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Many, many missed opportunities here...
20 August 2006
Sorry to say, this film suffers in comparison with the extraordinary WEATHER UNDERGROUND, which managed to become an unexpected commercial success, largely on the strength of meticulous film-making which not only recounted the history, but also captured context and diverse commentary on the events, times and people central to its' story. It was a film that - in many ways - raised the bar on recent-historical documentary film-making.

Alas, GUERRILLA is a far more pedestrian affair, mostly a compendium of archival footage (much of which is fascinating), with precious little digging into context - the fragmentation of the American left during the early 70s, the rise of underground radicalism (Weathermen, PLO, IRA, Red Brigade, et. al.), the post-60s decline of many major American cities (and the rising despair that ultimately fueled the crack wars of the 80s/90s and the riots that hit Miami and Los Angeles). Each of these elements are of some relevance to what's being presented in this documentary - the SLA were weirder and wiggier than most, mixing their Mao and inner-city blues with a big dose of dadaist strangeness, but they didn't just materialize out of the ether, and - in keeping the focus too tightly on the events and the group, this doc plays the history out as some ultra-violent theatre-of-the-absurd, in real life; a sort-of weird-sploitative pigs-vs-the-people melodrama.

This does a great disservice to history - through this film, Patti Hearst remains an enigma, with a great many class issues, psychological issues (post-traumatic stress, or the Stockholm syndrome) barely touched upon. The other surviving members of the SLA get plenty of screen time (unlike Hearst, who I assume didn't want to be involved), but the many interviews presented don't really seem to dig into anything deeper than who-did-what.

GUERRILLA isn't a total failure by a long shot; anyone with any memory of the 70s knows how weird the story seemed to be, and the recounting of it seen here is definitely captivating; the strangeness, chaos and confusion of the era doesn't feel very distant at all. But I also recall something else: back in the late 80s, the rock band Camper Van Beethoven recorded a snappy, satirical homage to Patty Hearst, entitled "Tania." In three-and-a-half minutes, I think they might have outdone this 90-minute documentary. Oh well.
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If they move....
19 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers

I don't know if ATTACK THE GAS STATION holds up to repeat viewings, but it's terrific fun once, at least. An adrenalized, ultra-stylized, comic-book-violent black comedy about a group of well-scrubbed but very alienated youth who rob a gas station out of boredom, before then deciding to return and run the place for a night, pocketing all of the sales, and then taking off. Of course, the plan goes a little awry...

The style is a deadpan blend of Kubrick, Tarantino, Peckinpah and maybe Suzuki, played for all the gleeful nasty humor and actually sharp social critique that can be gotten out of the premise; at the very least, this film energetically puts the 'slap' back into slapstick. A Peckinpah quote/homage becomes a running punch line, which as much as anything sums up the sensibility. The way, way over-the-top climax is quite well-orchestrated.

Tokyo Shock DVD is of good quality, not many extras (making-of featurette), though I don't know if this one really needs 'em.
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Bright Future (2002)
Illuminating the darkness of the lower depths...
19 August 2006
Kyoshi Kurosawa is becoming one of my favorite current filmmakers, and the further he gets from conventional horror and shock, the better I think he is.

Deeper meanings mingle with absurdist humor, and the kind of chance occurrences that enliven the fiction of Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami also figure heavily in Kurosawa's films; cinematically, everything from Lynch or Fellini to Don Siegel can be a touchstone for further exploration.

BRIGHT FUTURE is like an improved CHARISMA - more refined, less loony, and considerably more poetic, but K Kurosawa's many concerns - trashing of the environment, a sense of depersonalization (and discreet nihilism) in younger/future generations, the erosion of a society's cohesiveness (especially when that erosion originates within, and not from some external source) - are handled very well - the last shot offers his darkest humor, with the cross-generational understanding becoming something quietly heroic evoking certain past masters of Japanese film. A sense that - if younger generations have drifted towards a nihilism that could destroy them or you, it is balanced by an equally withering take on the older generations that somehow let them down; this film in many ways visualizes the idea of getting over it, and moving on with life (after presenting some of the consequences for not doing so).

Tadanobu Asano's presence here is somewhat hyped (definitely on the DVD cover), undoubtedly due to his ascendant global stardom, but his performance is eclipsed by co-stars Joe Odagiri and Tatsuya Fuji, who both deliver dynamic performances of great range and control.

Mysterious, poetic, open to many interpretations, and one of Kyoshi Kurosawa's finest.
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Distance (2001)
poetic...philosophical...cryptic...and excellent
19 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Hirokazu Kore'eda's creative career continues to evolve, and this expansive and meditative drama may be my favorite among his films thus far.

All of the Japanese films I've seen that would seem to psychologically touch upon the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks in Tokyo 10 years ago do so in oblique fashion, turning into great meditations on the idea of some unseen and unexpected terror arising from within, and what that says about a society (not necessarily just Japanese society) that likes to think of itself as secure and a success - most of Kyoshi Kurosawa's films beginning with CURE do this, as does Shinji Aoyama's EUREKA. Hirokazu Kore'eda's DISTANCE is perhaps the most suggessful example of this reflective sub-genre, examining the whys and hows of society's darkest impulses, when those impulses happen to surface unexpectedly.

