Monday, December 14, 2009

2009/2010 Winter/Spring Series

1/21 - Anvil: The Story of Anvil
1/28 - Treeless Mountain
2/04 - This Film Is Not Yet Rated
2/11 - Munyurangabo
2/18 - Encounters at the End of the World
2/25 - Hobson's Choice
3/04 - Night of the Hunter
3/11 - Moon
3/25 - Monty Python's Life of Brian
4/08 - Boys Don't Cry (Chosen by The Group That Opened The Box)
4/15 - Dear Zachary: A Letter to a son about his father
4/22 - The Class

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Paranormal’s Domestic Activities

When I was a kid, the next door neighbors were odd. They didn't leave the house much. He was a pianist, she a housewife. One night, I awoke at 3:00 a.m. and heard a faint popping sound. I went back to sleep. In the morning, my mother was distraught and there were police cars everywhere. The housewife had shot the pianist dead during the night.

It came out that he had been abusing his wife for years, gradually building over time, until she was finally pushed over the edge. But why did they continue to live in this situation? Why didn't she seek help or move out? They remained cut off from the world, until something really bad finally happened.

In Paranormal Activity (2007), a young woman, Katie, shares a home with her boyfriend Micah. After moving in together, she shared with him that she’s been haunted since childhood. His response was to buy an expensive video camera and try to catch the ghosts in the act. She’s not crazy about the idea, but he’s so enthusiastic, like a boy with a new toy. Each night, something happens, something more frightening each time. And Micah keeps on shooting and they both keep on falling asleep together at bedtime.

A friend complained. He said, “With all of the freaky things going on, why didn’t the characters do something? Why didn’t they go to a hotel?” “Well,” I replied, “the movie does say that the haunting goes wherever she goes, so not much point in leaving.” (I did wonder though how they were able to keep falling asleep each night fully knowing crazy stuff was sure to happen.) But later I wondered, “Maybe their inaction meant something more.”

So, consider this proposition: Paranormal Activity is in one sense a nice, scary little demon-possession story about a guy who is a bit of an immature jerk sharing a haunted house with his girlfriend. And it is also an allegory representing a case study in domestic violence.

I first noted a nice poetic symmetry between the title Paranormal Activity and the phrase “Domestic Violence.” Then I noticed a strange echo between the movie’s end titles and my childhood experience. Micah has been found dead by the police just as was the pianist. Katie has not been seen since just as was the case with the pianist’s wife – at least not by us or her other neighbors. I then wondered: “What’s going on, lurking just out of sight, between the beginning and the end of this intriguing little movie?”

Representing the abuser in my proposed allegory (abuse by over-zealous videoing?), Micah has no problem sleeping at night. Standing in for the abused, it is Katie who wakes up every night in fear. The abuser is in control, is the one with peace of mind. The victim is the one who suffers. Katie is always the one to first awaken in the very early morning hours, sometimes screaming. Micah is such a sound sleeper that he even remains conked out after his blanket has been pulled from his body.

Victims of abuse characteristically experience feelings of there being no way out and no one to help them. The movie clearly makes the point that the demon will follow Katie wherever she goes. They could pack their bags and check into a motel, but it would be to no avail. There’s no escaping the terror. A psychic is invited into their home on two occasions. He is characterized as being ridiculously ineffective though. On his second visit, he can hardly wait to make tracks. This surface story plot contrivance and flimsy character work as perfect representations for “no way out for the abused” and “no one to help her.”

Abusive situations are often the latest in a long history of abuses. Both the abuser and the abused accept the behavior because they were taught to accept it by their parents. It is interesting how strongly the point is made that the haunting has been going on for Katie since childhood. And when her childhood photo is discovered, it has been burned around the edges. It has a similar visual effect as if she had rolled up her sleeve to reveal a cigarette burn on her arm, left there long ago by her father.

For the movie to be an allegory for an abusive relationship such as the one of my childhood experience, there are two things that must be represented: the behavior of the abuser and the growing resistance to that abuse by the abused, ultimately taking the form of some final action to end it. The haunting, the demon, clearly represents this growing resistance. Along this line of thought, Katie’s final action of attacking the camera seems quite logical (more on that in a moment). It also makes sense that the demon’s entire animus is directed toward Micah – remember the photograph on the wall and Micah’s saying, “Why did it only scratch my face?”

