Thursday, October 29, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense into him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because, to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Case Study in Effective Documentary Filmmaking

Let's start by being completely honest.
Documentaries are, by nature, shamelessly manipulative. Cheap tactics are inevitable when one is attempting to make a point via celluloid. Effective documentary filmmaking is defined by the adroit manipulation of emotionally charged images, sounds, and words. How else is one expected to get one's point across?
There are, however, limits to this manipulative style that can be crossed.
You think you know where I'm going, don't you? Breaking news: this is the first and only time I'm going to mention Michael Moore in this blog post. Moore is held as a pariah of "everything wrong with liberals" by the majority of the populace, but his films work. He may spend his time preaching to the choir, but he does it well.
No, I'm here to illustrate my documentary-related points through critical examination of two films that attempt to shed light on the same subject: Religilous and Jesus Camp. One is a brash, terrifying example of filmmaking guaranteed to speak to both sides of the political spectrum; the other is good for giggles, but not for winning converts.
Let's start with Religilous. This film was dead on arrival, as far as clear, concise filmmaking is concerned, because of the baggage it brought with it: Bill Maher is, by profession, a stand-up comic. His job is to be funny. While this is all well and good, and provides for an entertaining cinema experience, a man whose first priority is laughter cannot realistically create a useful documentary. To change another person's mind through documentary, you have to treat your subject with respect. What Christian will watch Religilous, a film that plays fast and loose with facts and accuracy while holding up religion everywhere as reason for mirth, and feel that they've been shown something that needs to be changed? I'll give you a hint: it's a relatively small number, and it rhymes with hero.
The humor, however, is not my major bone of contention. Bill Maher simply cannot leave well enough alone. A competent documentarian allows his or her footage to speak for itself. Notice how Bill Maher inserts unnecessary, almost-cruel jokes into standard footage. For example: the scene in which Maher is meeting a Mullah in a mosque, and his phone rings. A skilled filmmaker could have used this footage to make a point about the clashing of ancient beliefs with modern-era sensibilities. Instead, we get some ham-handed fake texts, which, if I recall correctly, involve something along the lines of "kill the infidels, lol." How very droll. How compelling.
Throughout the film, Maher speaks and speaks, always cast in the light of a non-theistic saint, and then juxtaposes himself with interviews of people caught off-guard by Maher's bullying tactics (the interviews with the Orthodox Jews, in particular, rankle me). And the ending. God, that ending. Maher throws away his comedic tone in favor of a subtle-as-a-hammer montage of violence set to roaring opera music, claiming that religion must be destroyed in order to achieve peace. Where in the documentary has Bill Maher shown any evidence for this? He's adept in exposing the various hypocrisies and foibles inherent in any religious adherence, but he fails in trying to grasp a more global message. Overall: Religilous is amusing, but condescending, uneven, and unlikely to change any minds.
Which leads me to Jesus Camp: hands down, the most terrifying film I have ever seen. Is there any narration? Are there stand-up comics smirking to themselves? Are there montages of worlds colliding? No. The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, simply play the footage they've taken from the titular camp, and finish the film with a debate between the camp's organizer and a radio personality. Every so often, statistics regarding born-again Christians, homeschooling, etc. are shown on the screen. That's it. There's no overt moralizing. Just footage of kids going to camp. But show this film to anyone but a fanatic (this includes moderate Christians), and you will get a response. Indeed, because of the uproar caused by this documentary, the camp it studies has been closed indefinitely.
The key to Jesus Camp is that it has faith (no pun intended) in its footage. The filmmakers feel no need to throw in jokes, montages, or long, self-driven monologues. They present reality (or, admittedly, the reality they choose to convey), and assume that the public will make the right decision.

The conclusion? An effective documentary relies on footage, not outright manipulation. Find something real: don't attempt to create an altered reality as viewed through your own rose-colored glasses. I'm looking at you, Bill Maher.

Am I being to hard on Religilous? Is Jesus Camp not as scary as I think? Let me know.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"I've watched you forever, Caden, but you've never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there's nothing. There's no more watching. No more following. No more love. Say goodbye to Hazel for me. And say it to yourself, too. None of us has much time."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Excuses, Excuses

Hello all
Sorry for my absence from the blog. I had a busy weekend, and then my power got shut off. Neither are conducive to the blogging experience.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Good things about Mr. Ripley? Could take some time. Tom is talented. Tom is tender. Tom is beautiful. Tom is a mystery. Tom is not nobody. Tom has secrets he doesn't want to tell me, and I wish he could. Tom has nightmares. That's not a good thing. Tom has someone to love him. That is a good thing."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Animation: an evolving medium

Since its creation, animation as a form of cinema has been degraded and undervalued, accruing labels like "just for kids" and "cartoony." Admittedly, the majority of animated films released in the US earn these derogatory monikers--recent films like Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters Vs. Aliens, etc. One can make a convincing argument for animation studios like Pixar raising the bar for "family fare," with films like WALL-E, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo striking chords with children and adults alike. As true as this may be, it's not the angle I'm looking for. I crave animated films made for, and pitched to, adults.
Animation as a medium is practically infinite in its possibility. Freed from the tedious rules of reality without needing to rely on expensive CGI, animated films can create a world in which anything is possible. Indeed, such worlds are more likely to succeed in animation than in live action, because of animation's surreal, dreamlike quality. A filmmaker can get away with the ludicrous far more easily with drawings than he or she can with the real world. A prime example: Kill Bill Volume 1. While the whole film is pitched at a pseudo-ridiculous level, the most graphic/hard to swallow part of the film (O-Ren Ishii's back-story) is conveyed through anime-style animation. Not only is this an effective stylistic choice, it allows Quentin Tarantino to dance with his innermost demons in full public display without being laughed down or shunned.
Where is this adult animation? Surely I can't be the only person to pick up on the endless potential of animated films?
I assure you, dear reader, I'm not. In fact, the world is rife with adults-only animated films. The catch? For whatever reason, they can only be found outside the USA.
Animated adult films can be found as early as 1972, in the form of Swedish-made Fritz the Cat. I would, however, like to draw your attention to a later year: 1988. This banner year for animation saw a double-barrelled salvo of quality from Japan that would redefine animation as a medium. The two films, starkly different in subject matter and style, but similar in their target audiences, were Akira and Grave of the Fireflies (as an aside, 1988 was also the year that Miyazaki released the classic My Neighbor Totoro, but, for the purposes of my article, I'll refrain from discussing it, save to illustrate how fantastic a year 1988 was for Japanese animators). Akira, an anime-style tale of biker gangs and super-powered children in a bomb-devastated Tokyo, simultaneously shocked and awed audiences with its violence, sexuality, and disturbingly surreal images. Grave of the Fireflies conveyed reality to great effect: it follows the lives of two abandoned children in the Tokyo firebombings, showing with brutal detail the day-to-day process of death by starvation. These two films opened the sluice gate for animation for adults. Since 1988, Japan has been at the forefront of mature animation, mostly thanks to the popularity surge of anime in recent years.
While Japan leads the charge, they're not the only ones running. I'd like to draw your attention to two recent pieces of cinema that clearly outline animation's potential as a medium.
The first, Persepolis, hails from France. It chronicles the story of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian immigrant, who grew up during the Iranian revolution resulting in the fall of the Shah and the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini. The film works well stylistically: drawn mostly in black and white, its color scheme and stark images play as an effective parable of the mindsets of the people surrounding Marjane. The animation serves another purpose: it riffs on animation's categorization as kid's fare, telling a horrific story from a child's point of view. Everything in the film - the violence and occasional brutal images - seem stylized and unreal, as it undoubtedly would as viewed through the eyes of a child. Persepolis uses its medium to further its thematic intentions.
The other example, which frequent readers will be familiar with, and have no doubt been expecting to hear about, is Waltz With Bashir. Ari Folman's documentary is an exhibit of how animation can free a film from the constraints of reality without diluting the power of the images. Waltz With Bashir can be most aptly compared to a bad acid trip. Bizarre, surreal, brutal images float past the viewer, appearing and disappearing at will, arriving with a serene gravity that would have been impossible in live action (ex.: would the scene in which one of Ari's friends imagines that a giant naked woman floats him to safety away from an exploding boat have played as anything other than funny if done in live action? No. But the animation makes it seem unsettling.). Here, as in Persepolis, the filmmakers use animation thematically. In the film, one character discusses how he seems to see everything through a lens, as if everything he sees is fictional. This is exactly how the animation serves in Waltz With Bashir. Throughout the film, the audience attempts to distance themselves from the horrors displayed in front of them by reminding themselves that it's only a drawing. Then, the ending: suddenly, the animation gives way to live-action documentary footage from the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and Boom! The lens has been removed, and the audience cannot distance themselves from the grim reality presented them. The filmmaker's choice of medium allows them to deliver one of the great gut-punches of recent cinema.

