as I went into the theater unspoiled by any word beyond the SIFF blurb). I came away certain that we'll be seeing more from director Mike Cahill — whose sculptor-sharp economy of editing and directing impressed me right out of the gate — and especially his lead player Brit Marling, who co-produced and co-wrote the script while also being photogenic like a marketing manager's dream.

Afterward, though, as I sit here writing this, I'm conflicted. Now that the immediate reaction has worn off, I'm not certain that watching Another Earth a second time wouldn't annoy the piss out of me.

It's a matter of a story that invites us to peer into its depths and folds and symbols, to give it a good deep-think, and hooray for that; but as I sit here peering into those folds and deep-thinkery, I'm coming up wondering how much of my initial thrill derived from factors outside the movie itself — a particularly pleasant breakfast a few hours earlier, or the sheer pleasure of seeing three previously unknown films in good company on a nice May day in Seattle.


After celebrating her acceptance into MIT in astrophysics at age 17, Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling in what I imagine will be a breakout performance) is responsible for a drunken car crash that destroys the family and therefore the life of John Burroughs (William Mapother) and sends her to prison for four years; meanwhile a mirror planet Earth has appeared in the sky, opening questions of what it represents if there's another you there too — perhaps a You who made different choices or for whom chance (or fate or destiny or whatever) dealt a different hand.

After Rhoda gets released from prison, she seeks out John. At the moment of their first meeting, what begins as an act of contrition and repentance is overpowered by the weight of her shame and remorse, twisting the moment into a new trajectory of lies and evasions. It's that trajectory which gradually opens a deeply fraught emotional relationship and co-dependency between Rhoda and John; meanwhile, he remains unaware of just who she is and how her life has already intersected his.

On the one hand...

Despite its distinctive high-concept science-fiction component, it does a disservice to describe this moody chamber piece as a "science fiction movie," a label that automatically barnacles a set of tropes and expectations onto the film that don't and shouldn't apply to what's actually here. That alternate Earth is more than a MacGuffin, not just another artificial Plot Device familiar in conventional science fiction. Although Isaac Asimov's Foundation books get a nice visual shout-out in the film, and the new Earth is treated as a thing of orbital mechanics and a physical place (a millionaire is sponsoring a contest to visit the planet in his private-venture shuttle, a contest Rhoda enters), there's more of Borges than Buck Rogers here.

Again: hooray for that.

Anyone who watches the film fretting about such things as orbital dynamics and Newtonian laws (where has it been and why is it here now? what about tidal forces?) is missing more than just the point. For one thing, worrying how a duplicate Earth could be there is trivial given the existence of a duplicate Earth at all.

On the other hand...

When it comes to that crucial suspension of disbelief, Earth 2's existence can't help but bring up nagging questions even if they are beside the point. Evidently it did for Cahill and Marling too, and the script stumbles when it tries fleetingly to address the issue. Yet instead of successfully lampshading Earth 2's more credulity-straining conundrums, the script compounds them with pseudo-science rubbish dialogue.

On the one hand...

The appearance of "Earth 2" is crucial to the twining of Rhoda and John's individually broken lives, providing a literally overhanging presence that adds a metaphorical layer onto Rhoda and John's intimate earthbound story, a layer that magnifies like a telescope lens the film's themes of human connection, communication, redemption, and the universal "what if?" questions of personal fate, choices, identity, and that thing T.S. Eliot said about "In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

On the other hand...

As a poetic metaphor it's as obvious and anvilicious as, well, as a big ol' planet hanging over your head.

On the one hand...

Brit Marling, who carries the film through nearly every frame, and Mapother deliver strong performances that are, like the look and feel of Another Earth as a whole, subdued and self-possessed.

Mike Cahill's cinematography is striking and atmospheric, and his directing and editing are spare and finely controlled. The narrative is communicated with welcome single-stroke economy as if the material had been chiseled down to core essences. He displays a keen sense of cinematic less-is-more, which I always appreciate.

On the other hand...

