In the positive column the film has some great footage of lightening. Both video and dramatic still photography. There are some affecting personal remembrances from folks who've witnessed its random devastation - either to themselves or to those around them. There's a lot of talk about how lightening changes things - though besides the obvious bolt from the heavensness aspect of it, not a lot of explanation on how it might be different than something than say, being diagnosed with cancer. The filmmakers travel the world to hear these stories, even including an African religion which seems centered around thunder and lightening.
During the film there's plenty of time to think about the ramifications of all this - in part because there's really not a lot of information being conveyed. That is beyond the opportunity to witness the terror and beauty of the natural phenomena itself. That alone may be worth seeing it - and if you're going to go you should shoot for the theater experience. It's just not going to be the same at home.
There are unfortunately some negatives too. Mainly - I felt even more underwhelmed than I was watching the earlier film Manufactured Landscapes. In that case I appreciated that I was seeing new and interesting photographs of startling environments. Here I didn't feel I really learned anything significant about lightening - and it seemed as though a little more explanation about the phenomena is owed. Some of the personal stories were interesting (all were tragic)- but only one or two felt deep enough to have a memorable impact. There's a parallel piece about a group of neuro-scientists which exists mainly to show that lightning (as electricity) is a larger version of what takes place in our brains. They're monitoring the brainwave activity of an improvising guitar player off and on through the film. This part never really did anything for me - except at the end where he plays an improvised experimental pieces. Which included rattling chains in a bucket - and made me laugh thinking about (Untitled).
65 countries have submitted films - and if history is any guide a significant number of these will screen at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. That festival is a great way to catch up on your viewing in this category. At least if you don't skip the first week where it seems (at least last year) the most significant of the contenders tended to be shown.
The entire list is below - with the ones I've seen already coded in blue. The current list of things I've seen is 10 - which at 15% doesn't seem too terrible. I thought it was going to be 11 - but it seems Uruguay opted not to put forward Gigante - which I was a little surprised about. From the ones I've seen I'll be shocked if A Prophet and The White Ribbon don't make the final five. It's probably way too early to call, but if I had to be now I'd put my money on A Prophet to take the whole thing. But frankly, given the new 10 films in the "Best Picture" category thing it'd be simply wrong for A Prophet to not show up as a nominee in that section as well. Though I suspect that's exactly what'll happen.
Update: For those of you not reading the comments wanted to add that another great resource to learn more about these films is the log kept by Ken Rudolph here. Ken's a regular at SIFF and other festivals and clearly sees way too many movies. ;-) Member of the Academy as well.
Update 2: Ken's continuing to make good progress - he just posted he's roughly at the halfway mark having seen 32 with 33 to go!
Anyway - here's the list...
- Albania - Alive, directed by Artan Minarolli
- Argentina - The Secret in Their Eyes, directed by Juan José Campanella
- Armenia - Autumn of the Magician, directed by Ruben & Vahe Gevorkyants
- Australia - Samson and Delilah, directed by Warwick Thornton
- Austria - Ein Augenblick Freiheit (For a Moment, Freedom), directed by Arash T. Riahi
- Bangladesh - Beyond the Circle, directed by Golam Rabbani Biplob
- Belgium - The Misfortunates, directed by Felix Van Groeningen
- Bolivia - Southern Zone, directed by Juan Carlos Valdivia
- Bosnia and Herzegovina - Night Guards, directed by Namik Kabil
- Brazil - Salve Geral, directed by Sergio Rezende
- Bulgaria - The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, directed by Stephan Komandarev
- Canada - I Killed My Mother, directed by Xavier Dolan
- Chile - Dawson, Isla 10, directed by Miguel Littín
- China - Forever Enthralled, directed by Chen Kaige
- Colombia - The Wind Journeys, directed by Ciro Guerra
- Cuba - Fallen Gods, directed by Ernesto Daranas
- Czech Republic - Protector, directed by Marek Najbrt
- Croatia - Donkey, directed by Antonio Nui
- Denmark - Terribly Happy, directed by Henrik Rubin Genz
- Estonia - December Heat, directed by Asko Kase
- Finland - Postia Pappi Jaakobille (Letters to Father Jacob), directed by Klaus Haro
- France - A Prophet, directed by Jacques Audiard
- Georgia - The Other Bank, directed by Giorgi Ovashvili
- Germany - The White Ribbon, directed by Michael Haneke
- Greece - Slaves In Their Bonds, directed by Adonis Lykouresis
- Hong Kong - Prince of Tears, directed by Yonfan
- Hungary - Kaméleon (Chameleon), directed by Kristzina Goda
- Iceland - Reykjavik-Rotterdam, directed by Oskar Jonasson
- India - Harishchandrachi Factory, directed by Paresh Mokashi
