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Sons of Ben (2015)
The Strength of Rowdy Fans
This film is a testament to the fact that a little bit of passion, and a whole lot of hard work can make things happen. The key is believing in your goal, and never giving up, even in the face of major setbacks and disappointment. This documentary follows the Sons of Ben, the group of die-hard soccer fans who successfully lobbied to bring a Major League Soccer franchise team to Philadelphia. This grassroots group accomplished this by creating a supporters club, and drumming up massive fan interest from the ground up. They created the scarves, shirts, and rowdy displays of support for a Philadelphia team before one even existed. It's quite a sight.
The message that comes through the strongest in this film is just how hard these guys worked to get their team. We get to see the series of achievements and heartbreaks that these fans had to endure. And, it really is amazing to see that kind of dedication and vision. Enthusiasm for a fun, new project usually dies out long before any real work gets done. And, the Sons of Ben understood what it would take to push through that kind of deceleration. And, we can tell that it really was a labor of love.
Of course, we have the benefit of watching this documentary with hindsight. We already know that Philadelphia succeeded in getting their MLS teamthe Philadelphia Union. So, the drama isn't quite as nerve-wracking as it could have been. But, I appreciated that. And, we still get to feel the struggle along with the Sons of Ben as they receive promises from investors and politicians that never materialize. What is particularly fascinating is seeing the scope of the project that was planned, and comparing it with the more modest stadium that was eventually built. It really gives you some perspective on the whole property development industry.
But, if this story has taught us anything it's that we shouldn't give up on the vision of that complete, bustling mini-city just because of one more setback. Seeing how much good the new stadium has already brought to the previously blighted area is enough to foster hope for the completed vision. I highly recommend that you go and check out this film. It's a heartwarming reminder of the kinds of projects regular people can achieve if they really set their minds and hearts to it.
The Crumbles (2012)
Raucous Girl Comedy
This film is a raucous girl comedy from director Akira Boch, and it's a story about a girl band from Los AngelesThe Crumbles. Those artsy music types can be quite a handful at times, and that's certainly the case with Elisa, the drunken, pixyish key-tar player and "lead personality" in the group. She's a wild girl, and she's been crashing with her more responsible best friend Darla after a bad breakup. Darla is the lead singer and guitarist for the band, and she's the only one in their group of friends who seems to be bringing in any kind of reliable paycheck. Their drummer is Dante, the dreamy boy from next door. Darla has been making googly eyes at him for ages, but she hasn't had the guts to make a move just yet. This is quite a clash of personalities, and of course that makes for a pretty crazy story and some really fun comedy.
I really loved the music in this film. The band plays the kind of upbeat indie rock that really makes you want to dance. It really fits the personalities of the two main characters and it's perfect for this story. The music is the most important aspect of a film about a band, but surprisingly, it's an element that sometimes gets overlooked. If the music is boring or stale, an audience isn't going to care whether this particular group of kids is going to make it big. But, this film definitely delivers! The music is fresh and exciting, and made me really want to root for the struggling musicians in this story. In fact, I liked the music so much that I went to look it up after the screening. It looks like there's a free download on the film's website. Definitely check it out. This is one movie that you're going to want to make sure and see whenever it becomes available in your area.
Afghan Star (2009)
Now, here's a sentiment I can relate to: peoples' universal love of singing! It doesn't matter where you're from, or which religion you follow. There's something about really belting it out into a karaoke machine that's just irresistible. People makes careers studying the psychological components and the deeper meaning of Human Nature, but some of it is pretty simple and common. This documentary follows the Afghan Star televised singing competition. The show follows the format of American Idol, but instead of singing cheesy, English pop songs, the contestants here sing traditional Afghan music. Apparently, the songs are more popular and contemporary than classical Afghan music, but they're still in some of the various languages spoken in Afghanistan, and deemed culturally and morally acceptable by Islamic law. That's important for a show that's broadcast throughout the whole nation. This is a particularly touchy subject for the nation, since it's one of the few things about which citizens can vote democratically. Anyone with a cell phone can text in and vote for his or her favorite singer. In a country as ethnically diverse as Afghanistan, citizens wonder whether the voting will really be unbiased, or whether voters will simply choose the contestant from their particular ethnic group. And, In another unsurprising twist, these new voters run right into another one of the most contentious issues in modern democracy: campaign finance. Wealthy Afghanis have figured out that they can purchase thousands of SIM cards, thereby throwing the vote in favor of their particular darling. (I guess there's more than one universal theme in this film.)