A subplot involving Rhoda's elderly, Indian co-worker Purdeep (Kumar Pallana), who has poured bleach into his ears — and during the film, his eyes — to deafen and blind him to his own life's tragic sorrows, jumps the tracks early on. He begins as a standard-issue cinematic Worldly Wisdom vending machine for Rhoda, and ends in a hospital scene built on sentimental clichés so hoary that I wanted to bleach my own eyes and ears. Given the strengths evident elsewhere in the script, I'm curious as to why this character remained in the final film at all.

Oh, and the essay contest, its sponsor, and Rhoda's entry: I'm not buying it, alas.

On the one hand...

I appreciate that the narrative's axis spins on Rhoda insinuating herself into John's life in ways that emerge from her own understandable, relatable damage and weakness and desire to somehow make amends.

On the other hand...

Her self-serving naivete grates. I predict that some critics will bash her kneecaps for being both duplicitous and clueless to the further devastation she's setting up for John. Now, this didn't bother me so much at the time as I was fully engaged with their story as I was watching it unfold. But in retrospect I find my feelings for her shifting from sympathy to annoyance at how superficially she's drawn as a character. I can retcon it by reminding myself that Rhoda is 21 years old and everyone at that age, especially someone so traumatized, is naive and clueless and superficial and flailing, but that does not necessarily make her actions palatable.

On the one hand...

A great deal here really worked for me as I watched it. Another Earth is not "riveting" in the way the word usually gets applied to a movie, and yet there I was, knuckle-chewing riveted like I haven't felt in a long time. And then that final button in the final scene — I tell you, it left me wanting to high-five the screen.

On the other hand...

I'm not finding that Another Earth maintains its gravitational hold on me as I distance myself from it. Too much of its surface crumbles at a touch.

Another Earth received a standing O at its Sundance premiere, where Fox Searchlight won distribution rights in a bidding war that included Focus Features and The Weinstein Company. I just hope the new marketing attention does not not not try to sell it as a Science Fiction Movie. It is that, yes, but it lies so far outside that generic label that to sell it as such, especially in a summer packed with sci-fi wheezes such as Transformers and aliens and superheroes, does a disservice to the movie and to its potential audience.

Music: Tom Waits
Near at hand: Coffee cup from the Shipping Dock Theatre Co., Rochester, NY

SIFF — Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Three more SIFF screenings, this time with Elizabeth. (That image to the right there? She made that on her iPhone while we waited for Cameraman to begin.)

The other two from the day were Another Earth and LOVE.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff
U.K., 2010
SIFF's page
Official site

Some people say they want their lives narrated by Morgan Freeman. I say I want mine photographed by Jack Cardiff. It'd look so much better that way.

Cardiff was a renowned cinematographer whose work spans 73 films, documentaries, and TV series between 1935 and 2007. A key innovator in the early use of color in motion pictures, particularly the first Technicolor cameras as big as refrigerators, his nine-decade career (that's not a typo) began in 1918 as a four-year-old actor, the son of performers who occasionally worked as movie extras. Largely unschooled but a reader and autodidact, he found the first inspiration toward his life's success in a cheap porn novel -- take that, moral arbiters — and went on to acclaim working with the great Powell and Pressburger on A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus (for which he won an Oscar), and The Red Shoes. Soon he attracted the likes of Hitchcock, Orson Welles, King Vidor (on War and Peace), John Huston (on The African Queen), Laurence Olivier (The Prince and the Showgirl with Marilyn Monroe), and others well into the current century. For a while he also tried his hand at directing, his most significant film being 1960's Sons and Lovers, which earned seven Oscar nominations and won Cardiff a Golden Globe for directing. In 2001 he became the first director of photography in the history of the Academy Awards to win an Honorary Oscar. His full IMDb filmography — including "special effects camera operator (uncredited)" on H.G. Wells' Things to Come — reads like a film-school course curriculum. He died in 2009 at age 94.

That's just the raw data. To add a personal point of view, director Craig McCall followed Cardiff around for twelve years, interviewing the man at his home, at work, and at the 1998 Cannes festival where Cardiff was Guest of Honor.

