Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Review of Sopyonje

Sopyonje seems to be a very odd case of mainstream popular success (in Korea) and folk art traditionalism. It is not hard for me to understand the popularity of a domestically produced film based on traditional domestic culture in a rapidly modernized country. In some ways the phenomenon reminds me of the popularity of westerns in America (where we relive a traditional idealized or imagined version of our past) that tend to be revived every few years or the sudden widespread re-interest in Johnny Cash after his death.

What is particularly interesting about Sopyonje is the way that it uses essentially standard formulas (struggling musician, divided family, searching out and making terms with the past), often from melodrama, with a central subject matter that is extremely national (p’ansori). While I felt that this was a positive and successful combination for a cultural product, my personal position with regard to the film was that of an outsider. Specifically, I had trouble enjoying the music. At best I could appreciate the vocalization and emotional underpinnings but the nuances of the language and intonations were completely lost on me.

My overall impression is that while Sopyonje may be quite deserving of its reputation within South Korea, I think it can only be viewed as a small first step in establishing a unique cultural identity through film. While the content may have been highly nationally, the form of the film felt familiarly Hollywood: lots of big emotions, speeches externalizing thoughts and feelings that should have been left to the faces and performances of the actors, the interwoven flashback structure that has been around for a while and the aforementioned formulas.

Walrus Rating: 5

Monday, January 29, 2007

Review of Black Rain (1989)

Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain is a mature and thoughtful examination on the aftermath of Hiroshima. The decision to focus primarily on a single village and a single family within the village, gives a personal touch that allows the viewer to respond to the event deeper way than just shock or comprehension of the statistical loss involved. However, the real stroke of brilliance is in setting the film five years after the explosion, showing the way that the bomb has far reaching effects on society and individuals that are at least as sorrowful as the initial deaths and perhaps even more so, for the very reason that the suffering and indignities seem to continue interminably.

If the film has a failing, it is that it succeeds too well in making the audience feel the depressing limbo of the characters, unable to escape their plight and trying hard to remain hopeful in the face of ever more inevitable radiation sickness and death. The double-edged sword of adopting an unforced, realistic pace of iterative death is that, as a viewer, I began to get restless and detached. The film so rigidly follows its pattern of tragedy that half an hour before the end we know that the characters are not going to survive (though the last scene is quite eloquent and strikes just the right tone of melancholy). Although paced slowly intentionally, I think it was overly taxing.

Imamura’s directing is wonderful. The choice of black and white lends a note of seriousness and period atmosphere (as if the film were made right after the bomb). The camerawork is adept and full of interesting shots (occasional high angles or distant camera shots with objects in the extreme foreground) but never so playful or self-consciously arty (especially compared to “The Pornographers” for instance) as to diminish the focus on subject matter.

Walrus Rating: 7

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Digital Art

Though they are admittedly unrelated to films, I thought I'd throw some of my computer artwork onto the blog to make for eye-friendly blog-skimming. All the CG is done using a ray-tracer program I wrote for class in 2006. I do the design the layout of the images in the program and it handles the material properties and details like lighting, reflections, etc.

The rest of 2006

These are 2006 films that failed for me in some way. Many of them were interesting in parts but ended up disappointing overall. I'm not sure it is fair to put a movie like "Silent Hill" in the same league with the poetic, but overly self-derivative "Three Times" and the artistically/formally challenging "4," but sometimes that is just how things come out.

********** The Rest (in alpha order **********

Country: Russia
Genre: Art-film
One of the year’s most challenging films. Brilliant opening feature 60 seconds of dogs sleeping in the street followed by enormous power-drills appearing from off-screen and blasting holes into the asphalt. The rest is a downhill mess involving dull, arty meanderings about Russian citizens who dream of alternative lives and old women who chew bread to make doll material.

Country: France
Genre: Domestic Drama, Literary Adaptation, Art-House
Reviewed previously during St Louis Film Festival. A pretentious disaster that met with surprising critical success.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes:
Country: Germany
Genre: Gothic, Art-House
Reviewed previously during St Louis Film Festival. Too slow and too miserly on the technical prowess that made the brothers Quay famous. Heading in the right direction of more interesting, more evolved fare from the famous stop-motion team but still easily outshined by Svankmajer.