- Indonesia - Jamila and the President, directed by Ratna Sarumpaet
- Iran - About Elly, directed by Asghar Farhadi
- Israel - Ajami, directed by Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti
- Italy - Baaria, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
- Japan - Dare Mo Mamotte Kurenai (Nobody To Watch Over Me), directed by Ryôichi Kimizuka
- Kazakhstan - Kelin, directed by Ermek Tursunov
- Lithuania - Duburys (Waterhole), directed by Gytis Luksas
- Luxembourg - Réfractaire, directed by Nicolas Steil
- Macdeonia - Wingless, directed by Ivo Trajkov
- Mexico - Backyard, directed by Carlos Carrera
- Mongolia - By the Will of Genghis Khan, directed by Andrei Borissov
- Morocco - Casanegra, directed by Nour Eddine Lakhmari
- The Netherlands - Winter in Wartime, directed by Martin Koolhoven
- Norway - Max Manus, directed by Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning
- Peru - The Milk of Sorrow, directed by Claudia Llosa
- Philippines - Ded Na Si Lolo (Grandfather is Dead), directed by Soxie Topacio
- Poland - Rewers (The Reverse), directed by Borys Lankosz
- Portugal - Um Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love), directed by Mário Barroso
- Puerto Rico - Kabo and Platon, directed by Edmundo H. Rodriguez
- Romania - Police, Adjective, directed by Corneliu Prumboiu
- Russia - Ward No. 6, directed by Aleksandr Gornovsky and Karen Shakhnazarov
- Serbia - St. George Shoots the Dragon, directed by Srdjan Dragojevic
- Slovakia - Broken Promise, directed by Jirí Chlumsk
- Slovenia - Pokrajina St. 2 (Landscape No 2), directed by Vinko Moderndorfer
- South Africa - White Wedding, directed by Jann Turner
- South Korea - Mother, directed by Bong Jong-ho
- Spain - The Dancer In The Thief, directed by Fernando Trueba
- Sri Lanka - Akasa Kusum (Flowers in the Sky), directed by Prasanna Vithanage
- Sweden - De Ofrivilliga (Involuntary), directed by Ruben Ostlunds
- Switzerland - Home, directed by Ursula Meier
- Taiwan - No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti (I Can’t Live Without You), directed by Leon Dai
- Thailand - Best In Time, directed by Youngyooth Thongkonthun
- Turkey - I Saw the Sun, directed by Mahsun Kirmizigül
- United Kingdom - Afghan Star, directed by Havana Marking
- Uruguay - Bad Day To Go Fishing, directed by Alvaro Brechner
- Venezula - Libertador Morales, El Justiciero, directed by Efterpi Charalambidis
- Vietnam - Don’t Burn, directed by Nhat Minh Dang
So let's get one thing out of the way. If you think battling your way out of a life where you're sexually molested by both parents (one of which results in two children), physically and emotionally abused by at least one of them and generally left for dead (or at least the economic scrap heap) by the school system system, to then achieve a measure of success only to be diagnosed HIV positive (in the late 80's) is an uplifting story then you and the film's marketing team are on the same page. Personally, I slightly beg to differ with the uplifting characterization.
My griping about leaving the theater feeling I'd be depressed for a week aside this is a very well done film. It deserves credit for adding enough levity and insight into the fantasies that drive Precious forward to give depth to the character in interesting ways - without at all making light of her situation. Precious is played by Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe and is instrumental to the film working at all. Her performance and the visual treatment of her world make it a better than an average film about working through adversity and are I'm sure are the reason for the accolades it's been enjoying. That and Oprah's name on the producer list. Let's face it - no one wants to fuck with Oprah (cattle/beef industry nuts excluded).
When we meet Precious she's fantasizing about her math teacher while class is in session. It's unclear whether she's not paying attention or is just the only non disruptive student in the room. In short order we learn while she may be the best student in that class she's pregnant with her 2nd child, 16 and in Junior High. Following scenes begin the slow reveal about the depth of pain inherent in her home life as her mom abuses her while telling her she won't amount to anything (for starters). The school's principal tries to interest Precious in an alternative program while she's pregnant. Precious seems to grasp the make or break nature of this chance and enrolls counter to her mother's wishes. The rest is learning about how she got where she is and being taken along as Precious tries to find the strength and support to break out of the world she's been stuck in.
As I alluded to earlier, it's not a trip without rewards for the viewer. I can see why some folks would love it. For me, it only suffers for being the sort of thing I don't seek out when I head to the theater. Specifically for it being squarely in the category of "not why I go to the movies." Not that sad experiences/pain turn me off entirely. It's just that the bar for me for this sort of film is set at a wholly different level than say, Superbad or Old School. Hopefully you know don't view me so shallow that you never check the blog again. I remind you that several of my top films from last year were not Superbad or Twighlight.
BTW - if you're curious about the book the film is based on you can get it here.
