Friday, December 21, 2007

Review of Three Wishes for Cinderella

Ignoring my own advice, I determined to find a holiday film that I could honestly endorse before the 25th came around. After some casting about, I decided to order a cult Czech film that I’d heard many good things about called “Three Wishes for Cinderella.” In some countries it is known as “Three Nuts for Cinderella,” a title which is surprisingly interchangeable (I’ll explain that later).

“Three Wishes for Cinderella” (1973) serves roughly the same societal role for Europe as “It’s a Wonderful Life” does in the US. It’s a magical, feel-good fantasy that brings together the community and appeals to every generation. The film is a perennial classic in Germany and Switzerland. In the Czech Republic it is a national landmark; part of the cultural landscape. In Norway, the film is virtually a religion: public demand has decreed that the state television channel play it ritualistically every Christmas morning at the same time. In the US, nobody has any idea what you are talking about when you mention the film. Americans like to be left alone with Charlie Brown’s holiday foibles and claymated Rudolphs that look like nightmare Bozo-the-clown centaurs.

[Image: Rudolph = Clown Centaur. I rest my case.]

“Three Wishes for Cinderella” tells the classic Cinderella fairy tale without a hint of irony. Unlike the Disney animated feature from 1950, which reigns supreme over the American mindshare of the story, this Czech version has much more genuine, down-to-earth tone, a light, desaturated palette and a whimsical atmosphere. The dense, folksy mise-en-scene reminded me of a sweeter, child-friendlier “Alice” (1988), a Czech fantasy film that was probably influenced by this feature.
[Image: Admitting I like this movie while displaying this DVD cover, may be the single most emasculating thing I’ve ever done. The version I bought, thankfully, was far less embarrassing.]

Cinderella is played by Libuse Sanfrankova (I’ve omitted about seventeen accent marks so don’t even try to pronounce it) to great effect. She lives in a quaint village snugly tucked into a wintry forest near the local castle. Her stepmother and sister, jealous of her beauty, happiness and good-nature, try to saddle her with a life of drudgery.
[Image: (Top) The maid, the step-sister and the step-mother. (Below) Cinderella being told to keep away from her horse; words she will disobey for nearly the entire film.]

Their cruelest form of torture is to pour two types of seeds on the ground for Cinderella to separate. Tedious, and kind of random, but the poor maiden can always call on friendly doves to help. Since the film is live action it is kind of cool to see real birds being used, though I suspect they were eating a lot more seeds than they were collating.

The town is in a flurry since the king (and his thoroughly eligible son) is due to pass through. Cinderella sneaks off with her trusty horse to frolic amongst the towering pines. She inevitably runs into the prince’s hunting party and saves a deer from his blood-sport. As bold and mischievous as a forest nymph, she leads the lads on a goose chase through the snow, at one point stealing their steeds and finally slipping away without giving her name.

Word gets out that the King is hosting a ball for the prince to select a bride. Cinderella’s mother orders all sorts of fantastic fabrics for the favored filial relation, but the merchant who goes to fetch the goods promises to bring back a present for Cinderella, too. He forgets and falls asleep on the coach ride back. The prince comes upon him while bow hunting, and shoots a birds nest at just the right moment to drop it on the merchant’s head. The prank startles the man, but also pleases him. In the nest are hazelnuts that he gives to Cinderella.

The three nuts are magical and grant wishes. I’m pretty sure this is mixing up Jack and the Beanstalk with Cinderella, but I’m not complaining because it saves us from suffering a fairy godmother character. Under the protective eye of a friendly owl, Cinderella transforms her hazelnuts into various outfits. It’s unclear whether she could have asked for anything she wanted (like a robo-dinosaur) , because in true ingénue fashion, she only desires pretty clothes. This must be some type of olden European thing (from before people dared dream of robo-dinosaurs), because it also happens in my favorite Charles Perrault fairy tale, Donkeyskin, which also has a fantastic film adaptation. She first asks for huntsmen gear so that she can best the prince in a test of archery. Later she transmutates a gauzy gown for the ball and, after the whole glass slipper rigmarole, she uses the final nut for a wedding dress.

[Images: In one the funniest moments (to me), Cinderella’s horse shows up saddled and ready to take her to the ball. She is gleefully surprised, “Who saddled you!” The film cuts to her as she turns around and the camera zooms in on the owl. Um… no, cameraman, I don’t think it was the owl….]

To some degree, the film plays like the wish-fulfillment fan fiction of a thirteen-year-old girl. There is a preponderance of horse-riding, dressing up in pretty clothes and showing up boys while remaining perfectly graceful and conspicuously pretty. Oh, and at the end she consents to marry the handsomest and most wealthy person in the land after he desperately combs the countryside for her. However, even fan fiction, if executed extremely well, can be quite enjoyably.

Libuse Sanfrankova’s lead performance is one of the reasons the film works. Though twenty at the time, she looks no more than fifteen in the film. She possesses all the innocence, enthusiasm and ethics that a good fairy tale heroine needs, but demonstrates a competence in horsemanship, archery and climbing that modernize her into a girl-power emblem.

[Image: Cinderella takes down a hawk, then when the prince pulls out the arrow and asks whose it is, she shoots it out of his hand. Take that, patriarchal tyranny!]

The regal realities of feudal governance, class-based oppression, political intrigue and Haemophilia are not for Cinderella, but she does show such benevolence, initiative and tolerance for work that one could imagine her growing into a beloved leader. She is so in control of her destiny that I doubt she even needed the magic hazelnuts to win over the prince: in addition to her charming personality and impressive resume of Renaissance skills, she is also remarkably pretty. Amongst the many imdb testimonials of girls enchanted or inspired by the film are several male confessions of long-lasting crushes and even one slightly disturbing tale of a boy whose standard for beauty was set so high by Sanfrankova that it soured his later relationships.

Director Václav Vorlíček is quite liberal with Perrault’s original telling, giving Cinderella far more agency. At one point, the prince tells her that he shall make her his bride. She responds by chiding him for not asking her how she feels about it and then playfully rejecting him despite his pleas. It’s nice to see the subtle feminist touches, especially compared to today’s gauche Hollywood appropriations like “Shrek,” where any positive message comes watered down with crudities and pop-culture references. Despite the praise being heaped on “Enchanted” (in theaters now), I can’t help think that Hollywood hasn’t yet learned its lesson, and I’m staying away for the time being.

A surprising place where “Three Wishes for Cinderella” succeeds is in the immaculate cinematography, not usually of much interest in family fare. The whole thing is lens in a glittery soft-focus that makes the light seem to hang in the air. The snow-covered, unspoiled woodlands (somewhere in the Bohemian Forest) is put to good use filtering in the dappled sunlight and reflecting it ambiently off the snow-covered hillocks.

The film looks a little low-budget and dated from a modern perspective, but the lack of CG, shine and crispness give it a homely, earthy charm. The sets are not highly dressed, but the richness of texture from the wood grains, muddy slush and festive costumes makes the suspension of disbelief a pleasurable task.

[Image: This costume was my favorite. I imagine that it is capable of independent flight and reminds me of outfits in Babylon 5.]

If someone had described the soundtrack to me in advance, I would have sworn I was going to hate it, but it comes together well. The tracks are light modern takes on Renaissance era music with a lot of airy, elegant instruments (flute I could recognize for sure). It creates a pleasantly nostalgic feel, usually devoid of the sappy vocals that mar the final number. One can also detect the brief tinkle of bells at key moments, quite possibly a reference to the sound effect used for the magic earrings in “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.”

So, for anyone who found my scrooge-like ranting about holiday films to be a cop out, now they have something to watch for the Christmas season. It has just the right levels of escapist appeal and positive underlying values to ensure warm fuzzy feelings for families and young-uns. Plus, you can finally see what all those Czechs and Norwegians are talking about.

Walrus Rating: 7.0 (I’ve taken 0.5 off to compensate for my Czech bias)

[Image: Cinderella earning her name at the fireplace.]

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Review of The Lovers on the Bridge

Leos Carax (a cooler anagram of his birth name Alex Oscar) is a bit of a punk. He’s a director who often bares the complexities, innovations and depths of Godard, but also flashes the facile decadences of a self-absorbed pop-culture addict. Somehow Godard’s overt artistic and political agenda have [deservingly] made him an international icon, while Carax remains relatively unknown outside of France, despite updating Godard’s youth culture energy and savvy experimentation for a generation bound to the 1980’s. Some critics have also noted this kinship while other reviewers have, instead, tended to group Carax with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix as a purely-kinetic hipster, tacitly accusing him of asking his audience look, but not to think or feel. I disagree with the latter.

