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Related lists: Jailed Birds: Women in Prison Films
Related sci-fi list: Sci-Fi Television in the 2010s
Related sci-fi list: Sci-Fi Television in the 1980s
Related sci-fi list: Sci-Fi Television in the 2000s
Where the Future Was Born
Silicon Valley, the high-tech hotspot in Northern California, is an innovation-driven development center that never stops looking forward to the future. As a result, the sector's storied saga tends to get overshadowed by excitement over the next big thing. PBS's consistently impressive history series, "American Experience," points the spotlight in the other direction for an overdue look back, more than half a century, to the roots of modern startup culture. The program does an excellent job of tracing the events and innovations that laid the foundation for the information technology we enjoy today. The narrative is fittingly framed around the career of Robert Noyce, a brilliant physicist who co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957 and gave the reigning tech titan, Texas Instruments, a run for its money. His company pioneered the use of silicon as a semiconductor in transistors, and then parlayed those innovations into an inspired design for the integrated circuit. The application of that element in microchips caused the former orchard region, then known as the "Valley of Heart's Delight," to be redubbed "Silicon Valley." At the end of the 1960s, Noyce left Fairchild to co-found Intel, arguably the template for modern tech-driven companies like Apple and Google. Their introduction of the microprocessor in 1971 kick-started the digital age. Just as the microchip took the capacity of multiple transistors and shrunk them down, the microprocessor combined multiple integrated circuits and housed them on a single processor chip. What came after that is much more familiar to us these days, since they're used in everything from laptop computers and smartphones to microwave ovens and children's toys. For those wanting a better understanding of what led to modern computing (and the dotcom business culture), this program provides a great history lesson of the pre-PC era.
Good Copy Bad Copy (2007)
If sampling is wrong, I don't wanna be copyright
This is a thoughtful and well made documentary that looks at the subject of copyright from both sides of the law, and with an international scope, to boot. I get jazzed when I hear or see anyone putting the spotlight on the creative aspects of sampling and cut-and-paste technology, and not just towing the usual line about piracy and copyright violation. This insightful work explores the topics of hip-hop sampling, remix culture, file-sharing, movie piracy, and the current state of the music business. It also touches upon Russia's rampant DVD black market, Brazil's vibrant Tecno Brega remix scene, and the booming independent film industry in Lagos, Nigeria (Nollywood).
A number of notable names in the copyright debate are interviewed, including mash-up maestro Gregg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk), Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, Grey Album culprit Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse), MPAA chief lobbyist Dan Glickman, and Fredrik Neij (a.k.a. TiAMO) and Gottfrid Svartholm (a.k.a. Anakata), operators of the Swedish Bit Torrent site The Pirate Bay. The documentary initially aired on Danish television in 2007, but is now available to view for free on the official website. If you'd like to burn your own copy to disc and share it with others, the directors also provide a torrent link for a XviD version. The film is well worth it, and if you have the means, I encourage you to reward their efforts through the optional PayPal donation. Even if you just throw two or three bucks their way (equivalent to the average DVD rental or on-demand title), it would be a nice show of support.
Lumière et compagnie (1995)
New visions through an old eye
This DVD is a collection of the interesting, although scattered, results of an inspired project. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Lumiere Brothers' first motion picture, 40 directors from around the world are each allowed to shoot a short film using their original hand-cranked model. The participants have to follow three rules: 1. The film is 52 seconds. 2. No synchronous sound (most use musical scoring or dub in foley sound, and many are silent) and 3. They have to get it within three takes. Unfortunately for the viewer, several of the filmmakers opt to merely capture trite snapshots of everyday life. While this keeps in tradition with the Lumiere Brothers' original films, which wowed audiences unfamiliar with moving images a century ago, it makes for a pretty unremarkable experience today. Patrice Leconte pays tribute to their film of a train arriving in La Ciotat, France in 1895 by documenting the arrival of a modern day streamliner at the same location. Alain Corneau applies the technique of color tints to footage of a dancer twirling about. Some of them set up elaborate sequences (Gabriel Axel, Jerry Schatzberg, Peter Greenaway), some are intentionally minimal (Wim Wenders, Regis Wargnier, Andrei Konchalovsky) or simple and symbolic (Arthur Penn, Abbas Kiarostami, Francis Girod, Cedric Klapisch) and a large number turn the camera on itself (Liv Ullmann, John Boorman, Claude Lelouch, Gaston Kabore, Youseel Chahine, Helma Sanders). David Lynch is one of the few directors who rises to the challenge with an exceptionally creative effort, and his is easily the most impressive of the bunch. I'm sure it was an honor for them to be approached for the project, but the entries of Spike Lee, Nadine Trintignant, Lasse Hallstrom, and Merchant Ivory are quite unimaginative and forgettable. The menu screen lists the directors alphabetically, allowing you to jump directly to your favorite ones. Each short is designated by a chapter stop, accompanied by brief behind-the-scenes moments and interviews in which the directors awkwardly answer questions such as "Why do you film?" and "Is cinema mortal?" These unsuccessful attempts at insight are best summed up by Michael Haneke's reply: "Never ask a centipede why it walks or it'll stumble." As a tribute to film history, it's a novel and occasionally successful idea, but much of the work is too inconsistent to earn repeat viewings.
