Tuesday, June 29, 2010

8 1/2

Federico Fellini was possibly the most influential Italian director in the history of cinema. He's added words to the English language - Paparazzi, for reference, after a character in La Dolce Vita, which is also a term familiar to most - and is cited as an influence by pretty much every director you can name - and several you can't. In spite of his clear talent, it's comforting to know that he also wasn't supremely confident at all times. How do I know this? I've watched 8 1/2.

Now, that isn't to say anything negative about 8 1/2 - in fact, prepare for praise - but instead just a response to the subject of the film itself. Some might suggest that the movie is slightly autobiographical. After all, it's about an Italian film director struggling with a concept for his next picture and also with his wife and mistress. Fellini, was an Italian film director, the title was a reference to the total number of movies he had made before, and he made this movie because he wasn't sure what to do next. I won't claim to know what his marital situation was at that time, but there's a large amount of vulnerability here, almost a kind of therapy, as Fellini lays bare his own frustrations through proxy characters and events.

It's a feel good story, but not in the traditional way. Everyone has had moments of a loss of confidence, everyone has been nervous and everyone has had times when they don't know what to do next. If you're a creative type, you can recognize that, just as in the film, the act of creating can sometimes seem like going steadily insane.

I understand this, and I'm sure everyone has had moments of a supreme lack of confidence and uncertainty. The liberating aspect of this film is that one realizes that an influential filmmaker at the height of his powers felt the same way as we might, and he worked through it to create one of the best films you'll ever see. Now, we're not all Fellini, but there's a certain something life affirming about the enterprise. The knowledge that the feelings are normal, and that people aren't alone at these lows, it's kind of uplifting.

The best part is, even if you don't know the story behind it, the frustrations and triumphs are laid bare on screen so you can fully grasp what is being presented. It takes the intimately personal, and makes it universal, and that's not only a difficult trick but a highly worthwhile one. I don't simply understand Fellini more after watching this, I understand myself. That's what truly great art can do.

Friday, June 25, 2010

First Do No Harm

TV movies have a bad reputation. This is essentially because the worst of them just take an issue, and interpret it in a basic manner. First Do No Harm is let's learn about epilepsy.

Of course, as someone who knows a bit about the subject, there are some things which don't really work. Having a kid subjected to an intensive battery of tests after one seizure is inaccurate, though it's likely the time line was compressed for the sake of time - it's only an EEG the first time - and it isn't a case of "two seizures is epilepsy at all times" - I don't have it and I've had more than one. Whatever, that's what happens when something has to be easily distilled into an easy to understand manner for the sake of a TV movie.

That's the problem though. Learning about epilepsy - and the assorted crap about why the US health insurance system is pretty much terrible and screws everyone over for arbitrary drama - isn't really a plot. Meryl Streep, while a classy actor, can't really elevate the proceedings above a PSA. Jim Abrahams, while once good at comedy, simply can't pull off being a drama director.

It's heart is in the right place, really. It wants to help people learn about a condition that is both serious but not so bad that people with it can't be perfectly normal. It wants to educate, which is admirable, and it wants to show off a special diet which helps some people, which is similarly admirable. It's just that with education as the top priority, making an entertaining movie is too far down the list.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bad Guy

If you watch enough movies, you notice cinematic tricks. For example, casting a sympathetic looking actor and playing lots of evocative piano music might try to get the audience to like a character. Kim Ki-Duk knows this, so this trick is deployed in Bad Guy, except with a rapist. It's a film about a man doing horrible things - hence the completely justified title - presented as a love story.

Jae-hyeon Jo plays that Bad Guy, a mostly silent protagonist who tries to pick up the lovely lady played by Won Seo, and fails, spectacularly, as he just creeps her out. Then he kisses her and she likes him even less. So, he effectively tricks her into being a prostitute and watches as she is essentially raped over and over again. So yes, a bad guy.

Ki-Duk films it like a love story though. Jo's got a great emotional face, and he just looks so gosh darn likable. If you walked in mid-way through you'd think awww, this guy could never be a rapist, look at him! Plus the really pleasant soundtrack manipulates you to care about him, which would be fine if he was like Sting and trying to stop her from being a prostitute, rather than forcing her to become one due to deception.

