Category Archives: Review / Analysis

Kinosaur’s 20 of the 2000s (finally!), Part One

Better late than never, I suppose…

Ten years of cinema is quite a bit to ponder at once, so perhaps I should’ve started earlier. Narrowing it down to a definitive twenty “best films” seemed like a frivolous effort at this point, especially since any number of equally slanted, questionable and Slumdog Millionaire-touting lists already exist on the web and in print.

In the end I simply decided to comment on a sampling of twenty-or-so that I personally found more memorable, unique and compelling than most other offerings, both big and small in scale. So, without further ado:

Oldboy [Oldeuboi] (South Korea, 2003) – This decade saw a stateside craze over many emerging horror, thriller, sci-fi and exploitation films from Asia. Finding popularity in both theaters and through home media (largely due to distributor Tartan, who coined the “Asia Extreme” moniker now so widely used), they also gave way to many an unfortunate remake and wannabe. One film recently spared of its long-discussed American remake (the Spielberg/Will Smith project was, thankfully, abandoned late last year) is Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. Divergent from the steady stream of supernaturally themed imports, it’s the second film in Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy”—a manga-based, tragedian revenge flick: dark, bloody, perverse and a little bit nutty. Its comic book histrionics aren’t always successful, but moments like the devouring of a live octopus, and the notorious seventeen-against-one corridor brawl (captured in a long take lasting over two-and-a-half minutes) teem with a brutal vitality more memorable than most films of the recent Asian invasion.

The Royal Tenenbaums (USA, 2001) – Wes Anderson’s Salinger-esque dysfunctional family history (along with his previous Rushmore) may have largely influenced the quirky hipster formalism oozing from so many indies (and currently marketable studio indies) that followed. Yet few recent films of a similar ilk seem to fully match the auteurish eloquence found in Anderson’s third feature, a unique and urbane display of many of the filmmaker’s continuing fascinations: precocious failures, minutia, exotic travel, natural sciences, high and low art, literature, pop rock of the 60s and 70s, cinephilia. With an Oscar-, BAFTA-, and WGA-nominated screenplay (co-written by frequent collaborator Owen Wilson), Tenenbaums is perhaps the best crafted, most complete-feeling work Anderson has made all decade.

Elephant (USA, 2003) – As one of the first films in its aftermath to depict a Columbine High School-style massacre, I found Elephant’s atypical, hypnotically foreboding narrative unexpected and unforgettable. Van Sant’s approach also came as a surprise since the most recent of his works I had seen upon Elephant‘s release were two uncharacteristically hammy, feel-good projects (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) and his perplexingly unnecessary shot-for-shot, color remake of Psycho. One thing Van Sant may have indirectly gleaned from Hitchcock however, was Hitch’s belief that “if you want to be universal, you have to be specific.” Van Sant uses prolonged tracking shots (borrowed from English director Alan Clark’s own similarly themed short Elephant), and combines them with the techniques of parallel storytelling trademarked by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr (in which chronologically overlapping events unfold from various points of view). In a portentous panorama, viewers are forced to roam the halls in real time with an ad-libbing, largely amateur cast of teenage archetypes, mundane and completely unaware of the startling events to follow. The result is both heartbreaking and provocative.

Bronson (UK, 2008) – Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is best known for his Pusher trilogy, bleak dramas that explore different tiers of Copenhagen’s criminal underworld. The eponymous anti-hero of his recent Bronson is a similarly disreputable fellow. Based on Great Britain’s “most violent prisoner,” the film is an unconventional biopic of notorious inmate Michael Gordon Peterson (nicknamed Charles “Charlie” Bronson). A considerable departure from the Pusher trilogy in tone and style, Bronson more closely echoes the celebratory cynicism and satirical artifice of A Clockwork Orange, whose plot is also referenced. Peterson’s first-person narration is rendered in an interesting choice of voice-over, onstage theatrical interludes to an indeterminate audience, and direct address to the viewer. These devices, along with some pretty inspired soundtrack cuts, create a cartoonish surreality and viewer fondness for the dubious protagonist. But it’s above all the runaway bravado of Tom Hardy’s title performance that is the film’s most revelatory achievement. Hardy inhabits the character with an iconoclastic, unpredictable charm as perfectly as the young Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