Cardiff is welcoming and affable, offering up stories of being on-set with the likes of Powell and Pressburger, Marlene Dietrich (who possessed such a natural expertise for lighting that Cardiff says she could have been a fine cinematographer), Hitchcock, and other legends. Ample film clips and Cardiff's own home movies take us behind the scenes and illustrate the influence on Cardiff (also a self-taught painter) of the Impressionists as well as light-shadow-color masters such as Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Turner to make a film's photography integral to its communication of story, emotion, and psychology.

On hand for testimonials are Martin Scorsese, Lauren Bacall, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Kathleen Byron, Kim Hunter, Moira Shearer, John Mills, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and others.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff doesn't try to be fancy or overly slick or a gushing fanboy hagiography. It's entertaining and revealing, but hardly intimate as it maintains a respectful journalistic distance. Little is revealed about Cardiff's personal life and relationships, and the most scandalous thing here is his early throw-away mention of the industry's "hypocrisy and hyperbole." Cameraman is, however, quite well made as it pulls back the curtain on Cardiff's inventive pioneering work and on an essential but too often slighted filmmaking art. Next time I watch any of his films (I really do just need to finally buy the Criterion Blu-ray of Black Narcissus), I'll be seeing them with newly aware eyes, which makes this doc a success in all the ways that count with me.

It says something about SIFF audiences that this niche documentary packed the house at 11:00 on a gray, drizzly Saturday morning, and received enthusiastic applause at the end.

Music: Joe Sample and Randy Crawford
Near at hand: Little tin of NASA SEMAA mints

Friday, May 20, 2011

For your consideration — "Validating existence" edition

"Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer 'to' anyone or anything, but prayer 'about' everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine."
— Roger Ebert, reviewing Terrence Malicks' The Tree of Life

"Malick is a brilliant man who's studied the world's religions and philosophies with what I'd say was genuine attention and perception, and while a lot of the natural-world stuff in his last film, the controversial historical saga 'The New World,' looked haphazardly edited and a bit complacent, every image in 'The Tree of Life' counts for something, and some of them come at you as a shock."
— Glenn Kenny also on The Tree of Life

"Floating tangentially in whatever direction it sees fit, and revisiting key images, phrases, and designs (in the church, a coiling stained-glass ceiling; in the desert, a rocky terrain split between black and white), The Tree of Life proves an exhilarating sensory feast of sights and sounds, one devoid of all but the most spartan dialogue and, splintered into snapshots tethered by an unstable and circular chronology, divorced from a linear narrative."
-- Slant's Nick Schager

Meanwhile, on another movie altogether:

"There's nothing more terrifying, to me at least, than looking at one's food, and seeing on it larval insects. I gagged. I gagged again. I threw out the food in the dumpster immediately, and took out the bag and dumped it in the skip outside my building. Then I made myself vomit for an hour. This, my friends, was one of the worst experiences of my life. Well, Rob Marshall's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was worse."
Slant's Ali Arikan on PotC 4

Movie Night at Bowery Mission homeless shelter

Wil Wheaton: On the delivery of technobabble

Woody Allen Movies, In Order Of The Likelihood That Their Titles Will Be Used As Titles For Wu-Tang Clan Songs

The Hidden Message in Pixar's Films

Arnold Schwarzenegger decides maybe right now isn't the best time to stage his acting comeback

Science Fiction Trivia Challenge: John Hodgman vs Patton Oswalt, WFMU radio's "epic nerd-off" (audio)

Oh my God, they killed Rory! (a Doctor Who heh)

Greatest movie sandwiches

The pivotal egg salad sandwich from Mystery Men should be in there too, but hey.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

SIFF — Paper Birds (Pájaros de Papel)

Another entry from the SIFF press preview screenings, here's one that hit me right on all levels. What attracted me here was the period-piece story involving a vagabond troupe of performing artists, and a milieu that has intrigued me ever since Víctor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive.

Paper Birds (Pájaros de Papel)
Spain, 2010
SIFF's page, including the trailer which I couldn't find elsewhere to embed here.
Official site (in Spanish)
Director Emilio Aragón's site (with Spanish/English language options)

I admit it. I'm a sucker for a heartstring-tugger. And Paper Birds doesn't just tug 'em, it ties 'em to a trailer hitch and guns the engine. Sure, I dig on Tarantino and Asian action flicks and Bruce Willis eradicating terrorist time-bomb nukes with the power of his reflective forehead shine. But if my sentimental streak were any wider Boeing could use it for a landing strip.