In this rather lean, Dogme-like film, individuals who lost loved ones to a cult-inspired act of terror and mass suicide, gather for a memorial reunion at the place their loved ones died (a former cult compound in a remote location), only to meet the cult's lone survivor. The idea of blame falls away very quickly, replaced by a more meditative sense of trying to logically and emotionally comprehend an event that is literally incomprehensible; thematically this film has an intense global relevance, perhaps more now than when first released.

Kore'eda's shifts between hand-held cameras (the actual story) and more polished/composed flashback sequences (watch for a brilliant restaurant scene) illustrating the allure of the cult to it's former members is dazzling, blending the techniques used in his earlier AFTER LIFE and MABOROSI. Kore'eda's roots are in documentary film-making, and a fairly unique style has evolved from that background (one can trace that style through the two earlier features; here it really begins to coalesce into something personal and unique): like Errol Morris, Kore'eda prefers the unobtrusive, allowing characters to reveal themselves in fairly relaxed fashion, with many precise insights emerging during quiet, seemingly random moments. This makes for film-making that is languid in tempo, enigmatic and elliptical in narrative structure (certain characters here actually seem to become more inscrutable as the film progresses), but when it works - and it works very well here - the results are mesmerizing.

Like Kore'eda's other work, there's a fairly limited commercial appeal in this extraordinary film; 5 years on it has no distribution in the US, which is very unfortunate - I think a lot of American viewers would be quite stunned by this film, given the opportunity to see it. This one is worth the hunt.
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A deceptively quiet drama...
19 August 2006
I was very impressed by this upon first viewing, a couple years ago, and boy does it hold up with the passage of time. This was Jeong's debut and it will be interesting to see what she comes up with next.

In this coming-of-age story set in a group of young women in a rather bleak and industrial Inchon, S Korea, Jeong doesn't attempt to duplicate the lushness of Naruse or the extraordinary technique of Ozu, but there's an elegance that recalls both - a real ability to look straight into the many subtle slights these women endure, along with the many moments of joy they create, and discover profundity in the everyday. The basic mechanics of the story seem (at first) simple, and the film seems very ethereal for the first 20 minutes or so, but it does coalesce into something quite memorable - the slow tempo and loping narrative makes it easy to overlook the subtle defiance and independence of spirit (and the quick moments of odd, deadpan humor) to be found underneath it all. In both look and feel, Jeong's work is of a piece with certain other leading figures in the current Asian cinematic new wave, and like the best examples of that new wave, Jeong creates a memorable style of her own.

Sweet but not sappy, occasionally tragic without sliding into gross manipulations - a film of great power. The Kino DVD looks great, no extras however.
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One Of Ray's Masterpieces
11 April 2006
The great Satyajit Ray has become one of my favorite filmmakers, and unfortunately it's become very difficult to see most of his films in the US. GOOPY GYNE BAGHA BYNE easily ranks as one of Ray's most intriguing creations - a wonderful family film, which also contains the complex philosophies that enliven Ray's many other masterpieces. In his own film writing, Ray expressed admiration for certain experimental filmmakers who came to prominence during the 50s and 60s, and this film gave him an opportunity to do a bit of stylistic experimentation of his own, while also creating something of a tribute to his father's and grandfather's writings. The results are one of Ray's finest films.

I won't summarize the plot, which is well-described here. But I would point out several outstanding elements of GOOPY AND BAGHA - the first would be Ray's creative use of effects - apparently the film was made on a small budget, but the story is captivating enough that one doesn't really notice - such constraints force a filmmaker to rely upon his own expertise, imagination and ability to improvise and innovate, and in this regard, GOOPY AND BAGHA almost feels like a great, kids version of a 'new wave' film (in the best senses of the term) - willing to try the unexpected, and confident that the unexpected will work well.

A second strength is Ray's creation of a sophisticated family film that has much to offer adult viewers - GOOPY AND BAGHA offers a great amount of hope and strength in the face of a changing world, as the film was made at a time in which momentous and troubling events were occurring throughout the globe. I'm certain that Ray was mindful of this, and sought to incorporate a sophisticated engagement with changes in the outside world into the underlying philosophy in this dreamlike and magical film. Many writers have commented in vague fashion on Ray's 'humanism,' but the worldview expressed is far more detailed and wide-ranging than that term would imply - a well-thought way of looking at life connects all of Ray's films, and that includes this one.

A magnificent film, one very much deserving of wider appreciation around the globe.
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An extraordinary documentary that I encourage others to seek out
5 July 2005
After two viewings, I've concluded that DANGEROUS LIVING is one of the finest documentaries focusing upon the global LGBT human rights struggle that I've seen; it's lone major flaw is that it left me wanting more.

The film is structured around the well-publicized and much-protested persecutions and torture of a number of gay men arrested in what was presumed to be a comparatively safe environment in Cairo, and the incident is used as a touchstone to explore what gay, lesbian and trans-gender activists in a number of other countries have had to endure. Activists from Brazil, Honduras, Namibia, Uganda, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Fiji and The Philippines are interviewed, and in every instance I wanted less voice-over, and more 'in their own words' discussion. I also would have liked to hear more about where conditions have improved, and how those improvements were obtained. DANGEROUS LIVING does also manage to hint at the link between the LGBT rights struggle, and the broader fight for human rights around the globe, and likewise suggests (an opinion I share) that state-sponsored homophobia has been heavily shaped by Western influences. Both of these issues still await further cinematic exploration.