The Protector:
Country: Thai
Genre: Martial Arts
Martial arts showcase of Tony Jaa’s Muay Thai fighting style. Lots of impressive choreography but a laughable plot about a stolen elephant and terrible acting. Steroid-pumped WWF cameos are just embarrassing. The highlight is a 4-minute, 4-story single-shot fight scene.

Silent Hill:
Country: USA
Genre: Action, Horror, Video Game Adaptation
Woefully bad videogame adaptation which shames everyone involved. A few good sets and monsters can’t save this hulking shambles of a train-wreck production. Not as bad as an Uwe Boll film, but so disappointing given the strength of the source material. Sean Bean utterly wasted in a sideline performance that could have been removed wholesale (some 20 minutes) without effecting the movie whatsoever.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada:
Country: USA
Genre: Western, Art-film
Meandering western about border-town justice. First-time outing by actor Tommy Lee Jones is several years to late to catch the most recent revisionist western boat. Ultimately disappointing and a little bit over-eager to seem profound, although some great scenes do catch one’s attention. Second half needed a complete rewrite.

Three Times:
Country: Taiwan
Genre: Art-film, Romance
Divided into three stories (set in 1966, 1911 and 2005) each with the cast, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s latest film finds the highly regarded director gutting his previous efforts for material. No originality and scant depth seriously injures the film, especially considering that most audiences can’t tolerate extended minimalist exercises anyway. Although highly critically acclaimed, I have to argue against the grain and say that the directing is the main problem: the leads were on their A game, and the premise was a surefire bet for the art-house circuit.

X-men: The Last Stand:
Country: USA
Genre: Action, Comic-book Adaptation
Disappointing conclusion to the X-men trilogy. Almost all the actors mail-in their performances having apparently realized that the second feature could not be surpassed. Bloated budget gets smeared in the audience’s faces until they get sick. Overwrought.

Good films from 2006

As you've already probably figured out the pattern I probably don't need to mention that these films didn't quite make the "great" mark but still had there moments.

********** Good Films (in alpha order) **********

Country: USA
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Biopic
Adaptation of Charles Bukowski stories that manages to out-deadpan the whole army of deadpan indie comedies on the market. Matt Dillon turns in a career highlight as the perpetually hung-over Bukowski who gets himself fired from every bottom-rung menial-labor job he can find.

The Host:
Country: South Korea
Genre: Science Fiction, Monster Movie
Review: (Reproduced from my 2006 St Louis Film Festival reviews)
Already the highest grossing film made in South Korea (a record broken every six months or so), “The Host” is poised for global success. It’s hard to deny its raw entertainment power, and as the first truly solid monster movie to come around in decades, it’s especially a must-see for science-fiction fans.
The story is based on a real life headline about an American mortician who forced his assistant to pour out enormous quantities of formaldehyde into a sink that drains into the Han River (which runs through Seoul, the most populated city in the world). The movie fast-forwards through several instances over the years where strange events occur around a massive highway bridge. The strange going-ons culminate with the appearance of a ferocious amphibious monstrosity (admirably realized with cutting-edge CG, originally designed with no significant debt to dinosaurs and given movements that are eerily lifelike) that moves onto the shore to wreak havoc and steal bodies to snack on later. The daughter of a squid-stand operator is soon captured by the beast, and he struggles to rescue her from the hidden lair while contending with his own government, who has sealed off him and the area because it appears the creature also carries a deadly contagious virus.
Kang-ho Song stars, having already broken into the American market through his collaborations with Park Chan-wook, Sang-soo Hong and this director’s previous effort, “Memories of Murder.” His acting talents seem a little underused as the bumbling father, and director Bong Joon-ho doesn’t quite match the brilliance of his earlier feature, but once again manages to make an engrossing genre flick that disguises some heavy social commentary and a profound displeasure for his government (and ours). Note especially the visual echo created by the Agent Yellow device near the end of the film.

Little Miss Sunshine:
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy, Road Trip
The year’s big indie hit is an Anderson-style comedy about a family determined to let their oddball daughter compete in a beauty pageant. Wise casting puts several B-list actors into a position where they can really shine, and the interplay between the family members provides some genuine laughs (though the funniest character is removed in a misguided attempt at shock emotion). The blend of understatement and absurdity makes for successful and charming entertainment, although the film owes far too much to Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley (not to mention National Lampoon’s Vacation) to really deserve the hype it received. Condemning the film to merely “good” status is the groan-inducing final act filled with forced catharsis, insincere motivations and the ubiquitous (and always awful) dance scene climax.