I don’t know how I found out about it, but I watched Carax’s “Mauvais Sang” (“Bad Blood,” 1987) several years ago. I’d read that the vaguely futuristic plot involved an epidemic STD that proves fatal to anyone who has sex without loving there partner, but I really didn’t know what to expect. It sounded like there was plenty of potential for silliness and kitsch. What I was not expecting was Piet Mondrian-esque rectilinear primary-color experiments or impenetrable poetic ruminations where dialogue usual sits or a story so loose and obscure that the plot I’d read about seemed like an explanation or interpretation rather than an actual description. I wasn’t sure, but I came to a tentative conclusion that I liked it. I doubt I understand it properly. Someday, I’d like to see it all again.

I’m beginning to suspect that the only way to prepare for seeing a Carax film is to see other Carax films. In that spirit, I sat down to watch his most well-known film, “The Lovers on the Bridge” (1991). The film is a tortured romance between two homeless people living on the Parisian Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, whose name translates ironically as “New Bridge.” Alex (Denis Lavant) is an acrobatic fire-eater who downs alcohol and sedatives with alarming vigor while Michele (Juliette Binoche) is a riches-to-rags artist who has pounded the pavement since discovering that a rare eye disease will rob her of her career.

[Image: As a clever self-referential touch, Juliette Binoche, who plays an artist, painted the movie’s poster,]

They meet when Michele is on her way to the beach and drops her painting supplies. Their hands briefly touch as they reach for the same paintbrush. Just kidding. Michele witnesses Alex passing out in the street and getting run over. When he returns from the hospital, he finds Michele huddled on his trash-strewn bench on the closed-for-repairs bridge.

While the film is initially pretty inaccessible, the audience is gradually warmed to the Alex and Michele characters. Lavant and Binoche were already Carax alums (from “Bad Blood”) by the time of this film, and they (get ready for a tongue twister) directly synchronize with the director’s idiosyncrasies. Binoche gives up her usual otherworldly beauty for a more befittingly ruffled hobo look while Lavant dives into his shambling vagrant with a high-strung passion and typical compact roguishness. They are both a bit erratic and uneven and they should be. Carax wisely eschews over-glamorizing the freedom-of-the-street and keeps his characters in an unpredictable and not always sympathetic limbo.

Like “Bad Blood,” the film is conspicuously sparse on characters, channeling our attention and eventually a deep emotional intimacy into the two leads. Carax goes to some extreme lengths to keep us in his depopulated vision of Paris: we see only the back of the passenger’s head when Alex is run over, a nightclub is represented only by the dancing feet visible from outside, a brief scene with a policeman shows the officer asleep, etc. The only other characters whose presence is made explicit are the homeless and jobless transients. They include the only other multi-line speaking part, Hans, a former guard who still has the keys from his old posts (real keys, not symbolic ones like in EVERY OTHER MOVIE EVER. Sorry.). The way Carax inverts the usual view of Paris denizens is refreshing and provocative in itself, letting the “productive members of society” fade away and bringing the marginalized into focus.

When critics speak of Leos Carax’s work they’re quick to note his excess. “The Lovers on the Bridge” attracted particular attention for its financial surplus: the 8.5 million franc budget blossomed into 70+ million over a rocky three-year production, due largely to Carax’s unwillingness to compromise and his resolve to build a full scale replica of the Pont Neuf. I, too, tend to bandy about the word ‘excess’ quite a bit on the Film Walrus, but I think critics use it misleadingly in this context. To call “The Lovers on the Bridge” an exercise in visual excess is to let a couple of dizzyingly transcendent scenes overshadow a movie which is dominated by an intentionally modest mise-en-scene and static set.

Almost all the action takes place on the single bridge, a lonely hulk of masonry undergoing reconstruction. Yet almost all the reviews focus unduly on a nighttime scene where Alex and Michele run through the falling sparks of bicentennial fireworks and water-ski down the sparkling Seine on a stolen motorboat. This interlude shows the fleeting kernel of ecstasy that drives the characters and allows them to experience soaring joy even as they burn up in the atmosphere. It’s not misguidedly unqualified propaganda for the freedom of having no property or responsibilities so much as a physical manifestation of the illusive fulfillment achieved by Alex and Michele’s love. It feels like an enchanting trance and unfolds like a preposterous dream. In fact, I think it serves roughly the equivalent purpose as a dream sequence and shouldn’t be treated as though it pushes the entire film into fantasy.

For the most part, the film has a certain grittiness, a sense of destitution and desperation that occasionally bursts from below the surface. Carax’s camerawork could lend a visual excessiveness to even this crumbled, quiet atmosphere, but he shows due restraint when necessary. Like everything else in the film, the cinematography is deeply interwoven into the characters and remains pinned to their activities and their perspectives. As a consequence, the camera cuts, spins, pans and even takes a virtuoso van-ride during their moments of heightened intensity (such a gallop through a subway, Alex’s delirious fire-spewing performance and his jealous anxiety when faced with the possibility of losing Michele), but it also matches their quiet moments: the sleep, the boredom and the tedious routine of day-to-day survival. Carax knows when to leave the camera in place and let a shot run long, demonstrating a confidence and discernment not shared by some of his hipster contemporaries.

Yet the film does indulge in excess, which will either endear or alienate the viewer depending on their taste. The excess is really an emotional one, characterized not so much by external melodrama as the feverish extremes with which Alex and Michele internally register their ups and downs. They can make love look downright painful, turn insomnia into opportunity and extend melancholy into misery into self-mutilation.

In retrospect, the difficult opening scenes of Alex staggering through the street can be read as more than just the drunken culmination of addiction. It’s like the emotional equivalent of a seizure by someone prone to emotional intensity, but without the maturity and stability to cope.

Carax never uses emotional excess to undermine the complexities of his character with broad melodramatic strokes. He even pokes holes in the oft-used device of transcendent love, arguably the central theme, by showing Alex’s selfishness; his gluttony for love. In the final third of the film he often acts inexcusably malicious to preserve his relationship with Michele, even going so far as to tricking her into losing her money and preventing her from getting an eye operation that could restore her ambitions. Many directors would be too afraid of losing audience sympathy to go that far.

Carax definitely wants his film to be felt and not just viewed, and that’s why the mood is so thick and the emotions so taut. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it terribly manipulative, but there’s no question that Carax is willing use the tools of the trade to make an impression. The sophisticated soundtrack, featuring David Bowie, Arvo Part and French pop, plays a large part in shaping that impression. The eclectic tone switches from choral to synth and from pop to minimalism to capture the essence of each scene.

“The Lovers on the Bridge” is a film that rewards emotional investment as much as visual analysis and it does so in an intellectually informed and film-history aware manner. In my mind, this should make the film interesting for any number of daring viewers, but it didn’t manage to get in front of very many eyes that didn’t belong to film critics. The initial financial failure may be the result of marketing that played up the stylish romantic youth-culture angle and forgot to mention the poverty, anguish, depth and formalism. It’s a difficult mélange to sell to a mass audience.

Walrus Rating: 8.0

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hall of Strangeness Part XXIII

Primer – (Shane Carruth) A masterpiece of low-budget digital filmmaking, Primer uses a combination of mind-bending science fiction and elaborate paranoid interrelations to stretch their budget-to-quality ratio to the limit. Aaron and Abe are two friends who just may have invented a time-machine, but using the device may tear their friendship, and the world, apart. Though the film starts out in familiar time-travel territory, the inherit complexities of the fourth dimension take their toll on the protagonists and make shake loose casual viewers.
Artistry: ** Fun: **** Strangeness: **

Prospero’s Books – (Peter Greenaway) This insanely freestyle experimental adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is probably the most visually radical, but least enjoyable, of Greenaway’s work. Organized around Prospero’s library of magical books that cover all the world’s knowledge, the audience is subjected to busy arrangements of performance art, dramatic sets, outrageous costumes and digital effects in lieu of straightforward narrative delivery.
Artistry: **** Fun: * Strangeness: *****

Ridicule – (Patrice Leconte) In the royal courts of 18th century France, wit was king (but also Louis XVI) and pithy banter was a treasured backdoor to political power. A well-meaning baron out to save his farming community must enter into the brutal arena of wordplay where careers can be made or unmade by a single devastating turn of phrase. Crisply shot and snappily penned, Ridicule is a period piece with a unique edge. Also there are mountainous wigs.
Artistry: **** Fun: **** Strangeness: **

River’s Edge – (Tim Hunter) A high school student apathetically kills his girlfriend and takes his classmates to see the body in this dark satire of the slacker generation based on a true story. Their reactions include zombie-like indifference, militant support and vague attempts at the shock and outrage they know they should be feeling. With biting, effective wit, Hunter captures the aimless drifting of the sex-drugs-and-violence immunized generation raised on TV and weed.
Artistry: **** Fun: **** Strangeness: *

Robot Monster – (Phil Tucker) Possibly the lowest production values of all time mark Robot Monster as a classic of 1950’s C-movie sci-fi. Ro-Man (a robot represented by a man in scuba gear and a gorilla suit borrowed from another film) has managed to exterminate all life on earth except for a benevolent scientist (insert atrocious Russian accent), his family and assistant. When Ro-man experiences his first disorientating notions of love (and lust) after sighting the scientist’s daughter, he questions whether his mantra to “correlate, deduce, reduce error” is really the pinnacle of civilization. Features wooden computer monitors, inexplicable dinosaur stock footage, intergalactic radios that spout soap bubbles and more photo-negative flashes than you can shake a death-ray at.
Artistry: * Fun: ***** Strangeness: **

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ramble/Rant on Holiday Movies

[Image: Oh, you wish I was writing a review of "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians."]