It becomes a commentary on how film can manipulate us into feeling things which might not be deserved, but it's kind of awesome for that. Sure, it's very difficult to watch, and most people will be completely disgusted by the events that happen on screen, but that's kind of the point. It's a reminder that a good director is going to play with your emotions, and you have to look past the pretty soundtrack and evocative shots to see what is really happening.

I've read people say the picture is misogynistic, but I think Ki-Duk is just trying to mess with the audience. Here's a guy deploying as many cinematic tricks as possible to turn a story about a horrible person doing terrible things into a love story, and Stockholm Syndrome into something romantic. It's manipulative to the highest degree, and is quite provocative because of it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Aura

How do you make someone interested in what happens next? That's the basic question behind pretty much any film, but is especially vexing if it's a thriller or a mystery. Everything depends on audience curiosity, and if that disappears your film no longer works. With The Aura, the solution is to keep everything slightly off, and just keep the audience that little bit off balance. The Argentinian thriller maintains a slow pace by ensuring that you simply must know what happens next.

That is apparent right from the first shot, where we are introduced to our protagonist - a mild mannered taxidermist played by Ricardo Darín - on the floor, passed out. We are never given an indication why, though an answer arrives later once it no longer needs to be mysterious, and we're simply introduced to this man who is on the floor, obsessed with the perfect crime, and makes his living stuffing animals. He is a mystery from the first shot, and even as we learn more about him he is always slightly beguiling.

The story, centered around the taxidermist, involves a hunting trip he takes with a colleague. The colleague goes home, our taxidermist sticks around, and stumbled upon what he believes is the perfect crime after accidentally killing a guy. Things evolve as he bluffs his way through the details to get in charge, and to say much more would spoil the endlessly complex and clever payoff. Let's just say it ends well, in a rather meaningful manner.

This is the second film from director Fabián Bielinsky, but it's also unfortunately the last film, as he died young. His first feature, Nine Queens, I also saw, and it had promise but was endlessly gimmicky and was a bit in love with how clever it was. This manages to reach a balance that the previous film never did. It's still extremely clever, hiding important details in plain sight and having events interact in unexpected and fairly brilliant ways. However, it's also smart enough that hides the clever script behind it, never quite calling attention to the often brilliant plotting. It knows how to keep you intrigued, and it's the same reason the taxidermist can get away with becoming a master thief, it lets you know just enough to satisfy your initial curiosity and hides the rest.

It's also beautifully shot, and the choice of shot is as clever as the script itself. We are always well aware of the taxidermist, where he is, and what he sees in any moment. We know only what he knows, which in the grander scheme of things makes the plot that much more compelling. We're not in his head really, except for some rare moments, but it's more that we're a third person in the party, which for some reason is always following him along. It's an effective tactic, and it plays out in unexpected ways, including a shootout that takes place completely off camera. This does leave one or two unanswered questions, but it also keeps everything compelling. Restricting information is much more effective overall than sharing it. True, we never quite get inside the heads of anyone, but maybe we don't have to, it's what happens next that is the real prize.

There are many thrillers that explain away their premise or dispel the fog that surrounds them, and they're all the weaker for it. Here's one that lets you know only as much as you need to follow one part of the plot, and lays the rest of the pieces out around so you can learn the rest. It's possible to put the puzzles together, but even if you do, the slightly off kilter mood keeps you wondering just exactly how it all plays out. It's a shame Bielinsky died before he got the chance to make a follow up, this guy had real talent.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


One of the stranger things about Moloch is that it's actually a pretty relatable story. Yelena Rufanova plays a young woman in a relationship with an insufferable blowhard who also happens to have a great deal of power and influence (Leonid Mozgovoy). As a result, she's the only person who can disagree with him, since he surrounds himself with yes-men who wouldn't dare, no matter what they actually think of some of his ideas. Some of the aforementioned yes men happen to be with him on what can only be described as a very awkward vacation. Nobody really gets along with each other, and there's an uncomfortable veneer of civility surrounding the whole thing which is obliterated whenever certain people get together away from the others they don't necessarily like.

