Thursday, December 4, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 8

Title: The Trap
Director: Srdan Golubovic
Country: Serbia
Score: 8.0
Review:
Even if I live to be a hundred, I’ll probably never get tired of noirs featuring an essentially good man who tries to do the right thing, but makes one wrong decision that sends his soul spiraling towards damnation. “The Trap” is an excellent example and superb companion piece for Wim Wenders’ similar “The American Friend.”

Mladen is a state engineer who can’t possibly afford the 26,000 Euros price tag when he discovers that his son will die without a rare operation. In spite of his pride, Mladen’s wife puts a help ad in the paper. Eventually there’s a response… from a man who wants Mladen to assassinate in exchange for the money.

“The Trap” tries a little too hard to justify Mladen’s actions, when it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll accept the assignment (since otherwise this would be a different kind of movie). I think Golubovic is a bit too insistent when he tries to convince us that we would do the same thing in the same circumstances. Still, at least the motivations are realistic enough and it leads us to the consequences, which is where the film really comes alive.

Every goes wrong, of course. The victim turns out to be a husband and father. Mladen likes (and maybe even has a crush on?) the wife. Meanwhile, the stress and secrecy causes Mladen’s own marriage to fall apart. The criminals don’t come through with the money. The police don’t buy his story. And all the while his son is still dying.

The shift from dealing with tough decision to tough consequences is pessimistic, but uncompromising. One finds it irresistible to get caught up in Mladen’s plight and to share his frustration and despair. There’s a sense that his tale is a metaphor for the way individuals are crushed by fate, society, economy and other forces beyond their control, but it’s never too blunt to distract from the personal crisis.

A lot of the symbolism is handled in interesting ways. Mladen’s son, for instance, draws countless pictures that are brightly-colored and full of fantastic imagery in contrast to Mladen’s increasingly bleak reality. I particularly liked that the night before Mladen agrees to do the hit he sits in the rain at an empty intersection and eventually runs a red light (confirming, on an infinitely smaller scale, that he is ready to break the law). Later, he will remain stopped in front of a green light as he comes to accept that his life is at a dead-end.

The acting is really quite well done, never crossing over the line into excessive histrionics. The worst part may have been the makeup, which is inexplicably overly purple all the time (cold lips, tired eyes, bruises) and takes away some of the attention from Glogovac’s (as Mladen) highly facial performance. The film also make good use of shallow focus, dirty locations and bad weather to give off a sullen noir atmosphere.


Title: Yesterday Was a Lie
Director: James Kerwin
Country: USA
Score: 5.0
Review:
Note: After several responses noting the conspicuously personal tone I took in my original review, I’ve modified it to be more in line with the type of writing that I would prefer to read and disseminate. For more details, see the discussion in the comments section.

No combination of beautiful blondes, cerebral sci-fi and hazy noir can really be all bad, but Kerwin’s pretentious, ambitious hybrid manages to be a lot worse than it should be. The film features Hoyle, a platinum-haired female detective on the hunt for a dangerous notebook that may hold the key to rearranging the universe. Her unstable ex-lover, the unfortunately-named Dudas, appears to be in on the case. A mysterious nightclub singer, played by “Star Trek: DS9” fanboy fuel, Chase Masterson, attempts to help Hoyle out. Meanwhile Hoyle’s dreams may provide a clue into the shifting realities and cycling time paradoxes that ensnare her.

“Yesterday Was a Lie” tears apart at the seams under the weight of its multifold contradictions. Some I found pleasurable, like the combination of 1940’s era cars, fedoras and locales with modern computers and cell phones. Others are just senseless mindgames, like the erratic, slippery, faux-intellectual plot. Still others are intolerable, like the attempts to seem mysterious and fluid while forcing us to listen to clunky, condescending monologues on science, literature, psychology and art.

I felt that the dialog ran closer to pop-science and pop-psychology, than the type of illuminating prose I was hoping for. The film’s references, for instance, are obvious and facile. He uses T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” as reoccurring motifs. Not only are these references achingly cliché, but the film does not indicate a particularly deep understanding of them.

Worse still are his outright incorrect claims about Jungian psychology and quantum mechanics. After “tantalizing” us with a “mysterious” reoccurring number, we are treated to painful conversations about how Planck’s constant is THE fundamental constant of the universe (I guess the speed of light and the gravitational constant are less fundamental?) and how it represent the frequency at which the whole universe vibrates. We are told other realities, like our dreams, vibrate at different frequencies. Of course, anyone who has taken physics 101 can tell you that the Planck constant is not a frequency, but a ratio between energy and frequency. If everything in the universe actually had the same frequency, we wouldn’t have many important things we know and love, like color and a distinction between light and matter.

