Monday, September 22, 2008

Stand In The Christmas Lights And Dissolve

Morvern CallarDirected by Lynn Ramsay(2002)
Mix tapes from the dead and stolen novels, mean ambigious beautifully photographed crowded dance halls and lonely deserts. After Morvern's boyfreind kills himself on Christmas Day, he leaves a note saying "don't try to understand, be strong, pay for my funeral with my account and send my book to the publishers", and instead she cuts up his corpse burries him(after several days of him on the kitchen floor), signs her name to his book, and uses the advance to go on a trip to Spain to with her best freind, who she later ditches in the desert.
Though the journey sounds thrilling and surreal, and it many of its finest moments it is, it's a also haunted one, beautifully photographed and excellently aurally composed. It is as much and visual and tonal expression of isolation as it is a feast for the senses. There's very little dialogue and somewhat thick scottish accents are a little hard to hear without subtitles, in many scenes though what is audible is often fighting over the roar of crowds or the roar of music. Not unike Callar herself, one small voice, among many, being at best, partially heard, but talking on anyway. Samantha Morton (the main pre-cog in Minority Report) is hypnotic and commanding, as is the movie in general.
One of the best Christmas films in years!
"Stand in the Christmas Lights and dissolve"- Marnie Stern, Grapefruit

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Gandahar(Light Years)
Directed by Rene Laloux(1988)

"My quest began with a riddle: 'In a thousand years Gandahar was destroyed. A thousand years ago Gandahar will be saved and what can't be avoided will be." French animater Rene Laloux of "Fantastic Planet" renown, attempted to make another surreal sci-fi adventure with the 80's "Ghandar" or as Isac Asimov and Harvey Wienstien decided to call it for those of us in the states "Light Years", which since no space travel takes place, and since the movie is about a fictional country called "Gandahar" is probably a bad title. "Light Years" I guess sounds more sci-fi-ish, and if this film was to succed in the states(it didnt) it was gonna need every bit of conventionality it could muster. The story is a complex one involving the standard sci-fi tropes of eugenics, time travel, death, and utopia, and though it's certainly more involved than most animated sci-fi (a good deal of the time were watching the characters talk), it's really the visualization of the world and it's inhabitants which makes this movie worth seeing.
Like "Fantastic Planet" before it, Laloux's enviornments are some of the most alien that have ever been imagined. The landscape is often undulating Daliesuqe deserts, which strange trees which resemble simultaneously bodily organs and guysers, a young girl offering her breast to a new born who looks like a tapir, born out of a grown embryonic plant, a city of underground mutants who resemble Blemmyes, ancient african monsters with heads beneath their shoulders, an army hollow soldiers who turn people into statues, video camera like birds who can lift entire buildings in swarms, and of course a collossul mile wide sentient brain in the middle of the ocean.
Laloux uses sci-fi story structures to create, very evokative images that do not look like anyone elses, ever, something few filmakers in any medium or genre, can claim with straight face. That being said the English voice acting is just decent, not great but decent, it keeps the story moving, but doesn't draw you into any of the characters. "Light Years" like "Fantastic Planet" or the animated films of Svankmajer are more concerned with form than content, but not oblivious of the latter. So if you like heady sci-fi, visually stunning design, and unique animation, this is not to be passed up. If not it's probably not bad to see once anyway, just for the visual treat of it all, and the more I mull over the story, not the plot, I'm more impressed with how well and vividly it told me a story Ive heard a hundred times before.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset

"Critic" is a four-letter word

"A critic at a performance is like a eunuch at a harem. He sees it done nightly, but is unable to perform it himself. --Brendan Behan

“A lot of people don't know what "critic" means. They think it means, "a person who criticizes." They don't like people who do that. It seems an impotent profession. Critics are nasty, jealous, jaded and bitter. They think it's all about them. They're know-it-alls. They want to appear superior to everyone else. They're impossible to please. They don't understand the tastes of ordinary people. They love to tear down other people's hard work. Those who can do it, do it. Those who can't do it, criticize. What gives them the right to have an opinion? We'd be better off without them.

Criticism is a destructive activity. If I like something and the critics didn't, they can't see what's right there before their eyes because they're in love with some theory. They don't have feelings; they have systems. They think they know better than creators. They praise what they would have done, instead of what an artist has done. They use foreign words to show off. They're terrified of being exposed as the empty poseurs they are. They are leeches on the skin of art.
Many wise words have been written in defense of critics, usually by themselves. Some of the wisest were written by Brad Bird, in "Ratatouille," a cartoon about rats. He gives this speech to Anton Ego, a food critic:

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends... Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."

I think Anton is too hard on critics, although perhaps he is writing autobiographically. Is he correct that "average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so?" I would suggest that the average piece of junk is not meaningful at all, apart from the way it conditions the minds of its beholders to accept more pieces of junk. How important is criticism of it? Powerless, usually. Why do critics bother with it? I will appoint myself spokesman. We had to endure it and want our revenge. We enjoy writing scathing and witty prose. We know we are rarely writing for those who seek out junk. Perhaps we hope we entertain, and encourage the resolve of those who avoid it.