I'm of the opinion that the fight for LGBT rights is global, and that we are overdue a documentary that would make that plainly clear to Western LGBT communities who may take certain freedoms for granted, and - in relying so heavily upon voice overs, I'm not certain that this film does that effectively in its' comparatively brief running time. Still, this is both a moving and an infuriating film, and it does work as an inspiration to further research; to paraphrase the late writer and activist Paul Monette, a difficult life can take you to the core of your being; teaching you what has to be fought for and how - DANGEROUS LIVING does this often, with moving reality.

At the risk of cheer leading, I would strongly encourage others to seek this film out.
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9 April 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Where to begin with this one? By just about every critical standard around, this is crap, getting down to almost Ed Wood levels of badness. Which of course is why it's great - it's a shame this movie is so hard to find these days; because it's a born cult classic.

Jesus-fixated farmwife Ida Lupino (poor, poor Ida - what hath the entertainment industry reduced you to?) and her doomed hubbie (some guy who looks like the Gortons' Fisherman) discover some slop that looks like ranch dressing bubbling up out of the ground. Initially, they think it's oil.

When this possibility is ruled out, not knowing what it is, they feed it to their chickens, and soon enough they have a barnful of giant chickens. An inspired and most definitely unique giant-chicken-assault scene is an early high point.

Ultimately, wasps and rats get into the stuff, with all the usual expected bad effects - they attack and kill unsuspecting entrepreneurs, hippies, rustics and others, while our hero Marjoe Goertener (the onetime evangelist, and subject of the unforgettable documentary MARJOE) rallies his bored-looking cast to shoot their way out of a rat siege.

As is typical for a lot of b-movies (Ed Wood, Herschell Gordon Lewis, et. al.), there is a great affection for the escapist and mythic possibilities of cinema on display here; I can point out the drive-in-flick cheesiness, but I should also note that this film (and stuff like it) is great, great fun, and director Bert Gordon's miniatures are well-crafted; perhaps a bit quaint (and suggestive of an innocence that might now qualify as anachronistic) in an era of technological effects. If you love movies, you owe it to yourself to not miss this one.
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A sprawling Bengali masterpiece
1 March 2005
The visionary Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak peers into the future, and sees nothing but disintegration - succeeding at multiple levels, CLOUD-CAPPED STAR humanizes this bleak vision, by locating the drama in a Bengali family, but everything occurring is something of a howl of outrage at what had become of his divided homeland.

The central figure in this sprawling melodrama (with some coincidental resemblances to European new wave and neo-realism) is Nita, the eldest daughter in a once-middle class, intellectual family, driven by partition into refugee status in the slums of Calcutta. Varied family members react in different opportunistic ways to their reduced status, and their need to survive, all of which takes an extreme toll on Nita, who ultimately becomes the family's sole breadwinner. The performances throughout are excellent - Supriya Choudhury as Nita is riveting, and Niranjan Roy is particularly strong as Sanat.

Throughout, Ghatak boils human nature and the survival instinct down to the most ruthless basics: this is a compelling and visionary film, but there is virtually no room for lofty ideals or sentimental altruism in the world created here - mourn what one must, and do what one must do to survive. Sentiment and ideals are - in this film - luxuries, and from the cruelty of such a truism, Ghatak has created one of cinema's great, vital tragedies.

Ghatak claimed few Western cinematic influences - like Jean-Luc Godard in France and Nagisa Oshima in Japan, his primary concerns were historical and political, and also technical - how to alter cinema to express those concerns in accessible language? For Ghatak the solution was found in using outdoor locations, natural sound, idiosyncratic editing, and a minimum of the flash seen in Bollywood or Hollywood - CLOUD-CAPPED STAR is bleak, absolutely gripping, tragic and infuriating. As drama, it would definitely rank as one of the more obscure global masterpieces out there (there has yet to be an official US release on VHS or DVD), rarely seen or commented upon. This is highly unfortunate - as a film of moral/social outrage, this rivals Bresson; its' overall feel for the everyday reminds one of Italian neo-realism; it's willingness to experiment boldly evokes Godard or Oshima; in it's concerns with the status of women (another of the many themes explored here), it evokes Naruse, Sirk or Mizoguchi.

Ghatak's own biography is one of great tragedy; one could possibly read the discretely enraged hopelessness of this film as an extension of his own, and see this as a drive that would have to produce at least one masterpiece (his later SUBARNA-REKHA is also very much worth a look), even as it brought him to a premature end. For all of its' bleakness, CLOUD-CAPPED STAR is absolutely compelling - any cinephile (or student of history) would do well to see it.
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6ixtynin9 (1999)
A first-rate dark comedy
11 February 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I rented this without knowing much about it, aside from having heard the directors' name, and was very impressed.

6IXTYNIN9 (the English title) follows a bit of a dark comedy/crime comedy formula, wherein an innocent makes a discovery (money or property) and falls into an uncontrolled succession of events that pushes them toward actions that defy their usual sense of morality. It's all handled inventively here, with slow pacing that builds remarkable tension (especially during the latter half of the film), and some very dry humor that always comes out of nowhere - I almost think it should be rented just for the hysterical 'manicure' scene ("What salon was THAT?"). It should also be noted that the cinematography and performances are dazzling from start to finish.

This is the third Thai film I've seen thus far (the elegant historical drama 'Legend Of Suryothai' and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's remarkable, experimental 'Mysterious Object At Noon'); all three were completely different, but also excellent - I'm definitely on the lookout for more Thai film making it to the US.
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Gosh - what intense response this one has provoked!
11 February 2005
Altogether I found A DAY WITHOUT A Mexican to be highly entertaining - I would've hoped for something of the caliber of DO THE RIGHT THING or BLAZING SADDLES, and this is definitely not up to those standards, but as independent films go, this one definitely beats a lot of the competition.