Country: Denmark
Genre: Drama, Historical Fiction
Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier grinds another ax on American history in the second chapter of his American hypocrisy trilogy [my title]. This time out, Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) takes over the role of Grace from Nicole Kidman in the superior Dogville. Grace finds herself rescuing the slaves at an isolated plantation that has continued to practice slavery decades after it had been abolished. With the help of a handful of her father’s gangsters she attempts to reverse the roles of the slaves and owners, to disastrous and ironic results.
Trier serves up another clever portion of biting American critique and Grecian tragic irony but gets lazy with his formula. Viewers of Dogville will see every twist and turn coming and will likely grow sick of the director’s patronizing, preachy tone. The acting is also below the high standard set by the first film in the trilogy.

Country: USA
Genre: Science-Fiction, Horror
A tribute to classic B-movie alien invasion and zombie flicks. A must see for fans of old-fashioned sci-fi. Plenty of great special effects and a charismatic performance by Serenity’s Nathan Fillion.

Who Killed the Electric Car?:
Country: USA
Genre: Documentary
Interesting documentary with an admirable array of perspectives on the mystery behind the withdrawal of the electric car. Could have taken better advantage of its mystery/investigation premise, but highly informative despite lack of innovation.

Great films from 2006

These are my reviews from films that were worth seeing in 2006 but not "excellent."

********** Great Films (in alpha order) **********

Casino Royale:
Country: USA
Genre: Action, Bond Movie
The Bond franchise gets a desperately needed make-over with Casino Royale a simultaneous return-to-the-roots and modernization staring Daniel Craig. The film starts out brilliantly with trio of dazzling scenes (a dark, brooding intro to Bond achieving double ‘0’ status, the best credit sequence yet designed and an exhilarating on-foot chase that is truly mind-blowing). Unfortunately, after the first fifteen minutes (the finest launch in Bond history), the best is over—and well above two hours remains.
Martin Campbell (who also made Goldeneye a standout bond feature) never quite regains the initial energy or the fresh coat of dark, gritty paint that colors the opening moments. After an early, forgettable beach scene, we’re right back in standard action fare territory. Too much foot-dragging goes on between the action pieces, including an underused Body Works set, a poker game that doesn’t get exciting until the last hand and an interminable 15 minute interlude that grind the film to a halt in the last act. On the plus side, Eva Green makes an excellent Bond girl, making use of the rare (for Bond films) gifts of personality and dignified dialogue from the screenwriter. Balancing the scale is Le Chiffre, a ho-hum villain who battles Bond using scowling.

The Departed:
Country: USA
Genre: Action, Gangster
Like Casino Royale, The Departed is a fine action film that stands head-over-heels above the average action feature from the past ten years but fails to meet its full potential. Martin Scorsese remakes the 2002 Hong Kong success Infernal Affairs, a film too good and too recent to need remaking. While I have to admit Scorsese improves on the original, he completely ruins the best the scene from his source material (a wire-tapping game of nerves between an FBI strike team and a gang negotiating a major deal). Tipping the scale towards Scorsese’s version are an epic climax at a construction site and a revamping of the romantic subplot.
An undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) joins a gang and begins to climb the ladder under his crime lord (Jack Nicholson) while meanwhile an undercover gangster (Matt Damon) infiltrates the FBI under captain Queenan (Martin Sheen). They are both assigned to find the moles in their respective organizations. The brilliantly contrived story allows for a maximum of tension, clever intrigue and violent action but Scorsese can’t help himself from overdosing near-terminally on his trademark sexism, racism and homophobia. The all-star, all-male cast does their best, but for a film with so many famous faces, the performances are not where they should be.

The Inside Man:
Country: USA
Genre: Heist Movie, Police Procedural
Spike Lee tries on the Hollywood genre suit and finds that big production values look rather spiffy on him. Denzel Washington and Clive Owen star as, respectively, a cop and a robber squaring off at a New York City bank heist. Following both sides of the legal fence, Lee’s lens takes in a wide variety of New York denizens and sneaks in segments on race, class and post-9/11 reactions. The script is clever and relatively lean, given its ample length, keeping audiences guessing at every turn in a genre that many had said was losing its punch. Sadly, for all the good writing, the originality is somewhat low, and the final ten minutes should have been cut out entirely.