The rest of the world gets the idea: animation is a powerful medium, and should be treated as such. Only America is slow to the punch. This might, however, be changing. Shane Acker's 9, though not critically acclaimed in any sense, represented an attempt to depart from the American animation norm. Andrew Stanton, the director of Pixar classics Finding Nemo and WALL-E, is currently working on John Carter of Mars, which is being touted as "animation for adults." About time.

Should America get on the ball? Am I wrong about animation? Should I have discussed any other films? Let me know!
(To a particular reader: I considered talking about Tekkon Kinkreet, but felt that pulling only one Anime example out would be strange, so I focused on films that exhibited the medium instead.)

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay that way."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

Mary: Well, tell me, why did you get a divorce?
Isaac: Why? I got a divorce because my wife left me for another woman.
Mary: Really? God, that must have been demoralizing.
Isaac: Well, I dunno, I thought I took it rather well, under the circumstances. I tried to run them both over with my car.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Top 10 Supporting Actors of the Millennium

Forgive my laziness. I know list-making is the lowest form of Internet writing. It can, however, appeal to the most people at once (now 10 movies instead of 1 for the same low, low price!), and it's something I can churn out before I have to make dinner, which, though not very prescient for you, is a huge selling point for me. So, without further ado, I give you the best supporting actors of the new millennium!
(If you're wondering why I only do these lists as pertaining to the last 10 years, I figure that y'all have seen few enough of these recent titles as is. If I open up the game to "older" movies, chances are I'll just be talking to myself. Unless, of course, I'm wrong. If you want to hear about older movies, don't be shy in the comments section.)

10. Jackie Earle Haley-Little Children (2006)
Mr. Haley is the first of many monsters on a list decidedly jam-packed with villains. This character is unique, however, in that none of the other villains are trying quite so hard to be normal. Haley's performance is a masterwork in its intensity and its emotional nuance. Somehow, Haley inspires sympathy with the audience for a convicted child-molester and rapist. Perhaps it's the small ways he seems like a child himself: the way he calls his mother "mommy," how insecure his body language is, the creepy intensity with which he looks at other people. It's a fascinating character study, and an incredibly effective one. Haley convinces the viewer that even monsters love their mothers.

9. Jake Gyllenhaal-Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Poor Jack Twist. Jake Gyllenhaal brilliantly conveys the character arc of a man whose naive optimism is dashed against the rocks time and time again. In the beginning of the film, Jack is confident, cocky, and energetic. He's easy to fall in love with, and falls in love easily. Then, reality strikes, and his long descent begins. Gyllenhaal isn't aided much by the sub-par makeup artists in the aging process. Luckily for the film, he's more than able to convey his age and experience on his own. I can almost feel the weight of the world on his shoulders in the later stretches of the film, and I can see the sadness huddling around his eyes. For so long, however, he retains a spark: therein lies the genius of Gyllenhaal's performance. Jack Twist may become bent and twisted out of shape, but he remains unbroken until his very last scene: that last gaze at the camera hurts: all of Jack's emotional anguish pours out of the screen, suffocating the viewer.

8. Clive Owen-Closer (2004)
Closer is a film about terrible, terrible people, but of all of them, Clive Owen is by far the worst. Closer follows the lives of four people who enact emotional pain on each other out of jealousy, immaturity, or vanity, but only Clive Owen's character truly enjoys it. Owen plays Larry as a man far more intelligent than his peers, and all too willing to take advantage of it. Watch him as Dan (played by Jude Law) confronts him about a shared lover. He reclines in his desk chair, throwing quips like they're confetti, hardly restraining a smile. And then he explodes, and suddenly a different person is in the office. Clive Owen doesn't play one character; he plays many--every facet of the good doctor Larry's personality that he feels like manipulating to get ahead. A truly chilling performance.

7. Channing Tatum-A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)
Forget the Channing Tatum you know: a squinty-eyed, mildly retarded actor who makes Keanu Reeves look like Sean Penn. This is the Channing Tatum you should know: intense, heartfelt, and so real it hurts. Channing Tatum's portrayal of (what I consider) wounded love and passion in the ghetto is incredibly powerful. A constant undercurrent of anger buzzes throughout his performance, tangible and electric. Every time you see Tatum's eyes, your blood runs a little bit cold. What sets this performance apart, however, is the tenderness with which he tempers the anger. Though he's full of hate, his capacity for love is unsurpassed. Watch him try to take care of Dito after he's beaten up, or the jilted-lover sequence on the rooftop. On top of all this, and subtle shades of shame and an inferiority complex, and you've got truly compelling work.

6. William Hurt-A History of Violence (2005)
I respectfully offer you William Hurt as the definition of a scene-stealer: he appears in A History of Violence for only eight minutes, but makes such an indelible impression that one can hardly think of the film without thinking of Richie, Joey's older brother. The key, I believe, is in the voice. The film has built Richie Cusack up as a ruthless mob boss, and the audience has developed a mental picture. But then, Richie appears, and hark! He speaks so deliberately, almost effeminately, with bizarre affectations belonging to no particular accent. Add this to the physicality that Hurt brings to the role: every movement is measured and calculated while appearing completely superfluous. Hurt's performance is a balancing act: he walks a tightrope between ridiculous caricature and perfunctory villain. Somehow, miraculously, he never strays into either territory. Richie Cusack is both scary and likable; a dangerous and difficult combination.

5. Casey Affleck-The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Casey Affleck has quite the uphill task in this film: his character, Robert Ford, suffers emotions too complex to transcribe with simple description. He is an avid fan of Jesse James; a precursor to the screaming fangirls of today. He has foolish dreams of life as an outlaw. He finds himself in the presence of Jesse James, and, against his will, falls in love. How to solve this? All the pretensions of grandeur, all the illusions he had of James are shattered: his god become mortal before his very eyes. Then, he finds himself forced to betray the one man he thought he would never betray, if only to save his own skin. Affleck plays Robert Ford as a man of curiosity and delusions of grandeur: he can't help but get a closer look, and when he finally does, he finds himself acting in extreme ways so reality can begin to live up to the hype. Ford is weak, selfish, and infatuated, but at the same time he's cold, ruthless, and dangerously pragmatic. Somehow, Affleck makes all of these conflicting emotions evident without saying a word.

4. Javier Bardem-No Country For Old Men (2007)
"How much have you ever lost on a coin toss?" Anton Chigurgh, Javier Bardem's character, doesn't really seem like a person. He's more like death personified: incapable of pity, and unstoppable. What strikes me about this performance is how normal Chigurgh seems to be, despite his extreme actions, his odd appearance, and his voice like ice scraping on concrete. Chigurgh, it seems, thinks this is just another day at the office. Watch him take joy in the little pleasures of his day, the tiniest of smiles that sneak onto his normally dour face. Javier Bardem manages to be absolutely terrifying while doing his best to keep up polite conversation. He keeps up the facade right until he kills. That working-man aura, that nonchalant attitude, are strokes of pure cinematic genius. Bardem has created one of the most indelible characters of recent cinema.

3. David Carradine-Kill Bill (2004)
Another great villain, another polite fellow, another deliberate voice. No, I suppose it would be wrong to categorize Bill as a villain. Retired villain, perhaps. But now, he's just a daddy. I love David Carradine's performance for being just that: a retired villain who is now a stay-at-home father. Sure, we see glimpses of the evil incumbent in his villain persona, but they aren't what define him. He's gentle, kind, and eloquent. Watch how he interacts with his daughter, or better yet, the Bride. Does he treat her like a lover, or like another daughter? I don't think Bill knows either. Above all, Bill is world-weary. He's tired, he's almost grateful that his assassin makes her appearance. Carradine's performance is Great Acting, the kind that earns the capital letters.