When it isn’t annoying me to the verge or death or eroding the intelligence, patience and morality of our nation, it can be fun to watch marketing at work. I can sit back with the comfy distance of a cynically removed outsider and laugh at the gimmicks, cheap tricks, total lies and unscrupulous barrel-scraping that makes the Hollywood marketing juggernaut continue jugging. Today I’m going to rant about a couple of movie marketing techniques that all coalesce around Christmas and I’ll finish with a surprise(!) review.

Sometimes I see movie trailers so bad that they accomplish the opposite of the presumed goal: they stick out so dramatically in my mind because of their badness that I won’t ever end up seeing the movie even by accident. If a friend asks me if I might want to go see “This Christmas” with them, I won’t even lazily agree out of ignorance. I’ll be able to say no without hesitation and not only do I save two hours, eight dollars and a great deal of happiness, but I’ll have one less friend for whom to buy a Christmas present. That’s because a friend who invites you to see movies cashing in on holidays isn’t really a friend at all.

My reaction to holiday movies tends to be similar to how I treat highway billboards for rural tourist traps. I’m a little amused, I avoid them out of habit and then I promptly forget about the entire thing. Occasionally I ponder the type of person who would drive even two miles out of their way to see The World’s Grayest Clay or The Museum of Mutated Jackrabbits. I’m just hoping that the type of person who pays to see “Jingle All the Way” or “Jack Frost” does so out of a sick curiosity for how bad it can get.

[Image: The World’s Largest Chainsaw… Sign]

Why else would consumers (or producers) invest time and money in a movie they would never otherwise even consider, just because it’s themed to the current season? It won’t be better than the usual muck. In fact, experience should have taught us all that it will be worse. And yet… somehow it works, terrible films make a profit, and three year later the same films which by all rights shouldn’t even be allowed in Blockbuster’s “Used: Buy four and get them all for free” bin, are resurrected for seasonal television play.

Somehow a seasonal theme manages to ensure some minimal return on investment, like casting Will Farrell, adapting a 50’s TV show or featuring a preponderance of bikinis in the previews, posters and box-art. These parasitic holiday-spawn eke out an undeserved profit by feeding upon the innate happiness associated with holidays and taking advantage of the fact that we have the day off anyway, so we might as well watch something (and there aren’t any car-crashes nearby).

I don’t like holiday movies. That may be obvious by this point. This goes a long way towards explaining why I put off seeing “It’s a Wonderful Life” until just a few weeks ago. It was the last film on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies that I had not seen and I’m sure that in some marketing consultant’s computer somewhere a little “cultural penetration” widget clicked over from 99.9999% to 100%.

As for a review, I’m not even going to bother. It’s not that I thought the film was particularly bad, but I wasn’t that impressed either. Why do my usual spiel when I don’t have any potential audience of people to guide or inform (they’ve all seen it), something new to say about it or any cute personal anecdote about how the film drew me back from depression or made me change my job to the subprime real-estate lending market (which, let’s face it, is exactly what George Bailey does and look at where that got us 60 years after the goodwill and holiday cheer settled).

One nice thing about “It’s a Wondeful Life” is that it managed to totally, albeit accidentally, subvert the Hollywood marketing machine. It was a minor failure on its initial release and the copyrights lapsed back in the 1970’s. When it became a certified Christmas Classic in the 1980’s, the opportunities for traditional profit had already come and gone. TV screenings still brought in ad money and third-tier distributors can make a dime by packaging it as a two-for-one best-of-Jimmy-Stewart DVD with “The Gorgeous Hussy” (1936), but basically the big money slipped through their fingers. The only one who collects any royalties is the guy who wrote the original story. A writer getting revenue! That’s almost as ridiculous as paying musicians for their music!

Incidentally, the original script was written as a Christmas card, a medium that was probably better suited to the material. Then again, I always tend to prefer the card to the movie.

But I said I wasn’t going to get into reviewing the movie and I mean it! I’m going to review something related, which fits more with the Film Walrus’s obscurity angle. No, it’s not “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wondeful Life” (1993), a brilliant short film that upturns Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” by combining it with “The Metamorphosis,” but yes, you should check that out, too.
Instead, I’m going to dig into another marketing technique that frequently draws critical ire: the game adaptation. Certainly, no action movie can storm the theaters without the inevitable PS3 version that outsells the film despite shipping without collision detection, the second and fifth levels, and the original voice-actors (they blew through the budget just licensing the blocky celebrity likenesses and ended up out-sourced the dialog to Bengal). These days I’m not surprised to walk into Best Buy and see “My Dinner with Andre” conversation-sims, Wes Anderson® franchise dysfunctional-family-themed RPGs and titles like “Bloodrayne: The Movie: The Game.”

You mean there’s actually an “It’s a Wonderful Life” videogame? Well, no, not exactly. Someone, somewhere thought they could generate actual currency (not just Monopoly currency) with an “It’s a Wonderful Life” board game. You can check out its profile on, the board game equivalent of IMDB (actually, it’s far superior), where it has received, to date, 5 votes. Because we share the same sense of humor, my girlfriend bought this for me at a Goodwill.

What follows is my review of “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Game Based on America’s Best Loved Movie.”

The game is played by moving your game piece around a circular board and answering “It’s a Wonderful Life” themed trivia questions to collect cards. The cards are mostly “friends” with the name and picture of some minor character from the movie (with the understandable exception of Mr. Potter). Two of the cards are $8,000 cards. You must collect five friends and an $8,000 card to win. Excited?

The game board only contains twelve spaces, so expect to do a lot of circling and landing in the same places. The various locations on the board involve events like answering a question, stealing a card or drawing any card you want from the deck. That last option might sound pretty cool, but consider that every card in the game (except for the two $8,000 cards) behaves in exactly the same manner. For some inexplicable reason, every space on the board also has a picture of a character and a name (unrelated to the action or event for that space), recycled verbatim from the friend cards. In fact, there is quite a bit of recycling since each friend card has about ten copies. Thus you can win the game by collecting $8,000 and five Clarences.

[Image: A winning hand, Zuzus over Mr. Gowers.]

The theme of careless mass production is further developed by the game pieces. Every player’s avatar (up to six!) uses an identical image of George Bailey laughing manically. Katie and I found out the hard way how incredibly confusing this makes it to tell which piece to move.

[Image: Every player is George Bailey. Is it a play on his everyman status? A metaphor for the infectious universality of his plight? A dark hint at the fragmented personalities brought on by his despair and depression? Or perhaps it’s a deeper investigation of the film’s premise that a parallel reality is accessible where George Bailey “had never been born,” thus leading any speculative mind to assume that an infinite number of realities must exist where he was born. Hmm… probably just cheap design.]

The gameplay is tedious and derivative. Even hardcore fans of the film are likely to be unmoved by the mostly finish-the-quote questions. I actually watched the making of “It’s a Wonderful Life” after Katie had gone to sleep, in the hope that it would give me a competitive edge. Nope. The game’s concept of trivia doesn’t include things like facts and, uh, trivia. You mostly finish-the-quote or regurgitate character names and minor props.

[Image: For those of you who are too lazy or too smart to zoom in this picture for details, the yellow spikey-stamp says, “Includes Over 280 Trivia Questions!” As an exercise for the reader, can you guess, within five, the exact number of trivia questions included?]