A Scanner Darkly:
Country: USA
Genre: Science-Fiction, Psychological Drama, Police Procedural
A Scanner Darkly is a surprisingly accurate adaptation of Philip K Dick’s sci-fi novel, uncompromising in its complicated, ambiguous layers. Keanu Reeves plays an undercover narc in a future ruled by recreational drugs and shifting identities. The combination quickly propels the protagonist into a distorted frame of mind where reality is deteriorating and nothing is what it seems. Richard Linklater reuses his paint-over-film effect that he pioneered to equal success in Waking Life. Non-fans and even PKD fans who haven’t yet read the book might find the film hard to swallow, but the movie stays true to the original conception and sees many of PKD’s best reality-bending ideas brought to completion.
Keanu Reeves gives a surprisingly fitting performance, perhaps because his face is painted over and he plays a confused drug-abuser.

Country: UK
Genre: Horror, Comedy
An unashamed exercise in genre fun, “Severance” succeeds far better than any like-minded ilk in recent memory. For once a horror-comedy earns genuine scares and genuine laughs (usually one obviates the other). The plot concerns a department of British arms manufacturer, Palisade, that is rewarded for their recent sales records (due to combat against international terrorism) with a team-building wilderness vacation in Eastern Europe. If it sounds like a bad idea, you’re right. Isolated in a grimy cabin, they are soon set upon by something hungry for vengeance, and the gore begins to flow.
“Severance” doesn’t try particularly hard to mask its rather heavy-handed political message, but it packages it so well as entertainment that it’s almost indistinguishable. Decent performances, an impressively well-handled structure, impeccable pacing and plenty of surprises keep the film well above the genre standard. Some complaints mar the slick surface though, such as the overly stereotyped and well-worn personality types and a handful of jokes that go on too long, but overall it’s an ideal film for an evening with a small group.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley:
Country: Ireland
Genre: Heritage Film (Period Piece), War Film
Review: (Reproduced from an earlier email)
The Wind that Shakes the Barley is Ken Loach's latest radical political film and possibly his best. It follows two Irish brothers in 1920 who decide to join the IRA and experience compelling, though occasionally brutal, drama as they fight for independence. In addition to taking the Golden Palm, the film has broken all Irish box office records, ending the 54 year reign of "The Quiet Man" (I'm not joking) as the most popular film in Ireland. Not surprisingly, the British government attempted to reduce the number of screenings in the UK. Despite my own personal bias against Loach's particular bland of melodrama and preachiness, I found that I was very impressed by the film. Though initially morally black-and-white the film is surprisingly complicated and the acting is superb.

Country: USA
Genre: Documentary
Lightweight, but highly entertaining documentary from the Errol Morris handbook. Focuses on crossword puzzles, their creators and the world’s best players. Charming and well-made despite being relatively historically unimportant.

Excellent films (but not top 10) from 2006

These are films from 2006 which I really enjoyed but which didn't make the top 10.

********** Excellent Films (in alpha order) **********

Country: USA
Genre: Realism, Drama, Mystery
Soderbergh ventures into dogma 95 realism with this experimental drama/mystery about three workers in a doll factory. Using unknown actors (one recruited by the director at a KFC) and no written script, this small-scale, zero-budget film captures everyday life below the poverty line with painful precision. The boring, meaningless small-talk that constitutes dialogue will ring true for anyone who has made the uncomfortable acclimation to break-room conversations at a mind-numbing job.
Adding some action to the almost non-existent plot is a murder mystery that does seem a bit forced (it undeniably breaks the atmosphere of security camera realism) but manages to add depth and impetus to the story.
After a couple weeks in the theaters, Stephen Soderbergh’s film disappeared into oblivion and his producers let out a sigh of relief with the knowledge that he will now be back on the studio lot making them wads of cash with high-profile Oceans Eleven sequels.