2. Tim Robbins-Mystic River (2003)
Frequent readers will know that I consider Mystic River to be one of the most well-acted films of all time. Watching it feels like taking a class on effective drama. It's inevitable, then, that one of the actors from the film pop up near the top of this list. Tim Robbins plays Dave, a victim of sexual abuse in his childhood, trying desperately to feel normal again. Robbins plays him like a piece of china: too easily broken if not properly handled. When the guilt, of a nature I won't divulge for spoiler-related purposes, is thrown onto his already complex neuroses, Dave begins to crack. Tim Robbins enters virtuoso territory here, offering a compelling portrait of a man whose sanity is slowly leaking away. Watching him attempting to interact with his wife and child while he slowly self-destructs is intensely painful. Tim Robbins takes a character that could have been cliched and turns him into a searing vision of the consequences of wounds that refuse to heal.

1. Heath Ledger-The Dark Knight (2008)
I know, I know. It's the obvious choice. It's still fresh in everyone's minds. It's wonderfully showy. None of this should detract from the astounding piece of art that is Heath Ledger's performance, however. I can't say much that hasn't already been said, or that you haven't said yourself, so I won't try. I would like, however, to draw your attention to the small details: the constant licking of the lips, the strained quality of the laugh, the shiftiness of the eyes. It's beautiful work. Ledger's Joker isn't just one of the greatest screen villains of all time: he's one of the greatest characters to grace the screen period. And that's an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Glaring omissions? Overrated performances? What do you think? Does this list look legit, or does it need tweaking?

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"The man who said 'I'd rather be lucky than good' saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.

Monday, October 19, 2009

In Defense of 30 Days of Night

I would like to be completely open and honest from the beginning: I don't think 30 Days of Night is a great movie. I'm not setting it on any pedestal of cinema. It doesn't even break my top 25 as far as best-of-the-year lists are concerned. 30 Days of Night is a movie that has, no doubt, been forgotten by the public. Upon its 2007 arrival, it was largely declared a misfire. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating currently sits at a poor 50%, with its Metacritic rating at a infinitesimally more impressive 53%. The film is now relegated to the B-Movie shelf in the horror section of Blockbuster. Why do I rehash its painful history? It's not because I enjoy pouring salt into open wounds (though that is, admittedly, an exciting way to spend a Friday evening). No--belated as it may be, I'd like to stand up to defend this poor, defenseless film: to do my part to turn the tide for it, to elevate its standing in the public opinion. Or at least write about it.

The biggest mistake critics and audiences made was to expect a traditional horror film. Admittedly, the film's marketing (its trailer, particularly) didn't do anything to dissuade this misconception, nor did its subject matter (vampires attacking Alaska) seem to indicate any departure from the norm. Approached as a horror film, I must agree: 30 Days of Night is unsuccessful. It contains a small collection of tense moments, but it had nothing that continued the time-honored horror tradition of crawling under your skin and dying there. If we're not watching a horror film, you ask, what could we possibly be watching? For God's sake, Josh Hartnett just beheaded a little girl? Surely this isn't Little Miss Sunshine! Indeed. Frequent readers will remember my undying admiration for Hard Candy, the film David Slade made prior to 30 Days of Night. Both films share a similarity: they use extreme, nay, ridiculous situations and heightened violence to examine contemporary societal roles.
Allow me to translate: 30 Days of Night is not a horror film. It's a contemplation of men's role in today's nuclear family.
The film opens in Barrow, Alaska, as the majority of the populace flees the titular period of perpetual darkness. Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the town sheriff, is quickly established as the last vestige of authority in the growing dark. If something goes wrong, it's Eben's job to fix it. When the vampires attack, as vampires are wont to do, the town's population rapidly shrinks into those under Eben's care: the mother figure: his ex-wife. An adolescent. An infirm old man. The middle-aged loner that no one talks to any more. A few more scared citizens. Eben becomes the father of his new bizarre family, thrust into a position of leadership, along with his ex-wife. The majority of the film then chronicles Eben's attempts to bring home the bacon, so to speak. We see his struggles to provide food, shelter, safety, and peace of mind.
The movie's true masterstroke? The group of vampires have a patriarch as well, played by Danny Huston. David Slade, the director, throws Eben's Barrow family against the vampire's own clan, watching as each try to provide the necessities that every family needs. The film is audacious enough to ask what separates Eben from the vampire. Indeed, the major difference seems to be that the vampire is willing to go to any length to protect his family, while Eben can become sidetracked. Watch the film closely: Notice that, at first, Eben attempts to extend protection to the people outside his family unit (ie the people around town who didn't make it to his safe-zone), and, as a result, people are killed. Notice how squeamish he is with death at first. He tries to hold on to a sense of decency and pacifism, but it only leads to trouble. The people are picked off like flies.
The turning point comes when his family unit is attacked by a little girl who has been turned into a vampire. A little girl: the picture of innocence's embodiment on Earth. She threatens his group, and he chops off her head with a blunt ax. From this point, Eben becomes more ruthless, and the vampire leader's family takes heavier losses. Soon, Eben is even willing to push one of his own family members into a gigantic meat-grinder to protect the other members of the family unit.
At this point, 30 Days of Night provides its thesis statement (Spoiler Warning.). Two members of the Barrow family unit, Eben's ex-wife and a little girl, seem doomed. All hope is lost. To save them, Eben infects himself with the vampire blood, turns into a monster himself, and fights them off. When they're safe, he waits for the rising sun, and incinerates himself. (You can come back now, I suppose.)
The film's thesis, I believe, is as follows: in today's world, a man must reject common ideas of morality and decency to adequately protect his family. The further he can separate himself from morality, the safer his family becomes. However, to do this, he runs the risk of becoming the very danger against which he defends. If this occurs, his family may be safe, but he'll never be able to be with them. The question the film poses is whether or not this transition is necessary: whether a father can be ruthless without losing his family. A very similar question is offered in Apocalypse Now. While it seems like cinephile heresy to compare the two films, they do tackle similar thematic issues.

Have you seen this film? If so, am I reading too much into it? Is it just a bad film? If you agree with my interpretation, do you think that a man must sacrifice his essence to successfully protect that which he loves? Hell, even if you haven't seen the film, how do you respond to the last question?

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Someday? Someday my dream will come? One night you'll wake up and discover it never happened. It's all turned around on you. It never will. Suddenly you're old. Didn't happen, and it never will, because you were never going to do it anyway. You'll push it into memory and then zone out in your barco lounger, being hypnotized by daytime TV for the rest of your life. Don't you talk to me about murder. All it ever took was a down-payment on a Lincoln Town Car. That girl, you can't even call that girl. What the fuck are you still doing driving a cab?"

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Preemptive Apologizing

Hello All. So I'll be travelling around for the next few days, and, as such, I'm not sure how regularly posts will come. I'll post if I can, when I can, on what I can. Y'all have a good weekend!

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or a month - he must have been a happy man."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cinematic penance: ablution through art

I've only ever concealed the fact that I've seen a film once. I was fourteen: warily, I had sneaked a videotape into my basement, eyes casting toward the door furtively, in the fashion of every adolescent male with internet connectivity in the midst of his sexual awakening. Being careful to keep the volume to a reasonable level, I pressed the play button. In near-darkness and almost perfect quiet, I watched The Passion of the Christ. The singular most pornographic experience of my life, revolving around our Lord and Savior. My palms slightly sweaty, thinking that my father might appear at any moment.

I suppose I need to backtrack slightly. Earlier in the week, my dad had purchased Mel Gibson's film, watched it on his own, and declared it the single most painful cinematic experience of his life. He spoke for great length about its violence and the profound effect it had on him. His tale continued as a caution; warning against the kind of personality type that would enjoy this film, or worse, seek multiple viewings of it. He described it as a movie every person should see once, and then never see again.