There's plenty in this Spanish tragic-comic drama — set during the fraught, shell-shocked period after Spain's civil war, with Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship newly enthroned — that's conventional, old-fashioned even. There are moments during its 125 minutes when you realize you've seen this part before, probably in Warner Bros. films from the 1940s. Its climax aims only to rend your heart asunder, and then there follows an epilogue that lushly gushes with mush. I swear I haven't noticed my emotions manipulated so baldly and unashamedly since Les Misérables on Broadway. (That I had just sat through the emotionally desolate Perfect Sense might have contributed to my willing susceptibility here.)

Still and all, there's so much about Paper Birds that worked for me that it's one of the more satisfying two hours I've spent in a theater in a long while.

Right off the bat I was pulled in by director Emilio Aragón's warm orchestral score, which from the first moment flows over you like a Castilian summer set to waltz time. The cinematography by David Omedes is similarly gorgeous and rich enough to probably be fattening. And Paper Birds' story of a down-at-the-heels vaudeville troupe struggling to hold it together after war has shattered lives and livelihoods: that speaks straight to the part of me that romanticizes the plucky troupers of bygone sepia-toned yore.

And as I said, I don't mind my strings getting tugged — as long as it's done sincerely and with a certain level of artfulness and craftsmanship. Director Aragón and Paper Birds checked those boxes for me just fine, thank you.

At the center of the screenplay (by Aragón and Fernando Castets) is Jorge del Pino (Imanol Arias, who's marvelous), a wry comedian who disappears for a year after the war kills his beloved wife and young son. When after that year he turns up out of the blue to rejoin the ragged itinerant troupe in Madrid, he's a world-weary cynic soured by his experiences and losses.

Where has he been the past year, and how did he live? He won't say, not even to his friend, ventriloquist Enrique (Lluís Homar). As Jorge and Enrique put their old duo act back together, in comes a precocious artful dodger, Miguel (Roger Princep), an orphan whose performer parents died in the war (or so he claims).

Well, of course Jorge and Enrique end up adopting the boy (rather, it's the other way around), thus turning their act into a trio.

Trouble is, the oppressive Francoist authorities, headed by stern and paradoxical Capitán Montero (Fernando Cayo), have files on Jorge's history as a notorious Resistance fighter (that year away was not spent idly), and so plant an informant within the troupe to observe and report back.

Events come to a head when the troupe is invited ordered to perform for the Generalíssimo himself. Suspicion and closely guarded secrets within the troupe, a wily diva (Carmen Machi), layered character revelations, an assassination scheme, and a plot twist that knocked my socks off (hard to do, really) keep things moving at a brisk clip right up to all that heart-rending and lush gushing I mentioned earlier. Also welcome is Aragón's keen and knowing eye on the power of the performing arts to heal and to create second-chance families.

Performances are superb across the board, with several actors here (Arias, Homan, Machi) that I hope to see again soon.

Paper Birds, which took the audience award at the Montreal Film Festival, is a full-on emotional, nostalgic, three-hanky crowd-pleaser. Especially in its final fifteen minutes or so, it freely fires the big guns of sentiment, yet the key thing is that it does so with its head high, its shoulders back, and its aim sure. Some critics and casual viewers will dismiss the film for that aspect alone — screw 'em. I was a willing target and didn't mind getting hit even as I saw the bullets coming at me. By that point the film had earned the right to pull the trigger thanks to the preceding beautifully rendered, robustly acted, big-souled swirl of suspense, humor, and pathos. (I can imagine mid-to-late-period Chaplin digging the film, and taking notes.) It may be conventional in structure and tone and purpose, it may push its borders into the realm of melodrama, but damn if it didn't hit every one of its targets, leaving me misty-eyed and with this lumpy thing in my throat. And I was okay with that.

I'm just a sucker that way, I guess. 

What's more, Generalíssimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

Music: Esperanza Spalding
Near at hand:
Iain M. Banks' The Algebraist