Anton says something I agree with when he speaks of "the discovery and defense of the new." By "new" I would mean not something unique, although if we are lucky we sometimes come across such things. I was lucky to write the first reviews of films by Martin Scorsese, Mike Leigh, and Gregory Nava. But I was not therefore especially gifted. All I had to do was look at what was before me, and describe what I saw. Scorsese, Leigh and Nava had to create their work. They discovered the new. A critic can defend it, publicize it, encourage it. Those are worth doing.
A new documentary by Todd McCarthy opened in New York the other day: "Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema." I saw it at Toronto 2007, and I hope it opens around the country. You likely have never heard of Pierre Rissient, but it is likely he has had more influence on the world of good films in the last 60 years than anybody else. I tried to explain why in this article. Pierre says his role in many situations is to "defend," by which he means "support," the films and directors he approves. The Telluride Film Festival named one of its cinemas after him, and made T-shirts quoting him: "It is not enough to like a film. One must like it for the right reasons."
That sounds like critical snobbery, but is profoundly true. I don't think Pierre is referring only to his reasons, although knowing him well, I suppose he could be. I think he's saying you must know why you like a film, and he able to explain why, so that others can learn from an opinion not their own. It is not important to be "right" or "wrong." It is important to know why you hold an opinion, understand how it emerged from the universe of all your opinions, and help others to form their own opinions. There is no correct answer. There is simply the correct process. "An unexamined life is not worth living."

Too many simply absorb. They are depositories for input. They can hardly be expected to be critical of their own tastes, can they? Of course they can. It is not enough simply to be a "Cubs fan," although I confess I am one. It is necessary to feel the philosophy, the history, and even the poetry about the activity called "baseball." It is helpful to step outside a little, and see that sports teams are surrogates for our own desires to conquer, and expressions of our xenophobia. For some, they are even the best way ever invented to drink beer outdoors. If you are only a Cubs fan, you are a willing automaton in a business venture. Join me in being a Cubs fan, but know why you do it. What is my most fundamental reason? I am a fan because they are always the underdogs. That may be why I bought a Studebaker 30 years after the company went out of business.

But enough of baseball and cars. What about movies? I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn't have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some "work" and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging. He can defend them, and regard them as important in the face of those who are "just looking for a good time." He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie. We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.

Don't think for a second that I am proposing myself as that critic. I am only trying to define what I aspire to. I have learned most of what I know about movies from other critics, and by critics I mean everyone who has ever given me an interesting insight into a film. If "Siskel & Ebert & Roeper" had any utility at all, it was in exposing viewers, many of them still children, to the notion that it was permitted to have opinions, and expected that you should explain them.

When they were quite young, Gene Siskel took his daughters Kate and Callie to an animated children's film. On the way out, he asked them what they thought of it. One said, "I didn't like it, daddy." Gene replied, "Honey, you've just made me the proudest pop in the world."

Roger Ebert
on September 18, 2008 10:39 PM

(Arvia got me watching “Ebert And Roeper”, over the last year. Roger Ebert hasn’t been on the show once, still out sick. And though I often disagreed with Roeper, it was nice to hear a few occasional intelligent sound bites about new movies, every week. The new line-up of critics, for the show, now that Ebert and Roeper split, I think are terrible. They just don’t seem very interesting, and look a little too much ETV personalities (They don’t have the look of people who spend prolonged time in the dark watching lights flicker). Also the show is lit far too brightly, nothing like a theater, more like a game show. Shorter time for reviews and discussion as well, with less mention made to other films or film makers. Actual talk time consists of very mundane plot and performance/ performer discussion, which I generally don’t find very interesting.

However, I do agree with Anton Ego, that, “the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so”, or at least has the possibility to be. There are even times of this in reverse, when the criticism may be more interesting than the work itself. Then again I’m not particularly interested in criticism as a profession. For me it is not “the un-examined life which is not worth living”, it is the un-shared. The only thin pretense I need to engorge myself as I have essentially since I was old enough to be placed in front a tv and be told to “be quiet”, on constant movies, is that if I come across a good one, it may be worth sharing with others, even if it’s just other fetishists like myself, or better yet, people nothing like myself. And more than a lust for “revenge”, I harbor a desire for reciprocation, that is, more films to watch and more reasons to watch them. Criticism can be a conversation, as much as a “lesson” to use Ebert’s teacher association. The path between viewer and subject, need not be one-way.

Anyway, I have a class soon, and can’t get too carried away, just thought I would share.)

by Me, September, 19, 2008 10:39AM (freaky coincidence?)