Lady Vengeance:
Country: South Korea
Genre: Revenge Thriller
South Korean superstar Park Chan-wook wraps up his revenge trilogy with Lady Vengeance, a film that manages to be simultaneously the most interesting and least effective member of the bunch. Lee Geum-ja is a gentle and beautiful girl who has spent 13 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Upon release she rejects the tradition tofu slab of purity and renewal, deciding instead to avenge herself on those who put her behind bars. Though the manner of Geum-ja’s revenge and its “elaborate” unfolding is the most mundane and uninspired of the trilogy, it becomes clear that Chan-wook has something more on his mind. Moments before our morally ambiguous protagonist can kill the man who committed the child-murder that she was accused of, she notices that his key chain contains a souvenir of the dead boy’s property… and five other objects.
A disturbing meditation on group/societal revenge and the various means by which post-grief catharsis is thwarted or achieved, Lady Vengeance may be the film from the trilogy that maintains the most resonance in the years to come.

The Science of Sleep:
Country: Italy/France
Genre: Surrealism, Fantasy, Coming-of-Age
Michel Gondry follows up his indie hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with this surreal biopic of a creative young man trapped in psychological adolescence. Gael Garcia Bernal is excellent as Stephane, the now-heartwarming now-obnoxious protagonist who narrates/observes his own life from a makeshift trash-TV studio set inside his own head. He falls in love with his artistically inclined next door neighbor but finds serious trouble dealing with his social insecurity and emotional immaturity. Imaginative flights of fancy (designed in Gondry’s signature style recognizable from his music videos) allow Stephane to escape his humdrum job and to avoid dealing with the read world.
Audiences may have difficulty dealing with Stephane as a main character, owing to his often excruciating vulnerability and childish behavior and psychology. The film is worth seeing, for the production designs if nothing else, but ultimately one feels a twinge of disappointment at how lightweight and low-profile the movie is compared to Eternal Sunshine.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story:
Country: UK
Genre: Literary Adaptation, Comedy, Films about Films
Michael Winterbottom breaks into the mainstream with his wickedly post-modern “adaptation” of Tritram Shandy. The original lengthy 1759 novel attempts to narrate the life-story of Tristram Shandy, but ultimately fails because it becomes derailed so often that, in one of the grand literary jokes of the 18th century, Shandy doesn’t get around to the moment of his own birth until the 7th volume. In adapting the film, lead actor Steve Coogan and the rest of the cast get so entangled in their own minor ego-trips and mini-crisis that they ultimately fail to tell even a reasonable fraction of the novel’s subplots.
As Coogan comments during an interview about the film that takes place during the film, Tristram Shandy was “…a post-modern novel before there was any modern to be post about.” The movie captures the same spirit by highlighting the behind-the-scene adventures of the actors filming the movie. The errand girl is the most savvy film viewer on the production, a technical advisor for the battle scenes annoys everyone with his obsessive need for historical accuracy, Steve Coogan deals with his own British bad-boy image while taking care of his newly-born son, etc. Probably the funniest film I saw this year.

Belated Top 10 of 2006


Overall 2006 was fairly poor year for films on all fronts: Hollywood due to quality, Independents due to lack of originality and foreign films due to lack of distribution (in theaters and on DVD). Almost every critic has made a point of mentioning the dearth of truly noteworthy films this year (except for action movies), but for the ardent searchers there are plenty of gems to be found.
Of my top ten 7 were foreign films, 2 Hollywood and 1 indie. Spanish directors were responsible for 3 of the films, more than any other nationality.


********** Top Ten **********

1) The Prestige:
Country: USA
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Christopher Nolan’s latest film is a dark, nourish take on the Christopher Priest book. Two spiteful, obsessive magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in top form) vie for superiority in a lifelong game of escalating treachery and violence. Their feud inhibits their relationships with the women in their lives, their careers and their happiness, culminating in two versions of a trick called “The Transported Man” that are each accomplished in surprising ways. A rare Hollywood film with a unique style, clever plot and stunning conclusion. One of only two truly worthwhile Hollywood studio films that I saw this year.

2) Pan’s Labyrinth:
Country: Spain
Genre: Fantasy, Coming-of-Age, War-time Drama
Review: (Reproduced from an earlier email)
Though it did garner more votes than any fantasy, horror or science fiction film has ever earned at Cannes, I think this is the film that actually deserved to win. Spanish director Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most talented and consistent horror directors to emerge from the 80's and his storytelling craftsmanship climaxes in this Gilliam-style dark fairy tale. A young girl living with her pregnant mother and cruel fascist father during the Spanish Civil War finds that she may have a greater destiny than she ever imagined. Mixing fantasy with the horrors of war, the film manages to create a highly original and effective tone, aided by some brilliant well-integrated special effects and sound performances. Had I seen this film at a younger age (but not too young) it would probably have been one of my all time favorites.

