21 November 2006

Robert Altman

A sad day in the film universe, as the iconic Robert Altman has passed away. I don't have the words to do this justice, but there's a bunch of tributes being collected at GreenCine.com, and you can read my review of his latest, that delightful A Prairie Home Companion (2006) here.

I'm going to celebrate his life with a 6-pack and a viewing of some of his work, but I leave you with images.


19 November 2006

On Writing

In case I don't write anything of substance on here over the next 2 weeks, here's my excuse (in the interest of full disclosure):

I've been, for the past year, picking away at a complete overhaul of coffee stains, the screenplay I adapted from Matt Reed's poetry chapbook and was unable to adequately film. But the story, I felt, remained a good one, even if it didn't get completed, so I kept telling people I was going to still do it, only I didn't particularly want to film the script I had. It wasn't bad, but I knew it could be better (and there was no reason for it to not be better), so rather than continually tweak, I tossed the whole thing and started from scratch, the theory being that it would then be easier to avoid repeating the first effort. Anyway, long story short, with November being National Novel Writing Month, I decided to spend the month finishing the first draft. As of 1 November I had 20 pages. As of 18 November I have 71. It should clock in at around 100-110.

So far, I think it's better the second time around, but we shall see...

The trick right now is not getting stuck.

16 November 2006

3rff: Notes From a Festival 4

(Nicole van Kilsdonk, NR, 97 min, Netherlands)

Johan en Evy op de tribune

We finish a survey of the Three Rivers Film Festival with Johan, a cute little romantic comedy from the Netherlands. Michiel Huisman stars at the titular Johan, youngest of the eleven Dros boys. His father has an unhealthy obsession with futbol (hence the eleven boys), which he has successfully passed along to all of his children except Johan, who wishes to be a singer. He meets a girl (Caro Lenssen) and falls in love, only to see her stolen away by his brother Johnny (Johnny de Mol), the most talented of the Dros brothers. He tries to escape his family, but finds it difficult, since all ten of his brothers are professional futbol players and splattered all over the tabloids. Of course, he cannot get over the girl, and hatches a plan to get her back.

The resulting film is a lot of fun. The ceiling for these types of romantic comedies is naturally not all that high, but Johan gets pretty close to that mark. It reminds me a lot of the film Fever Pitch (2005) could have been (and the British version was much closer to), and you could do a hell of a lot worse for a date film or even just an enjoyable way to spend 100 minutes at the end of a rough week. I have a hunch that if Johan can get any sort of an American release, it'll find a great deal of admirers. It's nothing but a pleasant trifle of a film, and sometimes that's a good thing.

14 November 2006

3rff: Notes from a Festival 3

Cinematographer Style
(Jon Fauer, NR, 86 min, USA)


Essentially an educational film, Cinematographer Style interviews 110 of the world's best cinematographers, including Gordon Willis and Vittorio Storaro, on the specifics of their art form. It's a fascinatingly rare look at all these minds, who aren't often placed under the lights themselves, and they don't disappoint, stressing to the audience the value of story over substance, of working within your budget, and of the value of saying no. Many of the older cinematographers, who've clearly done a significant amount of teaching, take the time to teach the crew that's filming them--fiddling with the lights and practically demonstrating lenses and shadows and such.

If you're the type of person that finds cinematography interesting, it's a wonderful way to spend 86 minutes, which is not to say the film doesn't have problems. Director Jon Fauer is clearly enamored with his subjects and feels a debt to them for taking the time, so he makes a conscious effort to include all of them in the film. Naturally, this ends up being a bit of a sensory overload, as we're constantly cutting back and forth from talking head to talking head, with some of them repeating what the previous one had just said. A more focused approach would have done wonders, as it would have been wonderful to hear more from Storaro and Willis and less from, say, the guy who shot Armageddon (1998). I pick on John Schwartzman, not because his opinion wasn't of value (in fact, he was very informative), but because of a symptom of one of the film's bigger problems--it was often difficult to figure out who was talking and what they had done. The film opens with a barrage of people saying their names, which essentially helps you pick out the ones you recognize, but for most of the film you find yourself saying "what film is this guy talking about?"

Word is there's a DVD box set being planned which should alleviate many of these concerns, as they plan to show longer, if not full, interviews from many of the greats, allowing the audience the maximum opportunity to soak up their wisdom.

11 November 2006

3rff: Notes from a Festival 2

(S. Pierre Yameogo, NR, 90 min, Burkina Faso)


Delwende is a relatively simple film. In the midst of a epidemic, a small Burkina Faso village believes the recent rash of deaths is tied to witchcraft. They set up their version of a divining rod, which indicates the witch is none other than Napoko (Blandine Yaméogo), who just happens to be the mother of Pougbila (Claire Ilboudo), the young woman we've conveniently just learned has been raped. They run Napoko out of town, which naturally angers Pougbila, who takes it upon herself to track down her mother and clear her name.