Screening Notes: If you're wondering why I saw this film in the first place - it had something to do with the miraculous power of "Free." SIFF screened this film as part of their annual member's meeting. Before the film there were some general remarks from the heads of the organization, a plug for the upcoming (we've got extra rum from a sponsor) Carribean Night Event and the movie. Given the buzz the film has been generating it was a nice get for the evening and I figured it was worth sticking around even though I was on a plane in the morning. I know not everyone felt exactly as I did. For example, my friend Scott sent me some positive thoughts about it the next day. I'm sure if this was a more influential blog he could be talked into posting them here. ;-)
While I do disagree with the New Yorker on this one they're still on my positive side for perfectly nailing the description of the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are as all sounding like "peevish adults elbowing one another out of the way at the smoked-fish counter at Zabar's." That's exactly the phrase I wish I was good enough to have written in my notes on the film.
I'll try to do my best to recount the story of the film and what I liked about it. But truth be told I'm catching up from Japan fighting a bit of jet lag and memory degraded by having seen it a week ago. Not to mention my movie senses being degraded seriously by "inflight entertainment." Is The Taking of Pelham 123 better on the big screen? More importantly does one not notice that Denzel and Travolta are rehashing roles they've done a dozen times before (and probably better in Broken Arrow)? Seriously - I'm curious about that. Sorry - back to the film at hand.
It's been written that A Serious Man is the Coen brother's retelling of the Book of Job - wherein a man's faith is constantly challenged so the ones pulling the strings can see how far is too far. Sort of a biblical version of the Saw franchise now that I think about it. Or maybe it has nothing to do with that tale and it's simply that the main character's family is cursed to suffer through the generations based on the film's prologue filmed (I believe) entirely in Yiddish. Though in this case it's not entirely clear to me whether Larry Gopnick (the main character played by Michael Stuhlbarg) has a literal faith in Hashem to lose or just believes going in that the universe should be a trifle more fair than what he's been experiencing lately. But like a lot of descriptions of films by the Coens it's probably not a great idea to read too much into the "based on ____" descriptions thrown around by them.
Either way - when we meet Larry it's clear that he's a man beset by adversity from all directions. Living in the midwest in 1967 he's a physics professor up for tenure. In the course of a very short span we learn that his wife is leaving him for another member of their congregation (who's viewed by many as a Tzadik but is really quite the schmuck), he may not get tenure, his brother seems to have permanently moved in and is suffering from either schizophrenia or homosexuality, or both. Oh yeah, and his stoner son who's about to celebrate his bar mitzah won't stop hounding him to fix the antenna on their roof so he can watch F-Troop. It'd be enough to drive a man to drink (even without his Columbia Record Club stalker) - but Larry tries to do the right thing and persevere. First through sheer effort and then by seeking the help of the rabbis who lead his temple. Of course no one really has answers for him - but much of the "fun" is watching the learned among him attempt to offer guidance or make sense out of his dilemmas. I particularly enjoyed each of his (and other characters) interactions with the rabbis. With a beautiful close on that theme towards the end that seems to suggest that true knowledge comes with accepting the futility of thinking you've got the universe figured out - or listening to more Jefferson Airplane.
I enjoyed watching the visual aspects of this film which are mostly done in the hyper-sharp style that the Coen brothers are generally known for. My Hebrew school experience took place somewhat later than the era depicted in the film - but what's onscreen here is so similar to mine experientially that it gave me flashbacks. Particularly the droning presentation and the room full of kids that clearly didn't give a (expletive deleted). And the first person perspective of his son in front of the congregation was eerily similar to how I perceived that event in my life. Without the chemical support he was using in the film.
Even as Larry is hit with one obstacle and setback after another he remains a generally likable character. Not raging against the situations but more seeming dumbfounded and wanting to understand why. You (or at least I) want him to get those answers, even though watching it's clear that's not meant to be. There's a theme throughout that the universe is uncertain and any belief that we have any control is a farce. It's not exactly subtle (supported by both the religious and the physics based world views of the film) - but for me it didn't take away from my pleasure in watching the characters try to understand the circumstances they found themselves in and the dialog that resulted. Some of it found where you'd least expect it. By far the best line in the film comes in the middle of a rapid fire argument between Larry and the father of a Korean student who tried to bribe him. Unclear by the end as to whether he's still being offered the bribe or is now being extorted by them for their having offered the bribe in the first place the father cuts off all further discussion with the line "just accept the mystery...." I encourage you to go, see the film and do just that.
Or maybe I missed the point entirely - either way I found the film interesting to watch, funny at times and at least mildly thought provoking. For me that's worth the price of admission anyway. :-)
Lastly, if you've got a Jew handy be sure to bring 'em with you. You may need a few explanations afterwards. I'm not saying goyim won't get this film - but there's perhaps another dimension of humor to it that members of the tribe (even strictly cultural ones such as myself) will enjoy differently. If you don't have your own just chat one up after the show. We'll be the ones laughing when no one else is (especially every time there's a reference to his wife wanting a "get" - for some reason that cracked me up every time).
If you like I are not privy to the key role played by Vogue in the universe then the films intro is important. Towards the beginning we learn that Vogue is critical to the fashion world and the September issue is the make or break "bible" as to what's hot or not in the months ahead. And we're also treated to Anna Wintour explaining her feeling that people who make fun of the fashion industry are intimidated by it. Or are ugly. OK, she doesn't actually say that - but I sort of suspect she's thinking it.