49 Up (UK, 2005) – In spite of what has comprised reality television in the 2000s, many of its fundamentals date back to the late 40s with Allen Funt’s Candid Camera, and the new game shows of the 50s. In the 60s Michael Apted created the Up Series, a human interest program that has spanned almost six decades and ranks among the most engrossing and historically significant of documentary projects. Beginning with 1964’s Seven Up! and revisited every seven years thereafter, fourteen British children (starting at age seven) from different socio-economic backgrounds have agreed to have their respective, sometimes intersecting lives indefinitely examined, chronicled and publicized. Now middle-aged adults, each installment of their collected, ongoing life experiences has included its share of successes, failures and unexpected detours. Equally interesting however, is the recently revealed hostility towards the filmmaker—and his continued probing—by subjects who have come to regret their involvement in such an invasive, long-term project.

Brand Upon the Brain / The Heart of the World (USA and Canada, 2006 / Canada, 2000) – “The past, the past, into the past!” Guy Maddin’s films are funny, frenzied pastiches of grainy silent- and early sound-era aesthetics, melodrama conventions, ersatz autobiography and self-conscious, Freudian neuroses. Indeed three of his features are full-blown silent films, featuring a musical score and onscreen intertitles in lieu of actual recorded dialogue. The first of these was a presentation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as adapted and performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. With his more recent Brand Upon the Brain, the ever peculiar Maddin extended this intersection between film and live performance another dimension: its theatrical screenings were accompanied by an eleven-piece orchestra, a five-piece foley troupe, one castrato and a guest narrator (from a long and impressively varied list). I was able to attend one of four Chicago screenings at the befittingly historic (and befittingly haunted!) Music Box Theatre, narrated with freakish glee by Crispin Glover—an experience of cinematic and sensory resplendence I won’t soon forget. However it’s Maddin’s six-minute short, The Heart of the World, that arguably remains his work of finest éclat; essential viewing for any modern cinephile.

Hannah Takes the Stairs (USA, 2007) – A new, fashionably unfashionable and critically divisive genre, mumblecore often echoes the DIY spirit of the Nouvelle Vague and the work of such early American independents as Jarmusch and Linklater. Its 21st-century inception and evolution is largely linked to the decade’s increased accessibility of digital filmmaking equipment and editing software, and the recent paradigm shift in independent film distribution (which is itself tied to the Web 2.0 explosion of user-uploaded content and social networking). Joe Swanberg is one of the earliest and most prolific filmmakers associated with the movement. A provocateur from the get-go, his feature debut includes a now notorious, unsimulated onscreen cumshot delivered by the director himself, while his ongoing web series, Young American Bodies, follows an ensemble cast in an array of intercourse-laden urban romances. Less concerned with candid sexuality, Swanberg’s breakthrough feature, Hanna Takes the Stairs, is an unpretentious and charming comedy of manners; a collaborative and largely improvised piece concerning a young production intern and her revolving door courtships with three men in her radius. Mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig delivers her quintessential performance as Hannah, a cute and clever coquette that—despite her fickleness and neuroses—has a palpable charisma that is difficult to resist. The film is as poignant in its improvised depiction of twenty-something, post-collegiate capriciousness as it is in its many moments of uncomfortable silences and awkward non sequiturs.