Since his monologue, I have seen The Passion of the Christ six times. Two more of these viewings took place in secret, and in rapid succession after the first. The next came when I told my dad I wanted to see the film. I then watched it again on my own, and finally, with a group of friends. I don't know why I've done this. As a film, I consider it technically impressive, most notably Caleb Deschanel's impressionistic cinematography and John Debney's emotionally charged score. I find much to compliment in the performance of Maia Morgenstern, who plays Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Beyond that, I find Mel Gibson's directorial style to be a perverse double celebration of masochism and sophism. Yet, the film's earnestness lends it a spurious verisimilitude that renders it the profoundly moving experience that so many have described.

Perhaps the reason I've watched the film so many times is because I can never lay hands on the lightning rod by which so many have been shocked. Yes, the film is violent. But I don't find it a more painful viewing experience than, for instance, Y Tu Mama, Tambien, which is not meant to be depressing, nor is it violent. Nor do I find its violence more offensive than the likes of which displayed in The Silence of the Lambs, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, or a myriad of other violent films. It is, for me, somewhat passe. Yet I continue to return to the gory fount, and I drink deeply, putting to rout all that is not Mel Gibson. I feel like the proverbial Thornbird: throwing myself against the thorns again and again; it may kill me, but the song I sing as I die is the most beautiful I can create.

I've had similar experiences with Requiem For a Dream. Contrary to Passion, I find Requiem to be a singular cinematic achievement on multiple levels, as well as an experience that has the ability to make me nauseous with misplaced empathy. I've never encountered anyone who, having seen Requiem For a Dream, wants to watch it again. The consensus: "It's a great movie, but it just makes me hurt." I agree. But I've watched it many, many times.

I don't know why I do these things. I don't know why I seek out movies that are supposed to rape my soul. I don't know why I need to watch the massacre sequence from Platoon, or the titular action of Sophie's Choice. All this art, all this ersatz emotion depicted by light shining through celluloid, acts as the ablution for my baptism.

I sometimes joke that I should create an art-based religion, with music, movies, books, and art, among other things, servings as the deities in the pantheon created by the presumptuousness of a person who thinks he or she is qualified to speak for anyone else but themselves. Which is, to say, an artist. In this church, films like The Passion of the Christ are the equivalent of saying the Hail Mary 20 times. Thousands of penitents huddle in the anonymity that the darkness of a theater provides, rubbing their prayer beads and reciting their mantras, and behold: The masses appear again, washed and absolved. They spout the amens and the hallelujahs of a good review, obloquial contrition in the face of perceived greatness. Only a few penitents remain in the theater, prayer beads abraded of all color and form, fingering them doubtfully.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

There's an old joke-um...Two elderly women are at a Catskill resort, and on of them says, "boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "yeah, I know, and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life--full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly. The... The other important joke, for me, is one that's usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud's "Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious," and it goes like this--I'm paraphrasing-um, "I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." That's the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scenes that Hurt: Requiem For a Dream

Some movies are sad. Some movies make you want to cry a little. And some movies rip out your heart, throw it into the garbage disposal, and fill the empty space with oblivion. Because, it would seem, I'm more interested in the dark side of cinema, I'd like to examine specific scenes from films that do exactly what I just described. When I think of scenes that hurt, two immediately come to mind. For the sake of the readers, however, I'll refrain from beginning the series with these scenes. Instead, I'll ease us into our pain, starting smaller (though, to avoid suspense, and thus, pressure to get to these scenes I will reveal that they come from Platoon and Sophie's Choice, respectively).
To facilitate the transition, today's scene made an appearance in a previous post. The scene in question is none other than Ellen Burstyn's Red Dress monologue from Requiem For a Dream. I can't embed the video, but I can link to it. Obviously, the scene will be more powerful if you've seen the film, but I recommend familiarizing yourself with it anyway. It's still a fantastic piece of stand-alone acting.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3OK0kgXjmk.

Requiem For a Dream is tricky. It contains what may be the most cynical, cruel-hearted ending in cinema history, but one can easily make the argument that the characters brought their respective fates on themselves. If a character chooses to become a drug addict, a sensible viewer can easily assume that the character must be prepared for all grim eventualities made possible by their lifestyle.

This argument, however, cannot be made for Sarah Goldfarb.

Ellen Burstyn's character is a victim: of a cruel prank, of an impersonal system, of her own life. Sarah lives alone, having been abandoned by her family and friends. Her only solace is taken from a daytime TV show featuring her hero, Tappy Tibbons. By chance, she receives a fake phone call promising her a spot on his show. She wants to appear in her red dress, which she wore to her son's graduation, but finds she can no longer fit into it. A doctor throws diet pills her direction, she begins to exhibit detrimental side effects, but the clinic she goes to brushes her off. She falls into addiction, and never recovers.

This monologue is the one moment we see into Sarah's heart. Before this scene, she's been covering up her pain and loneliness, and after this scene, she becomes too far gone to be emotionally honest. All poor Sarah gets is two minutes: two minutes to try to convey where the pain is coming from, and why she feels powerless to stop it. And God, what a heart-wrenching two minutes it is. Everyone can relate to a feeling of abandonment, a search for meaning and purpose to validate a life. Everyone has felt alone. Ellen Burstyn's success is to become one large conduit for the loneliness of the ages, channeling buried thoughts and hidden emotions, displaying them for all to see. She affords us the chance to see a human being right before her plunge into the deep end. The last shot of the scene; Sarah standing alone, in front of her window, speaks volumes about the human condition. This monologue from Requiem For a Dream taps into a deep human emotion and runs with it. It is impossible for anyone with the slightest bit of empathy to not feel Sarah Goldfarb's pain. And it hurts. Good God, it hurts.

But in a good way. Ish.


What do you think? Am I overestimating the emotional impact of this movie? Since I'm starting a new series, do you have any recommendations of scenes that I should look at? What movies make your heart hurt?

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance of a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Review: Whip It

(This is my first review, so, a notice: I rate movies out of 4 stars that will be denoted with asterisks (*). 1 star=terrible. 2 stars=fair at best. 3=good. 4=great)

Whip it (***/****)

I respect Whip It for exactly what it is: fun, well-made, and disposable. The film sets out to put a smile on your face, and succeeds admirably. The plot revolves around Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a Texas teen forced into beauty pageants by her domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden). By chance, she discovers the Texas Roller Derby in Austin, a sport which involves skating around a circle whilst beating other girls senseless, among other things. Bliss, blessed with natural derby talent, tries out for the Hurl Scouts; the underdog team populated by characters like Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), a badass with a soft side, and Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), the resident anger-management case. Adopting the name babe Ruthless, Bliss becomes the star of the team, facing off with their sworn enemies, the Holy Rollers, and their diva, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis).
What follows is completely predictable. Indeed, any savvy reader could probably give me an accurate synopsis of the rest of the film just from the description above: hijinks ensue, including but not limited to concealing bruises from parents, scheduling woes, conflicts with old friends and new friends, and the improbable rush to the Championship match. What sets Whip It apart from other cliched sports films, however, is the pure sense of fun and energy that oozes from every bruised pore. The cast, helmed by Barrymore in her directorial debut, obviously had a blast making this film, and it shines through in every scene. This movie is definitive proof that goofy grins are contagious. Another unique element is its gung-ho feminist undertones. The clashing of dolled-up beauty pageant queens with the tattooed and bruised roller derby stars is both amusing and enlightening: obviously, this film prefers women who have abandoned the desire to please others, and have thrown themselves into moving in their own directions.
The acting is solid across the board: Ellen Page is, as always, adorable and pitch perfect. Her transformation from reluctant beauty pageant showhorse to empowered skater-girl is always believable. The supporting cast is sterling as well: special props must go to Juliette Lewis, whose Iron Maven is so over-the-top that she must be real. The directing, alas, is not as inspired as the acting. It is Barrymore's debut, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt for now, but her directing style can best be described as perfunctory. Perhaps, with more time and experience, she'll come into her own as an artist.
Final verdict? Enjoyable, amusing, not going to win any awards. This film would be perfect to rent on a rainy day: save your cash and see it then.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

The Schofield Kid: It don't seem real. How he ain't never gonna breathe again, ever. How he's dead. And the other one, too. All on account of pulling a trigger.
Will Munny: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.
The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Old Age. It's the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don't look forward to being cured of."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Top 10 Lead Actresses of the New Millenium

Hello all. Massive apologies of the blogging laziness two-fer that is not posting yesterday and posting a list today. Life has this annoying tendency of sneaking up on me and disrupting my online habits. Oh well. It's a Friday, which means that it's a list day, so here we go!
Today, as a companion piece to last week, I'd like to offer the 10 best performances by a lead actress of the millenium; I couldn't let the men have all the glory, could I? In fact, looking at both lists, I've got to be honest: The women are far more impressive than the men thus far. The top five performances on this list are particularly moving. I highly reccomend that you check out all top five performances, whether it be seeing the movies, or just youtubing clips. They're all worth seeing.