Basically a b-movie, sci-fi spoof with a lot of social commentary thrown in, I found A DAY... to be a bit didactic in places - the interrupting statistics were highly unnecessary and nearly destroyed the energy in an otherwise fine film. But I think one's ultimate take on this film will come down to ones' politics - I agree with those expressed in the film, so - while I found the film to be hammering its' points a bit harder than it should (not all Americans are THAT ignorant of the rest of the world), overall I considered it to be fun and provocative.

I have seen tons of indie films, and - just in that I was actually able to watch this one all the way through - this one manages to be quite good. Film shouldn't just be about explosions, or wallowing in some hipster's fantasy of 'the underground,' or dream sequences with midgets, or boring white 20somethings screwing around - a film that tries to engage with the world is a real breath of fresh air every now and then.
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The Apartment (1960)
Becoming A Mensch
21 January 2005
Ohhh - after my 4th or 5th viewing, I think this may be one of the most remarkable blends of comedy and drama to have ever been filmed - THE APARTMENT - in subtle ways - rises well above the conventions of any genre. It was my introduction to the great Billy Wilder, and my fondness for Jack Lemmon (a remarkable and sorely missed actor) begins here as well.


The cold take on the sex-and-money ethos to be found in many corporate environments hasn't dated one bit; it could be argued that THE APARTMENT stands a bit ahead of its' time in the depiction of (what would appear to be) educated employees treated like (and feeling like) tools to be used in generation of someone else's income. Lemmon's character never forgets that he's disposable, even if the optimist in him hopes that something better may be found in his superiors. Deep down he knows this to be a pipe dream - the sexual adventurism of those same superiors betrays their utter lack of ethics. Of course, Lemmon's character isn't entirely above it all; he's been more than willing to hire out his own apartment as a place for his colleagues' peccadilloes, in exchange for career advancement, which of course - as Wilder early on links amoral sexual conduct and professional/corporate/financial misconduct in a greater social critique - gets him into trouble.

The dialogue is - as is always true with Wilder - very finely crafted, yet seems natural - this film is a remarkable display of the kind of reactions any of us would offer in similar situations. Interestingly, our two protagonists are also wonderfully imperfect as human beings - Lemmon and MacLaine bear some responsibility for the very serious situations they've gotten themselves into; they manage to realize this ("Be a mensch!" Lemmon's doctor neighbor exclaims) just in time to set things right. MacLaine in particular delivers a remarkable, complex performance - sweet and smart in her earliest scenes, bleak and emotionally ravaged in her climactic scene with MacMurray, naive elsewhere, sharp but hopeful at the end. The cinematography captures the entire cast beautifully - with minimal movement, abundant long takes, and a sleek lack of visual clutter, all of the principals are free to reveal their own best and worst impulses, within an environment that is stripped of artifice. The end result is a film filled with great moments one can easily identify with.
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Shampoo (1975)
subtle, sophisticated and worth getting to know
1 December 2004
With every viewing, SHAMPOO seems more and more like (even in the 70s) one of the weirdest things to have ever become a hit - a challenging and complex film somewhat erroneously presented as a sex farce, complete with a slow-to-start plot that would challenge any audience today.

The free-spirited bed-hopping of the 60s (the story is set on Election day 1968) is reconsidered, as the men here are generally pigs, and the women generally put up with it (to a certain point at least), and all consider themselves to be quite, quite hip - above the uncool squares who were busy electing Nixon on the same day. The fact that reality might intrude (as it does only fleetingly, and fairly late into the movie) never occurs to anyone, and Ashby's suggestion (also on display in BEING THERE, and perhaps HAROLD & MAUDE) that reactionaries may hijack American politics while the hipsters go off to party is open to debate, though also uniquely prophetic.

The portrayal here isn't to justify vapid debauchery, but - then or now - there's a world of shallow people out there, and SHAMPOO is as potent of a reminder as any of how ugly it can be when you do absolutely nothing but show off how fabulous you think you are at all times. Ashby's 70s films (along with FIVE EASY PIECES and Coppola's 70s films) were about - among other things - the limits of the 60s, and the hangover that must follow the party, but the openness of the screenplay (by Robert Towne, also known for CHINATOWN and THE LAST DETAIL) does also give the film a timeless relevance.

Towne and Beatty also gave director Hal Ashby another of his famous symbolic misfits - like Beau Bridges (THE LANDLORD), Bud Cort & Ruth Gordon (HAROLD & MAUDE), Jack Nicholson, Otis Young & Randy Quaid (THE LAST DETAIL), and Peter Sellers (BEING THERE), Beatty's character is perpetually adolescent in ways both great and awful, and acting out in some attempt at making some sense of a world that either does baffle him, or would if he were to actually stop screwing around and think about it for a second (witness the debacle of trying to get a bank to loan him money early on). Ashby always used these characters as a platform for satire (in this case, of some of the hypocritical excesses of the sexual revolution), while simultaneously playing them as symbolic of some greater human needs that go unmet in an increasingly complicated world - implicitly suggesting that a mix of pleasure principle (or naivete and awe) and tough self-discipline and pragmatism are essential to any kind of success. Though such a sentiment would seem obvious (this is the philosophical link between all of Ashby's best films - the aforementioned five for sure), perhaps it was - in fact - increasing rare in Ashby's world, and perhaps in everyone else's as well.

