Saturday, May 28, 2011

SIFF 2011: The Future

One problem I have with trying to write something about every film that I see at SIFF each year is that there are movies that not only am I not impressed by, but literally have no thought on them at all. The Future would be one of those. So instead of sitting around trying to figure out what Miranda July was intending, I thought I'd just ask Nate whether he had any thoughts on the Future. I think listening to his complaining about Miranda July's movie was much more enjoyable then actually watching it. Now for a few paraphrased quotes, that probably aren't even accurate since I am sitting in a bar writing this as I wait for my next SIFF screening. Because that is the sort of party girl that I am!

"You know, it could be kinda fun to be buried up to your neck and the only way I'd watch the Future again".

"I think Miranda July wrote a movie about all of the worst and most annoying qualities of both 90s slacker culture and hipster culture."

And when I asked what he thought of Miranda July's narration as Paw Paw the dying, shelter cat he replied that Paw Paw is Dylan Thomas, and quoted "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

What it comes down to is that Miranda July has made an enjoyable, quirky and original film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, but her style doesn't translate well to darker material. I didn't find much compassion for a couple attempting to find meaning during an existential crisis caused by the potential stress of pet ownership. So they quit their jobs in an effort to find meaning and their relationship unravels after Sophie (July) cheats and Jason (Hamish Linklater) stops time to have a chat with the moon. Yup, it's that kind of movie...

Hopefully, there will be no more films narrated by dying shelter cats this year at SIFF.

The Future will have a limited release in the US in July.

The Future - Trailer HD

SIFF 2011: Beginners

Beginners will be a festival favorite. As can be seen in the trailer (linked below), there is a lot to be charmed by here. There's Ewan MacGregor, who cannot seem to turn off the charm, portraying Oliver after the death of his gay dad and he is falling for the lovely French actress, Anna (Melanie Laurent) and Oliver has inherited his dad's adorable Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, who talks to Oliver. I mean who doesn't like a movie with a mopey Ewan MacGregor flirting with Melanie Laurent. And I was totally on board once I saw the trailer as it is a great trailer, but unfortunately, the movie doesn't add much beyond length to the trailer. But it is still pretty entertaining.

What really does work in Beginners in the depiction of Oliver's relationship with his father Hal(Christopher Plummer). Shortly after his mother's death, Hal comes out as gay and spends the remainder of his days living life to the fullest. He has a much younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic), goes out to clubs, and subscribes to nearly every gay periodical around. Even after a terminal cancer diagnosis, Hal continues to live life to the fullest while Oliver ties to stay by his side through the appointments, treatments, and finally his last days in hospice care. And all of the flashbacks to moments shared between Oliver and his father are touching and a lovely portrait of a little seen father and son relationship. Where the film falls short is in the romance between Oliver and Anna.

The beginning was promising, when they meet at a Halloween party when he is dressed as Freud play acting psychoanalysis all night and she has laryngitis, so is mute using a notepad for communication. But once the initial meeting is over, and Anna gets her voice back, the romance follows every convention in the book. There are early scenes with them frolicking, rollerskating, etc. and when things seem to be going well, they have to have the convention imposed breakup so that Oliver can realize that just because his parent's marriage wasn't exactly as it appeared, that is no reason to be afraid of commitment, or relationships, or whatever the contrived issue was.

But despite the contrived romance there was still a lot to like about Beginners. It just is not as moving or profound as it wants to be and it also suffers from trying too hard to be a cute, quirky indie film. As someone who appreciates the artifice of cinema and my favorite filmmakers revel in its artifice, but here the aritiface doesn't marry well with the realism of Oliver's journey to understand his childhood and deal with the passing of his father. Beginners marks the first disappointment of SIFF 2011, but this is still a pretty endearing film, just not a great film in comparison to Perfect Sense and 3.

'Beginners' Trailer HD

Thursday, May 26, 2011

SIFF 2011: Perfect Sense

David Mackenzie makes intriguing and rather challenging films. I might be quite taken with his work. I was a bit mystified by Young Adam, but completely adored every second of Hallum Foe and am again quite taken with Perfect Sense which is a rather timely apocalyptic allegory on humanity.

Susan (Eva Green) is an epidemiologist puzzling about a peculiar outbreak involving a sudden loss of the sense of smell. The loss of this sense follows a period of immense grief over past wrongs and regrets. Susan appears less absorbed with this strange epidemic, then her failed relationships and terrible luck with men. Michael (Ewan McGregor) is a chef at the restaurant across from Susan's flat, who's livelihood is being threatened by the impact loss of scent has on the enjoyment of dining. After a bummed cigarette, their lives become entangled by mutual desire and synchronous onset of the illness. With both Micheal and Susan in the throes of profound grief and need, their relationship gains depth quickly, without being overcome by the kinds of doubts and fears that preclude the progression of many relationships. They are caught up in the center of a confusing, global crisis that Susan should be among the scientists attempting to solve, while Michael is only trying to continue working as a chef in a world where people are not drawn to food by the enticing scents.