10. Nicole Kidman-The Hours (2002)
The Hours provides rich dramatic opportunities for all of its trio of ladies, but Nicole Kidman is undeniably the standout of an accomplished acting ensemble. Kidman plays Virginia Woolf during one of her slow descents into madness and depression. Of course, the madness is played wonderfully; a glint in the eye here, a little hand movement there, just little gestures to show that something's just not quite right. What puts the cherry on this performance, however, is watching Kidman-as-Woolf attempting to be a gracious hostess during all of it. Putting on a dinner party is stressful enough without the strains of one's psychosis. Kidman's performance is always threatening to boil over: the beast threatening to take over the well-mannered wife. A great performance, and deserving of the Oscar it received.

9. Keisha Castle-Hughes-Whale Rider (2003)
Keisha Castle-Hughes plays Paikea, the daughter of her Maori tribe's chief. Though her bloodline and her personality suggest that she take the place as leader, tradition dictates that a male must lead. Castle-Hughes' performance is astounding in its maturity, especially given the fact that shed filmed it when she was 13. The depth of emotional nuance that she captures is impressive: the child struggling to become a woman, trying to accept her fate when her personality tells her to try harder, discovering her absentee father only to discover that she's the adult in the situation. Castle-Hughes never tips her hand: you can't catch her "acting" in any traditional sense: she has absorbed the character into herself so as to reflect that person into the camera.

8. Sally Hawkins-Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
The absolute best compliment that I can give Sally Hawkins is that she's not annoying for the entire movie. ...Perhaps I should elaborate. Hawkins plays Poppy, an eternally optimistic, maniacally sunny Brit whose goal is to spread joy into the lives of everyone around her, whether they want it or not. While, on paper, this seems like a wonderfully happy little movie, in reality, eternally optimistic people are as welcome as a case of gangrene. Hawkins never makes Poppy a caricature, which could have easily happened in the hands of lesser artists: instead, she creates a woman from the inside out who simply doesn't have any buried sadness or cynicism. This performance is incredibly organic, lending the proceedings a touch of realism that benefits the film considerably.

7. Meryl Streep-The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
I know, I know--how on earth did a comic role in a lightweight movie get onto a list of the best of the decade? Perhaps, dear reader, I'm biased. I must confess: I'm deeply, madly in love with Meryl Streep. ...Or at least her career. That's it. I'm deeply, madly in love with Meryl Streep's acting career. This little fact, however, does not change Streep's Miranda Priestley's right to take a spot on this list. Priestley is such a fascinating character, made all the more interesting by the details: that ridiculous voice, the million different ways to say "that's all," and, my personal favorite, the way her eyes bug out of her head just slightly when she's surprised by events, before she quickly regains her composure. This performance is an absolute joy to watch. Every second Streep is on screen, she's creating something fantastically original. And watch her scenes in Paris especially closely: it might be the only time we actually see Miranda Priestley. Everything is in New York is Miranda Priestley acting like whom the magazines want to believe Miranda Priestley is. This performance is practically perfect in every way.

6. Helen Mirren-The Queen (2006)
Helen Mirren's performance is a fascinating display of subtlety. She plays Queen Elizabeth II during the events surrounding Princess Diana's death. Mirren, like Elizabeth herself, never allows herself to fall into emotion. Everything is subdued, internalized, and dealt with properly. She is the picture of "quiet dignity," as the film puts it. A lesser actress would have overplayed the role, but not Mirren: she understands that, to succeed, she can never show the audience her cards. The performance is an astounding display of control, and its success shows that Mirren is an actress with singular ability and talent.

5. Ellen Page-Hard Candy (2006)
I feel like this should come with a warning: if you love Juno, if you think Ellen Page is the most adorable actress in the history of cinema, you should never, ever watch Hard Candy. Because if you do, you'll never look at Ellen Page again, and will become a vocal advocate for aborting teen pregnancies. To put it simply: this performance is absolutely terrifying. Page plays a teenager who meets a pedophile, drugs him, ties him up, and casually informs him that she's going to castrate him. If only the movie turned out that nicely. The scariest part of Page's performance is how nice she is: her character is well-spoken, intelligent, and a little flirtatious. As she sharpens knives, prepares for surgery, lies to the neighbors, she skips around the house, telling little anecdotes, pretending that she might not follow through, and generally being a terrible person. Only at the very end does she let the hurt show through: only in the last scene do we grasp what the character's true intentions are. I don't know about you, but this movie made my blood run cold. (I've got to link to this one: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQCMBaRvHDc&feature=related . It's a great stand-alone moment.)

4. Julie Christie-Away From Her (2007)
Were it not for one other performance (coming up shortly), I would easily consider this the saddest performance on the list. Christie plays Fiona, a woman who is slowly sinking into Alzheimer's. The movie makes the right move in allowing the viewer to get to know Fiona before her disease strikes: we see Fiona as a luminous, intelligent individual. Then, we watch as all of that drains away. It's really very horrific, but kudos must go to Christie for knowing her character so very intimately. We don't see one full person: we see snapshots of a personality drifting to the top of a facade of polite confusion. Watching her part with her husband for what seems like the last time (to her, it is: to him, it's the first in a series of painful goodbyes) is absolutely heart-rending. Fiona knows that she's receding; all she can hope for, she says, is a little grace.

3. Uma Thurman-Kill Bill (2004)
Uma Thurman's Bride is a magic trick: she takes a person whose character was written with a large rubber stamp, and turns it into one of the most compelling characters of the decade. This is Acting; the kind that earns the capital A. Thurman runs the gamut of emotions: the pain of losing a child, the iciness associated with withdrawing from life, the naive joy of starting a new life, and finally, coming to grips with who she is and what she's done. That's what makes the performance: the character's struggle with what she's doing. Sure, most of the time she's efficient and ruthless, but there are moments where she doubts herself, and they shine through. Watch her face right after she performs the 5-point-palm exploding heart technique on Bill: is it disbelief on her face? Regret? Fear? It's all three at once, and it's amazing. The best Uma scene, for my dollar? The very end: she's laying on the bathroom floor sobbing, and then the sobbing segues into laughter, and she says "thank you" again and again as she hugs her daughter's teddy bear. It's an incredibly moving, nuanced performance, and deserved far more than a crappy Golden Globe nomination. I'm looking at you, Academy. (...Hilary Swank? Really?)

2. Charlize Theron-Monster (2003)
God, what an affecting performance. Charlize Theron plays Aileen Wournos, the "first woman serial killer," and she somehow manages to make her one of the most sympathetic characters of the decade. The movie doesn't approve of Wournos' actions, nor does it shy away from showing her seven murders in graphic detail. What it does, however, is try to show that Wournos was a real person with real emotions and real motivations, instead of burying her in the cliches that come associated with the term "serial killer." Yes, she was evil. But she was also a person. And Charlize Theron captures this beautifully. There are almost unbearably painful moments--moments in which the viewer almost feels indecent for invading the privacy of these lives. It's and incredibly daring performance, and it pays off in the best of ways. (I also need to link to this: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViNCBnYlttQ&feature=related)

1. Ellen Burstyn-Requiem For a Dream (2000)
I could try to describe why this performance is the most heart-breaking and accomplished performance of the decade, but instead, I'll provide you a link and let Sarah Goldfarb speak for herself. www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3OK0KgXjmk ) There's nothing I can say that that scene doesn't say for itself. Thank God for Ellen Burstyn.