Analysis aside, this works best if you like introspective and dark humor - there is much that is subtle in SHAMPOO, and the kind of unthinking, reflexive flash we expect out of current Hollywood product is completely absent. Ashby's technical skill as a director and editor become most apparent very late into the film (the party scene is a doozy), though a few knockout moments are to be found earlier as well. Overall it's one of the more brooding and jaded comedies to ever be marketed as such, though also rewarding and sophisticated.
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Very Rich and Rewarding
30 November 2004
Warning: Spoilers
When I rented this, I'd only seen Mira Nair's debut film SALAAM BOMBAY, which is a real stunner, and was impressed by her flair for detail. With MONSOON WEDDING I didn't know what to expect - it looked like the usual romantic comedy; a genre I usually avoid. I was very pleasantly surprised to get a film that very nicely reinvents the genre.

This noted it should be said that MONSOON WEDDING tries awfully hard - as the Bollywood mainstream (from what I've seen) is more geared towards escapism and spectacle, this film (in response) packs a lot of issues into it's elaborate plot, and it almost seems a bit overloaded. However Nair - with great skill - keeps it from veering completely out of control, and the results are rich and occasionally touching.


I loved the overall story, which is presented as a rather rambling mix of frazzled drama and comedy (the tight orchestration of a sprawling cast does evoke Altman), but certain other threads were very interesting: the child-abuse subplot (which - though seeming tacked-on, does evoke the sense of unflinching realism seen throughout SALAAM BOMBAY), the delicate romance between Alice and the wedding planner (the oft-mentioned 'marigold heart' scene is utterly sentimental, but it's also a completely beautiful moment), and Nair's casual reflection of diaspora reality - family members all over the globe reuniting in India for a traditional ceremony pulled together in the face of debt, shifting values and unbelievable stress is yet another glimpse of her knack for detail.

This diaspora aspect of the film does deserve a film of it's own, as there were a number of fleeting moments of intrigue (a family member visiting from Australia is quite ambivalent about his own roots, and is once referred to as "foreigner") on this front, but MONSOON WEDDING could only accommodate so many issues, and Nair does forge something of a path for other independent Indian or Indian-expatriate filmmakers to delve into.

Very rich and rewarding, especially upon a second viewing.
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Avalon (2001)
Very insightful and unique
25 June 2004
I was finally able to see AVALON, after a recommendation from an especially insightful friend, and I was glad that I did - I'm not usually a big sci-fi fan, but I found AVALON to be very imaginatively made, and full of food for thought. The overall story (well-summarized in other reviews here) is fairly lean, which for me wasn't a problem - the open symbolism of the film invites plenty of meditation upon themes of illusion, honor, faith and addiction, and how those themes surface in ways beyond the obvious in the everyday world we live in. Not necessarily original ideas, but they are well-handled here; the lonesomeness and technological obsessiveness of the characters is definitely cautionary, and definitely underscores the sweetness and value of simple, un-technological human contact.

I did find that AVALON, in its' structure, pleasantly reminded me of several other Japanese films I've liked in the recent past - like CURE, after life, SUICIDE CLUB and the pulp cinema of Seijun Suzuki (and the mind-bending fiction of Haruki Murakami), the rather open ending (not everything wraps up neatly) challenges an audience - in the most generous of ways - to draw conclusions of their own, rather than neatly serving up the directors' own opinions, and in this the meditative pacing (which also recalls some Russian film) is absolutely approriate. And like some of those other films, I'd suspect that it seems stronger with a second viewing.

All-in-all, highly inventive and thoughtful, and more complex than other reviewers have credited it for being.
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Elephant (2003)
VanSant's best thus far?
24 May 2004
Gus VanSant's ELEPHANT isn't an unquestionable masterpiece, but it's close. I found it to be hypnotic and gripping, and in spite of knowing how things would end, I still found the ending to be devastating.

The lone flaw I can identify is originality - this film owes a tremendous debt to certain international directors (Bela Tarr and an earlier Irish ELEPHANT, along with current maverick directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Hirokazu Kore'eda and Tsai Ming-liang) in both look and perspective, and it's not the only recent American film to make effective use of poetic imagery: FAR FROM HEAVEN, LOST IN TRANSLATION, CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES, RAISING VICTOR VARGAS all took a similar approach to their subject matter, and were all just as effective.

But VanSant's style has matured - the sky scenes in ELEPHANT seem to quote DRUGSTORE COWBOY, and in both films they symbolize the passage of time, the general drift of life, and in opening with such a scene, VanSant is offering a subtle warning that ELEPHANT is poetic and interpretive, not a docudrama or realistic take on high school shootings, and shouldn't be taken as such. Characters drift through the day, knowing each other at mostly superficial levels (not moving beyond the level of stereotypes), which feels like what I remember high school to often be, and VanSant has no interest or need to move beyond that - to 'read into' these characters, or have them make grand speeches and gestures would've only made this film preposterous.