The behavior of the abuser is represented by the camera and how Micah wields it. In movies of this first person genre, whenever a man (so often a man) points a camera at a woman (so often a woman) and keeps shooting her even after she has asked him to stop, she is being violated, abused. Paranormal Activity contains constant variations on Katie asking Micah to stop and he only complies once, to get sex. Tensions related to his new little hobby build between them steadily. The use of profanity pointedly escalates throughout the movie. She almost makes him leave the bedroom and sleep downstairs with his camera at one point before they tentatively kiss and make up. And Katie’s going downstairs and outside at night can be read as escaping from the camera's unwanted gaze.

Paranormal Activity will go down in history as a movie that made countless people afraid to go to bed at night, like Psycho (1960) made people afraid to take showers. But the fear I’ll always remember is what must’ve been in the wife’s eyes as she looked into those of the pianist for the last time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The most pleasant surprise of this month’s Fall Cinema 100 series is the wonderfully realized drama “Tulpan” from Kazakhstan. Set in rugged desert terrain, all dry and dusty and windy, the movie captures the life of a herding family with a refreshing sense of realism. It also, perhaps a bit oddly, reminded me of “Star Wars.”

Asa, the main character, lives in a yurt with his sister Samal, her husband Ondas, and their three children. Ondas is tough and strong and devoted to this rugged life even though he is deeply troubled by a high rate of stillborn lambs. Asa is different. He’s slight of build and a dreamer. The setting they live in reminded me constantly of the planet Tatooine from “Star Wars.” And Asa with his eyes forever peering over the horizon resembles Luke Skywalker.

In an early and infectious scene, Asa and his buddy Boni travel across the desert in a truck. They groove and bop to the strains of the reggae classic “Rivers of Babylon.” Asa is especially happy as he hangs off the back of the truck, wind blowing in his face. It’s a wondrous expression of freedom. They are travelling home after almost meeting Tulpan, the girl of Asa’s dreams.

Tulpan (meaning Tulip) is an interesting character. Or rather she’s more of an apparition than a flesh and blood girl. Asa has never seen her face, never really met her. She’s like a hope, a dream, something keeping him going. The scene where he goes to visit her is beautifully mysterious with Asa remaining outside of the door to her home, gently speaking with her, encouraging her to show him her face. She never does.

She’s like a dream that keeps him tied to the desert life. The only available girl left in the region. She counterbalances the pull he feels from his best buddy to adventure and toward the “big city” that is out there, somewhere. This herding life may not be for him, he knows instinctively. And it’s just too depressing having to gaze upon more and more dead baby lambs every day.

I won’t go into specifics, but there are two scenes that cause Asa’s head to spin and that pull him in different directions, seemingly pulling him apart. There’s a scene between him and Tulpan’s mother that is almost cruel in the bluntness of the reality it forces him to face. And then there’s a remarkable scene involving the difficult birth of a lamb that asks him to reassess his place in this parched, life or death land.

“Tulpan” ends with Asa and Boni again travelling across the desert by truck and again listening to “Rivers of Babylon.” But now the joyful sense of freedom has left Asa. He sulks, torn between loss of hope and new-found responsibility. He’s an image of a Luke Skywalker who had never been permitted to see the princess’s face.

The movie’s dusty realism frequently fills the screen with pleasures. The desert has always been a highly photogenic landscape and never more so than here, especially when howling winds envelope the characters in swirls of blowing sand. And the images of children at play are delightfully vivid.

I wish more movies would realize – as “Tulpan” does – that nothing is more magical than simple moments such as a young girl dealing with the stress and boredom of her existence by singing, beautifully and loudly. The scenes here of children singing have a way of making the characters – and us – forget all of life’s hardships.

“Tulpan” has not been rated, but is suitable for all ages. It screens at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 22 at 3:00 and 5:30.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Willow Tree

Majid Majidi has been quietly working away for years building up a body of work of supreme simplicity, beauty, and grace. My favorite example is the two young siblings who, forced by circumstances, share a pair of shoes in “Children of Heaven.”