I was hoping for some questions that were absolutely outrageously bad, but mostly they are just pointless and lame. I have some trivia questions of my own, which somehow didn’t make it into the game. Now you can test your “It’s a Wonderful Life” know-how without paying $1.21 at Goodwill! Just try this quiz:

[Warning: Spoilers, but then, there are probably several more important reasons not to play a trivia game based on a movie if you haven’t seen the movie.]

1) What is America’s Best Loved Movie?
a. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
b. Hudson Hawk (1991)
c. Flubber (1997)
d. La Dama Rossa Uccide Sette Volte (1972)

2) What is your favorite part of “It’s a Wonderful Life”?
a. The ending, when Bailey realizes how many friends he has.
b. The ending, when Bailey gets the $8,000 he needs to save his business.
c. The ending, when Clarence the angel gets his wings.
d. All of the above.

3) In what movie does James Stewart play George Bailey, a man who realizes that his life has not been wasted when his friends and family clamber to his aid on Christmas day?
a. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
b. The Naked Spur (1953)
c. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
d. The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

How did you do? Tally up your correct answers (they were in bold if you didn’t figure that out) and check out your dating diagnosis below:

0-1: You’re a natural stupidhead who prefers watching merely spectacular movies like “Flubber” and “Hudson Hawk” to the greatest film of all time. Men sometimes mistake your pitiful unawareness of “It’s a Wonderful Life” minutiae for ditziness, so you tend to attract only jerks who take advantage of you. Fear not, you can take command of your situation by watching the film twice weekly.

2: Though you’ve seen the film a couple of times, you're not sure of all the details and you are prone to confusing the names of the minor characters. You find it difficult to form lasting relationships with men, because you’re insecure about the real extent of your “It’s a Wonderful Life” knowledgebase. Stop trying to put up a façade of trivia smarts and study up by watching the film twice weekly.

3 or more: When it comes to “It’s a Wonderful Life” you’re all that and a bag of chips. Your friends often come to you with questions about the movie and you pride yourself on your ability to answer their queries. Men find your encyclopedic “It’s a Wonderful Life” knowledge intimidating, but ease them into your habit by cuddling next to a warm fireplace and watching it twice weekly.

Oh, and did I mention that you have to assemble the dice yourself. Seriously!

Walrus Rating: 0

Monday, December 10, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Wrap-Up

I’ve made a ranked list of the films I saw from the 2007 St. Louis International Film Festival. I suppose it’s just in time to be a warm-up for an end-of-the-year summary of what I liked and didn’t, but that will include more films and no shorts or retrospectives. This list doesn’t necessarily order the films by the numerical scores I’ve been tossing around the last few weeks. I tend to update my opinions with all new hindsight whenever I make a new list. Mild inconsistency is a sign of personal growth.

What’s that you say? You don’t believe in ranking totally unrelated movies against each other! Too bad. Meaningless it may be, but I still enjoy it. Besides, I’ve put in a system of tiers to break the list into useful groups. “Highly Recommended” films were real hits with me and I would revisit them again. “Recommended” means that the films were good, but not spectacular and probably don’t require hunting down by casual viewers. “Not Recommended” films aren’t necessarily bad (though some are), they just don’t live up my own fluctuating cost/time-benefit analyses.

Of course, let me throw out the usual disclaimer that every critic feels obligated to scribble into the fine print (where it can be promptly ignored by every sensible busy person): The in-depth, individual reviews should guide your time and cash, not the cold, unfeeling lists and numbers and letter grades and percentages and aggregates and dog-bone pictographs. That said, you’re now free to go and watch only the films under “highly recommended” and then complain that you didn’t like them because they weren’t wacky romantic comedies about Jessica Alba falling in love with an exploding zamboni.

--Highly Recommended--
1) Juno
2) The Memory Thief
3) Jamie Travis Shorts (Shorts, Retrospective)
4) Persepolis
5) Getting Home
6) Ploy
7) Darius Goes West (Documentary)

8) Emma’s Bliss
9) American Fork
10) Fine Dead Girls
11) Honeydipper
12) Beauty in Trouble
13) Big Dreams, Little Tokyo
14) The Collector
15) Waiter

--Not Recommended--
16) Rainbow Song
17) Hear and Now (Documentary)
18) Animated Shorts B (Shorts)
19) The Method
20) The Walker
21) Crossroads (Retrospective)
22) Fresh Air
23) The Sacred Family
24) No Regret

Saturday, December 8, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 6

Only about a month late, but this wraps them up!

St. Louis International Film Festival 2007 reviews for Nov. 17-18:

Title: Persepolis
Director: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Country: Iran
Score: 8.5
“Persepolis” was probably my most anticipated film from this year’s fest, considering that it had great Cannes buzz (it won the Jury prize), Iranian graphic novel roots, Catherine Deneuve voice-acting and black-and-white animation (of which I’m apparently one of very few fans). A local comic book store, Star Clipper, helped promote it, leading to a packed theater and a slightly younger crowd than the other films.

The film is an autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, an upper-middle class girl growing up in Iran in the 70’s and 80’s. Her experience with education, dating, music and politics is colored by the volatile backdrop, including the Islamic Revolution and Iran-Iraq war. Well-educated and independent, Marjane must decide between staying close to her family and homeland or leaving for freedom and security. The choice is not anywhere near as easy as it would seem. Several trips abroad only shift the attention from national conflicts to personal troubles like loneliness, depression, racism, identity-loss and poverty.

Traditionally, rambling war-torn coming-of-age stories are not really my cup of tea, but “Persepolis” has more to offer than most. The animation is merely the most obvious curveball, but it certainly helps lend a coat of polish to the material. The color scheme is primarily B&W, with some blue mixed in (the present-day framing material is in full color). It walks an interesting line between a cartoon look (large blocks of solid tone) and pen-and-ink detail. The look doesn’t try to be particularly exotic, instead it has the clean-cut edges and formal balance I associate with abstract modernism.

The medium is rarely used to break with reality, although the transition cuts are often quite clever and a couple loose history lessons are given where the character are intentionally moved like jerky marionettes. I think Satrapi was smart to keep the action fairly grounded, because it allows the audience to feel secure in the emotional sincerity.

Marjane Satrapi easily shoulders the central focus. It may be unfair for me to say, but I think the story benefits from her gender since it frees the film from what have gradually become clichés of the male, coming-of-age cycle. It also helps that her experiences have been so atypical, although her reactions, her choices and her dreams feel quite natural. The non-fiction source means that there is nothing symbolic, forced or structurally contrived (like a neat, happy ending or a steady progression). The dialogue sounds like things people might actually say, without being boring or deadpan; Satrapi has a talent for bringing out the humor and wisdom in her remembrances.

I found to “Persepolis” to be a solid, well-rounded movie that is likely to have very wide appeal. It has human interest, topical political issues and a strong visual style. I particularly liked the marionette sequences, a hilarious “Eye of the Tiger” training montage and the perfectly handled close-calls, that have just the right levels of tension and relief without too much tasteless audience manipulation.

Title: The Walker
Director: Paul Schrader
Country: US
Score: 6.0
I couldn’t help being disappointed with “The Walker,” a slow-burning political thriller starring Woody Harrelson as a D.C. female escort cavorting with the rich and influential. Perhaps I was expecting more from Schrader, who was easily one of the biggest names in the festival. There was also something lacking in the conspicuously famous cast (Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin, Willem Defoe, Moritz Bleibtreu), all doing their best to seem infinitely cultured, effete and cagey.

Harrelson is Carter Page the Third, a name previously worn by a plantation owner and a prominent, well-liked politician. #3 is somewhat of a disappointment to, apparently, every other person in the film. Page squanders his good-breeding by being a professionally homosexual female companion who provides gossip, fashion advice and a fourth for Bridge. He’s quite satisfied with his well-funded lifestyle until the illicit partner of one of his highly-ranked clients is murdered. Page winds up taking the wrap and going on the offensive, trying not to get buried along with the truth.

Harrelson is surprisingly good in the serious and often demanding role, though he spends far too much time on his meticulous Southern drawl. He does it well, but half an hour in I was wishing he would drop the faux refinement. The whole cast suffers from essentially the same problem, when they’re not pretending to possess some earth-shaking secret (most of them are actually just as clueless as the protagonist). The level of hype the film creates around the presumed conspiracy is totally disproportionate with the somewhat mundane and noncommittal revelation of the truth. The shaky ambiguity doesn’t cover up for the writer’s poor plotting and half-baked villain. One particularly bad moment involves a CEO personally sabotaging Page’s car. Why didn’t he send a henchman? Where did he learn henchmen skills like car sabotagery and assassination?