ELEPHANT isn't about the media (which is ubiquitous), homosexuality (a random genetic occurrence found in any setting), bullies (which exist everywhere as well, though for psychological or sociological reasons) or any variety of high school caste system - it's about the randomness of violence, and the first two thirds of this film - in both the gliding long shots following characters (and the audio, with conversations drifting in and out), and the fragmented timeline (shifting back and forth in time as it moves from one character to another) - is a startling portrayal of the random, anonymous nature of an average day at school. It could be noted that the school is just a location of convenience in VanSant's hands; this film (or the incidents depicted in it) could be set anywhere, which is partly the point. In much of the world, random, senseless violence is always a possibility, which is really what this film observes and (in the horror of the depiction) protests, and it's just as much of a tragedy when it occurs in a generic, random, average setting (like this school and the people in it), as when it occurs in a dramatic, unusual setting that creates martyrs and heroes.

A very challenging film, in the best of ways. For quite a while, we've seen a number of films attempt to explore similar themes (most interestingly, many of Stanley Kubrick's films), often going for the opposite approach - startling an audience with intensity and violence: the heavy-handed brutality of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (the most brilliant example of shock tactics used effectively, though lacking the subtlety that makes other Kubrick films stronger), or Larry Clark's far more exploitative and dull KIDS (a genuinely sloppy and anticlimactic film which seems to exist mainly to give a sheltered audience a few 'shocking' cheap thrills to get off on, offering few insights that hadn't already been offered elsewhere). ELEPHANT stuns primarily by taking the opposite route - languid and poetic - which ultimately makes it all the more powerful.
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A surprisingly great film - Rakhshan Bani Etemad is a director to keep your eye on...
17 March 2004
Warning: Spoilers

Rakhshan Bani Etemad's earlier MAY LADY and NARGESS were quite impressive, and comparatively unrecognized in the US. Still I wasn't expecting the startling leap in skill evidenced in UNDER THE SKIN OF THE CITY. Weaving the many familial themes introduced in earlier works, Etemad broadens her palette a bit, balancing subtle (but complex) criticism of sexual politics in a very conservative society with broader glimpses of general social discontent, and the manner in which that discontent can produce upheaval in both personal and public worlds.

Weaving intricately between both (offering panoramic glimpses of Tehran which are all the more breathtaking because of their grittiness and restless energy), UNDER THE SKIN OF THE CITY centers around Tuba and her family of six - a married daughter reeling from increasingly brutal physical abuse (which - in this setting - is first blamed on the victim), an intelligent but increasingly restless younger daugther, and two sons - one (the older) supporting the family (along with his mother); the other still in high school and drifting into radical/left political agitation (in reaction to his family's poverty, the degradations inflicted upon the women around him, and the plainly visible chasm between rich and poor that this entire film turns on). The choice before the family to to leap for upward mobility, or risk sliding farther into poverty - but with either choice there are complications...

Throughout the film there are many stand-out moments: the opening (with Tuba's face, seen framed - or symbolically imprisoned - within a video document of the world of working women), the carefully composed scenes capturing the family home and neighborhood (reminiscent of the rather similar BEIJING BICYCLE; with both films updating and personalizing Italian neo-realism in spectacular fashion), and the many vibrant views of Tehran: this is a film that manages to capture a city and culture with tremendous affection, while still also offering articulate, tough-minded criticism - the end result is a creatively crafted film of great emotional power.
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an excellent film, worth tracking down
13 March 2004
Oft-remarkable, the lone flaw here is its' energy level - with very impressive performances, and through great use of shadows and silences, CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES often generates an unforgettable tension, but this isn't sustained effectively 100% of the time. Aside from this complaint, this is a fantastic film - subtle in its' story, the characters reveal themselves slowly, and come across as real people, with some very real dysfunctions. Eric Byler's direction is careful, measured and free of gimmicks; and the story is notable as a story with an Asian-American cast that isn't about ethnicity, but instead zeroes in on general human dilemmas. A striking and strong debut (and a GREAT model for non-white American filmmakers), this film is worth seeking out.
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Very powerful
12 March 2004
An excellent documentary; this struck a chord with me.

I live in the most expensive city in my state, an affluent left-leaning college town. There's much more education than jobs in the area (varied things, like an abundance of culture or the quality of the local schools, keep some in the area), and the homeless population is quite noticeable for a town of 50,000. I - and many people I know - are college-educated folks with reasonable-to-occasionally impressive resumes, who are working retail or waiting tables. We're a paycheck or an illness or an accident away from being where the folks in this documentary are.

IT WAS A WONDERFUL LIFE is remarkably well-made, with subtle cinematography that serves its' subjects well - no great art statements made visually, but this documentary doesn't need it. Instead, it unobtrusively gives the women who appear onscreen space to tell their stories - how they all ended up homeless. These women are educated, have experienced professional success and some semblance of security at some point, and are mostly descended from middle-class (or better) backgrounds. Their determination and self-awareness is striking, though - given the depressing familiarity of an ever-more-diverse homeless population - I wasn't as shocked as I felt that I should be.

Certain issues - depression, the common refuge of chemical dependance, the ever-present threats of violence - could've been dealt with in greater depth. Several themes are well-explored here however - if a viewer wasn't aware already that education, self-awareness, a ferocious work ethic and/or psychological toughness don't mean jack in and of themselves, it will be abundantly clear by the films' end. Morally, any individual (single, married, or otherwise) should - by this late date - know that depending on anyone else for security and survival is precarious even with a fat bank account, and potentially suicidal without. One woman (a law student) sums it all up effectively: "Never trust anyone. Especially a lawyer." This film visualizes all of the above in horrifying detail.