The filmmakers had plenty of access to the Vogue staff - that's very clear. If you're looking to watch the real life version of Streep's character lay into people on camera then get ready for disappointment. Either the filmmaker's kept any such fireworks out of the film or the crew at Vogue are a lot better at PR than others that have proceeded them in the "seemed like a good idea at the time" train wreck of letting a documentary film maker into their midst. The film is a bit short of aggressive drama, though it's pretty easy to read a lot into the disapproving looks from Anna when she's not impressed with something. That's fairly often in case you're wondering. She does come across as smart and in control and considerably more human than the caricature in The Devil Wears Prada. If you're a fan of the fashion industry then I'm sure this is a can't miss film (even if I suspect you won't learn much that you don't already know). It's well organized, professionally shot and does give a peek into the personalities behind Vogue (if not their motivations).
I'm not sure it pulls punches purposefully. At the same time it doesn't get deep enough into most of the supporting staff. More significantly, at least for me is that it only really skims the surface of the process that goes into creating Vogue. By the end I was somewhat convinced that there's more to the magazine than just throwing together a bunch of photos of underfed women in often ridiculous clothing. But I didn't feel as though I learned about what that "more" looks like in practice.
The most impressive part of the film for me was Vogue creative director Grace Coddington. On staff of Vogue for the last 20 years (and then British Vogue before that) I'm sure there's a ton to glean from the push/pull working relationship she has with Anna. But what truly impressed me was how visually beautiful and striking her work tended to be. Looking at the photos she was producing, for the first time I could actually understand why picking up and reading that magazine might interest me. There seems to be a consistent underlying tension between what she produces and what Anna wants driving positive tension throughout the film. Even if Anna's main objection tends to fall into one of two camps. Either - too much black, or not enough fur. Well I suppose the woman knows what she likes.
So interesting enough of a documentary. It could have been truly great - but for me it achieved just "good." If you're a fashion person definitely must see viewing. I learned some things and even changed my mind about a few. But I still likely won't be picking up the September issue.
Oh, it's based on a children's book that I probably loved as a kid but can't remember at all now? Ah, that makes somewhat more sense. Otherwise the target demographic of monsters outraged by their mistreatment at the hands of a human boy seems to give the film little shot at commercial success.
A boy starts off the film playing by himself building a snow fort. After a few ups and downs with neighbors and siblings he gets in a fight with his mom by being disruptive as she's entertaining a gentleman caller. Dressed in wolf like pajamas he runs away after biting her during his tantrum. Somehow he finds a boat, sails away to an island inhabited by a variety of monsters. There he's crowned King, manages to avoid being eaten and eventually grows enough to want to go back home. Or just figures the jig is up with the wild crowd. Hard for me to tell which.
The film brings to the table absolutely brilliant costuming and art direction. The ability of the non-human characters to convey emotion visually is impressive. You can add to that some entertaining performances by the often very sad monsters that occasionally seem like they could populate a Woody Allen film (the standout line for me was the one who sullenly mutters "oh, that's OK - I guess no one ever listens to me" in the corner of the frame). Though the lead "wild thing" being played by Tony Soprano was a bit distracting (kept trying to place to voice). A character who's both a moody and depressed yet prone to occasional fits of extreme violence doesn't seem like as large a stretch for James Gandolfini now that I think about it.
While the dialog kept me interested and I couldn't help but occasionally marvel at the visual presentation of the film I was never really pulled into the story. Not that there's really a very involved story - and given that it's based on a 20 page children's book that likely shouldn't be a surprise. I suspect that the film stays with the book's presentation more than one would expect for a 90 minute film. Guess I'll have to take a look next time I'm in a bookstore or library to confirm.
Throughout the movie I was laughing and curious about what would happen next, but I can't say it really struck a chord for me. About halfway through I stupidly realized "hey - this is a movie for kids." Whether younger cinephiles would enjoy it I truly cannot say. My strongest objection is to the running around through the woods/chase sequences which I felt where too quickly cut to visually follow and occasionally were a little too Blair Witch for my eyeballs.
Screening note: I got a chance to see an early screening of this film by attending a fundraiser at Cinerama to benefit 826 Seattle who both the writer of the film and the director are involved with. Got myself a burger king like crown for my trouble and a chance to see it on that nice Cinerama screen. If you do decide to check this out - do try to see it in a place with nice projection. It'd be a crime to at least not enjoy the costumes.
