Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Winter's Bone

Meth labs, child neglect, chill weather, cattle shows, Cardinal’s regalia, squirrel hunting, military aspirations, yards full of trucks, bales of hay and barbed wire, framed pictures of cats, bad roots and worse facial hair.

Yup, “Winter’s Bone,” already being declared one of the best films of the year so far, is definitely set in my adopted home state of Missouri. It won the top prize at Sundance this year.

Ree Dolly is a young girl in the Ozarks who’s become a rather self-sufficient parent to her younger siblings in lieu of their mentally absent mother and physically absent father. When she learns that her dad, who until recently was serving a jail sentence for drug production, put up their home for bail and then skipped town, she has no choice but to hunt him down through his unsavory relatives and coconspirators. Her questions stir up a hornet’s nest. The resulting nightmare is film noir served Missouri-style.

Jennifer Lawrence is superb in the central role and the supporting cast is memorably colorful without sacrificing the degree of development and realism necessary to avoid the usual ‘evil hillbilly’ clichés. The plot builds with just the right level of mounting suspense and foreboding and plays out like a Coen brothers film without the amused detachment.

Daniel Woodrell, author of the source novel, has previously had his novel “Woe to Live On” adapted by Ang Lee as “Ride with the Devil” (released by Criterion this April).

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review of Night Bacon

I generally try to avoid writing negative reviews, and I’ve vowed as much before, but catching an advanced screening of “Night Bacon: The Movie” (2010) a few days ago, I feel actively obligated to break that vow. Being moderately familiar with the television show I had pretty low expectations to begin with, but decided to attend because (a) it was free, (b) I try to keep up on even bad animation and (c) a friend invited me who claims, incomprehensibly, to be a big fan. I’m assuming his enthusiasm is all part of that inexhaustible 80’s nostalgia thing, but I hated the show even as a kid.

Though “Night Bacon,” the cartoon series, was an indelible part of my childhood and that of most people growing up in 1980’s Kansas, I realized later (when it came up in conversation at college) that almost nobody outside of the Midwest has even heard of the show. That’s not surprising, in retrospect, since I find on Wikipedia that it was funded exclusively by Wichita Pork Agglomeration and produced by their small animation subsidiary, Porktoons, not far from where I grew up. The low-grade animation, moronic plots, obnoxious music and appalling misinformation served as little more than an extended commercial for pork products and the show, sensibly enough, was never carried by any station outside of Wichita Pork Agglomeration’s sales region.

So for those of you from the west coast, east coast and the world at large, who missed out on the experience, I present a pseudo-summary of the television series cobbled together from my distant memories and a few quick internet searches:

The star was Francis, a rather generic all-around boy genius and pop singer who transforms, at dusk, into dashing crime-fighting superhero Night Bacon. Night Bacon looks exactly like a giant strip of bacon, but retains Francis’s eyes and mouth. In a strangely cannibalistic twist, which never seemed to bother me as a kid, Night Bacon eats large quantities of regular-sized bacon for energy.

I never saw the earliest episodes, but my friend (the “big fan”) says that the origin involved Francis’s mother being bitten by a Pork Fairy while pregnant, causing Francis to be born with all the intelligence of a human boy, but with the innate superpowers of bacon. The list of these superpowers was endless, but apparently in constant flux due to the show’s total lack of continuity. The writers would invent or forget about powers depending on the needs of the current episode, but the one semi-consistent element was the Bacon Ray, which was usually deployed at the last minute as an irresistible killing blow.

Even the Bacon Ray alternated inexplicably between a lightning bolt that fried villains into, you guessed it, more bacon and a laser beam that caused foes (even chickens) to explode into bacon bits. I have a fuzzy memory of one occasion when the Bacon Ray was portrayed as a rainbow (a la the Care Bears), but with the colors restricted to the meat spectrum (dark red to pulpy yellow), in keeping with the show’s exhausting, though immediately-recognizable, color scheme.

I do remember the Pork Fairies, which were a reoccurring element of the show and, though surreal, actually kind of adorable. The Pork Fairies were smiley, winged, nearly-circular pigs that frolic and flutter happily in the woodlands of some unspecified third-world country. Their habitat is constantly under threat by foreign conspiracies to cut down the forest and plant oat fields and vegetable gardens (invariably portrayed as menacing and undesirable). Francis, his best friend Roger and the rest of the gang (all members are his father’s Friendly Meat Corporation) are constantly trying to save the lovable Pork Fairies from misguided activists and vegetarians. These scenarios are typical examples of “Night Bacon” appropriating, and inverting, environmentalist rhetoric towards its own twisted ends.