Equally disturbing is the revelation (from several of these women) that they never thought about homelessness until they became homeless. This info is rather casually offered; they don't exclude themselves from any of social apathy that is occasionally on display in IT WAS A WONDERFUL LIFE. They had it good until a bad investment, a lost lawsuit or a husband walked out (stiffing them for child support - the grueling fallout of this is shown in great, horrifying detail); one never views this as a problem deserving of thought and action until one has to move into their car, and then the true magnitude of how few safety nets exist (or function properly) becomes abundantly clear.

The women in this documentary impressed me - being homeless (or simply being poor) is an art, and it's a lot of work - this too becomes quite clear here. If there's an ulterior agenda, it should be noted that the women here defy most stereotypes of homelessness, personalizing the issue in terms that any cul-de-sac dweller would easily comprehend. These aren't the kind of cartoon down-and-outers easily written off by politicos, 'pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps' types, suburbanites, or any of us with an education and a resume (and the expectation of upward mobility and security) - the faces seen here look like people you know and love.

Which - in some ways - is the lone serious oversight here - the issue could've been brought home (in wrenching fashion) has the director included some individuals who were at another level of 'lost' - addicted, or mentally ill, and completely abandoned by the system (or who had dealt with bureaucracies and agencies, only to lose hope in absolute frustration). While such a film would be tough to watch, it would also be essential in understanding a problem that shouldn't exist.

As it is, IT WAS A WONDERFUL LIFE is a very powerful, moving document - gripping and informative - and I recommend it strongly.
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Wonderful film, Awful DVD
7 March 2004
Warning: Spoilers

Somewhat reminiscent of Italian neo-realism, GIRL IN THE SNEAKERS is yet another fantastic offering from the still-expanding Iranian "new wave." 15-year-old Tadai (the primary character) has run away from home after an unchaperoned meeting with a boy (Aideen - an Iranian Kerouac-in-training, it would seem) goes awry, leading to a series of family blow-ups. The exploration of her subsequent crisis is handled with great detail - the entire film is a reflection of how small, easily overlooked interactions in daily life can - at times - have profound significance, especially to an individual whose life is poised rather delicately at the edge of falling apart. The pressures of everyday existance in an extremely conservative society, or a patriarchal one, are easily apparent, and the vibrant scenes set in the streets of Teheran only serve to heighten the urgency of this film, which is gripping, very moving and somber.

This noted - I should also state that the DVD currently availabe in the US is abysmal - occasional subtitle clumsiness, washed-out images and a great deal of fuzziness overall, including an annoying undulation at the left edge of the picture. I would hope this is addressed with future pressings, or that a high-quality reissue appears - this otherwise magnificent film deserves a wider audience, with improved presentation.
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Passion Fish (1992)
John Sayles a genius? Look no further.
4 March 2004
It's regularly noted that director John Sayles is a master at creating detailed characters; this film (like especially his earlier MATEWAN) proves his genius at capturing the oft-overlooked variety of American life: dialects, and the smallest (but most meaningful) moments of work, anger, tragedy, or sweetness. This skill was surely refined during his earlier years as a novelist, and - in maturity - makes his work (and this film in particular) far more human and gimmick-free than Amer-indie contemporaries like David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch.

I first saw this when it was released, and was very impressed (it was the first Sayles film I'd seen), and after a much-belated second viewing, I'd say it's one of the great American films of the 90s. Sayles' feel for detail shows continually - the small, but continual bits of personal history revealed about all of the characters throughout; the intricacy of even incidental encounters (an afternoon of zydeco music, or the COOLEY HIGH reference that slips quickly between Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard) is stunning.

Evoking Robert Flaherty's LOUISIANA STORY, the boat-trip-to-Misere scene is particularly memorable, with well-deployed Cajun lore blending with very memorable cinematography (courtesy Roger Deakins, cinematographer for FARGO, KUNDUN, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION & SID AND NANCY, among other recent classics) to create one of the most unforgettable moments of Sayles' career.

As most of the primary characters are either outsiders, or are returning after long absences, the common problem of show-biz fake accents is avoided nicely - Sayles (and Deakins) manage to capture an image of rural Louisiana that is enveloping and authentic, while never forgetting the reality that accents will vary widely even in local areas. Thus the fact that many characters refuse to lay on the drawl - even as many others in the film nail the sound of rural Louisiana perfectly - only makes PASSION FISH stronger.

Overall this is a tale of growth and friendship that moves with the speed and emotions of life - none of it feels fake or forced, and though slow-to-start (another strength, though only seen as one by the film's end), PASSION FISH quietly develops into something unique and great. At every moment where this could've degenerated into movie-of-the-week sap, Sayles instead elegantly and confidently steers the film into DeSica (or Woody Guthrie and Steinbeck) territory: there's not a sour note to be seen here.
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Maryam (2002)
A provocative disappointment
3 March 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Very disappointing - this could've been great. The story itself had enormous potential - but at every point where subtlety is called for, the director instead opted to go over the top. The key characters are carefully introduced early on, and - where the audience should have been allowed to gradually get to know them, and learn about them in a somewhat life-like fashion - we are instead told (usually visually, through very slightly exaggerated gestures and mannerisms), in a very didactic fashion, their strengths and flaws immediately. This isn't bad acting - it's talented actors being directed poorly, and I thought it did a disservice to a great story.