Will Not Stop There (Croatia) was definitely my favorite film of Sunday. It's not entirely easy to explain without giving away some of the best parts. It opens with the Djuro, the narrator (pictured to the left) setting up the story. As he plays his nose (yes - as an instrument) the voice over introduces us to the world he lives in. Through that - and the subsequent proceedings we learn that he's a man in love with his wife and needing to put bread on the table for his family he's been forced to use his "anomaly" for financial benefit. As a star of the local adult film industry I'll let you guess at exactly what that means. Though I will say that as opposed to a recent Lars von Trier film you only have to imagine that body part (excepting artistic representations late in the film) vs. having it greet you onscreen for shock value. Anyway... early on a man shows up looking for one of Djuro's co-stars, a Serbian woman. What the Croatian man wants with her is slowly revealed over the coarse of the film. It's both sad and sweet and often funny. All the parts together worked for me. I know some folks didn't think it ended super well - but I enjoyed the ride and how the pieces fit together. Don't think it'd be entirely fair to say much more about where the story goes, except that afterwards there's a similarity between other VIFF films Gigante and Castaway on the Moon that makes me wonder where this connecting theme is coming from.
Like You Know It All (S. Korea) is about a film director who has a preternatural ability to upset those around him without intending to. Self absorbed, he's a hard guy to like as he wanders from situation to situation. Whether it's upsetting the director of a film festival he's attending by promising to drink with some volunteers without any real intent, sleeping with his friends wife when they briefly think he's dead (I'm not joking), or sleeping with a faculty member's wife when he knows the guy is very much alive - problems seem to follow him around. As in some other recent films from Korea there's a lot of scenes of folks drinking too much while sitting around and talking. None as interesting as those from the recent film entirely about that aptly named Daytime Drinking that screened at SIFF this past year. The entire time I was watching this film I kept thinking it seemed very familiar. Afterwards I realized it's from the same director as Woman on the Beach. There are some structural similarities (both follow jerky directors who stir up problems without fully intending) and definite similar style and pacing. Though I believe I liked the earlier film better. This one felt a bit long, and while funny at parts didn't leave a very strong positive impression.
Air Doll (Japan) breaks what appears to be a basic rule of films about life sized sex dolls. Whether the dolls in question come to life or not, I thought these works were supposed to be light romantic romps. Not existential treatments of what it means to be alive and the loneliness of humanity. But I suppose I shouldn't have expected Lars and The Real Girl go to Tokyo from the director of Still Walking one of my favorite films from 2008 (which screened at VIFF 2008). When we first meet Nozomi (the air doll of the title) she's a companion for a middle aged salaryman who lives alone and comes home to dress her up, share his day with her, and yes use her for her intended purpose. After we have some time to understand the rythyms of the household Nozomi magically comes to life. This is handled pretty well visually - and the doll starting to take in her surroundings with a degree of control/ability to move, etc. is convincingly acted by the film's lead Du-na Bae. When her owner is away, Nozomi begins to get out on her own, exploring the neighborhood, getting a job at the local video store, etc. The film is clearly allegorical. Though about what I haven't quite settled on. There seems to be bit of an argument on IMDB about whether it is presenting Nozomi as a prostitute escaping sexual slavery or is instead about urban alienation and loneliness. Personally, I'm leaning more towards the latter. Nozomi has a series of encounters (some deeper than others) with fellow urban residents dealing with personal issues as she learns what being alive can entail. Though I can understand where one could see something of men using women as sexual objects/prostitution out of all this. Of all the films on Sunday this is the one most likely to lead to after film conversation among your friends. It is not a fun, light film but is well acted and at least visually interesting. Didn't love it - sort of felt neutral while watching. Though now that I'm sitting here trying to figure out what it was all about I'm starting to feel somewhat more positive. It's possible the urban loneliness and the destiny Nozomi seems to fight of being created for a specific purpose may have resonance with modern Japanese city dwellers that I don't fully have the background to understand.
Shameless (Czech Republic) follows the lives of a husband and wife as their marriage unravels. Pretty directly due to the husband's shameless chasing of their au pair due to a serious case of seven year itch (and perhaps an unmet need for engaging in an act with a woman that he tells his friend about with perhaps more relish than seems believable). Plus as he suddenly realizes his wife does have a prominent nose - seems as good a reason as any. Directed by the filmmaker who helmed Divided We Fall and Beauty in Trouble I went in with high expectations. It's a pleasant enough film (with at least one or two serious laughs) - though not as good as the latter (which I believe I saw on my first trip to VIFF several years back). Enjoyable while I watched it, but probably not going to stick with me that seriously. Still, nice to see not only Hollywood can make ephemeral films.
Bare Essence of Life (Japan) - An unusual film. I suspect it'll work for some, but for me it wasn't a great experience. The main character is a young man in rural Japan who seems to have some sort of developmental disability. He's easily excited and is behaves in a way I'd have to call disruptive in most social settings. Perhaps not super disruptive in America but clearly he's standout in that regard in the community he lives in. His only visible family member is a grandmother who runs a local organic farm and is concerned with his ability to cope without her. He's working on a vegetable patch of his own when we meet him, but even with tapes on how to farm from his grandfather and a system to keep him on a rigorous schedule he's having trouble getting things to work out. Enter a new kindergarten teacher who's moved to the area from Tokyo (to escape a bad relationship). In between causing trouble for her and the various community members he comes across the teacher and the man develop a sort of friendship. She even seems to like him a bit when he's able to stay calm. Unfortunately he comes to the belief that calming down so she'll like him is best achieved by being covered in pesticide (which he's not supposed to have in the first place). The disastrous result of this plan is occasionally almost as hard to watch as him trying to court her in the first place. For whatever reason I never fully was interested in the characters and the sort of wacky turns the film takes into the absurd towards the end didn't make up for the beginning. So cannot really recommend.
