Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

“It took me a week to finish the first sentence.  In the remaining month, I wrote 280 pages.  What made beginning so difficult, and the remainder so seemingly automatic, was imagination – the initial problem, and ultimate liberation, of imagining.” – Jonathan Safran Foer

As a story, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated has gone through several incarnations.  It began as a short story in the New Yorker.  Foer then expanded the story to a full length novel, which was one of the most well received books of 2002.  Reviews raved, calling Foer a “wunderkind” and the “best young novelist around.”  The book was called “a work of genius” and “brilliant.”  Finally, the story was turned into a movie by actor-turned-director/screenwriter Liev Schreiber who had first been exposed to it in its New Yorker incarnation.  For the film, Schreiber decided to adapt the short story from the New Yorker, so a huge section of the novel is not reflected in the movie.

“Rather than aligning itself with either ‘how things were’ or ‘how things could have been,’ the novel measures the difference between the two, and by doing so attempts to reflect a kind of experiential (rather than historical or journalistic) truth.  Novels don’t strive to get to the bottom of things, but to express what it’s like never to be able to.”  – Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated was inspired by Foer’s own trip to the Ukraine, with only a photograph in hand, in search of the woman, Augustine, who supposedly saved his grandfather from the Nazis.  The story is told by two separate narrators.  One is the Foer character  and the second is Alex, Foer’s Ukrainian translator.  Alex, aided by his handy thesaurus, writes and speaks a unique brand of English.  A heavy reliance on synonyms lends itself to some fun language choices.  While not an original literary technique, the book’s use of language is clever and playful, sometimes leading to a more truthful telling than a conventional use of the language would lead us to.

“I was just adapting the short story and the narrative structure I had chosen, given the limitations of budget and scope, was really just the idea of a road trip – so I have taken out huge sections of the novel which was the parallel chronological history.” – Liev Schreiber, Director and Screenwriter of Everything is Illuminated

The film version of Everything Is Illuminated was released three years after the book.  The directorial and screenwriting debut of actor Liev Schreiber, the film was massacred upon its release and time has done little to add value to it.  Elijah Wood portrays Foer (and I am sorry to say not very well).  Wood almost completely disappears behind his oversized glasses and timid characterization.  Eugene Hutz is more successful in playing the translator, Alex.  Better known as the leader of the band Gogol Bordello (who do make a cameo appearance in one scene), he is fine but his mismanagement of the English language is less fun and clever than it is in the novel; they come off more as mistakes than unintended poetry.

The film does not shy away from its literary roots.  Like the novel, the film opens with Alex writing a letter to Foer.  The film is broken up into “chapters” which we see being written out.  All of Alex’s voice-overs in the film also use the language of his letters in the book.  In the film, Foer’s journey is strictly a quest to answer the following question: “Who is Augustine?”  The Foer of the movie is a collector.  Taking that idea to its most literal place, Foer actually puts every family relic into a protective ziploc bag.  Through this collection, Foer believes he’ll be better able to discover his own identity.  But while the novel, love it or hate it, has a consistent tone, the film always feels like it is searching for its place.  There is no magic in the film.  And although there are some beautiful images courtesy of DP Matthew Libatique (Black Swan), the film is just a series of events that never come together.  Everything is too spelled out, including what feels like a slapped on klezmer soundtrack.  It was all just too straightforward.

about a trip taken by a young American Jew (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) who is looking for Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in the Ukraine.

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Now Playing: Blue Valentine

“As you change, your dreams change.  So the first incarnation of the movie is not the sixty-sixth incarnation of the movie, but it’s very similar.  It’s still the same heart and soul; do you know what I mean?  The story is very similar, but what changed in those years was, I think, the artifice was stripped off.  And it became more and more honest and more and more real . . . I took out the facade, the artifice, the archetypes; I took all of that out.” – Derek Cianfrance, Director of Blue Valentine

Director Derek Cianfrance has been trying to get Blue Valentine off the ground for the past twelve years.  The film melds a two-part story of a couple: the meeting and courtship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) and the falling apart of the relationship after six years of marriage.  There is no “event” that leads to the couple’s problems.  Just life.  Utilizing improvisation and documentary film-making style, Blue Valentine plays like a working class (500) Days of Summer (without the cards on screen telling us when events are taking place).