If Kerwin had just tried to tell an engaging and clever genre hybrid rather than trying to impress audiences with the equivalent of literary and scientific buzzwords, his film could have been, for me, the thought-provoking cult sensation that lurked just out of reach. As it stands, he’s created an intriguing mess with an egotistic undertone. I would recommend better works in this vein (“Pi,” “The Following,” “Zentropa,” “Death and the Compass,” “Element of Crime” to name a few) to those who are interested. It has done well on the small-festival circuit, interestingly, and boasts an exhaustive list of prizes on the director’s Wikipedia page.

I suspect that Kerwin will go on to make a film I’m on board with. Adapting “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” the Czech play that gave us the word “robot,” is certainly a promising direction.

10 comments:

exactly why said...

Well "The Trap" certainly sounds like a go. Your review of "Yesterday Was A Lie" almost makes me want to see it, too, just to witness all those things that made you so upset. I'll read up on my physics first, for maximum irritation value.

Jeremy said...

I saw YESTERDAY WAS A LIE in Utah earlier this year and I have to say, your review is about the most clueless I've ever seen. In the Q&A afterwards, I learned that the director not only "understands" physics, but he studied astrophysics in college, unlike yourself. And from what I recall, Plancks constant is never referred to as a frequency in the film. It's a CONSTANT. Duh.

What's so funny to me about this review is how uninformed and pretentious you are about subject matter about which you have no expertise, and how your whole review seems to be an ad hominem attack against a filmmaker of whom you are clearly very, very jealous. After the screening I saw, I psychologist raised her hand and said that she was impressed by the accuracy of the filmmakers' understanding of Jung. A physics teacher then made a similar comment. This is clearly the type of film that is WAY over your head. Go watch a Michael Bay movie; I'm sure its more up your alley.

s_moore_50 said...

Hold on. I have seen this film and it is brilliant on many levels. I guess it is safe to say; “Genius appears to be foolish by the fools.”
First, I find it odd that someone would state that buxom blondes can make a film and then degrade it in the same breath because it applies the Planck Constant and ignores others.
The film’s deep rooted symbolism plays on many contradictions and are well thought out and specifically contrived. To claim otherwise is akin to stating that the movie “The Sixth Sense” was terrible because there is no such thing as ghosts.
Clearly the use of T.S. Elliot and Dali were chosen for their popularity amongst the target demographic and the underlying themes their work inspires. To call them cliché in a noir film is laughable and idiotic.
I do understand your point in reference to the Planck Constant being a ratio between energy and frequency. Yet clearly to explain the depths of this to an audience would detract from the film. The explanation provided in the film will both educate and inspire the viewers to do their own research on these topics.
Though your opinions have some minor points, you missed the obvious message of this film and it is no wonder that you do not like it. However, I find your libelous assumptions of Kerwin’s character a blatant attempt to disregard the truth and I would expect to read about your pending civil suit if he, or anyone from his company, ever reads this review. I suggest you begin to prepare you hard evidence-as is the burden of the defense in libel cases-of his drinking, his college major’s, and other character attacks. It would not surprise me if the owner of this site is hit with a suit as well.
I have enjoyed many of your reviews in the past, but you have opened Pandora’s civil suit box on this one.

s_moore_50 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Walrus said...

Jeremy and s_moore_50,

First of all, I'm sorry about your adverse reaction to this review. Strong differences of opinion can do that, but I don't usually get such angry replies as these (even when knocking such internet faves as Fellini and Woody Allen) so I clearly struck a nerve. Still, my opinion stands as it is. You are welcome to yours and, indeed, I'm always envious when others enjoy films more than I, since I'd obviously rather enjoy a film than not.

Since this is rather a rare occasion for me, I'll go ahead and make some replies.

Let me address the most serious claim first: libel. I will not be sued for libel for many reasons, some of which I list below:
1) I have expressed opinions and a supposition which I have not claimed are facts. Thus I have not committed libel. Would I be wrong in supposing that you are not trained in legal matters of this sort?
2) Bloggers, and indeed most critics, do not get sued for criticism of entertainment products because they are expressing opinions and filmmakers usually don't care all that much. Besides, we do not have enough money to make it worth their while.
3) Almost no one reads this blog. Perhaps its because of my wildly misinformed and clueless opinions?

However, I have made character attacks in the review and that is against my usual policy, not to mention my personal taste in reviews, and I apologize. I think it was because of the Q&A session. By contrast, Paul Schrader gave an amazing Q&A for "Mishima" this year.