This documentary is really good. Director, Havana Marking, does a great job introducing us to the various contestants, and she really builds the right amount of suspense as the competition progresses. We get to know the singers a little. We rejoice with them when they advance to another round, and we cry with them when they're eliminated. This show was very interesting, because it was one of the first new programs to pop up once the Taliban's decades long ban on singing and music was finally lifted. The show was particularly controversial because the producers allowed women to compete on television alongside men. The film indicates that this contest falls into a gray area of Islamic law. While there is no ban on women singing, the female contestants would have to be very careful not to draw the wrong kind of attention to themselves by appearing vain or sexy. And, some of these women come dangerously close to the line. It's interesting to see how Afghanistan's culture has started to revive itself after the Taliban lost its hold on Kabul. People are wary, and they are branching out very carefully, but they never really lost their old preferences.
Dance of the Dead (2008)
Kids These Days
Not all zombie movies are the same. I guess that statement would hold true for any category of film. When a genre becomes hot, it's only natural that derivative works will start popping up left and rightgood, bad, unexceptional. This movie billed itself as a dark comedya spoof of all those high-school/prom horror flicks. In this one, some of the waste from the the local nuclear power plant has apparently gotten into the water, and caused the undead to wake. Normally, this would just be a minor nuisance, except that this time, they're threatening to ruin Junior Prom. The horror! I generally love spoofs, and it seemed like this one would be just witty enough and self-aware to be great. Unfortunately, self-referential comedy is really hard to play, and this movie ends up feeling a little more affected than clever. And, nothing kills cool faster than trying too hard. Oh, the movie is still good fun. I love these new floppy-haired teenagers. Their humor is smarter and more quick-paced than it was fifteen years ago. They're way more sophisticated than my generation was when I was in high school. I think it's because the internet is way better now than it was then.
But the movie still isn't that original. Just the same old jokes in a new package. I found it pretty hard to maintain any kind of real interest in the story. This was definitely a "tidy up the house, while the movie plays in the background" kind of a flick. Although the music was pretty awesome. Like all these high school movies, this one features a garage band with members that are just a few years too old to still being in high school. (I think the age thing is intentional). Usually these bands are pretty bad, sounding like they're taking inventory of all the cafeteria's pot and pans. But, in this movie they actually rock pretty hard. It's super fun, upbeat rock with some melody and not too much reverb (plus, the musicians pretty cute too). Again, that may be the age thing. All the other kids are the pimply, "if I had a girlfriend, she'd kill me" type of teenager. I guess that detail makes this movie a little more realistic than some others that star "alleged" high-schoolers. All in all, I think I'd skip this movie if I had it to do all over again. But, if anything, this movie is worth it for the awesome musical numbers.
From the Vaults
This movie is an ode to snotty, spoiled kids everywhere. Kids who make life so uncomfortable for their parents with all their pouting and tantruming that parents will give them just about anything just to get them to behave for half a second. This is an old movie from 1959but it just proves that kids have always been little brats. The film is set in small- town Japan. It's one of those little, isolated places that's known for its stereotypically catty, gossipy women, and uninterested, emotionally distant husbands. With all the adults paying attention to their own, petty problems, children are left to run wild. And this story stars a pair of particularly stubborn, yet adorable, little school-aged brothers. These little hellions are used to getting what they want, and this time, their campaign of terror is directed toward forcing their parents to buy one of those new-fangled TV sets. You know, like the one the bachelor next-door, and that loose woman he's shacking up with let them watch after school (gotta love those 1950s morals, don't you?). Well, these boys have learned a thing or two from past experience, so they know that if they hold out long enough, they'll be able to wear down their parents' resolve. It's a war of attrition, and these kids have nothing but time and energy. Plus, they don't have those pesky consciences to make them feel bad about any of this. They're willing to make their parents' lives holy hell until they get that TV set.