The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (UK, 2006) – Destination, Stylish Café Rakkyo: a male host club in the Minami district of Osaka, Japan. Part of the city’s Mizu shōbai (“water trade,” or the nighttime entertainment industry), Café Rakkyo is allegedly the number one club of its type. Owned by Osaka’s top host (think a Japanese version of The Strokes’ Julian Casablancassee?), the twenty-two-year-old Issei, and several other attractive young hosts—cartoonishly made over in androgynous glam couture—sell many willing young women their “dreams” and provide emotional “healing.” Their services can cost hundreds to several thousand dollars an evening. Jake Clennell’s documentary explores a small slice of underground culture, and how it serves (and even further, what it demands from) the young, wealthy and profoundly lonely. Including surprisingly intimate interviews with both the hosts and their clients, and footage from the club’s raucous all-nighters, the film is an at once fascinating, otherworldly, oft-humorous yet abysmally throwing experience. Despite some disturbing insight from the interviewees early on, the most unexpected and morally baffling revelations come later in the film. The high-priced escort psychology of Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience seems quite shallow by comparison.

Inside [À l’intérieur] (France, 2007) – Despite showing more promise over the current and more popular (but mostly lame) American torture porn films, the new wave of French horror has unfortunately proven to be a bit of a mixed bag itself. Yet my general disappointment in the lot of their offerings is easily abated by the singular existence of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside, arguably the best horror film of the decade; one that I haven’t stopped thinking about all year. In the wake of an auto accident that killed her husband months earlier, a pregnant young woman named Sarah is home alone on Christmas Eve. Still grieving, she also awaits the delivery of her unborn child the very next day. Roused later that evening by an unexpected knock at her door, Sarah encounters an unfamiliar voice waiting impatiently on the other side. The voice claims to know Sarah, and demands to be let “inside”. What follows is genuinely shocking and unmatched in its cruelty, extremely gory without feeling unnecessarily exploitative. Working in a few clever, plot-functional references to classics like Blow Up, Rear Window and Aliens, the first time filmmakers don’t try to reinvent the genre. However they remain notably aware that, despite the impressive mileage they get out of that big, impossibly sharp pair of scissors, even a full-scale splatterfest still benefits from artful pacing and halfway developed characters.

The Taste of Tea [Cha no aji] (Japan, 2004) – At one point in animator and filmmaker Katsuhito Ishii’s third live-action feature, a teenage boy describes the jingle that his mother, uncle and grandfather studio-recorded: “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head.” Using this line to describe the rare and memorable film itself would only be half accurate. The Taste of Tea is, perhaps above all other descriptors, a work of remarkably pervading weirdness. Its uncontrived, almost matter-of-fact offbeat nature will likely resonate with anyone who’s ever felt the slightest bit abnormal. Moreover, the film is a thoroughly charming, hilarious and touching experience. With hints of Ozu minus the melancholy, the film follows the ongoing experiences of the Harunos, an extended family of six residing in a beautiful, idyllic prefecture just outside of Tokyo. Structured as loosely related vignettes, the Harunos (both individually and as a family) manage to observe, participate in and create a series of offbeat and magical realist occurrences, in spite of their quiet and meditative environs. The awkward and lovesick teenage son, Hajime, is a frequent witness to the wildly dysfunctional relationships of adult strangers, while his introspective younger sister, Sachiko, is haunted by a giant doppelgänger that only she can see (at one point their cool, young uncle also recalls his own boyhood experience involving a yakuza ghost, who would inexplicably appear with a fresh turd resting on his head). The hypnotherapist father and manga animator mother manage to be a grounded and less quirky pair, especially compared to the grandpa, Akira, a lively virtuoso of impromptu nonsensical acts (singing an ode to his bath water, striking manga battle poses). A rewarding, lovingly handled family portrait.

Documentary Triptych

I recently watched three very different documentaries:

Andrew Gurland and Todd Phillips’ Frat House (’98),

Adi Sideman’s Chicken Hawk (’94), and

Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire (’06)

Though probably best known for frat-flick Old School, Todd Phillips is a former maverick documentarian whose earliest work, Hated: G. G. Allin and the Murder Junkies, has received its definite share of cult praise (and once stood as NYU’s highest-grossing film made by an undergrad). Frat House is Phillps’ follow-up, this time with Alex Gurland, exploring the dedicated, secretive hazing and initiation rituals practiced by certain North American college fraternities. Though some remain anonymous in the film, the exposed fraternities include most largely Alpha Tau Omega of PA’s Muhlenberg College, and Beta Chi of New York College’s Oneonta campus.