As for the character attacks against me in your comment (there's some irony there), I'd like to make a few responses. First off, I did study physics at a top-ten university, including quantum and a seminar course in recent research on special relatively topics. I work with physics and high-level mathematics as part of my day job designing and programming flight simulators for the commercial and military market. I've read all the literature mentioned in "Yesterday Was a Lie", and I don't consider that to be anything special because, as I mentioned, it is all very well-known stuff. After honest consideration, I do not feel my dislike of the film was due to not understanding it.

My assessment of the film's message is this: That personal relationships such as love possess a force intricately bound to the fabric of the universe and that damage to those relationships is not just emotional, but marks a form of destruction against the universe that can manifest psychologically, physically and temporarly. It is kind of an interesting concept, but I felt it was handled poorly. Feel free to judge my understanding of the film based on that reading of it.

If you have read other reviews on this site you'll be well aware of my taste for intellectual sci-fi and difficult art films. My love for "Possible Worlds", "Pi" and "Primer" are a few particularly relevant examples. As for Michael Bay, I have criticized him often and savagely and I and wouldn't mind if HE pressed for a libel suit against me (also unlikely).

But now for a couple admission:
1) Yes, I am pretentious. Quite astute.
2) I am often jealous of independent filmmakers, but usually only the ones who have made films that impress me. I am generally very supportive of them. I drove 200+ miles to see a screening by one independent filmmaker who frequently reads this blog. Tomorrow's review contains a perfect 10.0 score for an obscure but brilliant SF film whose sound designer I praised and congratulated in person quite profusely.

James Kerwin said...

Hi, I'm James Kerwin, director of "Yesterday Was a Lie."

My Google Alerts alerted me to this review and the discussion here. Thanks for reading this reply.

Film Walrus, you are entitled to your opinions about my film, and I fully respect your right to have such opinions, even though I disagree with them. This film is not for everyone, and it is important to hear from people to whom the film did not play well.

I wish, however, that you had not chosen to post questionable information about me personally.

If you would, please allow me to clear up some misconceptions.

a.) I did not "drink" my way through college. Honestly, I barely drank in college at all, and even then not until I was 21, believe it or not.

b.) You suggest that I do not understand quantum physics. I graduated magna cum laude with honors in film production, and I minored in astronomy and physics. The focus of my minor was particle and quantum physics. I am a member of Mensa and Phi Beta Kappa. My academic credentials aren't the best in the land, but they are certainly not worthy of mockery. Since you attended the Q&A, you already know I studied physics in college, so to suggest otherwise is dishonest.

c.) You state that I have not read the literature featured in the film, such as "Prufrock," Eliot's Quartets, or the work of Jung. I have read them all. Based on the response we've gotten from professional psychologists, educators, and physicists, I got the details correct (although I admit to taking certain poetic liberties with the interpretation of the material for the sake of the story, as all artists do).

d.) You state that the film refers to Planck's constant as a frequency. I think you are not remembering this properly. In the film, Dudas (you mention that he's "unfortunately named"; perhaps you missed the historical allusion) refers to Planck's contant as a "constant related to a frequency," which is accurate. Whether it's "the" most fundamental constant in nature is obviously a matter of opinion, but it's an opinion held by some quantum physicists.

e.) You posit: "I imagine only those viewers unfamiliar with better works in this vein will be taken in. It has done well on the small-festival circuit." This is misleading. A list of festivals the film has played at is available on our website; while some are small, many are particularly large and distinctive (Comic-Con, Visionfest, Barbados, St. Louis, etc.). And to state that "only viewers unfamiliar with better works will be taken in" runs contradictory to the glowing reviews the film has received in the top industry publications, such as Ain't It Cool, Film Threat, and Back Stage Magazine.

But all this is academic. Ultimately, this is not a film about science, or physics, or Dali, or literature, or Jung. It is a film which uses these disciplines as a metaphor for interpersonal relationships and the responsibility we all have to love one another and not injure people.

I'm very sorry the film did not speak to you, and again, you are free to dislike -- or even hate -- it. But personal attacks against me are unnecessary.

I wish you the best and continued success with your site.

James Kerwin

Walrus said...

Kerwin,

It isn’t all too often that someone ranting on the internet can be well and truly put in their place, so let me add to the satisfaction already achieved by admitting that I’m frankly a bit humbled and it’s time I backed down. I’m more than a little impressed that you took the time to read my review and give such a civil and reasonable response.

In exchange, I will certainly honor your wishes that I remove the personal attacks, though my opinions remain the same. I did not mean to mislead in my statement, which were expressed in the form of personal opinions and were not meant to be taken as facts. I left before the end of the Q&A, and thus didn’t hear much of your biographical data. I will leave the full text of the original review in the following comment purely for the purpose of full disclosure (of what I wrote).