But the epidemic rages on. The loss of the sense of smell is only the first of the senses to depart. Taste is lost after an orgiastic hunger. Hearing is next after a loud, demonstrative period of violence and rage. And after people lose a sense, there is a brief period of panic, until the world learns to cope with the loss. Micheal draws back costumers without the sense of smell, by enhancing the flavor of the meals, then once taste has departed, they experiment with the texture and sensory aspects of eating. This leads to a delightful bath tub lovemaking scene where soap is eaten and suds playfully spit after the lovers have lost their sense of taste. This is what really works with Perfect Sense. While their is no attempt to explain an outbreak that robs mankind of each sense one by one, the film instead explores the elements at the root of humanity and has an optimistic outlook on mankind's ability to adapt to any situation. Finally, even in the darkest moments of this film, when it appears that there is no hope for the human race, the underlying message comes across that even in the middle of a global crisis that will likely lead to the final days of human life on the planet, that love will persevere.

Because when there is nothing left, all you need is love.

Monday, May 23, 2011

SIFF 2011: 3

Occasionally it is obvious in the first minutes of a movie that this will be one of my favorites. This doesn't happen frequently, but when it does, it reaffirms why I love cinema. Tom Tykwer's 3 begins with a contemporary dance piece that essentially the plot of the film. I'm afraid that hook was set from the beginning, I'm a sucker for good, contemporary interpretive dance, and Tykwer reeled me in.

3 is a very contemporary story of relationships, specifically a very mature relationship between Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper). This is the story of a relationship that has endured for 20 years and has arrives at a particularly difficult period involving the death of a parent and a testicular cancer diagnosis. These kinds of big, life changing events are bound to bring conflict into any relationship, but barely phase Hanny and Simon. If anything, their connection only seems to strengthen as they cope with loss. Well, sort of.

During all of these events, Hanna is a bit, shall we say, distracted. This is a spot on depiction of the impact a crush can have on an existing relationship, not that I personally can relate to such a situation, but as Simon's mother becomes ill, Hanna meets Adam at a stem cell conference and then again at an ethics committee, where she finds herself publically at odds with him over a stem cell debate. It doesn't take long before the sparks are flying between them and Hanna makes a few huge mistakes with Simon that in any other film would have been unforgivable, but here, we are looking at the lives of a couple that have already been making relationship blunders for 2 decades and have weathered plenty together. So despite Hanna's frequent, unexplained absences, this relationship moves along unphased and unaware of the existence of Adam.

That is until Simon encounters Adam in a locker room. What follows is the most astonishing locker room hook up that I've seen on film. Not only does Simon's connection with Adam feel completely unforced to the narrative, but it makes emotional sense. And the sex scene while brief and totally unexpected is just perfect in a wonderful life affirming way. And it even involves a money shot. Seriously. The aftermath is just as amazing in that Simon becomes completely infatuated and as he attempts to make sense of his feelings, Adam shrugs off his questions and tells Simon not to get too caught up in sexual determinism.

As the narrative progresses and these three characters lives become entwined in ways that would never happen in any American movie and remain just as innovative as Tykwer's visual style. 3 is a surprising and wonderful film and I cannot wait to see this one again and again and again.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

SIFF 2011: The Pillow Book

The summer of 1997 was spent doing a research internship in Chicago. Not being much of a social butterfly, I never did find anyone to spend my free time with during those 10 weeks, so when I left the lab, I explored the museums, art galleries and the cinema. The most memorable of these movie outings was a trip to the Music Box to see Peter Greenaway's the Pillow Book. Ever since that summer night, it is the Pillow Book that I reference as my favorite film.

Just a few weeks ago, I revisited the Pillow Book on DVD just to see hif it stood the test of time. I hadn't seen it in several years, but my reaction for the first time was not favorable. I had grown an uneasy relationship with the Pillow Book and Peter Greenaway, but I should have trusted in its ability to withstand repeat viewings as over the years, this is a film that I've probably seen dozens of times. I used to see everything I could by the English painter turned experimental auteur, but recently, I've found his work to be excessively cold, pretentious and often slightly nauseating. After that most recent home viewing, the film lost its standing in the pantheon and I was a bit mystified by my previous adoration for Greenaway.