Originally produced for the frequently interesting HBO docu-series, America Undercover, the film won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. But controversy quickly followed, including allegations of staged scenes, reenactments and other less-than-spontaneous content. Alpha Tau Omega’s national organizers launched responsive legal efforts that ultimately led to HBO’s decision to not air the film. Though the filmmakers have always asserted the accuracy of their film, it has since fallen into obscurity.

During an interview, the frat brother known as "Blossom" is shown attacking and destroying a wooden transport palette.

Despite all validity in the argument that most documentaries are to some degree ‘staged,’ the film did feel strangely manufactured upon a first viewing (even though I knew nothing of its challenged realism beforehand). Even still, the neat-and-tidy structure of the piece may have less to do with potentially fabricated content and more with its originally intended format: an hour-long tv program. The mere all-access nature of the film perhaps suggests a combination of the two. Viewers may wonder in retrospect, if Old School‘s fictional lampooning of fraternity life was Phillips’ intention even in this earlier work.

Years before Frat House, Phillips and Gurland founded the New York Underground Film Festival which, during its first proceedings in 1994, premiered Adi Sidemen’s reluctantly sinister Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys. The film’s subjects — many of whom are associated with the bi-coastal fringe organization NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) — are completely ensorcelled by underage boys, with most of them devotedly unapologetic of it despite age-of-consent laws and shunning by the larger gay rights movement.

Though its depiction hopes to remain mostly unbiased, the film allows the men a few brief, vaguely sympathetic if pitying moments. Regardless, it’s difficult to imagine even the most open-minded viewers conjuring even distant personal approval of these subjects, for the skewed earnestness and common ‘love’ these aging individuals share for male youth (whom, they argue, are consenting) is clearly too obsessive to be anything “transcendental” (as described by one interviewee), or simply misunderstood.

 I know, right?

This guy kinda says it all.

Where the first two films mostly maintain a conventional documentary style structurally, in their visual reporting, and with both sharing an hour-long running time, Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire is almost their antithesis. Sixteen years in the making and filmed entirely in emotionally arresting black-and-white, it is a sprawling 152-minute rumination on the protean abortion debate in America.

The film is near-definitive in its collective analysis and display of a single nation extremely divided on the issue of abortion, uncovering its blurry, circular and endlessly complex moral implications. It presents a multitude of interviews ranging from religious fundamentalists, activists on both sides (including Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. “Jane Roe”), to regarded thinkers like Noam Chomsky. These scenes are balanced — sometimes unevenly — with footage of clinic protests and pro-choice escorts, religious rallies, and archival news footage and interviews with imprisoned ‘abortionist’ murderers.

Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan at a gathering of the American Life League.

Most sobering however, is Kaye’s unflinching inclusion of the procedure itself, shot over the shoulder of the operating physician, at an angle not even seen by the patient herself. Then, just above his gloved hands in an indiscriminate close-up, we must watch as the practitioner reassembles the unmistakably human fetal remains into a whole, to make certain that nothing was left inside.

Nearly a decade before Lake‘s completion, Kaye was involved in another controversy regarding his first and only narrative feature, 1998’s American History X. Claiming that Ed Norton re-edited the film to give himself more screen time, Kaye (unhappy with the final cut) attempted to remain uncredited as the film’s director, but was unsuccessful due to a Directors’ Guild technicality.

american-history-x

Both "Lake of Fire" and (moments of) "American History X" are captured in symbolic monotone.

Still, the two films bear definite similarities, namely in their dramatic use of black-and-white imagery and their accompanying over-dramatic scores. The most unfortunate side effect of Lake of Fire‘s baroque motif (its title referring to damnation, as described in The Book of Revelation) is Anne Dudley’s imposing, histrionic score. Not only do these musical points cause the work to feel even longer than it already is, but of all assuredly morose issues a filmmaker can address, abortion (and all its related visuals) is one that certainly doesn’t require such an obvious and constant reminder of its emotional nature.