“[John] Cassavetes’s influence is all over the movie . . . you just try to take the spirit of them to know it’s possible, to be brave and personal.” – Derek Cianfrance

While Cianfrance wanted to pause six years between the filming of the couple’s courtship and of the relationship’s crumble, the folks paying for the film were not as interested in that.  They compromised and the filmmaker and cast took a month off during the filming instead.  During that time Cianfrance,  Gosling, Williams, and Faith Wladyka (who plays the couple’s 5 year old daughter) all lived together in a house outside of Scanton, PA.  And they lived the relationship.  They shopped (on a realistic budget), did their own dishes, and had a Christmas celebration.  Gosling and Williams were spending time living as a couple.  This work was then used to shoot the “falling out of love” scenes.  In addition to the month together, both Gosling and Williams have been involved with the project for years (both are also credited as Executive Producers which it sounds like is more than the honorary credit stars often get).  While Gosling and Williams did not really know each other before the film, it was clear that everyone was going to be on the same page once the cameras were rolling.  Everyone was comfortable with each other.  And that shows on screen.  There was some controversy regarding the sex scenes in the film and the MPAA gave the film an NC-17 rating first time through.  As Blue Valentine is a relationship film, sex was going to be part of the story.  Like Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, sex is shown but not eroticized.  While 9 Songs depicted sex more explicitly, Blue Valentine was nevertheless saddled with an NC-17 rating which would have crippled its box-office, and perhaps award, potential.  Ultimately, Weinstein & Co were able to get the rating changed to an R (without making any additional cuts to the film) and that is why you can now see Blue Valentine at a chain theatre near you (at least one that shows mid-major “art films”).

“This movie is a duet.” – Derek Cianfrance

Both Gosling and Williams are known for their committed and truthful onscreen performances and Blue Valentine is no exception.  Their relationship seems genuine in both the highs and the lows that couples can go through.  While I have never serenaded anyone on the streets with a ukulele, I certainly did recognize certain elements of those first moments of connecting with someone new.  It is to the credit of all the actors that the situations they find themselves in on screen come off as realistic and authentic while also being dramatic and watchable.

“I think what’s really special about the movie is that it’s not pretending to have any answers; it doesn’t pretend to know anything.  We’re trying to ask a question.  What happens to love?  Where does it go?  How is it that you can be so in love and then years later you’re trying to kill each other?  Why is it that that happens?” – Ryan Gosling

Does this all sound a tad indulgent?  You bet.  While the film is not totally successful, there are some real tender moments and I think the film does accurately show the moments in the cycles relationships go through.  Not everyone is going to like this film, but if your idea of a good night is watching A Woman Under the Influence, then this is probably as close as you are going to get in a theatre that is also playing Tron: Legacy, Little Fockers, and The Green Hornet.

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Pavla Fleischer’s documentary The Pied Piper of Hutzovina is a very personal film.  Fleischer met Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz in 2004 and “fell under his spell.”  The film opens with home video footage of Fleischer spending time with Hutz, showing them not as filmmaker and musician but as two people testing the waters.  It is clear from the outset that Fleischer is smitten with Hutz and I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that Hutz was interested in getting “carnal” (to borrow a term from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated) with Fleischer.  Following an eventual romantic encounter, both return to their respective lives.  Fast-forward a year and Fleischer is with her camera crew following Hutz on a trip back to the Ukraine and Russia to explore his Roma roots.  It is a personal journey to explore the Gypsy spirit and his own cultural heritage.  “I’m the ultimate eastern European mutt,” Hutz says of himself.  What is the film about?  Hutz would say, ” It’s about my meeting Sasha Kolpakov, one of my musical gurus.”  But The Pied Piper of Hutzovina is also a portrait of unrequited love.