Who'd I miss? Who should be on here differently? Did I actually include The Devil Wears Prada? Speak up!

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Memory is a wonderful thing if you don't have to deal with the past."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Anti-War Film: An impossible genre?

The War film has has long been an honored staple of the Hollywood Canon as long as film itself has been around. Indeed, the film that codified the language of cinema, The Birth of a Nation (in other words, the movie that created the term "movie." The Birth of a Nation pretty much provides the dictionary definition of "movie," and had the audacity to do it first), has a first half that can easily be construed as a War Film. The genre has mutated to fit the social climate at hand: the 30s saw a deromanticized, ugly version of war after WW1, the 40s were tainted by a desperate recruitment attempt, the 50s and early 60s glorified war in the way that only nations at peace are capable of, the late 60s, 70s, and early 80s saw visions of hell through jungle-colored lenses, and the late 80s through 90s brought a near-fantasy version of war, created by a national policy of sweeping conflict under the rug. Today, we stand at a junction: the world is evolving past the Rambos and the Top Guns, but has yet to find its voice for dealing with contemporary conflict: some films hit (The Hurt Locker, Paradise Now), but the majority (Lions For Lambs, Redacted, In the Valley of Elah) miss.
I'll be honest: war film as a genre has always fascinated me. I once heard it stated that war films were the most interesting of genres, because they allowed humans to play out their regular conflicts to an extreme. This might be the first posts about war as a genre, but it's certainly not the last.
For now, I'd like to make a bold statement: making a truly "anti-war" war film is almost impossible. I would say entirely impossible, but for one fine example, which we will discuss in a moment. This is not to say that an anti-war message can't be conveyed through film. My claim is that doing so within the confines of a stereotypical war film is stunningly hypocritical.
Film as a medium has a difficult relationship with war: on the one hand, film seems to be the perfect way to capture the heightened emotion, the strategizing, the combination of giants fighting one another by deploying the smallest ants. Film can focus on one individual's problem in the midst of thousands and thousands of people fighting for thousands and thousands of others. On the other hand? Film as a medium cannot realistically express war. Things like story, pacing, and dramatic symmetry are lost on war as a reality. To films, however, they are absolutely essential. This creates a problem: a director cannot introduce one without violating the other.
Consider Platoon. This is widely considered one of the best anti-war films ever made, indeed, one of the best war films of any kind ever made. I have an objection, however: its focus on combat. Yes, the Charlie Sheen narrative pretends to make grandiose statements about the loss of innocence, and many empathetic characters die in horrific, brutal ways. But then the combat comes. It's masterfully directed, and incredibly proficient on a technical scale, but it has an energy and a sense of purpose that many viewers will find exhilarating. While I have never been in combat, nor do I plan to, I feel confident in saying that combat is many things, but exhilarating is not one of them. Admittedly, Platoon does not play like a recruitment video (unlike such unabashedly biased films as Top Gun). Too many red-blooded males watch the movie, however, and can't help but be excited by the images of combat shown. I have, however, encountered people who have watched the film and left with a positive image of war. And, mind you, Platoon is a very unpleasant film. If these young men can watch Platoon and be excited, imagine their reaction to the jingoistic works of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay.
Here is where I should say that an anti-war film in the context of an actual war film is impossible. However, it only takes one counterexample to keep conjecture from becoming reality. Thus, I humbly submit All Quiet on the Western Front for your consideration.
All Quiet on the Western Front adroitly sidesteps all of the problems I outlined earlier. It avoids attempting to wring drama out of a focused plot by leaving plot by the wayside: the film is a series of vignettes, whose only connection is that they happen to the same group of people. The film avoids showing battles almost entirely. There is one exception, a third of the way into the film: this scene ignores strategy and character completely. Indeed, one can't even tell which side is which. And that's the point: All Quiet... eliminates the possibility of routing for "the right side." Instead, it shows what is best described as a montage of death: countless men running into gunfire, their political ideology rendered irrelevant by the swift and sudden introduction of a bullet into their vital organs. There's absolutely nothing exhilarating about this All Quiet..., because there's nothing exhilarating about death, which is all the film has time to portray. The film itself says it best. Here is the opening title card:

This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

And later, the film's thesis statement, as delivered by Lew Ayres:

"We live in the trenches out there, we fight, we try not to be killed, and sometimes we are. That's all."

All Quiet on the Western Front. The only true anti-war film ever made.

Disagree? Give me a good counterexample. How does one go about dramatizing war without making it look enjoyably dramatic?

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

Mason: Nicole, did the Pied Piper take the children away because he was mad that the town didn't pay him?
Nicole: That's right.
Mason: Well, if he knew magic, if he could get the kids into the mountain, why couldn't he use his magic pipe to make the people pay him for getting rid of the rats?
Nicole: Because...he wanted them to be punished.
Mason: So was he mean?
Nicole: No, not mean. Just very angry.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Finding diamonds in the rough

Sometimes, movies suck. True story. Sometimes a movie is so godawful, the only thing you can do is stare at the screen, hoping that you can light the theater on fire through sheer willpower alone (editor's note: in my experience, this technique does not work. Still, we at A Slice of Movie Zen do not condone arson as punishment for cinematic sins. Unless it's Seven Pounds. Then we provide the gasoline.). Some movies steal precious hours from your life that you'll never get back, but will continue to haunt your nightmares, stalking the halls of your nighttime world like a Michael Myers from Rob Zombie's Halloween remakes (incidentally, a movie whose sheer badness will haunt your nightmares in just this fashion).

It's true. Some movies suck. This does not mean, however, that you should despair, dear reader. In even the worst films, there lie hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, waiting to save the viewer from two hours of aural and visual rape. Being the committed journalist that I am, I have inflicted the worst kinds of psychological torture upon myself to search for hidden gems. What I will attempt to do in this series (yes, I'm trying to start series I can run with here) is provide you with the map to these gems, in case you ever find yourself in a situation desperate enough to use it.

In other words? I've watched some terrible movies, and I'd like to spare you the same fate. But, if you find yourself watching these movies, I'd like to provide you with a fingerhold in the great rock-face of sanity. Enjoy.

Our first installment? The Village. Yes. The best comedy of 2004, hands down. Here is a sampling of some of M. Night Shamalyan's witty, insight-laden dialogue:

Ivy: I am in love.
Edward: I know.
Ivy: He is in love with me.
Edward: I know.
Ivy: If he dies, all that is life to me will die with him.

Moving stuff. Here is the script again, effortlessly summoning tension through skillful employment of passive voice:

Edward: Ivy.
Ivy: Yes, father?
Edward: Do your very best not to scream.

Sadly, pixelated letters cannot convey the poignant emotion with which actors Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, and William Hurt, and friends garnish these fine words with. Suffice to say that the Sears Department Store Mannequin rendition of Waiting For Godot (located in Women's Wear) is the only thing I've witnessed recently that can compete with the performances displayed. This is to mention nothing of Adrien Brody, in his touching rendition of the Man-Who-Might-Be-Retarded. Oh well. He who might be retarded is still cognizant enough to put on his summer camp's costume contest entry and terrorize a village of pseudo-Amish vaudevillians.
Such are the joys of The Village. Joys they are indeed, but not of the variety that those who created the film intended.