Though, in spite of this nagging element, Kaye’s long-term filmmaking project is certainly a cultural achievement. Perhaps more unfortunate is that Lake of Fire failed to receive official Oscar attention, with three of the five nominated films that year relating to the U.S. involvement in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

  • A low-quality, but watchable version of Frat House can be viewed here.
  • Chicken Hawk can be viewed in six parts, beginning here.
  • Lake of Fire is widely available, and is distributed by ThinkFilm.

Additional Suggested Viewing | Documentary:

Mr. Lonely: Fargo’s Mike Yanagita

Mainstream auteurs Joel & Ethan Coen recurrently spin their own unconventional brand of crime story: skillfully calculated meditations — both farcical and bleak — on the flawed logic of unlawful scams, and the sublime human catastrophe that results. The characters responsible for these egoistic and deceptive acts are victims of their own fallibility, and usually have to endure the messy repercussions.

The Coens’ minor characters can and will fail, too. Perhaps my favorite example involves the memorable if puzzling inclusion of Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), a fidgety Japanese-American Minnesotan, in 1996’s Academy Award-winning Fargo. His brief involvement seems superfluous and strange at first; some may wonder if he exists merely for comic relief. But it’s his set up and payoff that indirectly though finally leads our protagonist Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to her answers and the film’s conclusion.

Yikes.

During a terribly uncomfortable reunion between old schoolmates Gunderson and Yanagita, we learn (amidst awkward passes made by Mike) that he’s a recent widower. He has lost his wife, a third schoolmate named Linda Cooksey, to leukemia. This sets a morose tone, with Mike then pondering his romantic intentions behind the get-together with a married and pregnant Marge. Realizing the whole thing was hopelessly misguided, he breaks down, pathetically confessing “I’m so lonely!”

Occurring rather late in the film with no obvious connection to the main plot, the scene is cruelly hysterical but seems as tangential and random to the viewer as it does to our protagonist. However, the following day Marge learns the truth by phone, from a fourth schoolmate: Mike’s marriage to Linda and her subsequent illness, suffering and death are all complete fabrications; in truth Mike has psychiatric problems, and lives with his parents.

Upon this entirely unexpected discovery, Marge simply replies, “Oh, geez. Geez, well geez. That’s a surprise.” An appropriately understated response, but she resultantly becomes aware that perhaps her Midwestern, inherently good-natured and trusting tradition has betrayed her, rendered her a bit gullible. Ironically it was she who, in an earlier scene, politely called to question her deputy’s sloppy police work regarding auto dealer plates. She then traces the plates to the Gustafson’s Motors dealership in Minneapolis, where executive sales manager Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) initially eludes any potential suspicions from the investigating Marge, despite his strange behavior.

On a new hunch, after Mike Yanagita’s ruses prompt her to reevaluate the details of her investigation, Marge returns to the Minneapolis dealership. Her mere reappearance and brief follow-up with a guilty Jerry Lundegaard is enough to drive him to erratic, desperate measures. After previously avoiding any implication, this time Jerry gives himself away by fleeing during Marge’s questioning.

This chain of events, which effectively leads us to the film’s conclusion, is informed by the shred of doubt triggered in Marge, by her brief night out with Mike Yanagita.

Disney WWII Propaganda: Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943)

With the 81st Academy Awards a month away, here’s an interesting (i.e. screwed up) piece of related cartoon history.

Walt Disney’s Der Fuehrer’s Face won an Oscar for “Best Short Subject, Cartoon” in 1943. Between ’42 – ’44 the studio produced several Army propaganda shorts starring Donald Duck, with this one remaining particularly notorious. In 1994, it was selected as one of the 50 Greatest Cartoons.

I first saw this in college, during an Art History class. It’s a little fucked up. Appropriately antiquated, bizarre, offensive, and hilarious: it’s a definite must-see, if you’re into this sort of thing*.

Props to this Cracked.com article [+/- NSFW] for writing about this cartoon and reminding me about it (and for compiling some pretty great lists in general).