“My romantic interests were not part of Eugene’s plan.” – Pavla Fleischer

Very early in the journey it becomes clear that the experience is going to be a different one than Fleischer originally intended.  Another woman came accompanied Hutz on the trip.  And, per Hutz, she was not to be filmed.  It was a “take it or leave it” proposition.  Fleischer, in her voice over, says that “to have a film I would have to let Eugene lead.”  She does allow Hutz to call the shots and the film suffers some for it.  There is a ramshackleness at play here.  As an audience we are never quite sure where we are going.  There are portions of the film where Hutz disappears with his girlfriend and Fleischer and the crew are left wondering when he will return.  And when he does eventually appear, there’s always the question of where he (and they) would be going next.

A bit about Eugene Hutz.  Born to an assimilated Gypsy family in Kiev, Hutz and his parents left the Soviet Union in 1989 and eventually ended up in the United States when he was a teenager.  Hutz moved to New York in 1998 and started putting together the band Gogol Bordello.  Like all Gypsy music, Gogol Bordello produces a hybrid sound.  It is a mix of punk rock, hip-hop, dub, and traditional Gypsy music.  Hutz described his interest in forming the band as follows: “It’s all about tribal connections.  The first time I saw Iggy Pop on video I knew that was that.  I noticed some ethnic music to be quite psychotic and shamanic, and I couldn’t help but see the similarity.  Rock ‘n’ roll is dying, basically, in the west.  It does not deliver the energy it was supposed to.  Instead I’m creating my alternative, and that is Gogol Bordello.”

Pavla Fleischer is a Czech-born filmmaker based in London.  As the daughter of screenwriter Jan Fleischer, she grew up around filmmaking.  But a career as a filmmaker was not a given.  After graduating from Cambridge, with a degree in Italian, she spent five years traveling and working in a variety of industries.  And then, in  2003, she followed her then-boyfriend Joshua Faudem to Tel Aviv to make a documentary called Blues by the Beach about how life can be normal in Israel.  Fleischer said of the experience, “Together we were commissioned to make a film about a small bar on the beachfront of Tel Aviv, Mike’s Place.  Two weeks into filming I was there with a camera when a bomb exploded in the bar, so obviously the whole intention of making a film about the happy side of Israel went in a different direction.”  Her next project was The Pied Piper of Hutzovina.

The Pied Piper follows Hutz as he journeys from Carpathian Gypsy camps (with lots of footage of children dancing) to cosmoplitian cities like Kiev and Moscow.  Once Fleischer gets a handle on how to proceed with the film, it plays as a fairly straightforward travelogue, with musical accompaniment from Hutz.  With a brisk running time of a 63 minutes, even the moments thats drag are short lived.  Eugene Hutz is always “performing” (which seems to be at the center of his charm and infectiousness) and the film certainly serves as a good introduction to him as the personality and spirit at the center of Gogol Bordello.

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“You don’t have to like heroes.  The hero in my film is there to illustrate the capacity for resistance of the individual and his ability to make himself his own rules, his own life.” – Jacques Audiard, Director of A Prophet (pictured left)

French director Jacques Audiard’s genre film Un prophete (A Prophet) was one of the major hits on the 2009 festival circuit, winning the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, Best Film at the London Film Festival, and receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.  Although it is a gangster & prison movie,  there is something slightly different in play here.  The gangster film tradition is tied to a gangster’s rise and fall.  What is different here is that we don’t see the fall.  It is strictly the rise.  Is that enough to set this film apart?  Does this film belong only in art-houses because it is subtitled?  Lets take a look.