This film is a documentary covering various groups of Muslim youth around the US and Canada who inspired by a book about fictional Islamic punk rockers in Buffalo, NY started creating their own bands. A real life example of life imitating art. Though the quality of the "art" varies wildly between the bands showcased. As a fan of hardcore punk I personally think talent and not just enthusiasm do matter. The preponderance of the latter and a slight deficit of the former somewhat makes this doc a little less fun than it could be. Though I'm sure that's way besides the point of the filmmaker. In a punk doc I want to rock a bit - sue me. :-)
The doc definitely does some things right. Including
- Gives the basic info that out the book The Taqwacores a real life music movement has sprung up.
- Provides a little flavor for the music itself and the personalities of those involved.
- Throws some occasionally very funny humor from the kids into the mix. A personal favorite - when faced with some mechanical concerns about the bus one of the assembled band members jokes "we don't want it to blow up until we actually want it to."
- Manages to actually get through an entire film covering a music scene without anyone uttering "we're not about labels" on the screen. For that last one especially I'm more than willing to forgive the constant refrain from everyone on the tour bus (joking I believe) "... Now that's punk rock."
- Shows them showing up at a national conference religious conference, signing up for open mike night, having (dare I say it) women actually perform (Setara from Afghan Star would be so proud) and leaving some of the little kids in attendance clapping for more as they thrown out. Which along with their fuck off attitude is admittedly fairly "punk rock."
Some knowledge of punk/hardcore definitely adds to the experience. It helps one appreciate some of the song names such as 'Muhammad is a Punk Rocker and "Sharia Law in the USA" (featuring the lyric "I am an Islamist, I am The Antichrist") and the reference to The Taqwacore writer Michael Muhammad Knight looking like Ian MacKaye. But I don't know that's really vital to get something out of the film - but it did help in my case. Even if you're not that familiar with the music I suspect the spread in talent between the bands is pretty clear. I love the heart of all of 'em, though there were a few that were pretty good and I wish they were a bit more prevalent throughout the soundtrack. One of the joys of a punk doc (especially in the theater) should be getting caught up in the music.
The first 2/3 or so documents a bunch of these Taqwacore bands along with Knight setting off on a bus tour of the US. We learn some about the book, some about the inspiration of the kids and see a little of the music, accompanied by a lot of footage of them joking and talking amongst themselves. I didn't find this riveting, but interesting enough most of the time. The last third follows Knight back to Pakistan (where he spent time as a teenager after his initial conversion to Islam). One of the Taqwacore bands had gone back there to try to break into the local music scene and he checks in on their progress. While that's likely the most personal part of the film it seemed somewhat out of place with the beginning and pulled me in far less. I suspect the filmmakers felt they needed a narrative arc, but I'm not quite sure that's what they ended up with. If they had spent that time giving a deeper sense about the kids forming the front wave of the Taqwacore movement - how much of it was about religion to them vs. rebellion within their cultural upbringing, etc. I think it might have been better spent.
So all in all, interesting topic (at least for me) - though I didn't quite feel the doc gave me more insight than previous articles I'd read about the Taqwacore book. At the end of the day felt it wasn't that different than any youth rebellion through music. And perhaps that may well be the point.
Screening Note: I saw this film at the Vancouver International Film Festival last week. One of the nice things about a festival screening is that sometimes the folks involved in the film show up. The director (and apparently some of his buddies) came along. During the intro one of them was taping the director addressing the crowd. So far so good. Then this same entourage member sat down two rows in front of me with his camera. Filming the screen with the BRIGHT glowing viewfinder sticking out prominently. I figured maybe he wanted to tape the great VIFF trailers. So I said nothing. Then as the film started and the bright lights continued I thought perhaps he wanted to tape the intro title of the film at its world premiere. But when the lights stayed on after that I got up to say something. After asking him (I thought relatively nicely) to turn it off he flatly refused saying "it's at the request of the filmmaker." I suggested I didn't really much care as it was disturbing the screening and perhaps he should film from the back. I managed to control the growing need to point out it was a pretty dick move to irritate the folks who'd paid good money (and it wasn't as though they were turning folks away at the door) to support the film. When he still refused I went looking for an official - by the time they came back in it seems he finally thought the better of it. Relating the story to a friend with SIFF the next morning she suggested perhaps smashing the camera could have been an option. Now that would truly be "punk rock."
As we've learned from Rear Window nothing but good can come from observing strangers from a distance and making assumptions about what sort of people they are, how we would feel about them should we meet them in real life, etc. Well in keeping with that a theme at VIFF 2009 seems to be falling at love from a distance. And apparently it must be easier than you'd think to make a great film from this topic as the three films that I've seen (or saw before VIFF that will be appearing there this year) are pretty darn great. The three I've noticed for your consideration are below. See one - see all - each is very good in its own right.