Francis had a laboratory where he produced the inevitable stream of wacky gadgets that appeared in every animated kid’s show of that era. He also had Maria Porkova, a sexy lab assistant whose outfits and pork-based innuendo never seemed appropriate for the target audience and never had anything to do with the plot. Her one task seemed to be running the Baconizer, a hovering, spinning golden ring. The Baconizer is the one part of the show I will never, never forget, though I often wish I could. The Pork Fairies, willingly self-sacrificing to assist Francis, would leap through the Baconizer which magically transformed them into a flurry of energy-providing bacon to fuel Night Bacon’s superpowers.

While the Baconizer completely misrepresents the complicated and gory process by which bacon is actually made, one decision by the creators, doubtlessly intended to make us worry even less about the poor Pork Fairies, made the entire thing almost traumatizing. This was the shrill, giddy, hysterical giggle that the Pork Fairies emitted as they passed through the Baconizer. Watching clips on YouTube, this hideous laughter still sends chills down my spine. Nothing and nobody should ever be so… happy. According to the trivia on the official fan site the Baconizer was originally going to be called the Super Laughter Ring, or SLaughteRing for short (whose idea was that?), and the sound bite was recorded with that in mind. Since the show regularly recycled whatever animation they already had, it was never changed.

Like with a lot of other Saturday morning cartoons, the best part of Night Bacon was often the villains. These fell into two categories. The first were miscellaneous monsters-of-the-weeks like the Asian stereotype Master Veggie Med-Lee, psychotic Professor Health Nut, clueless vampire Count Calory and the nefarious Vitamen from Venus. Even as a kid I remember thinking these villains were awfully tasteless and sent a horrible dietary message for impressionable kids.

The other type of badguy was poultry, usually chickens, but drawn to look more like vultures, harpies and gargoyles. They were frequently depicted as bumbling, unsanitary and suffering from leprosy. The birds lived segregated from the rest of society (my friend claims this was a race metaphor) and were usually just ignored by Night Bacon (though due to a favor he performed in some episode I never saw, he was occasionally allowed into their exclusive Turkey Club), but they inevitably turned out to be working as henchmen for the main villains.

One of the shows running gags will give you some idea of the shocking amount of violence (to say nothing of the sex) that eventually caused so many complaints that “Night Bacon” was moved from Saturday mornings to Tuesday Evenings. This running gag involved the chickens, who often ended up in police custody or were otherwise subdued by Night Bacon by the end of the episode. Then, mere moments before the episode ended and for no reason whatsoever Night Bacon would slash off the heads of the captive chickens and their bodies would dance around spastically to the closing credit music. If that weren’t enough, the intermittent gouts of blood that squirted from their necks splattered, as though on a camera lens, to form the names in the credits.

I remember that my mom HATED “Night Bacon” (she never knowingly let us watch it) and nothing more so than the gratuitous violence directed at chickens. And yet, on cleaning out my closet in my parent’s home some years ago, I discovered that it was a plastic toy chicken that was the sole item of “Night Bacon” merchandizing that I apparently ever possessed. The chicken was meant to be filled with ketchup through (I kid you not) a cap right where the anus should be and the head could be removed so that the ketchup could be squeezed out through the neck. I never liked ketchup and my “Night Bacon” chicken has, consequently, never been used. I’m tempted to see if I can get anything for it on Ebay.

The animation was always abysmal, even lazier than the worst moments in Rocky and Bullwinkle or Schoolhouse Rock, from which it borrowed many of its money-saving techniques. These included not only repeating clips, but lengthy segments of looping, most notably during the shows insufferable musical interludes. These involved two practically interchangeable bands: (1) Francis and the Sausage Links, who played mindless techno beats with Francis singing in falsetto and a trio of sausages providing backup, and (2) Sergeant Pepperoni’s Hearty Breakfast Band, which featured bad pork-themed parody songs and commercial jingles.

Francis and the Sausage Links would often play for several minutes at a time with no visual accompaniment other than the titular strip of bacon and the three sausages waggling around in front of microphones. The whole thing was mysteriously hypnotic and vaguely obscene. Sergeant Pepperoni’s Hearty Breakfast Band only stuck around for half a season, partly because of Porktoon's failure to negotiate music rights and partly because their blatantly unhealthy advice caused several accidents amongst young viewers. Lyrics varied from the stupid and disgusting (“sausage grease brings world peace, but bacon fat is where it’s at!”) to the dangerously self-serving, like telling kids that “vegetables are a fad” and to eat a pack of bacon “once a day and twice at night!”

Even less animation effort was involved with the once-an-episode speeches delivered by Pork President Alexander Hamilton, who was drawn as a strip of bacon with a blue square face in one corner, designed to look like an American flag with the streaks of meat and fat serving as the red and white stripes. Only the mouth would move during the speeches, which could run for five minutes and consisted of little but dishonest propaganda about the health benefits of pork products and the dangers of a diet high in fruits and vegetables.

