Saturday, June 20, 2009

Flying solo isn't easy...

Two men... Seemingly worlds apart. Nothing in common. They come from such different backgrounds. One is a young man who has recently come of age, he probably could be doing better with his life. The other an older man with expressions and lines on his face that seem so deep, with eyes that have probably seen everything. Peering into the face of William (Red West) there are a million stories, including one that he refuses to speak about that disturbs him greatly. Shortly after the film Goodbye Solo begins, Will is picked up in a cab by a young Senegalese man named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), and with few words hands him several dollars. He also asks that Solo pick him up 2 weeks later, where he will be given several more dollars, then to be driven to the mountains, and left there.

It is quickly apparent that Will (affectionately referred to as "Big Guy" by Solo) wants to end it all, but Solo with his boyish and extroverted charm demands an explanation without letting him get away with it. Solo the extrovert-optimist remarks, "hey man come on put that $100 back mon tomorrow's another day!".

The two actors end up in a sort of tit for tat exchange throughout the movie. Solo slowly tries to get through to Will, desperately trying to break in to his secluded world. However, with the few glimpses that we witness there is more to these two characters than we imagined.

They appear worlds apart but in reality are very much the same. It's only after following them through their lives to be better people that we understand their flaws and failed aspirations.

This isn't a film so much about life or death, but about important journeys. Director Ramin Bahrani borrows a lot from other Iranian films particularly ideas of Kiarostami such as the film "10". Ironically those both take place within the confines of a cab and the driver. However, Ramin has been able to take characters in America (set in the Winston-Salem North Carolina area) to tell us something about ourselves and the paths in life we have to take.

Will's life and his presence in Solo's seem so far removed from each other, yet this is the wake up call Solo needs even though it makes NO sense whatsoever. Before they know it they are sharing a motel room with Will acting like the senior father figure, "SIT OVER THERE AND KEEP YOUR SHIT OUT OF MY SPACE!" he yells after finally succumbing to Solo's constant demands to hang out with him. But Will isn't the biggest jerk on the planet either. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film he gives away one of his last pieces of clothing for free to a Sudanese motel worker. The perception and the context it takes place is one of those things about film that is so simple but something that most film-makers are oblivious to reproduce.

Witty, farcical, brilliantly acted, extremely poignant is how I would describe it. Everything comes full circle between these two men in stories and pasts relived that I dare not describe. Two people worlds apart but in reality far from it. This is a fantastic perception into the lives of people who you thought you could have nothing in common with indeed, and says more about America's dreams than anything I've ever seen since. A must see.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lessons learned in life, witchcraft or not

The witch of the west is dead Grandparents are interesting people. Looking up to them as youngsters we seem to think they are embodied with a large amount of experience and great sense of understanding of the world. You would think that somehow they have special powers from all their collected wisdom. After witnessing the Grandmother (Sachi Parker) in The Wicked Witch of the West is Dead (西の魔女が死んだ, Nishi no Majo ga Shinda), you start to wonder if she seems almost supernatural.

Mai is a 13 year old girl, who we learn shortly in to the film seems to have trouble fitting in with others at school. Perhaps she's a social misfit, depressed... it's not really known if her condition is an act of rebellion or something she can't control herself. Her family decide that she needs to spend some time with her grandmother, a British lady who in the past came to Japan after marrying a Japanese man. Grandfather has passed on sometime ago, but Grandma has remained to work in her secluded rural home, decked with flowers, perfectly teeming gardens, and working her nearby open fields with such tender care as if they were her grandchildren themselves.

Mai however asks her grandmother an intriguing question. She has always heard stories from her mother that her grandmother is a witch. Peaking her curiosity Mai asks Grandmother to teach her witch lessons, and asks if she has special powers herself. With a sly smile Grandma really doesn't go into details about her past, but in order to help Mai learn some important life lessons, she plays along.

The Wicked Witch of the West is Dead has to be one of the best coming of age stories for young girls that I have seen. It ironically bears strong similarities in look and feel to another Japanese film (brilliant in it own right) called Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. I say ironically because Miyazaki is a brilliant director who makes animated movies. The Witch of the West is of course.. not animated or cartoonish in any way, but both films feel more real than anything that could be imagined. Their subject matter is also identical (young girls coming of age and finding themselves).