3) The Lives of Others:
Country: Germany
Genre: Historical Fiction, Drama
Review: (Reproduced from my 2006 St Louis Film Festival reviews)
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (great name) scores a resounding success with his debut film, a refreshing German historical fiction film that actually isn’t about Nazis. Gerd Wiesler is a loyal and initially despicable East-German Stasi member, an investigator and interrogator who finds himself assigned to monitoring a similarly loyal playwright and his wife. Wiesler is drawn into the lives he observes and eventually finds himself questioning his motivations and his role in the greater communist machine.
The movie remains gripping, emotionally involving and contemporarily relevant throughout, delivering a balanced Grecian final act and a last line that came close to inducing tears. The three leads, especially the underplaying Wiesler, give great performances. The film won 7 of 11 German Oscar nominations (a record) and took prizes in Bavaria and throughout other European festivals (it was also just announced that it won the Audience Award in St Louis), and given its power, craft and accessibility it is likely to be a triumph upon its Feb 2007 American release.

4) Brick:
Country: USA
Genre: Mystery, Modern Noir
Somewhat overlooked on its initial release, Brick is nevertheless my personal favorite pick from this year’s indie circuit (half of everyone else seems to be relentlessly copying Wes Anderson’s deadpan comedy to less and less effect). Deftly adapting Dashiell Hammett’s flowery, hard-boiled prose to a modern-day high-school setting, first-time director Rian Johnson scores a hit that looks and sounds ten times better than most of his contemporaries (on about 1/10th the budget).
In typical noir style, amateur detective Brenden determines to hunt down his ex-girlfriend’s killer after receiving a mysterious phone call from her the night of her death. Brenden must play the school’s internal society against itself in a battle of intrigue, deceit and triple-crosses that takes utter concentration to follow. The visual sense, original music, biting wit and machine-gun dialogue combine to make this the potential Donnie Darko underground success of the next five years.

5) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu:
Country: Romania
Genre: Realism, Social Commentary Film
Cristi Puiu achieved a surprise major international smash (from Romania, no less) with this stunning, scathing attack on the medical system. Mr. Lazarescu is a man in his sixties, who feels a pain in his chest and head and starts vomiting blood. His quest for medical aid will be an endless descent into hell (his middle name is Dante) rendered in painstaking dogma 95 realism and backed by an assurance from the director and cast that is one of the best things on the screen this year. Although Lazarescu is old, alcoholic, friendless, smelly and ill-tempered, Puiu captures the need for sensitivity and dignity owed to even the most fringe members of humanity.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu easily placed 1st as the best film of the year in IndieWire’s 100+ statistical compilation of critics’ top 10 lists. As the first film in a series of six modeled after Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, it is certainly one of the most exciting new voices on the world cinema stage. A must see for anyone in the medical profession (that means you, Dad).

6) Children of Men:
Country: USA
Genre: Science-Fiction
Slow to reach a wide release and staggered theatrically around the world and within the US (in what has to be called an imbecilic distribution pattern for such an exciting and highly-anticipated film) Children of Men is certainly worth the wait. To say that Alfonsu Cuaron has not been one of my favorite directors is more than an understatement, but my opinions are happily changed by this jaw-dropping sci-fi action film with a social conscience and an eye for detail.
In a dystopic near-future, humankind has been unable to bear children for 18 years. The movie opens with the death of the world’s youngest man, a celebrity killed for not signing an autograph. Amidst the hopeless desperation of a dying civilization the government battles with a surge of immigrants, international terrorists, religious sects and uncontrolled crime. The film bursts with dust, smoke, grit, dirty crowds, downcast weather, seething rage and festering misery. Clive Owen plays a wealthy, but selfish, career man who finds himself drawn into the war over mankind’s final hope. His nightmarish road-trip is the most viscerally intense movie experience of the year, featuring several 5 minute plus single-shot sequences that are incredible to behold. Almost everyone else in Hollywood has something to learn from this movie. If nothing else it will remain a testament to the way long-takes can make an action movie more gripping than the spastic cutting of today’s average action fodder.
Woven into the story is pointed commentary about immigration policy, racism, terrorism, Homeland Defense, the uses of torture, media saturation and much more.