Schrader makes up for the otherwise meh script with his dialogue, which is really what he cares about anyway.Far, far too much time is spent regurgitating Schrader’s pet theme of flawed men living in their father’s shadow, but that’s really the worst of it. On the up side, there are lots of memorably articulate, cynical quotes about the political system, paranoia and power.

The killer lines are timed to coincide with Schrader’s best shots, visual counterparts to the ubiquitous, ominous insinuations. The art direction features a color-coordinated veneer of civility, set off by satin, brass and ornate wood. It’s a little overdone, as is the flipside: Page’s gay bars and his boyfriend’s painfully “shocking” art loft.

Overall, this film is probably best left to the hardcore political thriller junkies. There is too little payoff, either in rousing surprises or artistic standouts, for the casual fans.

Title: Fine Dead Girls
Director: Dalibor Matanic
Country: Croatia
Score: 8.0
A pair of unassuming lesbians moves into a new apartment building and finds themselves harassed by their disparate, self-righteous neighbors (especially the nosey landlady) in this dark Croatian message film. The social critique comes from the way the tenants turn up the heat on Iva and Marija merely because they have a same-sex relationship, when each of the victimizers has secrets of their own. Sharing the same roof are such other outsiders as a jingoistic foreigner, a man who looks after his dead wife, a mentally challenged boy, a prostitute and an abortionist.

“Fine Dead Girls” works much like “Delicatessen,” taking a group of quirky eccentrics and forcing them to interact uncomfortably in cramped quarters. “Fine Dead Girls” is noticeably less outrageous, but substantially more barbed in its indictment of people’s petty prejudices. Though the building isn’t haunted, much of the film feels like a horror movie because of the constant confinement, rising intensity and the inescapable approach of a deadly breaking point. Sadly, the film also shares that genre’s somewhat throwaway character typing, but at least here they serve double-purpose as symbols of Croatia’s marginalized populations. Alone, their personalities would be too single-stroke to be actually interesting, but their interplay in nonetheless the riveting.

The central story has a nice tragic arc, but it helps that there are plenty of subplots, often merely glimpses into the lives of the lesser tenants. In particular, the film opens with the arrival of a mysterious priest who makes a deal with the prostitute as part of his own secret agenda and the film ends with a kidnap-plot epilogue.

The god’s-eye-view overhead camerawork, emphasizes the smallness of the squabbling tenants. In fact, much of the tone and atmosphere comes from the thoughtful camera placement, helping to offset the general low-budget, no-frills feel. One of the director’s strengths is an ability to skirt around the constraints, using the single location to great effect.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Hall of Strangeness Part XXII

Pillowbook – (Peter Greenaway) Nagiko is a petulant Japanese model who only takes lovers that are adept at painting calligraphy onto her naked body, a ritual that extends back to her childhood birthdays. When the chance comes to exact revenge on the homosexual publisher who blackmailed her father, she takes the opportunity to send him 13 “books,” all written in exquisite detail upon the flesh of naked men. Each text has it’s own twist culminating in a deadly dénouement. Uses digital paintboxing, a multiple-image technique pioneered by Greenaway.
Artistry: **** Fun: *** Strangeness: *****

Pistol Opera – (Seijun Suzuki) In 2001, Seijun Suzuki remade his classic Branded to Kill with a female lead, a ridiculously flamboyant color scheme and several degrees of magnitude more weirdness. A series of unhinged duels between pseudo-supernatural foes are expressed in splatters of post-modern imagery during the struggle for the illusory rank of the number one assassin. It plays out like an interpretive dance gun battle designed by John Woo and Andy Warhol.
Artistry: **** Fun: ** Strangeness: *****

Point Blank – (John Boorman) Point Blank, an icy cold tale of soulless revenge, is the birthplace of mainstream cinema’s affair with existential violence. Lee Marvin plays Walker, a gangster who rendezvous at Alcatraz to split the spoils of a heist with his partner, Mal. Mal callously executes Walker for his $93,000 cut and proceeds to build up a cozy criminal empire over the next several years. Inexplicably back from the grave, Walker returns to collect the original sum he was due, no longer burdened by emotions or fears but plagued by experimentally intercut flashes from his past.
Artistry: *** Fun: ** Strangeness: **

The Pornographers – (Shohei Imamura) This Japanese social satire from the 1960’s finds comedy and pathos in the most abhorrent cesspools of humanity. Subu is a barber and part-time pornographer who is having trouble with his dysfunctional family, his finances, the local crime syndicate, a reincarnating fish and his own personal sexual crises. A well-crafted, nihilistic exploration of society’s underbelly that makes you smile as much as squirm.
Artistry: ***** Fun: *** Strangeness: ****

Possession – (Andrzej Zulawski) Simular to the twisted offspring likely to result from a West German honeymoon between Argento and Cronenberg, Possession is the relentless tale of a tattered marriage and its disturbing fallout. Isabella Adjani plays a manic-depressive woman who leaves her husband (Sam Niell) and eccentric lover for an alarming relationship with an unusual alternative. Adjani gives one of the world’s most intense and most gutsy performances (surpassing Nicholson’s in “The Shining”) in a film whose entire cast has very little use for sanity.
Artistry: **** Fun: **** Strangeness: *****

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 5

St. Louis International Film Festival 2007 reviews for Nov. 16:

Title: Beauty in Trouble
Director: Jan Hrebejk
Country: Czech Republic
Score: 7.0
“Beauty in Trouble” takes place in the post-flood Czech Republic where a displaced working-class family tries to survive, not so much the consequences of natural disaster, as the stress-fatigued nuances of family interaction. Marcela (Anna Geislerová) is the titular beauty in trouble, a woman contending with two children (one asthmatic), a husband who has turned to crime, a crumbling make-shift home and a sinister, petty step-father.

After Marcela’s husband is jailed for grand theft auto, she meets Josef, the rich victim of the crime. Their rapidly budding relationship is complicated, not the least by the outside impression of gold-digging: Josef is wealthy and older, Marcela is beautiful and younger. Both have unrelated obstacles to fray their nerves, Marcela with her parents and Josef with a real-estate hustler. There isn’t a lot of fanfare or thrills, but the film does communicate the need for patience, endurance and an underlying zeal for life in an even and understated manner.

Like other meandering, interpersonal dramas where camerawork is strictly utilitarian for 95% of the film, this movie lives and dies on the strength of the performances and script. I’ll say foremost that both are quite good, though not memorable. To its credit, the film doesn’t plead or fuss for awards with extreme histrionics, ironic twists of tragedy or shocking personal revelations.

Marcela is a sympathetic character whose appeal comes from her inner confidence and practical survival skills. She’s also got sex appeal on her side, the type that benefits from looks, but really soars because of her brash individualism and uninhibited sensuality. Think “Erin Brockovich” without all the sensationalism and ideological pandering. You won’t feel like the writers and producers are screaming “THIS IS EMPOWERMENT” in your ear; you’ll just feel that she is real and strong-willed.

The rest of the cast is just as talented, especially considering that they have to develop equally in-depth characters in far less screen-time. Generally they succeed. Jirí Schmitzer, in particular, is masterly as Marcela’s “Uncle” Richie, a selfish, petulant codger who manages to be cruel and perverted and yet so totally, instantly recognizable as true to life, that he outdoes every Bond villain at incurring audience ire. He’s mean in the way that drives you crazy in a thousand little ways without ever physically harming anyone (though he comes close at least once).

Unfortunately, nothing about “Beauty in Trouble” can really help distinguish it from the pack and even I’m having trouble pitching it convincingly. The back of the DVD will probably play up the passionate sex scenes, the exotic locale with rustic local flavor, the brave determination of the lead and so on, but all that really cheats the film of its true success: creating convincing drama that rings true to life.

Title: Emma’s Bliss
Director: Sven Taddicken
Country: Germany
Score: 8.0
How do you make a romantic comedy that still feels fresh? For starters, you can stop treating Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant as characters types that somehow represent all of Western civilization. The number of romantic comedies that can be described as Roberts-Grant love stories (whether or not they actually feature those actors) could fill a Blockbuster. (They already do. Next time you’re on the way to the mailbox for your Netflix DVDs, pop into a Blockbuster and you’ll see the concrete proof.)

So it’s refreshing to see a movie like “Emma’s Bliss” where the central love story takes place between a renegade car salesman dying of stomach cancer and a reclusive, anti-establishment pig-rancher. Surprisingly, it’s not any more contrived than a Hollywood rom-com, but far more entertaining and sincere.