Friday night, I was able to see the Pillow Book again in its original aspect ratio with an audience and it has regained its place at the top of my favorite films. This is a film that is hurt by small screens and the cropped, wide screen format. And it is a projectionist's nightmare. The constantly shifting frames kept the projectionist busy throughout the screening keeping text and boxes from falling off the screen. I had forgotten about just how experimental Greenaway's layered montages are, since much is cropped in the DVD versions or simply too small to appreciate. This format wasn't pioneered with the Pillow Book as Prospero's Books also incorporates innovative use of text, subtitle, and layering of frames, but appears much more organic display of Japanese art and calligraphy then it did western texts. And not only does Greenaway layer motion picture images, but text. The text from Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book is layered alongside subtitles, scrolling lyrics, and the text is in more languages than Jerome is credited in knowing. We see English, French, Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, and even a scribbled bit of Yiddish appears. Not only are languages displayed for visual appreciation, but the we are treated to the sounds of many languages too.

While the visuals of The Pillow Book are unforgettably sensual, the use of sound is every bit as experimental. During this viewing I was struck by how the use of sound distinguished the major movements of the film. Nagiko's childhood was enveloped in the sounds of a traditional Japan (voices of Buddhist monks, Japanese court music) and those of her childhood home, specifically an old popular Chinese song that her mother always played. Nagiko's exodus from Japan was filled with the noises of the city, jets flying overhead, and loud club music. Finally her return to Japan and revenge combines some of the music earlier in the film, but also uses classical music. I've always been struck by the impact of sound, but this viewing I was particularly struck by how unusual it is, not just in the musical choices, but in the way that sounds often overlapped one another just as Greenaway has overlapped the visuals. And again, the languages heard are just as diverse as the text that scrolls across the screen. Jerome, the translator, is not the only character with fluency in multiple Eastern and Western languages and Greenaway must have an aethetic ear, since there are several portions of the film where Japanese is spoken, but never subtitled allowing for the experience of just listening to the rhythm of the language.

So thinking I had been overly impressed with this film in the past, due to not yet having seen so many other great films, I began to see the weaknesses in Greenaway's films. The acting is perfunctory, the characters are in no way representations of people and therefore difficult to relate to, and the allusions are so plentiful and often obscure and overly academic. But these weaknesses are really just a difference in the filmmaker's approach and values. The actors are little more than bodies and voices that are used to add sound and movement to Greenaway's cinematic canvas. The characters are not meant to be realistic as Greenaway has a preference for allegory over realism. So while I have trouble connecting to the majority of Greenaway's films, the Pillow Book remains my favorite film. Here is a stunningly painted allegory of love, writing and revenge that shares my personal fetish for the written word as an object of beauty and sensuality. Yes, indeed, I still am completely in love with every frame of this film, even the ones that I have not yet been able to figure out why they were included, but I'll just keep looking at it until they do.

The Pillow Book (1996) trailer

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dennis Nyback's Super Secret Pre-Code Musical Lallapalooza Big Magilla Thrilla Festival, Friday

Currently, at The Grand Illusion Cinema, Dennis Nyback is presenting a different program each night as Dennis Nyback's Super Secret Pre-Code Musical Lallapalooza Big Magilla Thrilla Festival and I was able to attend the first night. The films were not announced in advance, but on Friday, they were all from 1930 and presented as they would have been at that time, beginning with a newsreel, trailer, animated short, a short film and finally the feature.

I will just admit now that I am not knowledgeable of film history. Essentially, my film school has occurred in the cinemas at movies that are current, with the exception of an occasional archival screening, but thanks, in part, to The Celluloid Closet, I am a bit familiar with the Hollywood's history of self-censorship via the Hays Code and today, with the MPAA rating system. And it has been interesting to read about what had to be taken out of scripts, if a movie were to be produced post 1934. I was aware that homosexuality was strictly forbidden, but so was drug use, nudity, abortion, and it seems that just about any portrayal of sexuality that makes it seem like it could be a good time.

So it was instructive to see Dennis Nyback's program on Friday night. After the newsreel, were were treated to a preview for Gold Diggers of 1933, followed by an animated short, Wise Flies, where a fly uses her seductive prowess and spiderweb dancing abilities to avoid being taken home for supper. Apparently, the animated shorts of the time were typically set to popular jazz tunes of the time, so they aren't much different from an animated music video.

Then a musical short film, A Night in a Dormitory, with a 19 year old Ginger Rogers and some of the most awkward tap dancing ever. The dancers did not appear to have been hired for their dancing ability. Despite the showcasing of some questionable dancing abilities, the short was alone worth the price of admission. Ginger Rogers is completely charming in this tale of a school girl's nightclub adventure.

And on Friday, the feature was Oh, for a Man!, a romance between a bored opera singer, Jeanette MacDonald, and a cat burglar, Reginald Denny after he break in one night to steal her jewels and instead, she convinces him to train as a singer himself.

As none of these films were particularly shocking for their pre-code content, they were all quite enjoyable. One difference between these films and the movies that would follow are that the women depicted are sexual in a fashion that would be refreshing in today's films. So tonight, I'm about to go off and see another selection of Pre-code movies from 1930. I'll have to pay closer attention this time to see exactly what scandalous content they were getting away with, now that I have a better idea of what restrictions Hollywood would impose just a few years later.