I've been in similar groups, where everyone is barely getting along and can only survive by talking behind backs. I've been in groups where there was a clear ass who nobody liked who everyone was too cautious to actually confront. I've also been on awkward vacations with people who didn't quite get along. I'm sure everyone has been in similar situations, it's just something that happens when people assemble in large groups, some of the pieces just don't fit together without a great deal of artificiality. It's a uniquely human experience.

So, it's interesting that Aleksandr Sokurov, the director, tries to distance people as much as possible from the film itself. It takes place in a very remote castle, surrounded in mist. Rufanova's character is introduced in a ten minute, wordless sequence of her just being bored and dicking around in the castle. The sets are large but vacant, calling attention to how unnatural the entire thing looks. Oh, and everyone in the film is a Nazi.

That's right, that young woman? She's Eva Braun. The insufferable ass? Only the biggest ass in history, Adolf Hitler. It's surreal to have the Hitler being portrayed as basically a really annoying boss, and every time you begin to relate to the characters someone in uniform is spotted on screen and you think "oh right, they're Nazis." While it captures the awkwardness of people who don't quite get along, it also never stops reminding you that these people, in spite of their eminently human qualities, were also generally history's greatest monsters.

It's a very strange piece, in that it does engender a lot of sympathy for Braun, who is depicted as being just one of millions of women who fell in love with a jerk. She's depicted as always a little unhappy, and as a result it creates an ultimately sympathetic character. Yes, a sympathetic character who is also Hitler's girlfriend, it's a strange thought to have, but if she's presented as an exaggerated version of every woman who married a monster, maybe it's not a bad idea.

I can't quite figure out if it's a problem or a strength that such an intrinsically human story also happens to be about Nazis. On one hand, it can yank you out of it, and you do feel bad about being able to relate. Then again, the Nazis were people, even if they were people with thoroughly objectionable ideals. I've said it before, but sometimes we need to be reminded that they were people, just to get across that we should be always on the lookout for people of the same nature, to prevent a similar result.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kung Fu Hustle

Looney Tunes, at its best, is animated slapstick comedy. Taking full advantage of animation, it takes a blend of likable characters and allusions to other work, and shoves them in a blender with some comedic violence and visual trickery. It is a series of visual jokes, animated ridiculousness, violence and pure energetic joy. So, if someone were to make some sort of live action Looney Tunes, it would be impossible. Luckily, CGI was invented and as a result, Stephen Chow could pull it off with Kung Fu Hustle.

The story is a little strange, designed seemingly to string along the endlessly inventive and wonderful sight gags. Stephen Chow - who also directs, and who can probably kick Ralph Macchio's ass - is Sing, a generally disreputable character who tries to make a few dollars by pretending he's with the scary Axe Gang. In the end, he manages to do little more than make the Axe Gang angry and get them to pay attention to smelly little Pig Sty Alley, with it's disproportionately high number kung fu masters. Hilarity and awesome ensue.

I compare it to Looney Tunes because it has the same sense of visual wit, though a bit more grown up. It also uses a number of the same tricks. Characters have an unnatural elasticity to them that recalls Daffy Duck's beak spinning around after being shot in the face. Physics here play by a unique set of rules designed to make things a little bit more funny and emphasize that this world just isn't real. That aspect helps things that might otherwise be kind of terrible - like a cat getting cut in half - into something hilarious, since the film doesn't pretend to be remotely realistic. Even the more brutal scenes are emphatically not real, which allows you to have a bit more fun.

Not that Looney Tunes is the only film that comes to mind here. Chow is clearly a fan of movies, since anyone who has watched far too many can spot subtle allusions and references - and blatant ones too - and can tell that some bits are clearly inspired by old Chinese pictures I have never seen but now want to. It's just in love with the possibilities of the screen, both in the unique ways it can use it and in the ways others had used it beforehand.