Jürgen Vogel plays Max, an unhappy auto hawker who has slipped into oblivious malaise and unethical behavior under the weight of modern life, but is pushed by the certainty of his own painful demise to seize the day… and his boss’s ill-gotten cash stash. Fleeing from the scene of the crime, he crashes off the road and lands on Emma’s modest property. She drags him inside to nurse back to consciousness, but keeps the money she finds and burns the car. Max stows away in her barn, gradually graduating to her tool-shed and bedroom as the two unlikely friends fall in love.

Emma (Jördis Triebel) completely steals the show, going far beyond the sugary feistiness of traditional rom com “independent spirits” by digging into livestock guts with her bare hands and lovingly slitting pig-throats “the old fashion way.” She wrinkles her nose at vegetarian dishes and even more so at Max’s misguided attempt to alphabetize her canned goods (his cleaning is a deep violation of her stubborn sensibilities).

Don’t let the intrinsic wackiness or food theme fool you, though. This film is about challenging our sterilized notions of experiencing life only through layers of glass and plastic. “Emma’s Bliss” focuses on genuine love and pain (both parts of her hand-crafted “bliss”) and not merely making our mouths water with savory meats or media-sculpted celebrities. It’s closer to “Harold and Maude” than a typical contender for this list.

I should note that, yes, there is comedy. Expect it to be closer to the everyday smiles discovered throughout real relationships and not the ones synthesized by the outrageous situations that TV characters and Meg Ryan constantly get themselves into. This, despite the somewhat over-the-top personalities and elaborate meet-cute. Taddicken sells it by relying on sensitivity for his characters, in keeping with the author’s (Claudia Schreiber) love and respect for her work. The camerawork also pays tribute to them by refusing to shy away from the dirt, blood and blemishes that make theses people come alive and gradually awakening the audience to a beauty that commercials for personal hygiene products have trained us not to see.

Friday, November 30, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 4

The gap ever widens between the close of the 2007 St. Louis International Film Festival and the time of my “coverage” for the films I saw. To help me get these all wrapped up, I’m going to skip the remaining short films and just focus on the features. This batch, hopefully the penultimate, contains my favorite film from the festival.

SLIFF 2007 reviews for Nov. 14-15:

Title: Juno
Director: Jason Reitman
Country: USA
Score: 9.5
Last festival, my favorite film was “The Lives of Others” and my taste turned out to be unusually in league with the general consensus because the film grabbed the audience choice award that year. Once again, my top pick also shared the popular sentiment, and “Juno” quite deservingly took home the audience prize. This is surprising for a number of reasons:

1) Comedies don’t win top prizes.
2) I almost never like comedies.
3) This happened to be a comedy about teen pregnancy.

I wasn’t enamored from the get-go, especially since the opening sequence (“It all started with a chair…”) didn’t strike me as particularly funny and the intro credit sequenced slightly underperformed next to “American Fork’s” similarly indie pomo-mo pop-art antics.

However, the early Rainn Wilson cameo (Dwight of “The Office” fame), which has been misleadingly over-represented in the previews, set things on track. Juno (Ellen Page) is taking her third pregnancy test at a convenience store while Rollo (Wilson) nettles her with wacko insensitive barbs. There is a lot of fast verbal play, weird alternate-reality slang and cheerfully delivered over-sharing (in a welcome mix of cynicism and honesty) that lasts, with defiance, consistency and self-enrichment, through the rest of the movie.

Juno is impregnated by light-weight, good-guy (isn’t that refreshing?) track runner Paulie (Michael Cera), but Juno initially doesn’t see him as being all that important to her plans. After briefly entertaining the quick-fix of visiting the abortion clinic and getting on with her life, she decides to bear the child and give it up for adoption. Using wanted ads, she finds a pair of local yuppies (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) who want a child, but can’t have one. There seems like an obvious solution for making everyone happy, but complications ensue.

I know, I know. This doesn’t seem like a recipe for the funniest movie this year, but it completely comes together. Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” was a minor comedy gem with a brilliant topical edge, but with “Juno” he’s already entering into the pantheon of great comedic directors. A lot of the credit is due to his deft directing, but writer Diablo Cody arguably deserves the most thanks. His script is fast, lively, irreverent and witty with a style, tone and even a dialect that blazes with originality. The high quotibility factor of the film ensures it more than just first-time viewing pleasure. Rather, I predict it will have a major “cult” college following with an extended lifecycle in away messages, Facebook quotes and dorm-room whiteboards.

The TV show alumni (Bateman and Cera were the father-son team from “Arrested Development,” Wilson comes out of “The Office” and Jennifer Garner heralds from “Alias.” I’m probably missing plenty, but I’m completely clueless about television anyway.) comes together quite well, without ever creating a villain as an easy vent for the tough issues and high-strung emotions. Newcomer Ellen Page absolutely steals the show and will hopefully bring her talent for timing and sass to many future projects. The combination of dismissive wit, self-deprecating wisecracks and easy-going, yet unshakable determination make her character unsentimental, but both sympathetic and badass. She never borrows from the mellow, melancholic hipster or loser-cool gene pool so popular with other American indie-coms.

Title: Rainbow Song
Director: Naoto Kumazawa
Country: Japan
Score: 6.5
“Rainbow Song” is a bittersweet coming-of-age romance set in modern-day Japan awash in nostalgia and naivety, but surprisingly moving even when it overdoes the sappiness. A lengthy intro shows underling Tomoya being abused by his TV station employers. He hears about a plane crash in America and learns that his long-time friend/crush Aoi has died.

The majority of the film gets busy filling us in on the event leading up to the tragedy, including how Tomoya meets Aoi while stalking someone else. They become buddies at film school together where they make ambitious student projects including a tale about the last seven days before the end of the world. Despite there obvious feelings for each other, Tomoya is simply too shy and awkward to mention his love and the relationship teeters on consummation before Aoi decides to head abroad and see the world to gain a wider perspective on life and art. Tomoya stays behind and almost gets married to a eerily manipulative husband-hunter with an uncomfortable, though hardly evil, secret.

“Rainbow Song” feels like a first film and would be a lot more sweet and disarming if it actually were. It would also be easier to overlook the cloying abundance of heart-warming swoons, loudly symbollic devices (such as the title rainbow) and mediocre metaphors (the unrequited love story is divided into seven chapters and terminated by a death… just like the film-within-a-film romance set before the end of the world).

What’s surprising is that despite the transparency of Kumazawa’s emotionally leading techniques, the film does make the characters real and he generally convinces us to care about them. They are plain and unexceptional, but somehow their enthusiasm for casual reality, simple fun, big plans and young love is infectious enough for us to join them on an emotional rollercoaster.

I feel the film would have been improved by ending trapped within the flashback, defying its overly contrived framing structure and emphasizing the nostalgic fondness of memory over the uncertainty of the present. Kumazawa also should have toned down the erratic attempts at deeper meaning and wider scope, which hamper his intimate story and are handled poorly anyway. I would also have appreciated it if Tomoya were not quite so clueless, since his complete inability to understand his or Aoi’s feelings make him maddeningly frustrating to watch.

Visually, the film strikes just the right tone. The low-budget charm fits the story and there is a sense that a special connection between the characters and creators lingers in the air and lends authenticy. Kumazawa is rarely fancy (he’s borderline documentary at times) but when he does pull a good shot (a rainbow reflected in a puddle, a POV shot lying on the ground during the filming of an “invisible” gas attack, a sparing walkthrough of Tomoya’s apartment) it gets just the right amount of special attention.

Title: Fresh Air
Director: Agnes Kocsis
Country: Hungary
Score: 4.0
Not every female-directed Hungarian movie can be a masterpiece, and yet somehow I was sort of hoping that my good fortune with “My Twentieth Century” would carry over. Kocsis lacks almost everything that made the other film great: creativity, inquisitive gusto and a sense of cinematic exploration. “Fresh Air” is a late-comer to the boredom-is-art school of indie pretension, and while the characters have a degree of genuinely convincing ennui, I only get marginal utility from contemplating the void that lies under modern working-class East European life.

Viola works at a pay restroom outside a subway and contends with mind-numbing labor, dismal surroundings and humiliating stench. Her daughter, Angela, survives being ground into the dirt by her school’s oppressive inhumanity by dreaming about becoming a successful fashion designer. She does minor, but dedicated, sewing invariably in her favorite color (green), but really has no future to speak of.