Let My Puppets Come (1976)
A pornographic precursor to "Meet The Feebles"
Gerard Damiano, famous for the cult pornos "Deep Throat" and "The Devil in Miss Jones," delivered this downright bizarre film starring a cast of anatomically correct Muppet-like marionettes. The plot concerns a group of businessmen in financial despair who hit on the idea of making an adult movie for quick profits. It's filled with plenty of cheap sex gags, including some amusing opening credits. There are sequences that feature full frontal puppet nudity, puppet fellatio, onscreen puppet penetration, and even a puppet ejaculation shot. The humor and absurdity of such gimmicks wears off fairly quick, replaced by an experience that is ultimately disturbing. You have to wonder just who the intended audience was. There are far too many ridiculous and unneccesary musical numbers for the adult movie crowd, and too many baffling and unexplained moments to be a comedy, and it's certainly not the usual fare of puppet animation buffs. There are a few appearances by actual humans, including "Screw" magazine publisher Al Goldstein and not one, but two cast members from Joel Reed's "Bloodsucking Freaks" (Viju Krem and dwarf actor Luis De Jesus). The entire mess is about 40 minutes too long, and would have fared better as a short.
Strangers die everyday
With documentary-like realism, experimental art film structure, and a title that became a '90s buzz word, Richard Linklater's brilliant study of the life of idlers has acquired cult status. Eschewing the typical film syntax, he follows a string of characters through a 24-hour period in Austin, Texas, using basically the same camera angle and lens for the length of the movie (with the exception of a brief segment shot in pixlevision). The dialogue acts almost as a monologue, with each scene linked together by one character 'passing the baton' to the next. The cast was made up of crew members and locals (Linklater plays the opening character), and an improvisational overtone provides for many memorable moments. Austin band Ed Hall are seen playing live in a club, and Louis Mackey, Professor of philosophy at University of Texas, has a great role as an old anarchist. After this, Linklater started directing more linear, mass audience-friendly films ("Dazed & Confused," "Before Sunrise," and "SubUrbia") but still kept the stories within a 24-hour time frame.
The Tune (1992)
Remarkable toon with ridiculous tunes
Celebrated cartoonist Bill Plympton's first feature film is a surreal musical fantasy with some inspired animation. He financed it entirely by himself, raising extra money by doing work for a few television commercials (see "Plymptoons: Complete Works" on DVD). He also released early portions of the film as shorts to help generate funds ("Dig My Do" in 1990, "Push Comes To Shove" and "The Wiseman" in 1991), even winning the 1991 Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival for "Push Comes To Shove." Working again with Maureen McElheron (she scored his 1988 Oscar-nominated short "Your Face"), Plympton pieces together the story of a songwriter who, after receiving a 47-minute deadline to deliver a hit song or get fired, finds himself lost in the town of Flooby Nooby. Through the course of ten musical numbers (touching on various popular music genres) and some outstanding animation sequences, he learns to pen songs from the heart rather than by the book. This film is classic Plympton, but the light-hearted theme and often silly songs contrast greatly with the bizarre sex and violence of his second feature-length film "I Married A Strange Person."