One major gripe: the cultural misunderstanding between Maryam and Ali - established early on - was a bit unreal to me: though Maryam's family was thoroughly Americanized, it would've been discussed before Ali's arrival that he would have to make huge adjustments to a new home, and that some semblance of respect and patience would be necessitated. I can't imagine a family going so blindly into such a situation, and expecting things to smoothly work themselves out.

To me, the real heart of the story was the bigotry the family experienced in the wake of the Embassy hostage-taking. The directors' inclusion of news footage was a good move, though a bit overused, in introducing this element.

The handling of Ali is yet another issue - a provocative character, a great departure point for an honest exploration of how American culture is viewed by the rest of the world, and what it does to an immigrant's sense of identity. The contrast between scenes of Ali praying, and the Armin family's secularism should've been the departure point for an examination of the value of hanging onto minority traditions, or the occasional pragmatic necessity of modifying or abandoning them. Instead, he seemed like a cartoon character - nothing but exaggerated accents, shrugs, and stares. The Ali-centric plot contrivances during the last 3rd of the film really took this dangerously close to movie-of-the week territory.

Ultimately I feel so critical of this film because I think this story is very intensely relevant today, and the seeds of a masterpiece of both cinema and human observation are to be found here. But I also feel that there is so much here that should've been explored in greater detail, and the subject matter deserves something great.
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Soldier's Girl (2003 TV Movie)
Very good - not perfect, but overall worth seeing
2 March 2004
Warning: Spoilers
I remember being infuriated by this story in 1999 - to describe this crime as senseless is a massive understatement, so when friends recommended A SOLDIER'S GIRL to me, I was eager to see how it would come across on film.


Overall I was impressed - this is a well-crafted movie, managing a great subtlety, featuring generally well-developed characters, and is - at heart - a great love story. I felt that the film could've been a bit longer - given the emotional toll, I can understand the need (or desire) to maintain a bit of economy, but I felt that certain characters and events should've been presented with a bit more detail, especially during the latter half of the film. The homophobia and generalized violence of the setting should've been presented in greater detail - this underlies my other criticisms, and would've removed the mystery from a few of the other characters. Winchell's fear was hinted at in many of his open-ended blow-ups with Fisher, and his confusion (which - though presented in beautiful fashion, is only really visible once) should've been depicted in greater detail - it would've done greater justice to his memory.

Meanwhile, greater exploration of Fisher's various chemical and psychological problems would've also added tremendously to the story. Aside from his violence and stupidity, Glover was an enigma - here he was just a device to move the plot into the final act, and - with any individual acting in the fashion which he does, there must be more to him than what appears at the surface.

However, Calpernia Addams was quite touchingly portrayed, and the love scenes between her and Winchell were presented in a moving fashion - on this basis (and also the detail seen in the more mundane moments of the two hanging out) that I consider this to be a great love story. Approaching the very end of the film, Lee Pace's performance really begins to transcend any expectations I might've had, and becomes something remarkable - I have a great respect for any film that can bring tears to my eyes (THE ICE STORM, Zhang Yimou's ROAD HOME and CINEMA PARADISO are the only others in recent memory), so I'd have to say I still rate this very highly.

But with such a devastating story, I still felt that Winchell deserved something greater still.
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Blackboards (2000)
A confident surprise from Samira Makhmalbaf
1 March 2004
I understand the vigorous debate Samira Makhmalbaf's BLACKBOARDS, has generated, but I'd also say that I loved this very demanding but often moving film - a remarkable achievement for a very young, but already accomplished filmmaker. Watching her career develop will be quite a treat.

Shot with hand-held cameras and featuring a Kurdish cast of non-actors, BLACKBOARDS is very slowly paced, with a rambling quality that captures the aimless down time of everyday life. However the restless camera work also fills the film with an unceasing tension, gradually revealing the desperation filling the stateless existances of the many nervous characters.

The politics of the region are an ever-present backdrop to the story, and unfortunate political machinations render both education and basic survival an arduous complexity - to live and to gain even the most basic of educations are made into luxuries, which - even in desolate and strife-torn landscapes - some are willing to die for.

A handful of moments stood out for me: the scenes set in the river camp showcase the warmest of human interactions, and the final scene is remarkably beautiful.

This very rigorous film (superficially reminding me of both Abbas Kiarostami and Tsai Ming-liang) nonetheless had me hooked.
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Different Drummer: Dancing Outlaw (1991)
Season Unknown, Episode Unknown
Unforgettable red-sploitation which stands out as something great, regardless of the director's motives...
1 March 2004
A very unique, zero-budget public TV documentary never officially released on video becomes a rampaging classic of red-sploitation...hmmm.

It's entertaining - completely absorbing in fact, and Jesco White is almost beyond description - John Waters or David Lynch would give up a limb to invent a character so stunningly complex, yet so absolutely bypassed by whatever constitutes contemporary life in America (as seen on TV). When I first saw this, I kept thinking this had to be an elaborate piece of performance art conjured up by some enterprising West Virginia college kids, but this is the real deal. The director attempts (in the most feeble fashion) to add a bit of cultural-anthropological value here, but for the most part this is a total piece of let's-ridicule-the-rednecks exploitation; you can take or leave it on that basis.

BUT - it's also unforgettable, hysterical, and completely surreal in it's entertainment value - not nearly as artful as the similar VERNON, FLORIDA or GREY GARDENS, but just as timeless. So - as a fan of this unique artifact, I'd guess I'm just as low and elitist as the director; oh well...
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