And then the music kicks in. If you have iTunes, search the store for The Village soundtrack. Listen to the previews of "The Gravel Road," "The Vote," "Noah Visits," and "Race to Resting Rock." Youtube can also be used to accomplish this. I don't know about you, but I was dumbfounded. In the middle of this completely inane film, composer James Newton Howard has hidden compositions of nearly unsurpassed beauty and depth. His music is disturbingly audacious in its proficiency: when watching the film, it has the gall to almost persuade you that you care what's going on. Almost. The soundtrack of the film works as a stand-alone piece far more compelling than its source. In fact, I think we should all take a moment to thank Mr. Shamalyan for making The Village. Yes, it makes me want to run face-first into a wall with pencils shoved up my nostrils, but, without the film, this music would never have been composed, and the world would be a worse place. Thank you, M. Thank you.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"People always say to me, 'when you get to the NBA, don't forget about me.' Well, I should've said back, 'if I don't make it to the NBA, don't forget about me.' "

Monday, October 5, 2009

Overlooked: Israeli cinema

When someone says "foreign films," few locations come to mind: France, Italy, Germany, perhaps films from East Asia. These countries, no doubt, deserve their prestigious reputations in the international film community, but, in truth, they represent a mere fraction of the product produced by films from around the globe. A myriad of countries across the globe create fantastic films each year, and I'd like to take a moment to shine the spotlight on some overlooked foreign cinema.
Today's overlooked country? Israel. in the past five years, Israel has experienced something a film renaissance that reflects a more socially and politically conscious nation. Films like Waltz With Bashir, Beaufort, Lebanon, and Paradise Now (which, technically from Palestine, but was created by the same school of filmmakers) have been pushing the envelope for international cinema by crossing boundaries associated with mediums (Waltz With Bashir), experimenting with form and content (Lebanon), or approaching a controversial subject with no easy answers (Paradise Now).
All of the films mentioned above share political and thematic motivations. Waltz With Bashir and Lebanon even examine the same conflict. These recent Israeli films reflect what could be construed as growing pacifism and an increasingly harsh eye on the nation's foreign policy in the past. All of these films portray combat in one form or another, yet none play as recruitment advertisements. Waltz With Bashir profiles the effects of denial and inaction in the field of battle, Lebanon examines the psychological terror of being trapped in violent situations, Beaufort addresses the lunacy of bureaucracy in war as well as the futility of combat, and Paradise Now asks difficult questions about the possibility of peace in a world populated with fanatics.
Can this new movement be seen as a growing social unrest in one of the world's most conflict-ridden regions, or is it simply a liberal dissonance in the choral voice of the general public? While the implications of the Israeli new film movement is for the reader to decide, what's undeniable is the technical virtuosity of the films being produced. Waltz With Bashir took flash animation to new levels while making a compelling argument for animation as a medium for adults, while Lebanon displays its technical skill by taking place almost entirely inside of a tank. Even Beaufort, which has its detractors, is a taut, tense piece of film-making. Whomever is teaching these film-makers, they're doing something right.

Until this point, were you even aware that Israel made films? Have you seen any of these? What other countries come to mind when you think of foreign film? I'd like to run this as a bit of a miniseries, highlighting overlooked foreign cinema from across the globe, so sound off! If I don't hear any countries that y'all want discussed, I'll move on (maybe next week?) with South Africa, Romania, and South Korea.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"They tell you what the ingredients are, and how it's guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they don't tell you whether or not it's painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Breaking (ish) News

This hot off the press, or, rather, a youtube interview: Quentin Tarantino announces he has plans to make a sequel to Kill Bill that takes place ten years after the events of the first film. I'm just not sure how to feel about this. You may or may not know my feelings about the original film, so I'll give you a hint: it starts with an L and ends with an O-V-E. It's hard to pass up a chance to see The Bride in action again. On the other hand, Kill Bill is such a complete-feeling work that I can't imagine how a sequel will add to it. The smart money says that the plot will concern Vernita Green's daughter, Nikki, seeking revenge on The Bride. Not a bad guess, I'd say. I'd also be willing to bet that we haven't seen the Last of Elle Driver, either.

What do you think? Should Tarantino make the first sequel of his career? Is Kill Bill worth rehashing in the first place?

Your Slice of Movie Zen for the Day

"All the clouds are cumuloft
walking in space
Oh my God, your skin is soft
I love your face
How dare they try to end this beauty?
How dare this beauty?
To keep us under foot
they bury us in soot
pretending it's a chore
to ship us off to war
in this dark we rediscover sensation
in this dark we rediscover sensation"

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"His funeral! Imagine it, the cathedral, all Vienna sitting there, his coffin, Mozart's little coffin in the middle, and then, in that silence, music! A divine music bursts over them all. A great mass of death! Requiem mass for Wolfgang Mozart, composed by his devoted friend, Antonio Salieri! Oh, what sublimity, what depth, what passion in the music! Salieri has been touched by God at last. And God is forced to listen! Powerless, powerless to stop it! I, for once in the end, laughing at him! The only thing that worried me was the actual killing. How does one do that? Hmmmm? How does one kill a man? It's one thing to dream about it, very different when, when you, when you have to do it with your own hands."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Top 10 Lead Actors of the New Millenium

I have a problem. A compulsion. An abnormal preoccupation.
With listmaking.
Luckily for me, blogging is one of the very few situations in which compulsive listmaking isn't a bad habit: it's par for the course. So, in the first of many, many lists to come, I'm profiling what I consider to be the ten best performances by a lead actor from the new millenium. Please note that this disqualifies any actors that I categorize as Supporting (i.e. please don't ask me why Heath Ledger's Joker isn't on this list. That's a different list, which I'm sure he'll be on in the future). Without further ado...

10. Brad Pitt-The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Pitt's performance as Jesse James is a laser-focused character study of a man too big for his world. The Assassination... throws Jesse James into a world of half-wits and cowards, while giving him oceans of depth and nuance. Pitt doesn't shy away from the darker sides of his character: he stares into the abyss, and lets the emptiness he sees reflect in his eyes. The assassination scene is pure perfection: watch how Jesse surely knows what's about to happen, but allows his morbid curiousity to get the better of him. Really relevatory work here, and a complete travesty that the Academy didn't recognize it.

9. Jamie Bell-Billy Elliot (2000)
Every time I see this film, I'm both stunned and more than a little annoyed that a twelve year old from northern England is more talented than I'll ever be. Jamie Bell's debut performance is a knockout: he effortlessly captures the difficulties of growing up in his environment, the emotional minefield of discovering that his best (male) friend has feelings for him, and the sheer joy of doing what he loves, regardless of what the people around him think. Most people would cite the scene in which Billy recites his mother's letter, or perhaps the confrontation with Mrs. Wilkes in the changing room, as the standout acting sequence. For me, however, the award goes to saying goodbye to his brother on the bus, made all the more poignant, and difficult to act, by the fact that we can't hear what he's saying. All the audience gets is a facial expression, and a couple gestures, but it'll tear your heart out. Another fine performance that the Academy refused to acknowledge.

8. Daniel Day-Lewis-Gangs of New York (2002)
I love Daniel Day-Lewis so much it hurts sometimes. He's inarguably the best part of this admittedly flawed film. Lewis takes a character that could easily have been cliche (the heartless villian upon whom the hero seeks revenge), and turns it into one of the most memorable screen characters of the year. Bill the Butcher is a monster, but a very polite one. He brings Hannibal Lecter to mind: he's worth his weight in gold at a dinner party, as long as he decides to let you live. Bill speaks with such bizarre yet fitting diction, spinning every line into something memorable. And the physical acting quirks: his posturing, the way he taps on his glass eye with a knife. Effective stuff.

7. Jack Nicholson-About Schmidt (2002)
I love this performance for being exactly what it is: an exhibition of Jack Nicholson not doing the "Crazy Jack" persona that has brought him so much success. Nicholson's Schmidt is quiet, restrained, and bitter. He's opinionated, but bottles everything up. Just starting retirement, he begins to realize how trivial his life has been, and when his wife dies, he begins to fully comprehend his mortality. What a beautifully touching performance. Watching it, you can feel the weight of the ages on his shoulders, and you can see how inadequately equipped he is to deal with the issues he's facing. The last scene, in which he recieves a simple letter of thanks from the African child he sponsors, is a doozy.

6. Johnny Depp-Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
After the unadulterated mess of the two Pirates sequels, it's easy to forget how blazingly original Jack Sparrow is. Reviewing the original film, however, it's hard not to stand in awe of Depp's sheer audacity. Nothing in the script suggests Sparrow's goofiness: his gambol that would make the Ministry of Silly Walks proud, the way his eyes bug out of his head, the way his tongue seems to be at odds with the rest of his face. Jack Sparrow is a masterwork of physical comedy. Every choice Depp makes is absolutely ludicrous, but somehow, inexplicably, works perfectly.