The other fantastic quality of this film, is it gives a window into a world that no longer seems to exist in Japan due to rapid industrialization, and global influence. There is a quiet serene pastoral quality of life, a return to the land, and of spending time with friends and neighbors. A neighbor even remarks to the Grandmother that she's more Japanese than anyone of true ethnic origin. Probably because she always has the best sake around and refills his glass when he stops on by, but even more so because Sachi Parker embodies a calm sense of purpose and moral grounding that commands attention whenever she is on screen. It is a remarkable performance, where small words uttered by Grandma's perfect Japanese, can make mountains move.

I wouldn't dare give away the ending to this film, the viewer is tempted and teased by their desire to wonder if Grandma really does have special powers. Nevertheless, it has been one of the most memorable films I have seen in a long time.

Trailer can be seen here:

Saturday, February 28, 2009

How I made time for Carole... code or no code...

Carol Lombard During one fine lazy afternoon, I went back to an era that doesn't exist anymore. And met the woman of my dreams...

During the late 20's early 30's Carole Lombard was one of the biggest stars to ever grace the movies. I went to see two of her films, "Virtue" (1932) and "White Woman" (1933), which are films that came out of a so called "pre-code" era.

Pre code era films were produced around Carole's hey day, and featured a set of relaxed and free expressed ideas of the time before the motion picture industry decided to step in and become the moral equivalent of "Stern Father" and purveyor of good public decency. Many of the pre-code era films of the 30's featured stories about characters that you weren't suppose to talk about such as prostitutes and gangsters. Surprisingly, the films stayed away from happy go lucky paint by number formulaic goodness, and had the nerve to discuss sex (all be it by 30's talk and innuendo, hey someone had to tell Scarlet he didn't give a damn), drugs, or anything considered taboo.

In this climate of ignoring stuffy repressed criticism, emerged the opportunity for directors, actors and script writers to buck convention. Life we discovered on screen, didn't always have happy and perfectly dressed wrapped up endings (put sometimes they could...).

In the first film I witnessed "Virtue", Carole Lombard is a criminal who ignores a court order and tries to go straight by escaping the judge's actions. At one point she's up, at one point she's down, but through it all she has her pride, her wise cracks and straight forward gumption that appears to be the hallmarks of what would be the godmother of fierce determination for woman everywhere. It seems in sharp contrast to the prostitute in Elmer Gantry of 1960, a film whose book had much more racy subject matter that the movie code of that time would even allow.

For 1930 this seems astonishing, almost as much as witnessing the handpainted signs in the restaurant walls that Carole and her love interest drop into from time to time that read phrases such as: "spagetti dinner... 15 cents".

The basic plot is straightforward, the notion of someone who is trying to escape their "scandalous" past (as much as we don't get to know the specific details in the film). However, it's the marvelous presence that Carole has over every actor in this film that makes everyone pale in comparison when she is on screen. Her love interest Jimmy Doyle played by Pat O'Brien is a good fit and great on screen also, but when Carole is walking, or she's talking, or sitting seductively there's no contest. They both make the film pleasing to the audience. She even makes pumping gas and getting grimmy look sexy. Do you think you'd see a film in the 50's of a woman working in a gas station??????

I thought my infatuation would stop there, but it didn't. It just got worse...

The next film that followed after was "White Woman", a so called "jungle picture". Carole plays a down and out widow who sings at a dive restaurant in some foreign jungle colonial country. It's all she can do to support herself... oh woe is me.... One day arrives what could only be described as the biggest Australian piece of buffoonery that ever existed in the form of Charles Laughton as Horace Prin. This vegemite sandwich just has more cheese than you can handle.

Laughton immediately becomes a scene stealer with his over acting, outrageous movements, rotund girth, and impish voice, that he suddenly becomes a different character in almost another film. In short it's over the top, loud, and so off kilter that it destroys any sense of continuity and chemistry the picture would have had. The good side of it is that from time to time it becomes entertaining up to a point in a strange way.

Carole fights the good fight, and never looks bad, but is overshadowed by Laughton in what literally seems to be a sense of scene stealing, when everyone probably knows they are in one hell of a turkey movie anyway. So let him have his fun. Prin convinces Carole's character Judith to shack up with him and marry, and lo behold they are stuck in the jungle with Prin being the demented grandfather to Col Kurtz, and Judith trying to find a way to escape.