If it is any consolation, I did rate the film an overall 5 (well away from my least favorite film at SLIFF and my threshold for hatred) and I probably should have included more about what I liked in the film as part of my review. As I may have implied, it was the Q&A that left the bad taste in my mouth more than anything. I think speaking about a film, even without providing explicit answers, often demystifies the experience for me.

If nothing else, I’ve now discovered new reinforcement for a no personal attacks policy (and my general “avoid negative reviews” practice), though it is apparently a great way to meet directors (j/k). If one were of a philosophical bent, they might note an ironic thematic similarity between the film’s message and my own situation: regret over having spread personal hatred in even a small corner of the internet given the wider implications and unhappy ripples that I unleashed.

My goal behind writing this blog has been to introduce people to more films and it was never my wish to start flame wars (which I despise) or to encourage people to limit their film tastes. I would go so far as to suggest that cinephiles interested in the cross-section of SF and film noir should check out this film and judge for themselves, especially since most of my readers presumably share your/our influences, many of which I count amongst my favorite films (Primer, Pi, The Maltese Flacon, The Big Sleep, et al).

Besides, how can I argue with “Ain’t It Cool News!” (j/k)

Thus, in the spirit of your own magnanimous courtesy, I wish you the continued success of “Yesterday Was a Lie.” I hope you will make more films and I am quite likely to see them, especially if you do make, as is rumored, an adaptation of “RUR.” It is a personal favorite do to my love of robots and all things Czech . If it plays in St. Louis, perhaps you’ll let me buy you lunch.

Walrus said...

The following is the full original version of this article. The comments appearing before this point pertain to it.

No combination of beautiful blondes, cerebral sci-fi and hazy noir can really be all bad, but Kerwin’s pretentious, ambitious hybrid manages to be a lot worse than it should be. The film features Hoyle, a platinum-haired female detective on the hunt for a dangerous notebook that may hold the key to rearranging the universe. Her unstable ex-lover, the unfortunately-named Dudas, appears to be in on the case. A mysterious nightclub singer, played by “Star Trek: DS9” fanboy fuel, Chase Masterson, attempts to help Hoyle out. Meanwhile Hoyle’s dreams may provide a clue into the shifting realities and cycling time paradoxes that ensnare her.

“Yesterday Was a Lie” tears apart at the seams under the weight of its multifold contradictions. Some I found pleasurable, like the combination of 1940’s era cars, fedoras and locales with modern computers and cell phones. Others are just senseless mindgames, like the erratic, slippery, faux-intellectual plot. Still others are intolerable, like the attempts to seem mysterious and fluid while forcing us to listen to clunky, condescending monologues on science, literature, psychology and art.

Perhaps it comes from being a self-proclaimed nerd myself, that I couldn’t help thinking the writing was the work of a hack who only recently stumbled upon pop-science and pop-psychology after drinking his way through college. His references, for instance, are obvious and facile. He uses T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” as reoccurring motifs. Not only are these references achingly cliché, but Kerwin demonstrates that he doesn’t have any real understanding of them.

Worse still are his outright incorrect claims about Jungian psychology and quantum mechanics. After “tantalizing” us with a “mysterious” reoccurring number, we are treated to painful conversations about how Planck’s constant is THE fundamental constant of the universe (I guess the speed of light and the gravitational constant are less fundamental?) and how it represent the frequency at which the whole universe vibrates. We are told other realities, like our dreams, vibrate at different frequencies. Of course, anyone who has taken physics 101 can tell you that the Planck constant is not a frequency, but a ratio between energy and frequency. If everything in the universe actually had the same frequency, we wouldn’t have many important things we know and love, like color and a distinction between light and matter.

If Kerwin had just tried to tell an engaging and clever genre hybrid rather than trying to impress audiences with literature he hasn’t read and science he doesn’t understand, his film could have been the thought-provoking cult sensation he wanted it to be. As it stands, he’s created an intriguing mess mostly to feed his own ego, and I imagine only those viewers unfamiliar with better works in this vein (“Pi,” “The Following,” “Zentropa,” “Death and the Compass,” “Element of Crime” to name a few) will be taken in. It has done well on the small-festival circuit, interestingly, although the exhaustive list of prizes on the director’s Wikipedia page smells of self-promotion.

James Kerwin said...

Film Walrus,

Thanks for your reply. I hope you have a great holiday season. Maybe I'll be back in St. Louis in the New Year -- I hope so, because I love it there. Would love to have lunch with you then.

My best,
James Kerwin

Kathryn said...

I did thoroughly enjoy Kerwin's film, but primarily because it was so over the top/ camp/ postmodern (in my opinion).

However, because of that I was a little bit disappointed to find at the Q&A when someone brought up the merger of noir and camp, the director did not seem to understand and thus did not discuss.