5. Bill Murray-Lost in Translation (2003)
Now the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Murray's performance is perfect for how much he doesn't do: Bob Harris could be the funniest man in the room, he could hog the spotlight, but instead, he just sits at the bar. It's astounding to see a man such as Harris in the middle of a mid-life crisis: every second, his funnyman persona is clashing with his emotional pain. The key to Murray's performance is that he rarely lets it show: Harris is a man doing his best not to let the world see that he's not happy. It's a beautiful exercise in restraint, and it plays wonderfully.

4. Heath Ledger-Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Allegedly, director Ang Lee told Ledger to play Ennis Del Mar "like a clenched fist," and that's exactly how it looks. Ennis' inner turmoil and torture is almost too much for words, but he'll be damned if that's going to show. Ledger plays Ennis as a man who struggles to embody his vision of masculinity at every moment, even as he struggles with his sexuality. This, on its own, is an achievement. What moves the performance into virtuoso territory is when Ennis lets his guard down. The moments of tenderness that he shows Jack are absolutely heart-rending. The scene involving the shirt (I'm avoiding spoilers: if you've seen the movie, you know exactly what I mean), is unbearably painful, and Ledger sells it without a word.

3. Phillip Seymour Hoffman-Capote (2005)
Most people won't agree with me here, but I have to rank Hoffman's performance just above Ledger's. That could well change with time--they're neck-and-neck. But, for now, my vote goes to Hoffman: his portrayal of Capote is spot on: the tics, the high, lisping voice, the man who does his best to appear comfortable inside his own skin. Then, he takes this fantastic impersonation and deepens it, lets Capote's emotions fester, until he lies in a hotel bed, paralyzed by his own shortcomings. His performance makes you feel like you're right in the room with him, and the way his voice breaks before the execution. I don't know about you, but I was simply dumbfounded.

2. Sean Penn-Mystic River (2003)
This entire film plays like a masterclass acting workshop, but Penn's performance is the standout of an incredibly impressive ensemble. Penn's Jimmy Markum is, above everything else, flawed. Penn portrays him as a man incapable of dealing with the emotions he's going through. Markum is a caged animal who has been tortured for too long: the only thing he knows well is pain and violence, and he inflicts those upon the people around him. Penn (literally) throws himself into this role: the physicality he displays when he finds out that his daughter has been murdered is astounding.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis-There Will Be Blood (2007)
There could only be one top spot, and if I didn't give it to Daniel Plainview, he would drink my milkshake right up. And I don't want that. There's not much that I can say about this performance that hasn't already been said. It's complete and utter perfection. Daniel Day-Lewis' achievement is to lose himself completely in the character, even beyond normal standards. The only thing more impressive than his acting is that he didn't irrevocably transform himself into this character. Daniel Plainview is just as present and valid as a real person, and that's the best tribute that I can give.

Thoughts? Opinions? Who did I leave out? Who should be higher? Let me know.

Movie Zen of the Day

"Y'know that ringing in your ears? That 'eeeeeeeeeee'? That's the sound of your ear cells dying, like their swan song. Once it's gone, you'll never hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while it lasts."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Overlooked Movies: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

In this series, I'd like to shine a light on some fine pieces of work that, for whatever reason, never got the recognition they deserved.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints-Dito Montiel (2006)
I'm so upset with Dito Montiel. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, his debut, feels like bottled lightning, like some perverse combination of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. It feels like something daring, original, and completely unique. That this was only his first movie only further solidified my high expectations for him as a new voice in the Hollywood pantheon.
And then he went and made Fighting.
Regardless of his post-Saints career, his first film stands as a raw, searing portrait of love and loyalty. Montiel's film jumps nimbly through time, following a teenage Dito (yes, the film is autobiographical) in 1980s Queens, as well as Dito's return to the area fifteen years later. The present-day sequences revolve around Dito's prodigal-son return to the area, combined with his reluctance to face his past. The past sequences slowly reveal the chain of events, involving an overly protective and emotionally scarred friend, Antonio, and a Scottish immigrant, Mike, that sent Dito running.
The first thing that strikes me about this film is its distinctive look. Consider the color palette that Montiel uses; his 80s sections are all bright reds, yellows, and oranges that scream off of the screen. Like his characters, the look is all about right here, right now, and to hell with the morning. Consider next his modern sequences. Everything has become mottled: we see blues, dark greens, and musty browns. The characters appear to be treading water in algae-covered pools. Only briefly, when past lovers flirt, does the more unrestrained palette take brief precedence again. I love this movie's tactile power: few films appeal to the sense of touch, but Saints looks like it's oozing off the screen.
I mentioned earlier that Dito Montiel seemed like the lovechild of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, and I'll stand by that. Saints feels an awfully lot like Mean Streets, Scorsese's debut film, in its relentless pacing and high energy. Scorsese's influence can also be felt in Montiel's successful employment of music. Like Scorsese's films, Saints rarely employs traditional film scoring. Instead, he uses popular songs, most notably "Trouble," by Cat Stevens, and KISS' "New York Groove." Watching the scenes in which the songs are used, I notice that the majority of each scene's power is derived from its music. String music is nice, but it can't capture the headlong joy of "New York Groove" or the bittersweet melancholy of "Trouble."
Speaking of "Trouble"...The montage in which that song is used is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It's a perfect exercise in minimalism. Each character gets one sentence, but it defines who they are. (I tried to embed this scene here, but, God help me, I'm not very tech-savvy, so here's the link instead: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XtP0T3uiME). Few filmmakers are capable of such restraint, but Montiel stays the course, and the result is great film-making.
Montiel also shows shades of Altman: specifically, in his use of overlapping dialogue. Robert Altman is famous for debunking the idea that only one character can speak at once, and Montiel takes this idea and runs with it. This is especially evident in the family scenes in Dito's apartment. And why shouldn't it be this way? In reality, Dito's family is loud, opinionated, and overly gregarious. Any scene showing them should play as such. A lesser director would have attempted to shoehorn these characters into acceptable script format, but Montiel has the courage to let everyone talk at once.
Speaking of fun directorial touches, there is one scene that challenges me, and I'd love to see if y'all agree with my interpretation. The scene I'm referring to takes place on the subway; Antonio misses the train, Dito gets on anyway, and meets Mike at the end of the train. Notice how impressionistic this scene is. What gets me in particular is the voice-over: in the voice-over, Dito and Mike sound quieter, gentler, and the things they say run a little deeper than breaking the ice. Then, directly after the voice-over, the actual conversation happens, and they're both loud, and crass, and awkward. Here's my theory: the voice-over is how each character wants the conversation to sound, and the regular audio is how it actually happens. Note, however, that when Mike is showing Dito the dot on the window that he watches ("Put your eye here, right next to it", that the audio cuts out and the voice-over matches the lips of the actors. Perhaps this is when the encounter softens, and the two characters begin to be themselves.

...Which brings me to another theory. I've mentioned this before and gotten interesting reactions, so I'd love to see what you think.

I think there's a definite homoerotic subtext between Dito, Antonio, and Mike. A love triangle, to be exact. The subway scene above is a perfect example: it's shot in the style of a period romance, as far as lighting and camerawork is concerned, and notice that Mike and Dito's eyes linger on each other longer than they ought. Then, pay attention again during the only scene in which all characters are present: the night on the rooftop. How Antonio keeps shooting glances at Mike and Dito, Dito's body language in relation to Mike, and how the end result plays. Consider Antonio's actions right after Dito is beaten on the street. Watch his hands. I'm not saying that it's anything explicit: I'm just saying that there's something there--Montiel, perhaps, is acknowledging the basic undertones of male affection that seem so taboo in today's society.

At any rate, this is a fantastic movie. Flawed? Perhaps. But certainly not worthy of the $5 bargain bin at Wal Mart. Find it if you can. If you already have, spread the love. This movie deserves more!

And I know I'm not the only one with opinions here. Am I reading into these relationships too much? Is Montiel's use of music distracting and inappropriate? Does it deserve to be condemned to the bargain bin? Sound off!

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"I can't tell you anything you don't know. We live in the trenches out there, we fight, we try not to be killed, and sometimes we are. That's all. I heard you in here, reciting the same old stuff. Making more iron men, making more heroes. You still think it's beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don't you? We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It's dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all."