Even in this turkey Carole looks and still has everything to eye at on screen. It's still amazing how some stars even in bad pictures can capture awe, and wonder the viewer. Prin tries to demonstrate that he's no Olivier, but that's okay, since the script also places in a B rated Clarke Gable (whose real name I can't recall), and a B rated John Wayne for good measure also (Charles Bickford).

In short though, it's Carole I'll always remember. Even in this dud she looks unbelievable when we first see her in a black long V neck cut dress. It's enough to forget the flash and dash of today's movie starlets.

However, Laughton goes for broke and the picture has nowhere to go but down, and by then we have seen enough. But for me I haven't seen enough of Carole and want more.

I will desire and find her soon just as quickly as I can get those cheap 15 cent spagetti dinners or precious diamonds from so long ago.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

It is written the meek shall find true love

Slumdog millionaire poster
It is written - Anonymous

If there is one film that is filled with incredible creativity, the joy of luck, eye popping colors, all in a modern love story, Slumdog Millionaire is it. Films such as this come out of a time and place for countries that have come into their own through what seems like miraculous change.

Director Danny Boyle who is the English director of such works as Trainspotting, gives voice to not only memorable characters, but a country that appears to be going through it's own renaissance. It reminded me so much of another great film from a foreign country, "City Of God", that within 7 minutes I knew I was watching something very special.

The basic plot is told in flashbacks of the main character Jamal (Dev Patal), who appears on a game show set to win 20 million rupees. When we first meet Jamal he is being interrogated by the police for cheating, demanding how a slum kid with nearly no education could know the answers to the game show's questions. From there we are taken back to his young childhood and the life he and his older brother lived, and eventually the climax of the game show.

There are 3 sets of actors who play Jamal at different stages (child years, teenager, and then the present young adult). What transpires is a fascinating history, country, people, places and adventure where the most abject poverty and hopeless conditions can still bring joy and a sense of purpose.

While the main cast is brilliant, and there is a who's who of Bollywood stars, the youngest actors were hands down the biggest scene "stealers" and gave the giant bearing the film deserves. We are thrown through their lives at a breakneck pace with Danny Boyle's fierce direction. Chases through slums, a POUNDING soundtrack, and gorgeous cinematograhpy that shows the beauty and powerful colors of even India's most brutish living conditions.

The climax I can not give away, or bother to tell the main twists and turns of this stories principal character. This isn't just a brilliantly well put together film with a great cast. This is a film that does something I haven't seen from cinema in a long time. A foreign director who gives a country it's true voice to the world. More importantly, Slumdog Millionaire makes you "believe". It is a ride that you'll want to get on as soon as possible.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pajamas of a different stripe

"My dad says I shouldn't live here anymore, this isn't a place for children." - Bruno

These words are echoed by Bruno, about two thirds of the way through the film, in a bitter sense of irony. There isn't a better line that sums up the entire meaning of the film than this one.

The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, is another holocaust movie, a genre that has had many films and will continue to have more, not because of the importance of the subject matter but because it offers a setting to create or present real fascinating stories to tell.

Bruno is an 8 year old child living in World War II's Germany. By orders of the state he and his family are sent to the countryside where his SS Father is ordered to live and oversee the direction of a concentration camp. In Bruno's boredom with only his 13 year old sister as a playmate, he soon discovers the camp and a boy the same age as him who is a prisoner there. Time progresses, the boys develop a bond, with only electric barbed wire separating them from two completely different worlds.

There's a bit of risk taken with this film. The German World War II setting is acted out by a complete British cast, with accents, and no attempt to disguise their background. At first it does provide some confusion, at first I thought this was an English family living in Germany who were sympathetic to the Nazi cause. However, as the movie progresses more characters are introduced who sound just like them. At times it takes away from the realism, but then the actors are so top notch, that if they were to try to speak in English with perhaps German accents the whole movie wouldn't work anyway. Then again I got even more confused as the story went along thinking did the German's successfully invade England or something??