It's a simple plot for what's ultimately a simple film that aims to expose the injustices dealt to women in a primitive culture. It's hard not to think of the Salem Witch Trials or even the vastly superior film Water (2006). The fact remains, though, that there just isn't all that much talent on either side of the camera. A better editor could have easily trimmed this down a good ten minutes without sacrificing a bit of content, and the script is either heavy-handed or poorly translated, but that hardly matters, since the performances are haphazardly directed. Is it important to shine a light on this part of the world? Sure, but it couldn't hurt to have a better flashlight.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes
(Stephen and Timothy Quay, NR, 99 min, Germany/UK)


The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is an intriguing, yet awkward title, but it's fitting for this intriguing, yet awkward film. The latest from the Quay Brothers involves a piano tuner (César Saracho) who's hired by a strange doctor (Gottfried John) to tune seven automata, devices I never quite understood. Somewhere in there is a recovering opera singer the doctor is trying to help in some way and a whore, who wanders around and looks seductive.

In the end, I think the film is about art, about how artists create, how they exist, and how they are perceived by the world, but no other explanation would surprise me. Hell, if you told me it was about aliens, I wouldn't be shocked.

In it's best moments, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is a baffling, hypnotic, enigmatic masterpiece. The problem is, those stretches are all too short. All too often, you get the idea the Quay Brothers are far too deep into their own imaginations. The film is produced by Terry Gilliam, and at times echoes him at his most obtuse and self-indulgent. To say it can be frustrating is an understatement. The festival program promises that it "resembles little else in cinema", but to me it felt a lot like early Jeunet, and while I can't place the plot, I'm sure I've seen that before. If it were at least ten minutes shorter or ten percent more coherent, then this could be a very good film, but as it stands now, it's just...um...well...I have no idea.

09 November 2006

3rff: Notes from a Festival

13 Tzameti
(Géla Babluani, NR, 86 min, France)


13 Tzameti, the feature-length debut from Géla Babluani, is a taut, engaging thriller that begins simply enough before transforming itself into an unexpected treatise on morality and luck. George Babluani, the brother of the director, stars as Sébastien, a construction worker who overhears his employer's plot to earn a great deal of money for only one day's work. He steals, then follows the elaborate instructions, not realizing the police are following him closely. The work in question: a suicidal, high-stakes game of Russian Roulette that he cannot escape.

The easy comparison here is Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's Intacto (2001), but Babluani films in a stark, gritty style that invokes the French New Wave and the best in 16mm short films. The tension is undeniable and the result is a film that after a slow start gets very cool during the second act and, then, oddly enough, somewhat profound. It's not a great film, but for a low-budget first film, it's as good as you can hope for.

(Ilya Khrjanovsky, NR, 126 min, Russia)


There's nothing quite like seeing a film you know nothing about in a festival setting. Zero expectations, coupled with the tendency for festivals to have a less-than-rigorous selection process (since the goal isn't box office, per se, there's sometimes more focus on an ill-defined sense of "art". This is not always a good thing.) Collections of shorts are great in this regard because the films are often either brilliant or terrible (and sometimes both at the once), yet none of them are quite long enough to make you regret coming. There's almost always something worthwhile. Features, however, can be scary, especially if you're like me and hate to walk out, no matter what.

Which brings us to Ilya Khrjanovsky's 4, in which three people meet in a bar, lie about who they are, and leave. It's a compelling, nuanced scene composed of long, steady shots. Polished isn't the right word, but it isn't far off. Then, the film devolves into some sort of statement about the conditions of modern day Russia, full of rotting meat, wild dogs, and long, long, long scenes where old women wail and eat and get drunk. Tedious is exactly the right word. It's pretty clear the contrast between the lies we tell and reality, which is generally the film's main point, but that's a point made clear before the end of the first hour. Apparently the Russian censors wanted to cut an hour from the film, and I can't say I blame them. There's a line where a film ceases to be a cryptic, beautiful mess and becomes nothing short of a clusterfuck. That's the line 4 crosses. It's the type of art film that turns people off art films.

This would be enough if the projectionist didn't improperly frame the vast majority of the film, including two reels framed low enough to make the subtitles nearly impossible to read. I find this happening more and more. Projecting a film properly isn't complicated and screenings like this make me long for the day I can download the film and just watch it at home, where I can at least be confident I'm actually seeing the film I'm supposed to be watching.

06 November 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan


starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, and Pamela Anderson
written by: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer, from a story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips
directed by: Larry Charles
R, 84 min, 2006, USA


A quick perusal of the universally glowing reviews for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan will yield one undeniable conclusion: film critics cannot, for whatever reason, refrain from referencing the mangled dialect of Kazakhstani TV personality Borat Sagdiyev. Why is that? Is it because we feel some sort of camaraderie with him? Is it the result of a latent anti-Semitic worldview? Nah. It's because, quite simply, we can. Most critics are, at heart, creative people, and a constant filing of reviews can, at times, get somewhat repetitive. So, when a moviefilm as gleefully irreverent as Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan comes along, it gives critics a license to indulge their inner creative soul. Simply put, it's fun.