Most of the film deals with the interplay between their personal tribulations and the mutual pain they inflict on each other through silence, neglect and alienation. In a ritual of delicate cruelty, Angela opens all the windows when Viola comes home, drawing attention to her discomfiting smell. Viola already scrubs compulsively for hours in the tub to mask the ordor and maintains an encyclopedic array of spray scents. Viola ignores her daughter completely, occasionally sneaking off to dance and leaving Angela to lunge desperately towards love and freedom. She runs away to pursue a fashion design opportunity only to arrive back home having hitchhiked in a circle without ever being missed. In the impressively anti-climactic (in a good way) ending, Angela abandons her dreams and adopts the zombie-state and occupation of her mother, who has been injured defending the modest toilet takings.

It is so clear from the beginning that Kocsis intends to depress us by making us stare into the awful faceless impassivity of capitalist society that the film loses its chance to surprise or ensnare us with its quiet revelations. Instead, we must wait through torturously long sequences to arrive at bitter codas easily visible long in advance. The drawn-out inevitability is both boring and insulting, a very bad combination by any standard.

The characters themselves and their interaction (or lack there of) do have a brutal realism while maintaining an interestingly stagy symmetry. Their alternating screen time keeps the kernels of dejection more palatable than if we had only their individual non-stories. I did find that the characters were treated with a gentleness and respect that was admirable and despite the seeming emptiness of their lives, Kocsis displays a laudable faculty for character development through minute gestures, banal conversations and morose introspection.

Kocsis never quite gets the visual gloom and pacing rhythm she aims for. Too much repetition and stagnation prevent the soft flow of implacable workaday routine from building the ugly momentum it needs. Instead there is the uneven sensation that we are about the break free from the cycle and explore new ground (which might be intentional), but instead the plot simply recoils into its bland status quo once again. The cinematography tries to frame the oppressive, uniform city as a desolate alien habitat, but fails to make dullness any more meaningful than dullness naturally registers.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Review of Secret Beyond the Door

I’ve been meaning to write a review of a Fritz Lang movie for a while now. The great German-American director had a career full of brilliant classics like “Metropolis” and “M” and lesser-known, but equally influential, noirs. I was particularly interested in doing an Iceberg Arena comparing “Dr. Mabuse” (1922) and his underappreciated “Spies” (1928), both epic-length silent gangster serials that helped pave the way for modern thrillers and action films. I might still do that, but after recently watching “Secret Beyond the Door,” I’ve been moved to speak out in favor of this so-called “minor” picture, not the least because I was so annoyed by the negative AllMovie review.

The aforementioned review begins by saying, “Even star Joan Bennett and director Fritz Lang regarded The Secret Beyond the Door as the weakest of their collaborative efforts” referring to the four films “Scarlet Street,” “Woman in the Window,” “Man Hunt,” (which I haven’t seen, so except in from my next statements) and “Secret Beyond the Door.” On some levels, I can see how “Secret,” when considered in such company, deserves its lesser reputation: it has the most unpolished script, the most experimental narration, the strangest setup, arguably the most dated psychology and easily the worst ending. Yet it’s my favorite.

Perhaps my newfound love for it stems from my bias towards good premises. I tend to give extra points just for creativity regardless of execution. It’s not that I found the delivery in “Secret Beyond the Door” to be lacking, but it sheds the conventional restraint and dignity of oscar-winning “prestige” pictures.

Let me pitch the movie to you:

Joan Bennett plays Celia, a flighty NYC socialite who’s slipped out of every relationship she’s ever been in and finds herself vacationing rather aimlessly in Mexico. There she meets an enigmatic architect (Mark Lamphere played by Michael Redgrave) while staring with undisguised fascination at an impromptu knife fight. Her narration ensures us that she is eminently in control of the budding relationship as she falls quickly and deeply in love.

But Mark has many, many secrets. Celia arrives at his brooding estate to find the master of the house absent, but surprise (!), Mark has a creepy precocious son, David, by a previous marriage. And he has an tyrannical sister. And he employs a secretary/nanny who hides a hideous facial burn scar. And he has six rooms transported from around the world, grafted onto his mansion and preserved in the exact state they were in when a notorious psychosexual murder (always with a female victim) took place! And there is another room. A room with nothing but a single 7 adorning the door. A locked door. A door which Mark says must never, never be opened. A door beyond which lies a terrible secret!

Come on! If that isn’t awesome, than neither is Jean-Claude Van Damme trying to stop a terrorist plot to destroy America with exploding designer jeans (see “Knock Off”). Fritz Lang’s story is not only impossibly weird even by his own eccentric standards, but it’s so full of mentally fraught psychoses and rapid-fire red herrings that I could hardly keep up with its impressions and implications.

Usually I get pretty sick of Freudian mumbo-jumbo, but here the sheer excess sports an unmistakable satiric grin. I can’t be the only one who watched this movie and saw a certain amount of skepticism and exasperation with psychology clichés about overbearingly-matriarchal, trauma-filled childhoods that somehow explain away the complexities of the adult world. Sure, Lang hangs his resolution on exactly these tenets, but everything from the foreshadowing sardonic pop-psychology suggestions of a snobbish party-goer to the ridiculously over-the-top intersection of multiple climactic psychological revelations in the finale, testifies to a directorial touch more akin to ironic showmanship (a la the Coen brothers) than pure naivety (William Wyler).

As for the script, the overt psychological foregrounding does lend the film the type of imbalances that get English teachers and studio producers alike wagging their fingers. For one thing the narration overpowers the spoken dialogue, sticking to Celia for 95% of the film, but somewhat inexplicably switching over to Mark for a single scene before returning to Celia again. The script indulges in some extreme melodrama, giving cataclysmic emotional weight and accusatory music-enhanced drama to everything from a vase of lilacs or a missed train connection to a knife fight and David’s deadpan insistence that Mark murdered his mother.

Though wholly removed from reality, and even traditionally movie-land exaggeration, I’d have to argue that part of the proof [of quality] is in the pleasure. Like a Douglas Sirk melodrama (but in shadow-laden gothic B&W rather than Technicolor candy-shop hues), the frenzied tone and heightened emotionalism unchain irresistibly watchable inner demons and display an artistry unfathomed by safe “A-movie” directors.

Yet I don’t even think “Secret Beyond the Door” need restrict its audience to the cultish niche for bizarre, but otherwise unimpressive thrillers. The writing shows not just audacity, but remarkable plotting and efficiency. I always love when a writer can squeeze double duty from a single idea, making an object or a piece of information fit comfortably in its first appearance and then bringing it back when you least expect it. An example might be a western where the villain uses a strategically placed mirror to cheat the hero at cards, but at the end of the film the same mirror serves to reveal to the hero that the villain is hiding behind the bar. A poor example (which I know you’ve seen before) is when a character just happens to mention that their sleeping pills, when taken in large doses, work as a colorless, odorless, untraceable poison. Hmmm… I wonder if and how that will come up later?

“Secret Beyond the Door” tends to use a barrage of red herrings and inexplicable complications to mask the precise direction of the plot (which might still be a tad predictable for some), but at least one case has a elegant beauty to it:

Celia cuts the bottom off a candle to make a wax print of Mark’s secret key. There is some tension when Mark notices the sudden change in candle height, but otherwise we have no reason to expect the incident to serve any purpose other than getting a copy of the key into Celia’s possession. However, Lang gets one of his best and most chilling twists out of an unexpected return to this event.

Another conspicuous achievement of the script is the even-handedness with which it treats the characters. Lang has a history of presenting sympathetic criminals and corrupt pillars of society, but rarely has he spread the uncomfortable quirks and fatal flaws so thickly over an entire ambivalent cast. Mark, though honestly in love, is textbook Hollywood-style crazy. His son appears to be a morbidly-fixated Asperser’s syndrome patient. His sister effectively manages the estate, but power-binges and has a strange relationship with her brother that combines maternal, paternal and sadistic impulses. The nanny is obsessively attached to Mark, whose life she once saved, and both the presence and non-presence (don’t ask) of her scar send her into a series of physical tics and mental terrors. Celia herself is presented as having commitment problems, emotional insecurity and a clear death-wish that struck me as sexual in nature. (You can see my point about how pervasive and over-the-top this is even compared to Freud-lovin’ Hitchcockian thrillers). With all this, it really is quite difficult to tell who is good or bad; dangerous or just off-kilter.

So having made a case for the script, I’m not really sure what still needs to be said. The acting from Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave is in top-form and perfectly modulated to the nourish atmosphere. That goes without saying for some, but the co-stars aren’t really household names these days and many of their films are slipping from underrated (I know Molly shares my love of Redgrave in “The Quiet American”) to forgotten.