This is a film that traffics in cultural differences.  Set in a French prison, which is controlled by a Corsican overlord prisoner, Caesar (Niels Arestrup), and then we have newcomer Malik (Tahar Rahim), the film’s hero who is of Arab descent.  The languages in the film fly past fast and furious.  I am fluent in none of the languages used so I am sure there were things that I missed.  But what was obvious was the way that language represented the differences in culture.  Cultural division is standard fare in prison settings.  You need not go further than HBO’s OZ or the National Geographic documentary series Lockdown (available on Netflix Instant).  Every episode of Lockdown shows the cultural self-segregation that occurs within prison communities (it is not a bad show if you can get beyond the really bad VO writing – it’s like Deadliest Catch Super-Max).  Where A Prophet is different is that Malik is culturally adrift.  He starts by fitting nowhere and is able to rise to power by fitting in everywhere.

Like any good prison film, A Prophet gives you a real sense of space.  From the sets to the camera lenses Audiard uses to tell this story, it is very claustrophobic.  We always stay close to the characters.  Prison life is very repetative.  Aside from the violence, life is centered around routine.  This is very prevalent during the film’s first forty-five minutes, from the  prison jobs scenes, to meal times.  A Prophet is able to break out of the prison routine by employing an episodic structure.  It allows the filmmakers to introduce new plots and characters with the barest of introduction, and since the film already runs two hours and forty minutes . . .

Malik comes to prison, and the film, as a blank slate.  He seems to have a criminal past but is certainly not a hardened criminal.  He is French, but viewed by most of the prisoners as a “dirty Arab.”  He has Arab ancestry but does not seem to connect with the Muslim’s prisoners.  The film chronicles Malik’s rise within the underworld of prison politics, while also taking special care to show his steps of education at every step.  It is the detail of this education which raises the film above its genre roots.  We see him always learning, soaking up information, and then using these lessons to better his situation.

“The audience must fly with me, must go where the images take them.  The film, as all good films should be, is rooted in realism, but you must not ignore the poetry, the fiction, the story.  Film is abstract, not definite.  It is a dream.” – Jacques Audiard

With a heady mix of gritty realism and fantasy, A Prophet is a good, and maybe even a really good film.  Although my own personal taste tends towards a more operatic vision of crime, this is certainly a worthwhile film.  You will not only be rewarded with a solid genre experience, but also a pretty interesting character study on education and power.  The film ends with the Jimmie Dale Gilmore version of the Kurt Weill classic, Mack the Knife.  Maybe there will be A Prophet 2?

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Bigger, Faster, Stronger* was directed by amateur bodybuilder-turned-filmmaker Christopher Bell.  He dresses, talks, and looks like many of the folks he talks to in his movie.  In this first-person documentary, Bell takes us on a tour of the steroid culture of America, which includes stops within his own family–both of his brothers use steroid.  The film looks at the following question: Are steroids the evil they have been painted to be or have they just been the target of a well oiled media machine on the lookout for the newest item tearing at the very social fabric of our society?  Both sides of the issue are addressed in the film and if the filmmaker began with an agenda, I think it was discarded at some point during the project.  The film’s aim seems to be to pull back the curtain and bring to light the issues: the truth, the spin, and all the questions in-between.  There are plenty of soapboxes to be witnessed in the film, but Christopher Bell is not standing on any of them.

People in the film seem to treat the steroids issue as a moral issue as much as a health one.  And one of this doc’s successes is taking a look at why steroid use is such a vilified issue.  The targets are arbitrary.  It is strongly a political issue.  There was a fairly damning interview with Representative Henry Waxman of California.  While you may remember him as being front and center in the Congressional steroid hearings in Washington, in this interview he is shown to be almost clueless on the issue.  The steroid issue is more than an issue; it’s a cause.  In the moment, Waxman had to do something and yet after the fact he knows almost nothing.  “We as Congress are righteous and are here to protect you, our children and, while we are at it, America’s pastime.”  Yeah, right.