For example: “You wouldn’t eat a dirty penny you found on the ground, would you? Or a trampled gob of bubble gum? Or a hunk of dog excrement? And yet many people eat stuff that grows in and on the ground every day! I ask you, is that wise? Is that sanitary?” These rants often sounded closer to Mussolini than any American president, let alone our first Secretary of the Treasury. The FCC made Porktoons cease airing these segments after a 1984 court decision.

The movie adaptation includes cameos from Hamilton and almost every other character from the series, although the chickens are conspicuous absent and are, in fact, never even referred to. Hamilton commissions Francis and Roger to stop a group of terrorist Neutritionists [sic] who have convinced the world that bacon is dangerously high in fat and sodium and should only be eaten only in moderation. Night Bacon soon discovers that the Neutritionists are not what they seem. Their real motive is to enslave the human race by turning them into health-obsessed zombies using their Neutriton bombs, which can only be resisted by eating excessive amounts of bacon. As Maria Porkova says, “At least a dozen strips of bacon per meal is the only guarantee for immunity. And after a strip, a big juicy sausage is just the thing!”

Night Bacon is captured after taking a bath in his restorative grease reservoir, which Doctor von Vegan has maniacally replaced with strength-sapping vegetable oil. Just when all seems lost, Francis administers a light “pork chop” to Doctor von Vegan’s scrawny neck, and he withers like a punctured balloon, but not before activating his Organic Farming Doomsday Device. Night Bacon remembers his trusty Bacon Ray just in time (the device's countdown shows one billionth of a second remaining) to destroy the machine and save the day. In celebration, his father’s Friendly Pork Corporation hosts an ultimate world concert for Francis and the Sausage Links. Despite the fact that plot has completely petered out, the concert scenes continue for another 25 minutes before the film ends.

Personally, I don’t think any amount of 1980’s nostalgia can justify how bad the film is. The transition to 3D CG is somehow even uglier than the original. The show’s humor remains clunky and unpleasant and there is no attempt to make the story even slightly interested. The sole mildly funny moment, in a sick kind of way, occurs when the cast of Veggietales shows up to the concert and are offhandedly slaughtered by Francis and Roger.

Do I have anything good to say about “Night Bacon: The Movie”? It could have been worse: it could have been live action.

Walrus Rating: 1.0

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cannes 2010 Summary

Multiple forewarning are in order for this post. First of all, I've never been to Cannes nor have I seen any of the films this year. If you are interested in first-hand information, you're probably better off reading indieWire or whatever. All I can offer is some perspective on the director's past works, with recommendations and random opinions.

Which leads me to the second caveat. This post started as an email, a Cannes summary that I've been doing for a couple of years (but almost didn't happen this year because I forgot about the festival) and which grew rather large and started to include pictures. That being the case, bear with the strong opinions and schizophrenic writing style.

Cannes 2010:

This year's jury presidents was an interesting set of personal favorites, all directors: Tim Burton, Atom Egoyan and Claire Denis.

A lot of attention was focused around the director who wasn't there, Jafar Panahi. Panahi is an Iranian directors whose films implicitly criticize the religious, class and gender divides in his country and since his arrest in March on presumably political grounds he's been the focus of attention and support from cinema-lovers, directors and film programs the world over. I've only seen his most recent films, "Crimson Gold" and "Offside," both quite excellent. Now is a great time to get more familiar with the work of a filmmaker who really puts his neck on the line.

This year's golden palm went, only mildly surprisingly, to Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who just goes by Joe if you're not Thai), who probably couldn't stop winning prizes if he wanted to. His latest is "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," an arty ghost story of sorts. I've kept up on Weerasethakul's films over the years, but he's one of the few directors who I almost wish would just stop. He has these amazing concepts that never really work for me and drag along in the most tedious manner. Yet I can't help watching his movies. His fans, typically high-brow critics, go into ecstatic fits over every shot and he's generally considered one of the greatest international directors to emerge from the last decade.

YouTube trailer, which accurately conveys his trademark pacing:

The only Weerasethakul film I've genuinely liked so far is "Tropical Malady" which plods along like a typical dreamy queer cinema indie romance until halfway through when one character apparently morphs into a murderous tiger and disappears into the jungle and the other characters follows him on a sort of naked spirit-quest hunt. Or something. I've been trying to get people I know to see the film just so I can have someone to talk about it with. His latest one sounds interesting, but usually that ends up being a evil trick.