The reality of these questions though is set aside a third way from the film as Bruno discovers the camp and the young boy who resides there. It is the acting between these two that makes the film have the most powerful effect.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas greatest triumph is how it projects a viewpoint where the simplicity and innocence of a child's mind overrules and expresses the futile madness of the Nazi and more so the adult world that created this living hell on earth. More so, it's conclusion is one of the most fitting. The ending provides an ironic sense of justice and freedom for those who wish to not be a part of it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

In Wall-E, Disney and Pixar turn out to be the little engine that could

There comes a time when you think the same ideas are going to be rehashed for every animated Disney film, and then there are times you get surprised. Disney/Pixar is now the staple of big budget animation and you would think they'd be on the same tired animated formula. However, it's pleasing to discover that in Wall-E they not only avoid the same predictable traps, they took some risks and succeeded wildly.

There's a lot of borrowed ideas in the telling of an old junk-collecting robot. In a future apocalyptic earth, Wall-E is the only remaining inhabitant who collects and stacks garbage. His regular routine is turned upside down when he actually discovers a plant, and a futuristic probe robot comes to discover it. At this point that is all I am going to describe. Anything more would just spoil your fun.

Nevertheless, what does unfold is a film that pays homage to a lot of borrowed ideas, and takes chances on poking criticism of ourselves as humans in the most indirect way. Wall-E's eyes and movements are very similar to the robot in the film Short Circuit that had just as much emotional appeal to it's audience. Better still a chief villain in the film (a captain's steering wheel), harks back to the evil Hall 9000 computer of Kubrick's space odyssey 2001. But the film Wall-E goes one step further.

Perhaps the films greatest triumph, is how it can make the most critical aspects of humanity by poking fun at big corporate consumerism run amok (Big and Large), the need to save the environment, and the waste of human slothery. All these are made in a way that is not only believable but non-offensive and educational to boot. They even make a cockroach the most cuddly thing you can even imagine.

The creators not only made a great film but took big risks that paid off, there isn't even any dialogue in this film for almost an entire hour. With all of that, Wall-E in itself is a work of great genius.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Up series, part 1 of 2

This review will focus on the first 3 films of Michael Apted's Up documentary series. The first 3 films deal with the ages of the participants at 7, 14 and 21. Part 2 will discuss the remaining films.

The Up documentaries are one of those series of films that is hard to discuss without giving away the joy and revelations of what you are witnessing. Back in the early 60's, Michael Apted and company decided that they would find several kids of the age of seven from several different social classes and background from Britain. They would return every 7 years to discuss their lives and progress.

In this age of mass marketing television, and instant reality based canned drama, observing the Up documentaries is like being awaken to the first breath of air you ever tasted. You are right away introduced to several of the people and following their lives every seven years says more about the human condition than anything you could ever imagine.

Miraculously we only get to find out about the people in this film every 7 years. Viewers can only guess what might happen, and are shocked to find details that come about from out of nowhere. Take for instance Andrew, at his earliest he appears to be a precocious full of life kid, but by the time he's 21 he appears disinterested in everything. In contrast Nicholas' transformation from boy to 21 is almost unrecognizable, it doesn't even seem like the same person.

In the later films, Apted takes steps to show the old footage from the first film when the kids were at their youngest. You see the same images over again but differently each time and it has a marvelous effect. The future is to be told not far from now, but in the simple actions of what may have happened when a 7 year olds ideas were full of bright optimism. At 21 Niel seems to be fighting against something, but when the camera cuts back to his childhood skipping through the streets you can't feel hurt and deep inside and wonder what happened, or will this somehow fix itself??

One of the most surprising aspects happens accidentally. A rabbit on a wealthy estate is killed in the foreground by a young girls dog while being interviewed. When the interviewer asks does that bother you... death? The young 14yr old (if I remember correctly Suzy) provides an answer that seems chilling beyond belief. The films also have an unexpected effect of showing more of a criticism of the English school system, which seems like a caste society.

It would be unfair to explain what happens, it's more important to discover in a film series like this how you can see yourself in all these people, or know someone like Tony. Tony at 7 says he want's to be a jockey... and by golly... at 14 well... there you have it. He's a jockey. But it's hard to put in words what you witness in a series like this. The Up documentaries certainly set the stage for the life to come next, you'll cheer I am sure, be dissapointed, saddened, or highly content. The question becomes who will it be, and for me I can't wait.