For more information:
“The Critic As Artist”
By Oscar Wilde

Monday, September 8, 2008

Reflections And Shadows

Directed by Dave Mckean(2005)

The fragmented comic-book art of Dave Mckean comes to life in MirrorMask, a simple fantasy tale of an inverted world, and girl on a quest.The plot is kinda standard with some fantastical twists from screen writer Niel Gaiman ("Beawolf", "Stardust"), about a girl who lives at the circus and dreams of joining the real world, until her mother falls suddenly ill. Somehow young Helena finds her way, into a phantasmoagorical world which resembles her drawings of a magic kingdom. The enviornmnt of MirrorMask itself, kinda defies general description; floating colossal golems, penguin apes with wings, sphynx like alley cats who eat books, flying easily offended towers, and free floating fish, etc.
What's really unique about this film is how the heavily augmented digital effects actual make the film feel like a dream(not in a David Lynch, Jacob's Ladder way).The images here have an actual hazzy, fleeting, disconnected way(closer to "Waking Life"), or looking at the world through half developed photographs. Things flicker in and out of focus, while others hover in the artificial background, which because everything is moving anyway, begins to feel very organic.
If you like all encompasing visual spectacle and don't mind a simplistic children's film plot, it's well worth the time. A rare kind of children's film, which doesn't reinvent old troupes and symbols, it has a startling variety of it's own. A perfect marriage of conceptual whimsy and technological savvy, keep the movie above being a mere trove of neat screen-savers. Also has a great musical number, with a dreary mechanized cover of"Close To You" , while clockwork mannequins dress Helena as princess of shadows. Dave Mckean is a multi-media master(he's done covers to every issue of Niel Gaiman's "Sandman", as well as several graphic novels with Gaiman; "Violent Cases", "Signal To Noise", "The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch", not to mention "Batman: Arkahm Asylumn" with Grant Morison, and his own epic "Cages"), whose singular style translates very well visually, and more than anything else, makes the movie worth seeing. MirorMask is a world onto itself.

"TV Party Tonight!"

The Signal
Directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry(2007)

My only real "surprise" watching a film this year has been watching "The Signal". I loved "Dark Knight", "The Fall", and "I'm Not There" but I expected, to, at least, be interested in those, "The Signal", however, I got on a whim, and got lucky.3 directors tell three stories, about the same group of people suriving an apacolyptic event on New Years Eve. All televesion, radio, and cell phones begin broadcasting...the signal...which leads to symptoms of paranoia, agression, hullucination, and inevitably psychotically attacking and killing all those around you.But that's all old hat really, what makes this, different from the assembly line of "28 Days Later" imitations, are the stylistic shifts in tone, from horror, to comedy, to psychological thriller.What begins as slighly off beat horror film, becomes by the second half hour a horror comedy mocking and criticing the first half, then once the emotional stew of nervous laughter and dread begin to marinate, a slow simmering of psychological confusion is poured over everything for the third and final chapter.The Signal does not drive it's victims to act off simple savage bloodlust, or reduce them to a state of midnlessness, in fact, it fully convinces them that they are in "the only sane one", that all of their actions are for the common good and the best. That they are in effect, heroes who are doing what must be done.The old addage that the insane never know they are crazy, that mental breakdowns are often associated with "moments of clarity", is where this film plays it's best cards, and most interestingly distorts, the cliche's of "survival" stories like this. What's really scary and intimidating today, isn't an army of mindless drones killing without sense, it's an aware, intelligent mind, that "believes" what it is doing is "absolutely" right and good when it kills you with an axe, or tortues you for information, you couldn't possibly have.The story all takes place in a town called "Terminus", a vowel and some change away from "terminal". From the word go, you know these characters aren't going to end happily ever after. Just as, the movie assumes, youve seen at least one similar "zombie" or "end of the world" type movie, enough to understand what this film is setting you up for, and all the directions it's not going to go in.So far it's the best horror film of 2008, and one of the most inventive, funny, disturbing (not really scary), thoughtful, and entertaining horror movies Ive seen in years. A bit jarring at first, but good times.

Man Is A Strange Animal

Human Nature
Directed by Michel Gondry(2001)

Franz Kafka's "A Report To An Academy" is the story of an ape testifying before an academy the story of how he learned to speak and think like a human and why. Though he comes to love music and eventually accepts his fate, he admits that he only began learning from his human teachers as a way to escape from his cage.Michel Gondry's "Human Nature", is one of the earliest Charlie Kaufman("Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation", "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind") scripts , and it takes Kafka's story and modernizes it in unexpected ways.
A woman with a rare condition which causes her to grow hair all over her body in vast amounts, forsakes the world and becomes a nature writer, who leaves her isolation only to find a mate. Tom Robbins plays this mate, a fastidious, obsessive compulsive, scientist obsessed with teaching table manners to mice.
The two then meet a man who was raised as an ape by his father who went insane after the Kennedy assasination, and the scientist and his now shaved assistant decide to make an example of the ape-man by civilizing him.
If this sounds a bit ridiculous I should also add that there are three different versions of the story being narrated by Tim Robbins from the afterlife to whatever powers that be, Patricia Arquette to the police in an interrogation room, and Rhys Ifans (our ape man) testifying before congress.A funny, egeniusly smart, wonderfully stylized film, from a writer director team who would go on to "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind".All performances are also top notch, in this crinimally underseen, and fascinating film.