The film is done in Technicolor so it's got that awesome, retro look. Somehow, that limited color palette breeds nostalgia, making the past seem a little better than it probably really was. Even these little stinkers seem a little bit cute with their self-indulgent antics (for a little while, anyway). But, it's also kinda fun to see what Japan was like in the late 50s. I already had an idea what the United States was like, but I hadn't really seen or learned that much about contemporary culture in other countries. It seems like a lot of the clothing fashions were the same as here in the US. But each country is going to have its own, distinct social structures at play. I'm glad I watched this one. It's not the most amusing movie ever made, and it does stretch pretty long. It claims to run only ninety-three minutes, but it's actually an hour longer, at one-hundred fifty. That's kind of a big problem. But, I think it's still worthwhile.
Nankyoku ryôrinin (2009)
I got to see a screening of this film at Dc's Japan Information & Cultural Center (JICC) last night. I like going to see films there, because often, they show movies that haven't been released in the United States yet. This is usually because the actors of subject matter is so obscure or specialized that distributors just don't think there's a market here for these movies. But, I don't know why that is. It seems like you can always find people who want to rent all kinds of crazy DVDs. And, this film is actually particularly charming and funny. But it is pretty obscure. The story is about the group of scientists living at the Dome Fuji Station, a Japanese research facility in the heart of Antarctica. And, it's told from the point of view of the crew's long-suffering resident chef. He was a cook in the coast guard, and was assigned to a stint in Antarctica against his and his family's wishes. These guys are in Antarctica on an expedition collecting ice core samples, and it's scheduled to last around four hundred and forty days. All the scientists have their own experiments to run, and they all help with regular chores around the station. But they can't be expected to take care of all their needs by themselves, so they've been given a chefthe titular character. And he's a pretty easygoing, indulgent guy too, to put up with all these guys' wild shenanigans. All this sounds pretty cute, but I can understand why a distributor would have thought this wouldn't do too well outside of Japan.
The story is absolutely delightful. It's full of all the sorts of quirky characters you'd expect to find at an isolated, scientific outpost. And, all the sorts of bizarre behavior you'd imagine they'd engage in too, once the reality of their over-four-hundred day mission finally hits, and the real boredom sets in. The moping, the boozing, the improvised (sometimes nude) sporting events, and all the other tomfoolery. And, then of course, there's the eatingone of the most reliable diversions life has to offer. Heck, the airline industry figured that out ages ago, offering various snacks and nibbles every couple of hours on those long-haul flights. And let me tell you, this chef whips up some of the most exciting meals imaginableand all from frozen ingredients! But, the boredom is the least of these scientists worries. They at least have their official jobs and chores to throw themselves into if the going gets rough. Their biggest problem is really the loneliness. They're far away from friends and loved ones. But, they're also separated from every other element that was familiar from their old lives. It's a big shock to the system to be thrust into such isolation.
But, these eccentrics manage to help each other through their various episodes. They all go through a few. And, they manage to drive their long-suffering chef almost crazy in the process. It's wild and wacky fun. I loved this movie. But, unfortunately I went before having eaten dinner. It was almost torture watching course after course of delicious, steaming, Japanese food served up, with my stomach grumbling the way it was. It also made the film seem a little longer than it probably was. It runs a bit over two hours, which isn't too crazy . . . unless you're starving. (I've been eating nothing but Japanese food since I saw the film.) I'm not sure when you'll ever get the opportunity to see this movie since it seems to only be playing the festival circuit right now. But, if you ever do, make sure you see it. And schedule a big Japanese dinner for afterward!
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Science With Grandpa
I went to see this movie over the weekend, and it was really one of the most amazing, and bizarre things I've ever seen. Werner Herzog takes a tiny camera crew into the famous Chauvet caves in France, giving us a glimpse of the amazingly preserved cave paintings I've only seen in text books up 'til now. Audiences get to view, en masse, a very famous location that they will almost certainly never be able to see in person because of the tight restrictions put in place by the French government to protect its pristine condition. And, better yet, if you see it in the theater like I did, you can see it in 3-D. This sounds like a really cheesy gimmick, but I assure you that the effect really enhances the experience, allowing us to really appreciate how the painters incorporated the natural curves of the wall into their drawings.