I often prefer practical effects to CGI, and in the hands of an incompetent filmmaker CGI can be a crutch or a distraction. Chow, however, has found the perfect use for it, to make live action cartoons and just have fun with the possibilities that film can bring. There's a joy here that translates through the screen to the viewing audience, and that's fantastic, it's always a pleasure to see a director/star clearly thrilled to be doing what he's doing.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Lion of the Desert

When a movie breaks 2 hours, the rules change. Every scene must be essential, every cut, shot and camera move considered. There are some reasons for this, most not particularly concerned with art but rather pure practicality. Theaters can make more showing a film every two hours than they can every three, bums get sore after two hours in theater seats, and bladders might get annoyed, especially if you bought a larger soda before the showing. Lion of the Desert is almost three hours long, does it justify it?


In the first half hour, 20 minutes were pretty much unnecessary. In fact, Rod Steiger's Mussolini could have been completely excised without doing damage to the narrative. Characters are established multiple times, and there isn't very much consideration of what is strictly necessary. Pacing is deliberate, which isn't necessarily a problem, but it repeats itself so much that it is a struggle to maintain interest.

The story also suffers because it's trying to be a bit of propaganda for Libya, which makes sense because it was financed by Muammar Gadaffi. The setting is right before WWII, as Italy invades Libya and discovers, much to their astonishment, Libyans would prefer it if Italy didn't take them over, thank you very much. Anthony Quinn's Omar Mukhtar is the Lion of the Desert - presumably rejected titles included "Totally awesome guy who everyone loves" and "Badass motherfucker" - and is also possibly an android. He's a rebel and a teacher, presented as having no human flaws whatsoever and projecting an almost beatific glow as he goes around killing Italians with his rag tag crew. He also speaks in a very deliberate tone for some reason. His enemy is Oliver Reed's Gen. Rodolfo Graziani, who is significantly more interesting as he tries to end the war by killing as many Libyans as possible. The general actually resembles a human - though the kind of human you wouldn't exactly want to be best friends with - consumed by ego and determined to win Libya simply because he believes Italy should have it.

That's part of the problem, the only really believable character is the villain. The perfect hero smells strongly of a film that's financed by a wealthy military dictator who wants to make some propaganda. He's drawn too simplistically, and not really fleshed out as a person. We can't believe in him because there's little more than some quotes and a deliberate speaking style. He doesn't show emotion, he doesn't show depth, he's just there for what he represents. It's not a character, it's a symbol, and compelling movies aren't made out of symbols.

There are other, very strange problems with the film too. One is the sound recording, it's remarkably poorly done. There are early scenes filmed in a castle place that are basically echoes, and it is impossible to understand dialog. This happens repeatedly in the film, as the sound makes actors with otherwise powerful speaking voices sound like they're mumbling and incoherent. Supposedly powerful scenes are ruined when you just can't make out a damn thing people are saying.

It's not entirely bad though. The core story, even if the center of it isn't remotely believable, is solid, and there are some individual moments worthy of interest. There's a subplot about one family which is actually stronger than the rest, because the members do seem human, sympathetic and have a story which is worth caring about. In fact, the film does seem to have more to say when it leaves boring old Omar and focuses on the real victims of the war, the regular people who just want to be free from Italian persecution.

Perhaps, one day, someone will revisit the story, and do it justice. I can't help but think that Libya and Omar Mukhtar weren't very well served by this simplistic, overlong, and badly recorded film. There are moments of beauty, moments of relevance and moments of good hidden deep within. But, when the film dies every time its center appears on screen, a film dies overall. And it dies so many times over those three hours.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Attack the Gas Station!

When I'm not watching movies, at random, I do other things. One of those other things is play videogames. Currently, I'm playing Saint's Row 2, because it was cheap and is mostly fun, apart from a couple really terrible late-game missions. The most interesting thing about the game is that the characters are clearly awful people who murder other awful people and generally do terrible things. Yet, you root for them, because they're funny, even if they're mostly psychotic insane people. Why is this relevant? Well, Attack the Gas Station has a similar dynamic. You're alternately horrified and amused by the antics of the main characters, the overall plot, and the entire film.