Best director went to Mathieu Amalric, everyone's favorite unsavory Frenchman (Quantum of Solace, Munich, A Christmas Tale, The Heartbeat Detector, etc), who only very occasionally steps into the director's chair. His film, "On Tour" is about a travelling burlesque show with Amalric as manager. Enjoy the poster:

Lee Chang-Dong won the screenplay prize for "Poetry" about an elderly South Korean woman with Alzheimer's who discover poetry, for better or worse. The buzz is that it's much better than that sounds, but I can't help thinking Chang-Dong should have won the screenplay prize back in 2000 for his more political "Peppermint Candy." The film is famous for ordering its scenes in reverse, beating "Memento" to the screen by a nose. Chang-Dong sat on the Cannes jury last year, so you just know the whole thing was rigged (just kidding).

The actor prize was split between Javier Bardem in Alejandro Inarritu's "Biutiful" and Elio Germano in Daniele Luchetti's "Our Life." Neither sounds particularly interesting outside of the performances, but most of the press says otherwise.

The actress prize went to Juliette Binoche in Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," which has been getting mixed reviews. I love Binoche, but Kiarostami is very hit or miss for me. His work in the 1980's and 1990's from his Koker trilogy to "Taste of Cherry" is excellent, but everything since then has tended to repeat itself and get progressively slower and preachier. I think Binoche has some masterplan to work with every major director in the world: Godard (France), Kieslowski (Poland), Haneke (Austria), Hou (Taiwan) and now Kiarostami (Iran) to name a few. Of her recent stuff, "Summer Hours" by Olivier Assayas is quite good, though her hair is awful. Binoche has the dishonor of being on this year's shockingly crappy official Cannes 2010 poster.

Other interesting films in the main competition:

Takeshi Kitano returns to familiar yakuza grounds with "Outrage." After "Fireworks," "Sonatine" and "Brothers" I'm not sure what he has left to say on the topic, but like Suzuki's yakuza pics and Scorsese's gangster films, it never really gets old.

Im Sang-soo's has remade the crazy 1960's South Korean classic "The Housemaid." I recently watched the original and I absolutely adore it. You can watch it free online at MUBI (formerly The Auteurs). I don't think there's anything the remake can offer, but Sang-soo might be just the right person to try it. His "The President's Last Bang" is a brilliant dark comedy deconstruction of Park Chung-hee's 1979 assassination that shows he knows how to handle serious material with a wry touch. The poster for The Housemaid sucks, so here is The President's Last Bang:

UK social realist Ken Loach continues his penchant for controversial political films ("Land and Freedom" and "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" being solid examples) with "Route Irish" about two pals who join a private security force in Iraq. I love Loach's work so I give him the benefit of the doubt, though I tend to prefer his films about heavily-accented locals living on the brink of poverty and crime ("My Name Is Joe," "Riff-Raff," "Sweet Sixteen"). Route Irish was actually was an early favorite for the top prize (in the Western press) along with...

... fellow Brit Mike Leigh's "Another Year." Maybe they split the vote? Leigh manages to lay bare the private hopes and fears of working class Britain in his semi-improv dramedies like "Naked," "Life is Sweet," "Happy-Go-Lucky" and his masterpiece "Secrets & Lies." Recently he has tried his hand at a variety of historical and biographical topics, but this sounds like a return to his contemporary preoccupations.

Bertrand Travernier, an understated director who doesn't seem to have very many champions in the America, has a new film called "The Princess of Montpensier," a romance set in the 1562 French Wars of Religion. It will probably be pretty good. No one will see it.

The only other director I'm familiar with from the main competition this year is Doug Liman and he doesn't bear talking about. See one reason below:

Un Certain Regard:

Cristi Puiu finally follows up his 2005 arthouse smash "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (a key film in the burgeoning Romanian New Wave) with "Aurora," the second installment of a planned six part series. At over 3 hours long, expect it to be brilliant, but exhausting. From Wikipedia: " Puiu spent five months searching for an appropriate lead actor before deciding to cast himself."

Jean-Luc Godard's lastest film "Socialism" had its debut, after being the subject of some excitement for almost three years. I expect it to be a free-form meditation on whatever topics come into Godard's head, similar to his other 21st century works like "In Praise of Love" and "Our Music." These always tend to be pretty interesting, but I'm on board with 99% of the population in preferring his work from the 1960's. When you get right down to it, I'd probably rather just look at pictures of Godard muse Anna Karina:

Jia Zhang-ke continues to regularly stamp out intriguing works and now has "I Wish I Know." He's regarded as the best of the Chinese 6th Generation and I've recently been exploring his work. "Still Life" would be my recommendations for those who are considering giving him a try. I suspect his importance as a modern filmmaker will only continue to grow.