Bell also spoke to Donald Hooton, who testified before Congress about the suicide of his seventeen year old son.  Bell shows how Hooton’s story was used as a cause; a rallying cry for the risks of steroids to the youth of America.  It is a sad story, but the facts seem more cloudy than the clear picture painted by the media.  The media shows people struggling to answer a dreadful question: why did my child kill himself?  Are steroids really the culprit or just an answer to an awful question?    Steroids make for a good sound-bite and the ship has long sailed on the “fact” that they are damaging.  Therefore, a story with steroids in the title doesn’t have to be validated or propped up in any way.  Steroids are bad, end of story.  By the way, there are over 200 different types of steroids.  To speak of “steroids” is already to make the story unclear.  Cut to commercial.

Even with the film’s opening images of Bell’s family, Bigger, Stronger, Faster* became a much more personal story than I expected.  Christopher Bell’s eldest brother, Mike, spent some time wrestling for the World Wrestling Federation (he was a jobber; a filler–put in the ring to lose).  There is high turnover in those positions.  Mike never had a contract and, at some point, the WWF stopped calling.  He was left living on the fringes, trying to keep the dream alive.  Bell’s youngest brother, Mark, is a competitive power-lifter who still uses steroids.  Although the film examines how American culture has displayed and sold the Rambos, Hulk Hogans, Arnolds of the world, it keeps coming back to the personal.  In some ways, the film parallels Maria Shriver’s interview with football player Lyle Alzado.  Alzado blamed steroids for cutting his career short and his subsequent illness.  Alzado’s story brought the steroid issue to the media’s attention; suddenly it was front and center.  And Shriver, while conducting the interview that would bring the steroid issue to the public, also had her own personal connection to the matter–her husband, Former Governor Schwarzenegger, has admitted steroid use in his past.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* was named best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008.  While the film felt a bit sprawling, and maybe a tad long, it was entertaining and informative.  If you have any interest in these issues, you will not be sorry for taking two hours out of your day to give this a watch.

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“I have a lot of respect for mass taste.  There is a reason why some things have a mass appeal, and I don’t distance myself from those feelings.” – Paul Jay, Director of Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows

“The virtue of wrestling is that it is a spectacle of excess.” – Roland Barthes, author of Mythologies

At some point in my youth my Saturday mornings went from being about re-runs of cartoons like Jonny Quest and The Superfriends to being about watching professional wrestling.  My love affair was short lived but the images of its stars have remained: Andre the Giant (pictured left with Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka), George “the Animal” Steele, The Junkyard Dog, Rowdy Roddy Piper, wrestling managers like Captain Lou Albano (who I also seem to remember appearing with Cindi Lauper on a number of occasions) and resident “heel” announcer Jesse Ventura.  I also remember Bret “The Hitman” Hart, but my only memories of him are of his pink wrestling tights.  I checked out of wrestling around the time of the first Wrestlemania.  There was a lot of history to catch up on.

“I found that wrestling was a grand, modern day morality play.  This was soap opera, melodrama, it was another way people were trying to explore their emotions – but on a mythic, grand scale populated by giants who personify basic human emotions.” – Paul Jay

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows is a behind-the-scenes doc that follows “The Hitman” during his last turbulent year as a member of the Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF) family.  Filmed in 1996 & ’97 and leading up to the “Montreal Screwjob“, Wrestling with Shadows shows how Bret Hart went from a star in McMahon’s stable to being a wrestler who was too expensive and old (he was in his early 40’s)  to be a worthwhile investment for McMahon.  It was easier to pass Hart on to the rival company, Ted Turner’s fledgling World Championship Wrestling, than to find a new role for him in the changing world of the WWF.  Hart was a good guy; a hero and a champion.  But the wrestling audience was changing; they started to cheer for the bad guys.  Hart explained that the “guys people are supposed to hate are getting loved.”  The wrestling audience’s shifting preferences resulted in a storyline more bizarre than anything I remember from my wrestling-watching days.  Hart needed a new persona.  The WWF turned him into a bad guy, but only in America (he’s Canadian).  Hart began badmouthing the United States.  The storyline was clear: Hart, as a Canadian, was declaring war on the United States.  Hart, when addressing a Canadian audience from the ring, explains: “For me, Canada is a country where we still take care of the sick and the old, where we still have health care, we got gun control, we don’t shoot each other on every street corner.  Canada isn’t riddled with racial prejudice and hatred.”  When did Michael Moore start writing copy for wrestlers?