Mystery Train (1989)
Memphis Soul Stew
Jim Jarmusch's follow-up to 1986's "Down By Law" is an engrossing trio of stories revolving around one night in a run-down Memphis hotel. Continuing his tradition of casting musicians as actors, he enlists Joe Strummer as a British Elvis and the late Screamin' Jay Hawkins as the hotel night clerk. R&B great Rufus Thomas appears in the train station, and Tom Waits is the voice of the radio DJ. John Lurie provides the score, along with a fabulous soundtrack of classic Memphis music (from Elvis Presley to the Bar-Kays). The stories are intertwined, with certain events being shown from the perspective of each of the three sets of characters. The town has fallen a bit since its heyday as a musical hotbed, but the spirits of its past can be sensed in the delapidated buildings and landscapes, all lovingly embraced by Jarmusch's lens. All of the night shots were actually filmed at night, and some scenes are subtitled in Japanese and Italian. As is typical with Jarmusch's work, the action unfolds at a leisurely pace, and not without some humor. The film's juxtaposing of cultures is a popular theme with the director, and one he would use again in his next anthology piece, "Night On Earth."
Spiklenci slasti (1996)
Step inside the cabinet of Jan Svankmajer
Master animator Jan Svankmajer delivers another masterpiece with this feature-length effort, following the routines and rituals of a half dozen everyday folks (a man who keeps to himself; a woman across the hall from him; a newscaster and her husband; a mailwoman; and a magazine storekeeper).
While still incorporating some very impressive stop-motion segments, this film is primarily live action and amazingly uses no spoken dialogue. Each character is represented with their own background music, and their paths cross interestingly as the events unfold. Examining the hidden desires and fetishistic nature of us all, Svankmajer has his subjects walking in and out of closets both literally and metaphorically. The imagery, as always, is equally fascinating and disturbing.
Full of secrets
Comprised mostly of footage and interviews shot during the making of "Lost Highway," this excellent documentary provides a fascinating peek inside the world of the master filmmaker and his entourage of collaborators. Besides some amusing anecdotes from David himself, there's chats with his ex-wife Peggy, his children (including budding director Jennifer Lynch), his friend Jack Fisk, editor Mary Sweeney, producer Mel Brooks, writer Barry Gifford, actor Dean Stockwell, and "Eraserhead"/"Twin Peaks" almuni Jack Nance and Catherine Coulson. We also hear from the cast members of "Lost Highway," as well as learn the stories behind some of Lynch's characters (Bob, The Log Lady, Frank Booth, Mr. Eddy). Some of the more illuminating moments come when the focus shifts to his non-film projects, including some great footage of him working with composer Angelo Badalamenti and singer/violinist Jocelyn Montgomery (billed as Jocelyn West) on the unreleased track "And Still." His bizarre multimedia paintings are discussed, and there's a visit to a gallery show of his photography. He also created all of the furniture used in "Lost Highway." and we see a showcase of the odd tables and shelves he's made. The DVD edition outshines the shorter VHS version, with additional footage (with some Twin Peaks coverage) plus nice menu screens featuring clips from "Eraserhead,""Lost Highway," and his two early short films "The Grandmother" and "The Alphabet." All in all, any fan of the man's movies will want to check this one out. It's an interesting and inspiring portrait of a real American iconoclast.
Neco z Alenky (1988)
Through the Looking Glass, Darkly
Animation legend Jan Svankmajer applies his distinctive style to Lewis Carroll's most famous creation, crafting one of the most original and unforgettable takes on Alice's adventures ever put to film. Having previously adapted Carroll in his 1971 short film, "Jabberwocky," Svankmajer returns to the author's work with this amazing feature-length film. Employing a magnificent blend of live action and stop-motion animation, he uses many of Carroll's ideas as jumping-off points. Many of the characters are reconstructed as nightmarish abstracts of the way they have usually been depicted in previous adaptions. The white rabbit is a stuffed real rabbit who keeps his watch tucked in a sawdust-leaking gap in his chest. The Dormouse has been reduced to a creepy crawling foxlike hide, and the Caterpillar is a sock with eyeballs and teeth that sews its eyes shut when it sleeps. Although familiar characters such as the Mock Turtle and the Cheshire Cat are left out, Svankmajer's film is incredibly faithful to the book's sense of fantasy and absurdity. The minimal dialogue and pronounced sound effects also add to the overall unsettling mood. The key to truly appreciating this version is to forget the common associated imagery from other adaptions, and treat this as its own entity. Just as a dream makes a totally different impression on you than a person you describe it to (regardless of how well you describe it), this film is one man's surreal interpretation of another man's surreal description. The skull-headed birds, walking dolls, and broken-down furniture of Svankmajer's world make this a pretty disturbing telling of Alice's journey, but a masterful, enthralling, and undeniably unique one as well.