Manoel de Oliveira, who at 101 is cinema's oldest active filmmaker (no one ever fails to mention this when talking about him, so why should I?), is showing "The Strange Case of Angelica." I wish I could find more of his enormous oeuvre, but it all seems rather rare. I watched "Abraham's Valley" in a mediocre dub and it only just whet my appetite without really satisfying me. As far as Portuguese directors go, I suspect de Oliveira is more worth seeking out than his fellow arthouse favorite Pedro Costa, whose stuff is just mind-numbing.

Out of Competition:

Opening the festival was Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" which has already hit theaters in the US and word is that it is pretty awful. Other films outside the competition are "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," another Woody Allen film on the same old Allen romantic entanglement themes and the usual all-star cast that deserves something better, "Tamara Drewe" by Stephen Frears ("High Fidelity," "The Queen") and Oliver Stone's sequel "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," set during the 2008 financial crisis (I actually kind of want to see it).

Why does everyone love getting Russell Crowe dirty?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Review of The Desert of the Tartars

“The Desert of the Tartars” (1976) was the last film by Italian director Valerio Zurlini, whose work I’m not familiar with, and although the movie’s reputation has faded, it is still quite capable of fascinating and mystifying. “Fascination” might seem a rather strong word for a film that is so stubbornly slow, long and uneventful, but its measures are divided with thematic and stylistic rhythms in mind with an ambition that I found easy to appreciate. The result is something like an epic story of wasted lives, told amidst the beauty and emptiness of sand and stone.

Lt. Giovanni Drogo takes up his first commission at Bastiani Fortress, an obscure outpost on the fringe of an unspecified empire. The fortress lies between a forbidding mountain range and a vast desert, both of which present such logistical difficulties for a crossing army that the oversized border fortress seems a ludicrous redundancy. Despite rumors of a force gathering in the distant north kingdom (beyond the desert) and of Tartar warriors that ride white horses amidst the sandstorms, no enemy is ever seen except as indistinct figures in the distance.

Yet all the men (the film’s only woman appears but briefly in the first scene) within the rigid hierarchy of officers are, each in their turn, seduced by the paranoia of a mounting threat that never materializes. Drogo finds that military life at Bastiani is not what he dreamed; there is no chance for glory and only an endless restless watchfulness and aching unsatisfying boredom. His first reaction, and his wisest, is to leave, but his sincere regard for courage, commitment and camaraderie cause him to doubt. Opportunities slip by. Circumstances align against him. As the years pass on quicker and quicker, he bids farewell to superiors who lead with varying degrees of success and leave with varying degrees of regret. As he rises through the ranks, Drogo longs for the moment where he can redeem the sacrifices he has made in a tangible confrontation. The moment always lingers just beyond the horizon.

Depending on how existential you’re feeling, the film can be read as a simple critique, even a condemnation, of the sterility of military life or as a more wide-reaching parable about the meaninglessness of human endeavor. The senseless of military discipline and obedience to rigid protocols is exemplified by Mattis (Giuliano Gemma), an officer who marches a sick man to death on a snowy peak, applauds the shooting of a friendly soldier for not knowing the correct password (despite being recognized) and who forces a disobedient platoon to stand without food until they begin to collapse.

The distinctive thing about “The Desert of the Tartars,” however, is that it doesn’t laugh, or even crack a smile, at the absurdity of war in the manner of films like “Catch-22” (1970), “MASH” (1970) or “Oh! What a Lovely War!” (1969). Nor does it emphasize the brutality and violence of war, as no actual combat takes place. The film simply exposes the self-aggrandizing gentility and paranoia of obsessive military vigilance as a sort of psychological illness, where the only battleground is in the mind and the struggle for peace and sanity is much more abstract than what the soldiers are trained to deal with. Again, Mattis, who vents his barely-concealed bloodlust in boar-hunting and sadistic treatment towards his men, is the key example.

[Image: Formal dinners provide an outlet for pomp, albeit in a static, stationary setting.]

The psychological angle, however, remains largely an issue of undertone and understatement. Characters are driven to illness, murder, suicide and madness by the endless waiting, but all in an atmosphere of suppression and aloof dignity that glides quietly over personal crises. The structure of the films fails to sustain ongoing tension and instead mounts upward for a brief episode and then diffuses again (perhaps intentionally frustrating us the same way the officers are frustrated). Zurlini opts for a slow burn, which I respect, but I wish he would eventually turn the temperature much higher than he ever goes. I would have, at least, preferred him to leave the ending more ambiguous, with the audience given more freedom to decide how much of the final developments are purely Drogo’s delusions.

[Images: Perrin does a fine job conveying the way that Bastiani wears away Drogo's mental and physical health, though the film is a little too lopsided in piling the bulk of his deterioration into the last act.]