While wrestling might be seen as fake by many, this was Hart’s life.  Hart would say near the beginning of the film, “I loved being a hero to the kids around the world . . . This was real.”   He seemed really troubled that his persona change might cause him to lose his fans without the possibility of getting them back.  His concern was almost touching.  Almost.  At its core, wrestling is a business; its sports entertainment.  As filmmaker Paul Jay has said, “[wrestling] is a fight over ideals, whether life is going to be about more than making money.”  Jay’s interest was in this struggle.

“In our film, like a drama, [Hart] represents the yearning for the positive hero.  It’s not meant to be a biographical piece.” – Paul Jay

There are some echoes of Wrestling with Shadows in Aronofsky’s fictional film, The Wrestler, which was made ten years later.  While Hart is not nearly as down-and-out as Randy “The Ram”, Hart was just as concerned about his future.  He wanted to leave wrestling “as a success, not as a tragedy” like so many others he worked with had.  Hart would describe wrestlers as being like “circus animals”, tossed away when they outlived their usefulness (wrestlers are not unionized and thus have very little job security).  But Hart, like “The Ram”, is a true believer in the world of wrestling.  He has drunk the Kool-aid.  One can see how much of Hart’s life and identity is tied to wrestling.  In addition to the similarities between Hart and “The Ram”, there was one moment in The Wrestler that seems to have been directly lifted from Wrestling with Shadows.  In The Wrestler, we see Randy “The Ram” playing himself in an old Nintendo game with a neighborhood kid.  In Wrestling with Shadows, Hart is playing himself in a wrestling videogame against one of his sons.  Humn.  Although covering a lot of material, one topic not touched on in Paul Jay’s film is steroids role in the wrestling world.  Guess we will need to watch Bigger, Stronger, Faster* to take a look at that.

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I rather liked Sweetgrass.  If you are adverse to the sound of sheep, or cannot stand long periods of not hearing a human voice on screen, then this is not a film for you.  It is about the life of modern sheep ranchers in Montana.  Starting on the ranch and then following the flock as they are driven to their summer pasture in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains (3000 sheep driven over 80 miles), this beautiful film manages to capture the pace and feeling of the world of sheep, man, and nature.  And it is all done by letting the footage speak for itself.

It is the rare documentary that is devoid of commentary these days and this film is about as far from the world of Ken Burns as you can get.  You will receive no helpful voice over explaining what you are seeing and nothing to help explain the context of the events.  Basically, nothing is ever spelled out until the very end of the film when there are a couple of title cards explaining that the events just witnessed marked the end of an era.  Filmed between 2001-2003, this was the last herd summered in these mountains on a federal grazing permit.  There is an ongoing struggle between environmentalists and ranchers about grazing on public lands throughout the west that is still being battled in court.

Husband-and-wife team Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash are the team behind Sweetgrass.  Barbash is a curator of visual anthropology at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum and Castaing-Taylor is a professor of Anthropology and the director of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.  They are both trained filmmakers as well, having met while in film school at USC.  So, while the film is an example of ethnographic/academic filmmaking, it will also be appealing to the art film crowd.

I don’t think my enthusiasm is just an urbanites romantic notion of the great lost west.  Sure, some of my favorite films are westerns, like Red River and the end-of-the-west classic Home of the Brave. And while growing up, I worked every summer on my Grandparents’ horse farm.  I know how much hard work goes into farming and tending livestock.  This film gives you the chance to live in the world of the modern shepherd/cowboy for a couple of hours.  There is no story of friendship and love the likes of which you’ll find in Brokeback Mountain.  But if you can let yourself go from the distractions of your modern day to day life, you will be treated to a rare film experience.  You will be transported somewhere else; somewhere out of time.

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