All this is pretty cool. But, then we have to endure Werner Herzog's own, particularly zany presentation of the material. He's got a pretty big reputation as a director, but I get the feeling he's getting a bit more eccentric as he ages. First of all, the film is about fifty percent too long. Everyone in the audience was squirming in their seats at about the sixty-minute mark. I understand that one's film needs to be a certain length in order for it to be taken seriously as a feature film, and Herzog achieves this length in one of the most amusing and tedious ways possible. There's only so much footage you can show of the actual cave and the art inside before the footage starts to become a bit redundant. So Herzog calls in a fleet of various "experts" to weigh in, and comment on various aspects of the cave. He's tracked down an assortment of the most delightfully odd, local crackpots. There's an "experimental" archaeologist, who gets into the sciency mood by dressing up in anachronistic and geographically inaccurate fur pelts. There's the master perfumer/spelologer, who looks for new caves by sniffing cracks in the ground for that "cavey" smell. The vintner/anthropologist who enjoys speculating on Paleolithic behavior and mythology, and favors historical reenactments. And, all these experts are pretty visibly pleased with themselves, grinning into the camera after giving us little demonstrations of their "science." It's all pretty endearing. And, these characters are all so very French.
The images of the cave are all pretty amazing. We really get to appreciate how perfectly the artwork has been preserved with the cave being sealed off for so many thousands of years. We can almost ignore all the strange "authorities" Herzog has marching through the film at such regular intervals. But, the tone of the movie was finally set in my mind by Herzog's wonderfully insane postscript. It's a meditation on humanity and culture, nuclear power and albino alligators. The moral conclusions he draws are pretty questionable, and the science is pure quackery. All you can really do is sit there with that wide-eyed stare, wondering if this guy is really serious, or if he's playing some big joke. Either would kind of be wonderful, but of course, for very different reasons.
This movie is really hard to watch. It's one of those stories where things start going wrong right from the beginning, and only proceed to get worse and worse from there. The movie is actually really good. The writing is very witty, and director, Young-Seok Noh has an excellent sense of comedic timing. It's just all so painful to watch our hapless hero, Hyuk-jin, stumble from one disaster, right into another. The basic plot starts with Hyuk-jin right after his girlfriend has dumped him. He's in a deep funk and his friends think he's in need of a little cheering up, so they take him out to the bar, where they all proceed to get rollicking drunk. In a flurry of intoxicated exuberance, the friends make plans to continue this little pep rally the next day at a little countryside resort that one of their cousins runs a few hours drive away. Unfortunately Hyuk-jin doesn't recognize these plans for the drunken puffery they are, and sets off for the bus station the following morning, completely believing that his friends will be waiting for him at the resort. Of course, it's no surprise when none of them are there to meet him when the bus finally gets there. Hyuk-jin is hung-over, awake far too early in the morning, and stranded at a virtually deserted, outdoor bus stop in the middle of rural Korea, in the dead of winter. And, Korea has some of the coldest winters on earth. On top of this, his cell phone reception is pretty spotty. Not a good way to start one's weekend.
All this sounds pretty awful already, but trust me that the story only gets more and more traumatic. Hyuk-jin's biggest problem is that he just keeps trusting people that he really shouldn'this flaky friends, strangers he meets on the bus, pretty ladies soliciting him for booze money. And they all keep pushing liquor on him. He's already feeling pretty hung- over and queasy, so more alcohol is that last thing Hyuk-jin's in the mood for. Unfortunately, it seems to be the only form of sustenance on offer, no matter where he goes. You read the pain right on his face. Sooner or later, you'd think this guy would learn his lesson, but Hyuk- jin is a romantic at heart, and just can't help looking for the good in people. So, I liked this movie. It's pretty rough going, yes, but sometimes a little dark humor is exactly what I'm in the mood for.