As you might have gathered from the reviews, so is the film. Provided you have a certain level of tolerance for content that pushes the boundary of the MPAA R-rating, there's a great deal of comedic genius on display. Whether or not the bulk of the comedy will survive the ravages of time remains to be seen, but in late 2006 this is a very, very funny film. Is it, as some have claimed, the funniest film ever made? No, but you already guessed that. It is, however, the funniest film of the year, and for the price of a movie ticket, you can't ask for much more than that. It's a film that plays better on the big screen, in a crowded theatre, which bodes well for the film's box office haul.

So does the fact that the glorious nation of Kazakhstan seems unable to get the joke, going to such lengths as taking out full-page ads in the New York Times and funding a $40 million period epic aimed at counteracting Borat's indications that Kazakhstan is a backwards nation struggling to keep up with the rest of the world. In fact, they've done such a poor job responding to the film that one almost wonders if they're actually in cahoots with the producers of the film.

On to the film itself. Borat is sent by the Kazakhstani government to tour America in order to help bring the country into step with the rest of the world. Once in America, he goes around mortifying innocent (and not so innocent) civilians with his unique brand of journalism and quickly falls in love with Pamela Anderson, convincing him that he must travel across the country and make her his wife. And...that's the plot. Along the way, he pushes every boundary of good taste known to man. I'll avoid details for the simple reason that it's a film that benefits from a lack of knowledge. Try, if you can, to know as little as possible going in.

The thing is, Borat hasn't a clue his actions are so offensive. Much is made of his views, the misogyny, the anti-Semitism, the homophobia, but these are beliefs ingrained in Borat's personality. He knows nothing else. Much like the targets of his jokes, Borat lacks the perspective and exposure to different viewpoints and ethnicities necessary to be a well-adjusted member of society. But Borat has an excuse: he lives in a former Soviet republic with a cow in his bedroom. His targets, however, live in the richest country in the world. They live in a melting pot. Even deep in the Bible Belt all they have to do to encounter people different from themselves is walk down the street. They have no excuse for holding the views Borat so quickly exposes. They've willingly placed themselves in a society that's not all that different from Kazakhstan. They've chosen to become as boorish as Borat, so when they encounter him, they recognize a kindred soul and the floodgates to their prejudices open wide. This is the sort of social statement that you rarely see outside of academia. It's often noted that to get a honest look at a society, you have to approach it from the outside, so it's fitting that it takes a British comedian posing as a Kazakhstani TV personality to show us something true about ourselves.

One of the pleasant surprises in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is the performance of said comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen, who has added levels previously unseen to the Borat character. This is a Borat terrified of an old Jewish couple, mortified to learn of Pamela Anderson's sexual past, genuinely thrilled to learn of the death of his wife, and, at his most vulnerable point, pushed to the edge of collapse. Cohen handles all of this with aplomb and total dedication to his character. It's rare you even see such devotion to a role in any film, much less a broad comedy. Cohen owns the role, his transformation is complete. It's honestly one of the best performances of the last couple of years. If Johnny Depp can score an Oscar nomination for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), then it would be only fitting for the Academy to recognize Cohen. I doubt they will, but they should.

As should be evident from the trailers and commercials, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is not for everyone. Much like South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999) it requires a disregard for certain cultural taboos, but if you can look past the hard R, it's well worth your time. You've never seen anything like it. Or, to quote Borat, "Great success!"

A Blog-a-Thon

As long as cinema has existed as an art form, filmmakers have been using it to figure out their love lives. Whether it's Charlie Chaplin or Jean-Pierre Léaud or Ethan Hawke, there's a long history of characters struggling in their pursuit of a romantic ideal. At times, it almost seems as if a film exists solely as a form of relationship therapy, as a futile attempt to figure out women.

Or, as Thom once wrote, "Maybe that's why we invented cinema: to share our complete lack of understanding with each other?"

Which brings us to 14 February, commonly known as Valentine's Day, but also the date of the brand-new Lovesick Blog-a-Thon, hosted right here at 100 films.

I'm hesitant to give too many restrictions and guidelines, because part of what makes the Blog-a-Thon interesting (at least to me), is the various odd turns a topic takes in the recesses of people's minds, but the general idea is how filmmakers use the medium to relate to their love lives (or, better yet, justify them), or even love in general. If that means a discourse on Tom Hanks romantic comedies sneaks in, so be it.

Other upcoming Blog-a-Thons:
Unspoken Cinema, 08 January
Film Criticism, 01 December-03 December
Alfred Hitchcock, 15 November

03 November 2006

more moose footage

In the interest of transperancy, I'm posting an assembly edit of some of the moose hunting footage, partly because I'm still trying to figure out if there's a film here, or just a bunch of footage. Keep in mind this is just a rough edit of part of the footage (the part where the moose dies). The music something temporary I tossed in as a placeholder (it's actually Matt Reed), while I wait for the real stuff to show. Anyway, enjoy.