The subdued tone that the film adopts also tends to squander the ridiculously high-profile cast. For a film that was often overlooked outside of Italy until NoShame put it out on DVD, the cast includes a remarkable amount of international talent: Jacques Perrin (France), Jean-Louis Trintignant (France), Max Von Sydow (Sweden), Fernando Rey (Spain), Vittorio Gassman (Italy), Philippe Noiret (France) and Helmut Griem (Germany), some of whom, like Rey and Noiret, are thrown away on underdeveloped roles.

[Image (from left to right): Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, Hour of the Wolf), Fernando Rey (That Obscure Object of Desire, The French Connection), Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist, Death Laid an Egg) and Jacques Perrin (Z).]

What Zurlini fails to squeeze from his actors, however, he makes up for with landscape. The fort, the mountains and especially the desert are for more compelling than any given character in his film. Luciano Tovoli's cinematography stares down the terrain with mute gravitas and paints it effortlessly with the burning chalk-brown of daylight and the soft purple-grey of twilight. Filming in Arg-e Bam, Iran, Zurlini and Tovoli make spectacular use of the ancient ruins, tapping their labyrinthine desolation as an Ozymandias-esque metaphor for the futility of man in the face of eternity.

[Images: The heavy use of lone figures dwarfed by lonely ruins and receding horizons is said to be inspired by the work of Giorgio de Chirico, which is how I happened to hear about the film.]

Nor does Zurlini skimp on panning across the wind-swept wasteland to awe us with the expanse that nothingness can fill and to humble us with the majesty of nature’s inhospitable frontiers. More so than “Lawrence of Arabia,” this film reminds me of something like “Woman in the Dunes,” with its dreamlike existential atmosphere that invokes horror more often than beauty. Also like “Woman in the Dunes,” I feel irresistibly compelled to read the book, written by Dino Buzzati in 1940.

If the memorable use of widescreen landscapes and the precise choreography of soldiers in spotless attire are easily the strong points of “The Desert of the Tartars,” the major weakness may well be the audio. The usually reliable Ennio Morricone (everything) provides some decent tracks, but they are too mellow and elegiac; nothing as evocative and moody and the film requires. Not only could we use a great deal more brooding, unsettling instrumental music, but a layered soundtrack capturing the ceaseless wind and dry echoes that surely haunt such a place could have gone a long way towards driving the atmosphere and tension that too often remains incomplete. Instead, long silences and a relatively scanty, purely utilitarian soundscape contribute the film’s occasional inability to sustain its powerful concepts. It’s a major opportunity missed.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

[Image: "The Red Tower" (1913) by De Chirico. Used as the cover the novel's English translation.]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hall of Strangeness Part XXXII: Vampire Edition

I’ve been watching several interesting vampire films lately (a subgenre that seems in no danger of going out of style any time soon) and I thought it would be nice to update the vampire series I did a while back. The Twilight series is notably absent, but I don’t even want to get into that. Instead, I’m going to talk about a handful of vampire oddities from around the world in my old “Hall of Strangeness” format, which is relatively undemanding both to write and to read.

Let the Right One In – (Tomas Alfredson) John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Swedish novel and Alfredson’s film adaptation have been somewhat surprising critical and popular successes. The story follows a young boy who befriends a vampire child and their difficulties dealing with bullies and an insatiable craving for blood, respectively. Shot in cold dark hues, riddled with unsettling implications and unfolding with unusual elegance and maturity, “Let the Right One In” is nevertheless a little rough around the edges. Some of the horror scenes overshoot the slow-burning mood (CG cats especially) while at other times showing too much reluctance to explore the controversial source material. Still, the film is both ominously beautiful and effectively creepy; it will doubtlessly and deservedly enjoy a cult following.
Artistry: **** Fun: *** Strangeness: **

The Living Corpse – (Abdul Baqi) Not long ago I was amused to see “Zibahkhana (Hell’s Ground)” (2007) being hailed as “Pakistan’s first horror film,” which seemed odd considering that the same description was used to promote “The Living Corpse” (1967), made four decades earlier. I’m not nearly qualified to say whether even this film really holds that title, but it certainly doesn’t hold much else. Ostensibly a retelling of the Dracula story in Hammer Horror fashion, the filmmakers couldn’t resist the requisite Lollywood musical numbers and end up with a discombobulated mess that can be unevenly enjoyed with the right mood and the right crowd.
Artistry: * Fun: ** Strangeness: ***