- Gigante - Absolutely the best heavy metal themed stalking = love story I've ever seen. All kidding aside this was a very sweet (as long as you don't think about the likely outcome in real life) romantic film. A security guard falls for a member of his supermarket's cleaning crew. He starts to learn about her mainly through observation. First via the video surveillance system it's his job to monitor, and then by following her. A huge guy that also works as a bouncer and listens to metal he looks as though he could be a goon but of course turns out to be a sweet honorable guy. Again, except for the stalking.
- Castaway on the Moon Korean man is having a very bad day/life. Jumps off a bridge intending to end it all. Instead ends up stranded on a small island that's on the Han river. As he struggles to remake his life through self sufficiency he's observed by a young woman who's a shut in, living with her parents but not setting foot outside for three years. Together they overcome their fears only loosely connected across a distance (or at least a body of water). Well shot, sweet, interesting and quirky - but in a good way.
- Will Not Stop There - well calibrated romance/comedy/tragedy. Set in the modern continuing aftermath of the wars in the Balkans we're introduced to the story by the semi neutral narrator. As someone of Gypsy heritage he puts himself somewhat outside the conflict between Croats and Serbs. He's found a certain measure of financial security in the porn business due to his "anomaly." A seriously devoted family man except for the career his wife doesn't know he's asked to help find a former female co-worker by a man who appears from the blue. Why this Croatian man is looking for the wife of a former Serbian officer slowly unravels itself. As does the an involving, sweet and often funny story. Which in this case involves falling in love through the scope of a sniper rifle.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex is film about an interesting piece of history that managed to evoke some pretty strange responses in me. Most notably the ability to find it utterly fascinating and a bit boring almost but not quite at the same time.
The film is a docu-drama about the formation and rise of the RAF German terrorist group in the 1970's to the death in prison of the founders. I suspect the more you know about the group the more you'll get out of the film as characters come and go in a blur. And not really the semi-enjoyable blur of il Divo. I kept thinking things like - 'I wish I knew which character that one is...' Don't get me wrong - I definitely left knowing more about this period of history than I went in with. That and the some of the cinematic high points (one of which I mention below) made me glad I did go - if not quite as thrilled with the experience as I'd hoped for (and admittedly hope for every time I go into the dark of a theater).
First the very good. Near the start of the film German students are protesting the visit of the Shah of Iran. Pro-shah demonstrators start a attacking the protesters only to be joined by the police who savagely beat everyone in sight. Those moments are probably the strongest capturing of the fear and chaos that must accompany such a riot that I've seen on film. In those moments you get the "aha" moment of understanding how this truly could radicalize someone against such a state. And the film further fills in the gaps as some of the to-be members of the terrorist group talk about how they can never again allow fascists to come to power in Germany without resisting. As the generation whose parents were the literal Nazi's I could only imagine that urge to resist a repressive state would have been very very strong. So by way of explaining but not excusing the film does do a reasonable job setting things up.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film didn't capture my interest in the same way as a lot of ground is covered over a fairly short time (that said this is not a short film). Given the number of characters I never felt I got a chance to go deep enough into any of them. And the one character who's the most interesting - Horst Herold ( played well by Bruno Ganz), the top law enforcement officer in West Germany who seems way ahead of his time in seeking to understand the terrorists motivations as a tool to stopping them is almost criminally under explored. Not to mention their approach of using data mining to narrow down where the terrorists are hiding.
There's some humor mixed in (especially when you see the clash of the more liberal Germans attending the middle eastern (and clearly more conservative) terrorist training camps) which at times is illuminating and others just makes the 2.5 hour film more palatable. I've seen some reviews that criticize the film due to a belief that some of the action pacing of the RAF exploits glamorizes what they did. I didn't feel as negative on that point - to me some of the people doing it likely could have been influenced by that aspect of it - so to show it that way made sense. Given the surprising level of sympathy in the German public for the group as depicted in the film, that aspect of derring-do as a public relations plus likely existed at the time anyway. By the end I felt any level of sympathy for their initial urge to resist had long warn out its welcome with me. Just leaving people with objections to their society who were so sure that they were right that they were willing to kill for it. Which historically almost never works out well in the end. Regardless of the cause.
All in all - an interesting topic but a film that left me approaching boredom by its end. As a film I'd have to say a bit flawed - but far from horrible. Somewhere in the B- to C+ category for me.
First, on the material. The trailers gave me the impression the film was going to focus on the causes of the housing crisis. But that's mainly used as an example of the thesis that money has so corrupted politics that the entire system is rotten to the core. There's plenty of data to suggest that, much of it far more damning than what he puts up on screen. Though if you're unfamiliar with income inequality growth, the bizarre salary structure of pilots (which I tried to forget all the way to Telluride on a tiny plane earlier this month) and the changing dynamics of American capitalism in the last 20 years there are probably worse primers. For Moore who is unabashedly pushing his agenda it didn't generally seem to stretch the truth too much, with the possible exception of the complexities around the banking bailout. Putting aside how ridiculously it was handled there are smart people on the left who didn't quite think telling the banking industry to pound sand was a great solution. Though why a year later there's no meaningful regulatory change is pretty surprising.