*I’m not big on endorsing Disney, but you can Netflix/acquire/purchase this cartoon as it appears on Disc One of Walt Disney on the Front Lines.

Overlooked in 2008: The Signal

'The Signal'

"The Signal," 2007 / USA

The Signal (co-written/-directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry) actually made a Sundance premiere in early 2007, but despite a lot of buzz on the festival circuit that year (I saw it during the 43rd Chicago International Film Festival), the film ended up having only a brief and virtually invisible theatrical release in 2008. Box Office Mojo mentions an opening weekend of 160 screens, with a meager average gross of $905 per screen. I’m guessing poor and sparse marketing helped contribute to the film’s general obscurity. Its trailer and teaser come off as little more than a wannabe-28 Days Later-style ripoff of Stephen King’s technology-based apocalyptic novel, Cell (Eli Roth’s film adaptation has been highly anticipated among King/Roth fans since ’06).

Whatever the reason, it’s unfortunate that the film has thus far remained relatively unseen. It’s a fun, brutal, smartly realized piece of indie sci-fi/horror, and one of the few thoroughly exciting pieces of genre filmmaking I saw all year. Made for an estimated $50,000 to boot, I think the studios could learn a great deal from the three talented writer/directors responsible for this one.

Set in the fictional city of Terminus on New Year’s Eve, the plot depicts the unpredictably murderous mass hysteria as caused by an anonymous, psychedelic telecommunications signal broadcast through televisions, phones and radio. With elements of Ringu, Videodrome, The Crazies and countless other zombie/apocalyptic/doomsday films, its premise wouldn’t strike you as a very original one. But the responsible parties are clearly schooled in + fond of the genre conventions, and are quite inventive in choosing how to play off of (or subvert) them.

"The Signal"

Ben (Justin Welborn) watches in "The Signal."

"Videodrome," 1983 / Canada

"Videodrome," 1983 / Canada

The film is split into three parts (called “Transmissions”), each written and directed by a different filmmaker. Somewhere between an Anthology and Composite film, the structure helps convincingly imply the scale of a large urban-dwelling crisis (minus expensive + elaborate shots of citywide carnage), as three specific scenarios occur in different parts of the city. Four main characters pursue one another throughout much of the film, while the middle chapter introduces a darkly satirical tonal shift + comic relief, in Jacob Gentry’s Transmission 2.o: “The Jealousy Monster.” A well realized balance of comedy and terror doesn’t always feel properly suited for horror (I didn’t think it worked so well in last year’s Teeth). Here however Gentry plays into the viewers’ vicarious desire to see something bad finally happen to that sickeningly happy/repulsively dorky couple whom we all know.

The trio may lose some of their audience at this point, but I think many early protesters might form an eventual appreciation of the segment upon repeat viewings, proving whether or not the chicanery of the film’s namesake can indeed keep the audience hypnotized. After re-watching the film, I became more aware of the subtle and effective intricacy of the overall arc (including):

  1. Transmission 1.o: “Crazy in Love” – Rising paranoia/dread + human conflict/love/infidelity + shock/horror/anarchy
  2. Transmission 2.0: “The Jealousy Monster” – Satire/humor + introspective, hallucinatory depictions of ‘signal’ affects (in lieu of a clear, trustworthy explanation) + extreme violence/gore
  3. Transmission 3.0: “Escape from Terminus” – Physical/mental exodus + implied spiritual self-awareness/understanding + confrontation/ambiguous resolve

Sci-fi/Horror junkies should also get a kick out of some iconic horror imagery, featured throughout the film, referencing cult favorites like The Shining, Re-Animator and They Live.

The Signal / They Live

Above: "The Signal" Below: "They Live," 1988 / USA

The Signal is a strong, though overlooked, addition to (what I feel is only) a small number of good recent American horror films out there. At least it’s up for a Film Independent Spirit Award this year.

Related Films | Previously Overlooked in Sci-fi/Horror:

  • The Descent – 2005|2006(US)  Dir. Neil Marshall / United Kingdom
  • Sunshine –  2007  Dir. Danny Boyle / USA|UK