In film, four no good punk kids (Sung-jae Lee, Oh-seong Yu, Seong-jin Kang, Ji-tae Yu) decide to rob a gas station. Then, they decide to rob it again, because they have nothing better to do. When there's no money, they take the gas station over and hold the crew hostages, while randomly kidnapping customers if they annoy them. In the process everyone learns life lessons, everyone finds their hidden talents, and at the end of the day everyone is a better, more well adjusted person better able to confront the challenges life brings.

Self improvement through acts of violence and hostage taking is a decidedly odd premise, especially for a film aimed directly at no good punk kids. The film is filmed and presented as wacky fun, with interludes of the four heroes doing some nasty, unpleasant stuff to their charges because they can and they're asses. A different director and it could easily be about four people who terrorize this station.

But they're funny, so you like them. You especially like them after they force cops to actually pay for gas, and learn that their lives are a source of perpetual disappointment. You hope these abused little puppies stop chewing on slippers and blossom into the beautiful golden retrievers they were meant to be. Then you realize, holy crap, they're beating on people for no reason and are almost trying to induce Stockholm Syndrome in their charges. Wow, they're jerks, why do I like them so much?

Someone with less faith in the intelligence of their average person might argue the entire premise is dangerous - seriously, everyone's lives are dramatically improved, except for the two people locked in a trunk and then never seen again, no word on them - but I'm suspecting everyone realizes that this is just dumb fun. Same deal with Saint's Row 2, it's just letting you into the world of terrible, yet funny people you would never want to meet in real life. It's interesting how by making you laugh, sins can be forgiven.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Paths of Glory

Someone once said that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film because film, with it's explosions and choreography and whatnot, always makes war look fun. Evidently that person wasn't well versed in cinema, since there is a pretty clear example of how to keep explosions and battles and make war look anything but fun. Paths to Glory accomplishes the feat even with a big battle and enough explosions to make the German government suspicious during filming.

The trick is that most of the film is about the politics surrounding war, and what it can do to relatively innocent soldiers. The entire piece revolves around Gen. Paul Mireau (George Macready), a general who desires a promotion and glory, who places his ego above the lives of soldiers. When Gen. George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) proposes a plan to take a location known as the Anthill, Mireau initially refuses, before he gets proposed some personal gain. Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas), in command of the regiment, is forced to follow the order, and the battle goes predictably badly, leading to a kangaroo court martial and general unpleasantness.

From the beginning, it's reinforced that there is a disconnect between command and the soldiers on the front, as command happens in a conspicuously shiny castle while the actual battle takes place in the dirty trenches - often captured in claustrophobic but frankly brilliant tracking shots. The contrast is made as conspicuous as possible, and the generals are made to be especially out of place during battle. The battles themselves don't actually show much success on the part of the army either, consisting mostly of slow crawls, intimidating explosions and lots of dead bodies. It strategically removes everything that could possibly be considered fun about war, replacing it with the ever-present specter of death.

That not scare you away from war yet? How about almost all leadership being shown as willing to destroy the men under them to protect their own reputation? Dax is shown to be an idealist and mostly honorable, and Macready seems to have grown a mustache solely to twirl it, but those are the two extremes of film. Within, there are many more subtle ways of murder in the service of ass covering, from the explicit - everything Mireau does - to the subtle - a character marked down as dead after his commander runs away from a battle. Even soldiers who are brave and exemplary in battle are screwed over just to ensure a general's ass is appropriately covered, just to emphasize that if the battles don't get you, the commanders will.

Of course, this is no surprise, since Stanley Kubrick is behind the camera and the man was an insane genius. Nobody lights a scene like Kubrick, and there is an execution that is almost unbearably tense and seems to taunt the viewer for having compassion. The film manipulates you completely with how it's shot, with only the rare music cue for emphasis. It has nothing but sympathy for the main characters, and then kicks their ass for emphasis.

I'll agree that the majority of war films are not anti-war for the reasons outlined in the first paragraph, but to say it is impossible is a lie. The trick is to stop yourself from making war look fun. Paths of Glory makes war look like what it is, violent and filled with death. That's a way to make it seem less appealing.