Jûsan-nin no shikaku (2010)
The Master Strikes Again
I'm a huge fan of Takashi Miike, so I was very excited to be able to attend a sneak peek of his latest film. Miike's one of those directors who seems to be trying to make at least one film in every style, and this latest is his foray into the classic "samurai avenging injustices" genre. Only, we all know by now that Miike's style is anything but "classic." He always manages to find a way to infuse his own unique, warped imprint into everything he touches. Especially since he insists on making the most bizarre cameos possible in all the films he directs. They are always really fun to watch for.
So, this film is great. It starts off just as slowly as any of these old period pieces set in feudal era Japan, but it quickly descends into pure mayhem and madness. Shinzaemon is a retired samurai, but he is prompted back into action when he learns that the Shogun's "adopted" (code for bastard) son, Lord Naritsugu, has been terrorizing peasants. He's been killing and mutilating men, women and children all throughout the land, and all with the most cold- hearted, disinterested cruelty. So Shinzaemon decides to assemble a band of other idle samurai to hunt this despot down and assassinate him. Those would be the thirteen assassins that give this film its title. And they really are a very mismatched band of warriors. And these men are caricatureseach outrageous in his own way.
The one thing I really love about Takashi Miike's style is that he's never afraid to just go for it. He's got no shame, and absolutely no restraint. I think this is because he has a deep-rooted sense of humor (albeit a very dark one). It's an ability to identify and appreciate the absurdity in life. Miike's films have a reputation for being pretty violent and bloody (and this one is certainly no exception). But they are also incredibly funny. The gore is certainly meant to shock, but I don't think it's just for the sake of a cheap thrill. I think it's meant to throw us of balance. His work is horrifying where we expect delicacy, and actually quite subtle where viewers typically expect to find vulgarity. Of course, we can always count on Miike for some truly silly stunts too. The result is audiences that are quite delighted and amused, even after witnessing all the horror and disfigurement and devastation. Those moments are upsetting and heartbreaking, for sure. But, Miike really understands how a film should flow, and balances these difficult scenes with the right dose of irreverence. He's a true master, and this film is a roaring success.
Lordy, this movie is special! The same way the "special at the school cafeteria is always last week's leftovers, chopped up and baked into a casserole. But, at least everyone involved in this film seems to understand that it's just one, big, port-wine cheese ball with extra nuts. I take some comfort in this fact, because if not, this'd be the saddest production I've ever seen. Everyone's just trying so hard to be "sexy." But the movie actually works perfectly as a parody, even though I have a sneaking suspicion that Both Christina Aguilera and Cher are secretly quite pleased with how they looked on screen.
I actually watched this movie at the request of one of my regular readers. She suspected (and was correct), that I'd have some pretty strong opinions about this little number. It certainly wasn't because she's a huge, secret Cher fan. So, like I said, I'm pretty sure that all the actors in this film were in on the joke. There's an awful lot of mugging for the camera, and general hamming it up. But, don't let that fool you into thinking that this will stop Christina or Cher from trying to nonchalantly out-diva each other throughout the whole film. Those gals are always finding some pretty flimsy excuses to give the audience some full-on, eyes closed, hand in the air, belt-it-out musical numbers. Of course, they always try to shrug these off later on. It's the musical equivalent of, "Oh, this old thing?" I guess it's pretty hard to turn off the inner drama queen. But then, these are two of the most notoriously vain women in show business we're dealing with.
Then again, this movie really was designed just to be a vanity piece for these two. The story line is so clichéd and simple that we can safely ignore it, and focus on our leading ladies' glorious voices. Small-town girl moves to Los Angeles to become a star, and with a little dedication, and elbow grease, she rockets to celebrity, saving all the poor, downtrodden souls she meets on the way. And she finds true love too! You've seen it a thousand times before. But, have you seen Christina Aguilera and Cher's version? Have you seen it with sparkly lingerie and tons of bleached out hair? This is a film for die-hard fans only. But that's who it's really designed for anyway. It's just one, big, tongue-in-cheek wink right at both of these ladies' dedicated admirers. You know who you are.