If you're a semi-regular reader of any left wing rag like the NY Times most of what he brings up won't be news to you. Though I'll admit some things were new - for example companies buying life insurance on their non-key employees with the corporation as the beneficiary. Which I don't really understand as a pure mathematical exercise - if you knew enough about your employees longevity to make that pay off as a net positive (not counting the PR nightmare of course) you'd think it would be a loser for the insurance companies who'd then refuse to write you new policies.
So do I recommend or not? If you like Michael Moore then I guess this won't disappoint. If you're on the fence I wouldn't push you off towards going to see it. Either way it likely will (and should) leave you feeling a bit depressed. If you're just looking for a good time - perhaps consider Whip It or Zombieland instead.
That said, I think I may drive into Telluride from Denver next year after this reminder of what they're paying the pilots on those small planes ...
With only two days to watch films in Vancouver this weekend I didn't have a lot of spare time to eat, let alone tourism. Since I had to eat anyway figured I may at least try at least one new place. Given the convenient proximity decided to make that one place Japadog with their hot dog offerings fused with Japanese toppings. It was an interesting experience. For me shredded daikon with soy sauce didn't go so wonderfully with bratwurst. But I liked the plain beef alternative I also tried. Will probably give one of the other variants a chance next time.
BTW - if you click onto the picture you can see it at a higher resolution and actually read the menu. The blackberry camera isn't perfect - but occasionally surprises me with it's results.
Two quick things I wanted to mention coming out of Sunday. First is a strong recommend for 'Will Not Stop There' which was a well calibrated romance/comedy/tragedy. Set in the modern continuing aftermath of the wars in the Balkans we're introduced to the story by the semi neutral narrator. As someone of Gypsy heritage he puts himself somewhat outside the conflict between Croats and Serbs. He's found a certain measure of financial security in the porn business due to his "anomaly.". A seriously devoted family man except for the career his wife doesn't know he's asked to help find a former female co-worker by a man who appears from the blue. Why this Croatian man is looking for the wife of a former Serbian officer slowly unravels itself. As does the an involving, sweet and often funny story. Saying a lot more would probably take something away from it. Just add it to your list of things to see at VIFF. :-)
Second, wanted to compliment the folks at VIFF for another year of fantastic pre film trailers. I've seen three and they're all very good with two of them getting me to laugh out loud even on repeat viewings. I'm trying to hunt them down to link online but no success so far. Each is a riff on the theme "An Open Mind is Advised" playing on the similar sounding MPAA warnings. I can't decide if I like the one that starts with "warning, this film contains sexual situations ... that may cause you to question your sexuality ... or the sexuality of the friend who recommended the film ... or sexuality in general" as increasingly ridiculous aspects of the scene are revealed as the camera pulls back - or the one with a very funny set of warnings about subtitles that's too hard to recount well in writing.
Ok - gotta stop for now. Reality beckons.
Antichrist (Denmark) - started off the festival with the allegedly love it or hate it effort from the Danish director Lars von Trier. Actually I didn't love it, but can't say I hated it either. The first scene was beautifully shot and cinematographically (if that's a word) truly impressive. But the next major section of the story are the wife being very upset over the tragic death of their son, and her therapist husband being a possibly well meaning but annoying know it all. Then the extent of the mental illness involved becomes clearer and we get to watch something that's hard for me not to compare to Saw torture porn. Admittedly some of it is creative. I'll certainly never think of the phrase about being tied to the grindstone the same way again. On twitter I quipped that absent the death of the child it was way too reminiscent of my first marriage for my taste. But when I wasn't looking away I wasn't really that interested (again - outside the first scene).
Nymph (Thailand)- went to see this mainly because I really enjoyed the directors last film 'Ploy.' This one was interesting with a similar languid pace and playing games with our perceptions of what's on screen. But it failed to capture me in the same way. More later I suppose. Not a bad choice in between things, but I wouldn't advise skipping something you're dying to see for it.
Castaway on the Moon (South Korea) - The best fictional film of the day. And probably would hold up well even against a stronger day. A Korean man is having a very bad day/life. Jumps off a bridge intending to end it all. Instead ends up stranded on a small island that's on the Han river. As he struggles to remake his life through self sufficiency he's observed by a young woman who's a shut in, living with her parents but not setting foot outside for three years. Together they overcome their fears only loosely connected across a distance (or at least a body of water). The view from a distance reminds me of Gigante (a must see for VIFF 09) but it's a completely different film. Well shot, sweet, interesting and quirky - but in a good way.
The Young Victoria (Canada) - solid if uninspiring historical melodrama. At least as opposed to some recent films (yes, I'm looking at you Bright Star) I actually believed the connection between Victoria and her love (eventual husband)