Thirst – (Park Chan-wook) About a third of the way into Park Chan-wook’s (best known for “Joint Security Area” and his revenge trilogy) South Korean bio-horror epic I realized that the film was really an alternate-universe adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1867 adultery fable “Therese Raquin.” It takes a fair amount of guts to modernize a 19th century French naturalist classic, but to change the main character from a petty clerk to a vampire priest is a special type of brilliant. The rather long film covers a lot of narrative ground, indulges in Park Chan-wook’s peculiar gallows humor and addressed themes of lust, repression, sacrifice, guilt and revenge. Not all of it works, but maybe it doesn’t need to.
Artistry: **** Fun: *** Strangeness: ***

Trouble Every Day – (Claire Denis) I’m really glad I have a chance to say something nice about Claire Denis, especially after being possibly the only person to dislike “35 Shots of Rum” when I saw it at SLIFF last year (so it is fitting that her oft-ignored mainstream-maligned “The Intruder” is amongst my all time favorites). With “Trouble Every Day” Denis made an unlikely entry into the vampire genre, but characteristically reinvented everything. By rhythmically alternating between several disturbing subplots featuring an inspired cast (Vincent Gallo, Beatrice Dalle, Tricia Vessey and Alex Descas) and a lot of oblique imagery, Denis weaves a Lynchian nightmare dense with atmosphere and allegory. The power of any given scene is inversely proportional to the amount of talking that occurs, so it’s fortunate that much of the film is near wordless. The soundtrack, not to mention the cannibalistic rape scenes, haunted me for weeks after viewing.
Artistry: ***** Fun: * Strangeness: ****

Vampire Ferat – (Juraj Herz) When I learned that Czech New Wave iconoclast Juraj Herz (The Cremator) had a made a horror movie about a vampire sports car starring Dagmar Havlova (16 years before she became the First Lady of the Czech Republic), I knew I had to see it no matter what. That said, going without subtitles was a tough slog and though the film is more conventional than his gothic burlesque “Morgiana,” it certainly wasn’t as easy to follow as, say, John Carpenter’s “Christine” (if you know where I can get subtitles, please link me in the comments section!). From what I could gather in-film and online the car is fueled by blood it sucks from the driver’s foot whenever the acceleration pedal is pressed. A hapless doctor turned detective (played by director Jiri Menzel) investigates the enigmatic car company Ferat (as in Nosferatu), run by an evil lesbian kingpin (queenpin?), after his ambulance-driving nurse become addicted to racing the titular vampire vehicle. Highlights include the hand-drawn opening credits, the brooding industrial soundtrack and a delightfully gory dream sequence. Herz admits that the best scenes were all destroyed by the censors.
Artistry: ** Fun: ** Strangeness: ****

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Movies with Colors in Their Titles

I've made three more film quizzes for you to take over at Sporcle, this time based around a color theme:

Warm colors:

Cool colors:


There are about 60 films in each.


Oh, and keep me updated on your scores in the comment section (for bragging rights). I think the previous set was brutally hard (intensionally), but I expect people will do better on this batch.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Movie Lists and Sporcle Quizzes

Pathetically enough, two posts in the same month is now a flurry of activity for me. But while I haven't been writing much, I haven't stopped making an excessive number of lists.

Katie recently introduced me to Sporcle, a site that hosts an easy to use toolkit for generating user-made online quizzes. I was immediately addicted. We stayed up to about 4am our first night of playing around on it.

I'm made four movie quizzes so far, and will probably do more as the whim strikes me. Here they are:

101 Time-Travel Movies - And yes, I have seen most of them. And yes, I am that obsessed.

Directors by Signature or Trademark - How well do you know your auteurs?

Giallo Titles by Synonym (e.g. "The Feline with the Nephrite Peepers" for "The Cat with the Jade Eyes")

War Films by War - From the Crimean War to the Cambodian Civil War, from ancient Rome to the contemporary Middle East, humanity has had a terrible history of bloodshed and a wonderful tradition of films about them, but can you name titles that span almost 50 different conflicts?

Exactly Why has also entered the fray with:


Lastly, I do want to mention that I've happily sifted through a lot of "Best of the Decade" lists over the last few months, but good or bad most have been pretty predictable. That's why I was really glad to see Filmlinc's ruthlessly highbrow, unabashedly challenging Top 150 Films of the Decade.

Two films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the top ten? 8 Taiwanese New Wave films including at least one I've openly disparaged? No Batman or Lord of the Rings? And yet this is a list with something to say, with material worth seeing and worth discussing. Innovative films, gutsy filmmakers and expansive ideas are well represented in a way that the box office, the Oscars and the majority of our media just doesn't cover. I've got nearly a third of the list still to see and I'm really excited to track them down!

