Saturday, December 19, 2009

Homeward Bound

Heima(At Home)(2007)Directed By Dean Deblois
From the director of "Lilo and Stitch" comes one of the most beautiful music documentaries? I Watched it completely on accident and was totally entranced. Each of the dozen or so performances are done in rural areas, caves, rundown barns, abandoned buildings, coffee shops, a protest at the building of a damn, and only at the end on an actual stage.Sigur Ros had just released their fourth album and finished a world tour when they decided to play a series of free shows across Iceland, largely unannounced until the day of the show. In the performance at the damn the band decided to play acoustic (since using a generator would be kinda hypocritical while protesting an electric damn) and the wind picks up at the beginning hissing against the cameras without PA to drown out the white noise. But as the song progresses the wind stops and the sounds soar. Spontaneous moments like this or when a dog wanders up walking between the performers, give each song and venue an unpredictable truly "live" feeling. A performance in an abandoned building with only the lead singer on guitar and four of the band's string players seem to echo in the dilapidated building. The name of the film translates to "At Home", and this is very much a poem to the bands native country and the beauty of it's landscapes both natural and urban. The settings are often of faded places being consumed by nature and time, in a minimalist nature porn that would Andy Goldsworthy proud. Although in the case of the damn, the area of the performance is latter submerged under water, as the urban "blight" consumes the landscape. This visual motif runs through the film, but the performances are far from somber, as the audiences attracted to the shows are a both young and old, music fan and curious onlooker, and whole families. The distance created by the obscure imagery is closed in the same moments by the warm focus placed on the regular people attending the shows. The band also performs with a Icelandic poet, and again with a man who creates a kind of marimba music out of different kind of stones using volcanic rocks, flaky stones form cliff slides, and river rocks to produce different tones. An Icelandic choir chants beneath a green hill, and we can hear the connection between these chants and the bands general sound (similarities even the band didn't seem to be aware of until filming). Though they have a lead vocalist and voice is very important to their do I say this without it sounding like a gimmick, oh well...the band have no lyrics as such, and sing in a made up glossia language, making melodic sounds that suit the music. As wiki explains it, "Vonlenska is a non-literal language, without fixed syntax, and differs from constructed languages that can be used for communication. It focuses entirely on the sounds of language; lacking grammar, meaning, and even distinct words. Instead, it consists of emotive syllables and phonemes; in effect, Vonlenska uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language. In this way, it is similar to the use of scat singing in vocal jazz. The band's website describes it as "a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music". Most of the syllable strings sung by Jnr Birgisson are repeated many times throughout each song, and in the case of ( ), throughout the whole album." You can pretend it's just a foreign language if that makes you feel better though. Because there are no words, their music has a blankness and openness to it that gives the listener the ability to project their own thoughts and emotions, without disconnecting from the most immediate instrument that so much instrumental "post rock" can miss; the human voice. Their music is melancholy, grand, triumphant, and intimate at different times, but I wont waste too many words trying to describe it. Words like ambient, glacial, falsetto are used allot in such descriptions, and would be appropriate. The band is interviewed in between songs, and they are humble and unpretentious. Certain sounds are beautiful and just feel "right", no more, no less. They like playing for people who wouldn't normally see them, and are genuinely pleased that each town greets the shows so warmly. The phrase "this is nice" is used several times by several different members, but you know what? It is nice. Footage of kids flying kites are inter cut with a performance, and in one shot we see 10 red kites flying together like a flock of birds. As to the question of whether this was an elaborate promotion scheme or a sincere effort to "give back" to their homeland, I refer to the kites. Maybe the kids were given kites, maybe the kites were edited in later, but does it really matter? Some kids did fly kites and at some point there 8 of them in the sky, and whether this was "authentic", Herzogian "ecstatic truth", or contrived is immaterial. The combinations of sounds, places, and people create a rhythm that "just feels right". Home is where the...etc. I just watched this and while it was still fresh I wanted to recommend it to just about everyone. I'm not a big fan of documentaries about bands in general, so this was a very pleasant surprise. Like listening to the band's recorded music (which I am biased about since I am a fan of the band who are largely responsible for my love of "The Life Aquatic" and apologist view of "Vanilla Sky") this left me with warm fuzzy feelings. The 90's modern attempts at Woodstock ended in orgies of over-priced water and sexual assaults, so it's nice to see a band somewhere in the world could create free music in intimate venues, that people could appreciate and get behind. Almost everyone appreciated it anyway. One of the bands grandmothers attended a show, but said it was too loud, and when she found out it was on TV, decided to go home and watch it there.When the concert strobey light and video effects came on in the final climatic moments, she thought her tv was messed up and turned it off. You can't please everyone.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Joys Of Bieng Hung

Qun long xi feng (Pedicab Driver)(1989) Directed By Sammo Hung
"...The film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word...emotion." -Samuel Fuller, "Pierrot Le Fou"Before "Kung-Fu Panda" there was Sammo Hung, who is a burly martial arts action star, and in "Pedicab Driver" a five star director who knows how to throw his weight around without missing a beat. Like Jackie Chan (who he choreographed fight sequences for), Hung combines physical comedy with self propelled stunt work, showcasing both the fury and the funny. In 1930's Macau, China two rival groups of pedicab drivers negotiate how to split up the cities work, half will take passengers, and the other half will take cargo, and civil war is nearly averted until a chef chases a cat into the room and all hell breaks loose. The subsequent battle seamlessly recalls both "Star Wars" and "The Three Stooges", without loosing any of it's frantic energy or becoming a parody. Pedicab Driver is first and foremost a Hong Kong action film, but while watching it you don't get the sense that each scene is designed to introduce a new excuse to fight. Some sequences, like the battle in the gambling den, do seem non-sequitters, as we never return to that set or it's characters, but the execution of this scene is so flawless that you rarely ease back from the edge of your seat long enough to mind let alone gripe. Sammo and his friend "Malted Candy" are passenger drivers, who both fall in love in with different girls at the same time. Sammo has to compete with a lecherous baker to win the heart of his girl in classic slapstick fashion. While Malted Candy's story, which is minimized early on but expanded later, takes the form of a romance, and then a tragedy once it's revealed that his love interest is not all she seems. This does not have the makings of a great tale, but it is very much a great movie, that handles these stories with a poise that genuinely enhances the action sequences, which are almost submerged under the story and characters (a rarity if not a freak, for an action film of this caliber).Yes, the bad guy is ugly, the good guy is handsome which is all very obvious, but Sammo is big ol kung fu teddy bear, whose agility and lightening fast speed belie his Chris Farely physique, and it's his performance which elevates the movie into something amazing. The comedy is funny, the romance is sweet, and the action is one of a kind combining the best of martial arts cinema, with an easily accessible drama that makes us care about the characters and their pains, joys, and inevitable revenge. Pedicab Driver is badass and brutal at times, but never sacrifices the charming lightness that makes the movie so enjoyable and gratifying in a way few of it's exciting peers (then and now) permit themselves to be. It's the type of film that gives the impression that everyone involved was enjoying themselves by effortlessly doing what I do best. This joy pours from the screen, and it's hard not to become immersed in it. I recently watched another HK action film featuring Sammo called "Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain" and though it had similar sizzling combat (though largely artitifial; wire or animation driven), it lacked a humane element, like reading a dry translation of an ancient myth. Pedicab Driver has a face, and a heart, and a fist, and watching them collide is a true joy to behold. I challenge anyone to not be entertained by this movie. Go on, I dare you!