7) Volver:
Country: Spain
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Cuaron’s less-eager-to-sellout contemporary, Pedro Almodovar, also weighs in with a triumphant success. Volver is a highly genuine exercise in feminist magical realism. Three generations of women struggle to make it through life despite a soap opera buffet of trials and tribulations. Almodovar isn’t mining particularly new territory, but he plots his story much tighter than in previous films and finds fresh pockets of quiet humanity without his usual barrage of sex. A career highpoint for Penelope Cruz and a landmark for female showcase casts. Almodovar’s perfectly-paced story is engaging without overwhelming the characterization, as well as managing to pack some great ending twists without violating its internal logic.

8) Lunacy:
Country: Czech Republic
Genre: Surrealism, Horror, Social Commentary Film
Although hardly a hit with critics or audiences, Jan Svankmajer’s latest provocation may be his best work in my opinion (it is, if nothing else, his most blasphemous). Very loosely adapted from short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade, Lunacy is the sly tale of a naïve man’s encounter with a black mass and a bizarre asylum. Svankmajer throws enough heretical, shocking or openly revolting imagery on the screen to make even the tolerant viewer squeamish, but does so without sacrificing his talent or his message.
Essentially the film is about the delicate balance of freedom and security in our society and the need to avoid extremes; Svankmajer comes out beforehand, however, to explain to us the details and to remark that, really, we are just watching a trashy horror flick with no redeeming value. As the director talks, a severed tongue wiggles across the floor: a hint of what’s to come. The rest of the film is paralleled by interspersed vignettes of raw meat crawling around (in stop-motion) and making witty references to the film at large.

9) The Aura:
Country: Argentina
Genre: Modern Noir, Heist/Caper
Review: (Reproduced from my 2006 St Louis Film Festival reviews)
A calculated film noir to its core, Fabian Bielinsky weaves an engaging and intelligent thriller. The lead character, Esteban, is an epileptic taxidermist who fantasizes about robbing banks (a bit of willful eccentricity in an otherwise semi-realistic but highly accomplished style). A hunting accident serves as the entry point for Esteban to test how much of a criminal mastermind he really is.
“The Aura” was Bielinsky’s second feature, and he died while still relatively young, soon after finishing it, depriving Argentina of one of their great hopes for a second film renaissance. The film he leaves behind may not be terribly original, but it remains a lean and well-crafted success, reminiscent of early Coen brothers and Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 “Insomnia.”

10) Climates:
Country: Turkey
Genre: Domestic Drama, Art-House
Review: (Reproduced from my 2006 St Louis Film Festival reviews)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan continues to develop a stellar art-house reputation with his second feature film (his first film, “Distant,” is equally mesmerizing). “Climates” covers familiar territory for auteur-based festival filmmaking, focusing on the dissolution of an upper-middle class marriage. The traces of Bergman and Antonioni are clearly present, but Ceylan paves his own way with an exacting eye for detail that makes the audience feel the location, the passage of time and most importantly, the climate (see title).
Ceylan also stars in his own film, and along with his wife and leading lady Ebru Ceylan, reveals a flawlessly understated character portrait. We never really know what the characters are thinking or feeling (they certainly don’t speak very often or very honestly), but we can see premonitions and the aftermath in their dry expressions. A neo-Bazinian director (read: fond of very long static takes) in the extreme, Ceylan manages to immerse the audience in his immaculate visceral compositions and layered ambient sound. Not for all tastes, but a director to keep an eye on.

Introduction to the Film Walrus

The Film Walrus is a blog I've been sorely needing to do for a while now. It is time for me to jump into the endless fray of film blogging more-or-less so that I can have a single consistant place for my reviews, lists and musing to reside. It isn't they are more important or better qualified than anything else on the net, but they just need somewhere to live.

I am currently a senior in Film and Media Studies and Computer Science at Washington University St Louis. I'm a rabid film fanatic with a virtually unlimited capacity for viewing films of all types, although of course, I have my favorites. While my opinions will always be fairly clear, my intention is less to simply pass thumb-up/thumb-down value judgments than to open discussion of films and present the occasional intelligent thought.

I especially enjoy making lists of any type and I'll probably be presenting quite a few. I'd love feedback and counter-lists.

Oh, and if you wondering why a walrus... it is because they rock.