Meanwhile, the visuals straddle the line between Lang’s monumental masterpieces and his low-budget quickies, occasionally gifting us with the Expressionism of his home-country (see the poster art at the top of this review). He saves most of his oblique angles for the bold shadows that tear through the frame, upset the pleasant wholesomeness of the manor and generally covering the essential minimalism of the sets. He puts his camera just where it needs to be to make us feel in danger, yet just far enough to make us lean into the fear, be it to see the expression on the face of a woman proud to have instilled murder in her admirers or to catch a possible tinge of blood in a sealed-off crime-scene. One of my favorite shots looks down on a party at Mark’s manor as rain spoils their vapidity and the narration snipes at their hastily retreating forms.

Find an excuse to see this film. Fritz Lang, film noir, gothic horror, my review, whatever gets you excited about it. If you haven’t seen other Lang features, take a detour to round up his uncontested greats, but do give this a chance even if you have to find it on VHS (no DVD version yet) or watch it on TCM. Let’s get this out of the cult niche.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

Saturday, November 24, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 3

While I initially predicted that the Thanksgiving holidays would give me plenty of time to catch up on my reviews from the St. Louis International Film Festival, I had not taken into account traveling home, enjoying time with the family and just relaxing. It has been nice to get back into the routine of things. Both Katie and I admitted to being a little burnt-out by the nightly double and triple features and we needed some time to unwind. Currently, I'm back in Kansas for a few days and I've been making the most of my family time. Now everyone's in bed and it's time to get some writing done.

And so on to the reviews from Nov 13:

Title: The Sacred Family
Director: Sebastian Campos
Country: Chili
Score: 4.0
While not as bad as "No Regret," this domestic drama from Chili was definitely one of the more disappointing features at the festival. I went into it fairly blind with two main reasons for attending: curiosity about Chili's national cinema and an unusual time slot when little else was playing.

The film unfolds almost entirely at a single beach house where Marco is returning to his parents to present Sofia, his recent girlfriend. They are a little biased against her since she recently injured his leg when she crashed his car while drunk. Just the same, they are taken with Sofia's sheer energy and enthusiasm and Marco's father develops more than a little crush in response to her second-nature flirting. After vacillating for several hours, the mother leaves to help a friend in need and Marco goes on an angry walk. He returns to discover his girlfriend having sex with his father, but keeps the knowledge a secret. He broods and then decides to get his revenge.

As an intense drama that is supposed to be shocking and emotional, "The Sacred Family" is somewhat of a dud, releasing muted explosions long after the war has already been won by better dramas from the 1970's. The same goes for the dialogue, which tries to show off an intellectual side, but lacks new insight. While often realistically clumsy (kind of a good thing in this case) it lacks the kinetic chemistry required to sell the vying ideas about life (wild bohemian versus settled middle-class) and the dark passions smoking underneath the friendly exteriors. The action is at times suspenseful and almost even thrilling, but never truly captivating; probably a side-effect of Marco's lackluster central performance and light-weight development.

Like "No Regret," the main failure is the amateur visuals. Shot on digital, the film tries for immediacy and in-your-face realism, but with a story that feels so contrived and predestined that the bumpy, raw visuals can't deliver the impact that story should provide. "The Sacred Family" suffers from the same stylistic pitfall which appears to be plaguing a great number of off-the-cuff digital features: an obnoxious proximity to the action which leads to confusion, nasty editing and far, far too many messy close-ups that make us wish we could push the actors away. Campos can't seem to take those precious backward steps and let the cozy, domestic beach-house provide some the contrast, development and hypocrisy that it could have beautifully encapsulated. He never seems to zoom out far enough to even begin considering artistic decision about framing, blocking and angle.

A lot of poor "natural" lighting also gives us frequent splotchy gray patches in the dark scenes that are distracting and a bit off-putting.

The reason I'm not giving this film a terrible rating even though I'm sounding so negative is that the essential story only fails to certain degree: it still holds mild interest and believability. Also, a couple of the performances shine through. Patricia Lopez is a natural as Sofia, a woman who thrives on pleasure and attention (she's not just a compulsive flirt, but a drama student who somewhat unwittingly channels her sensuality into her mediocre performances). Sergio Hernandez, who plays the father, exudes just the right level of below-the-surface creepiness as a man whose ego and selfishness make him vulnerable.

Title: American Fork
Director: Chris Bowman
Country: USA
Score: 7.5
"American Fork" is an indie comedy that celebrates a semi-sympathetic loser in the tradition of "Napoleon Dynamite," although a fairer comparison might be a cross between Christopher Guest and Todd Solondz.

Tracy Orbison (Hubbel Palmer) is an overweight grocery store employee with few friends and a dysfunctional family. He keeps a journal of poetry and maintains a proud aloofness despite his unenviable lot. He becomes interested in acting and enters into the tutelage of washed-up B-actor Truman Hope (William Baldwin is cast as just the man for the role) at a community college night school. After Hope backstabs him outside a lecture by Rutger Hauer (which was a little touch probably funny to the director, myself, Katie and only five other people in the world), Orbison ends his celebrity worship. His problems only escalate when Hope starts dating his homey sister and a coworker draws him into a robbery. Oh, and he gets arrested for sexually soliciting a minor.

Yeah, "American Fork" may be a bit of an acquired taste for those who like their comedy to be gentle and guilt-free. Luckily, Bowman does seem to care about his quirky cast, even if he can't help highlighting their worst traits. I really appreciated his essential disunity, the way his character don't instantly bond and work together. Just because two people are wallowing in misery doesn't mean their flaws are somehow compatible, and Bowman bravely shows how these people use, abuse and hurt each other either casually or just to make themselves feel better. It dips into cruelty occasionally, but a lot of the humor is so genuine anyway that it manages to let us vent some of the sadness.

There isn't a whole lot that struck me as patently new about "American Fork," although it does a good job at translating the dark, everyday tragedies of life into comedy and it features a compelling obese protagonist (quite a rarity in American films of any type). Though I haven't seen it, I imagine this film is a lot more mature than "Shallow Hal" and one could even read the brutal honesty as a twisted form of sensitivity in the way it commiserates with our hero.

The cinematography is not special, but the art design is fitting: Tracy's sister's room is so painfully pre-adolescent while the grocery store and drama classroom have just the right level of depressing flavorless realism. The editing shows wise comic timing, with plenty of cuts to quiet, lonely moments that got sympathetic chuckles from the audience. Perhaps the most technically accomplished part was the hectic, scrapbook intro that navigates through a galaxy of American materialist excess (including a fork).

Title: Big Dreams Little Tokyo
Director: Dave Boyle
Country: USA
Score: 6.0
This ultra-low-budget indie features a quirky protagonist whose good posture, pencil-thin physique and linguistic wizardry provide almost a complete inversion of "American Fork's" Tracy Orbison. Boyd (played by the director, Dave Boyle), is a young American entrepreneur who speaks flawless Japanese, a skill he seems unable to leverage into a career as a businessman, writer, personal teacher or translator. His roommate, Jerome, has a likewise idiosyncratic ambition: to become a sumo wrestler by eating vast amounts of food.

There is not a lot of conflict or opposition in "Big Dreams Little Tokyo," though it hardly seems a problem. The plot follows Boyd's many attempts at achieving the businessman status that his one-man "Tiger Industries" business cards simply, but incessantly, proclaim. He doesn't really need the money since his rich father is content to cover Boyd's rent while he gets settled and tries to find a "real job." However, Boyd desire to be successfully self-employed for his own principled personal satisfaction makes him endearingly quixotic.

Dave Boyle has a certain amount of brilliance to the character humor of his highly-driven, counter-slacker hero. Jerome, however, is too obvious of a foil and the sumo wrestling dream is less exciting, especially since it relies on a series of inevitable eating-large-quantities-of-food-for-laughs segments. Mai, a Japanese nurse who speaks extremely passable English yet decides to take lessons with Boyd anyway, also seems a little forced as the love interest. She's a bit too naive and free of complexity to add much to the dynamics, but she's also irresistibly cute and disarming.

The budget constraints and inexperience of the crew will not go unnoticed by viewers, but I sensed it in a way that only amplified my admiration for how they got the film made, and with plenty of personality and dignity to boot. A lot of the sets are undressed and the editing is a bit crude and staccato, but the composition and polish show effort and commitment. This is not a film to see on its technical merits, but it is also not so poorly made that it interferes with the oddball trans-cultural humor. Netflix it sometime when you're in the mood for something light, goofy and weirdly cute.