Not nearly as good or consistent, but still on the right train of thought is Slant Magazine's list. It has the added advantage of short reviews and is more than capable of furnishing some recommendations.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sundance 2010

Sine I've not posted this year, I've let slip the chance to have topical discussions about the 2009 year-in-review, various Oscar-related issues and my experience at Sundance. But to assuage my guilty conscience I will briefly summarize the latter.

Katie and I stayed in the mountains next to Salt Lake City with our good friend Exactly Why at her gorgeous home and got to try a lot of local cuisine. We made it to 6 movies, already ably reviewed over at Exactly Why's blog. I'll give a quick rundown in my own words:

The Red Chapel - A subversive documentary about a 'spastic' Danish comedy team that travels to North Korea for a tense and awkward cultural exchange. The film says as much about the ethics of the comedians and film crew as it does about the country and ultimately runs the gamut from outrageous to depressing. Wry and thought-provoking, I can't fault Sundance for awarding this their International Documentary award.

Obselidia - A gentle road-movie romance about a reclusive collector of obsolete things and a woman who runs a silent movie theater. While it was thankfully not overly-precious (like too many of the recent rash of 'quirky' indie hits), it can be a bit on the preachy side, though I felt its heart was largely in the right place. Great acting, a comfortable script and an assured pacing made this a very charming and worthwhile little film.

Enter the Void - Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) brings his latest experiment to its third audience (after controversial Cannes and Toronto screenings) and it is both his most abrasive and most visually daring yet. Enter the Void is told primarily from the drifting perspective of a drug dealer's disembodied soul seeking reincarnation as he shifts in and out of his past and the grim present of his sister's deteriorating life as a stripper in neon-lit eye-searing Tokyo. Noe's trademark whirling camera antics are impressive, and yet unpleasantly dizzying and ultimately tedious. Working with an interesting concept and no shortage of auteur flare, the film struggles to find somewhere to end and, after 155 minutes and half a dozen opportunities to walk away with a dignified finish, bellyflops into an audacious, ill-adviced and hilarious finale (think orgasms, CG and a verrry intimate POV). Noe came out afterwards and confessed that we weren't supposed to laugh. For all that, I kind of admire the film, in that no-holds noble failure type of way.

Incidentally, when asked during the Q&A about his next project, Noe shyly admitted it would be an out-and-out porno. He didn't sound like he was kidding. With Lars von Trier (Pink Prison), Steven Soderbergh (The Girlfriend Experiment), Crispin Glover (It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine), and Kevin Smith to name a few, there seems to be more of an uptick in serious artists interested in the subject matter than I can remember since P. T. Anderson's Boogie Nights .

Tucker & Dale vs Evil - A spot-on horror comedy that presents a common film scenario (teens on a campy trip beset by villainous locals) from the sympathetic side of the rednecks. Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk (Firefly) are perfectly cast as two lovable hillbillies who rescue (not kidnap) a beautiful psych student and befriend her while her former pals get themselves killed with such persistence that Tucker and Dale believe them to be a violent suicide cult. The semi-gimmicky plot actually manages to sustain itself pretty well and the film earned constant laughs from me, my friends and the entire audience. It is actually more entertaining than most of the films it riffs on, such as Friday the 13th, The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn and even Deliverance.

Buried - Ryan Reynolds wakes up in a coffin and soon receives a cell phone call that if he can't arrange for a million dollar ransom, he will be left to suffocate. The camera never cuts outside of his tiny confines, creating an incredibly tense and utterly claustrophobic nightmare scenario that manages to stay exciting during every minute of depleting oxygen. The films even manages a good deal of creative visual variety through changes in angle and light source; the yellow of a lighter's flame, the faded red of a flashlight, the cold blue of the cell phone, the eerie green of chemical glow sticks and the amble use of pitch black create a balance of mood and practicality. Though contrived, it is easy to overlook the weaker plot points. The film easily earns a spot amongst the great low budget horror films of the digital era.

Splice - Speaking of which, Vincenzo Natali, the Canadian wunderkind behind low-budget high-concept horror classic Cube, unleashes his new genetics-experiment-gone-wrong thriller. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play a pair of married researchers whose gene-spliced anti-body incubator becomes a beloved pet and eventually a surrogate child. The film plays like an even-more-allegorical modern-day Frankenstein where far more than just medical ethics gets ludicrously violated. The acting and effects are top-notch, but the script may be an acquired taste. Fans of early Cronenberg or anyone willing to mix parenting woes and childrearing psychology with science-fiction and horror conventions will certainly enjoy.

Overall Sundance was a wondeful experience and I felt like all the films we saw were either highly entertaining or at least very interesting. I hope to go again next year. Katie has recently moved out to Vernal, Utah (where there's a good chance I'll one day join her) so we may be "right next door" in the midwestern 3-4 hour sense.