"The Willow Tree" takes a darker, moodier, more volatile approach, but Majidi’s light and delicate hand and wonderfully observed eye is still at the forefront. I was often in awe by the sheer simplicity of his scenes and the emotional wallop they packed.

“The Willow Tree” tells the story of Professor Youssef who has been blind since age eight when fireworks scorched his eyes. He’s now middle-aged, happily married, and lovingly devoted to his young daughter. We meet him as this juncture because doctors have developed a surgical procedure that may restore his sight. Shortly after we meet him, he is off to Paris for the operation.

I may be giving too much away by this comparison – at least for people who’ve read Keyes’ book – but “The Willow Tree” offers a structure and effect similar to “Flowers for Algernon.” In that story, a mentally challenged man is given the chance to live a life of above average intellect through an experimental surgery. His loss of innocence though proves to be a proverbial two-edged sword. Both joy and pain beyond his prior ability to imagine comes with knowing too much.

We see expressions of Youssef’s happiness before the surgery such as the idyllic opening scene where twigs float down a stream rolling and mingling in the gentle turbulence until they arrive at father and daughter, seated under a tree, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon. At another moment, his wedding band slips from his finger and rolls across the floor. As he gropes in despair, his wife nudges it carefully toward his searching hand.

After his surgery, he impatiently tears away his bandages and moves toward the light from a window. His first visual image in decades is of an ant struggling across a window sill under the weight of an enormous crumb. He walks out into the hospital corridors and runs back and forth, giggling childishly until he stops in his tracks, sobered by his reflection in a window. He doesn’t recognize the old man he now sees.

Movingly rendered is his arrival home at the airport. He is greeted by a mass of people, cheering and waving, all of them visually complete strangers to him. He desperately searches the faces for any glimmer of recognition, finally settling on one who must be his mother. Hers is the only face filled with calm, caring warmth. He mouths “mother” and she nods. She then helps him lay eyes on his wife and daughter for the first time in his life. I don’t cry during movies often. I did here.

Youssef also faces a newfound emotional dilemma. He finds himself infatuated with his pretty young niece. Now that his eyes have expanded the size of his world, so have they expanded the range of his temptations. Peering cautiously through leaves, rose in hand, he anticipates a meeting with his new infatuation only to be devastated as she happily hops into a car with a young man. The camera then tilts down to reveal that his wife has also observed his crush, and his crushing disappointment.

It is the saddest moment in Majidi’s work to date when Youssef’s mother observes her son’s desire for infidelity. And later, as he throws a childish tantrum, she quietly walks away, leaving him alone. Their eyes meet across a courtyard – although the expanse feels measured more in years than feet – for a final brief moment, a moment where both register the enormity of her disappointment. Then she enters her house and closes the door.

I’ve been adding and re-adding all of this up for days and haven’t quite decided how I feel about the moral of the tale. Youssef’s blindness seems a metaphor for the chasteness of Iranian culture, of how sin and temptation are avoided by hiding women from sight. But, is the film a very conservative one by saying the moment a woman becomes visible to a man he can only sin? Or is the film demonstrating the futility of a Hijab to conceal human nature?

I guess another viewing is in store and, given Majidi talents, I look forward to it with pleasure.

“The Willow Tree” has not been rated, but is suitable for all ages. It screens at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 15 at 3:00 and 5:30.

Waltz with Bashir

“Waltz with Bashir” is not like your kids’ cartoons. It’s filled with images so harrowing that even some adults will have to turn away. They are images of war that people, in a perfect world should never have to see. But, as we all know, our world is far from perfect.

“Waltz” is a kaleidoscopic movie. It takes on a documentary-like approach with an Israeli film director interviewing fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as he attempts to reconstruct his memories of the conflict. It is fragmented and has the flow of someone sorting through a box of his memories, dreams, and reflections, trying to figure out what were really real and what were just awful manifestations of his imagination.

The choice to present this – except for some agonizing closing images – using animation is appropriate. In dreamscapes, anything can happen and can flow and morph into anything else, something animation has always been most aptly suited to convey. And besides, did these things really happen? They seem almost too fantastical, too otherworldly, to be true. And some images like a huge nude woman back-floating in the sea clearly are.

Without a typical storyline pushing and pulling us through the movie, we are allowed to sit back and absorb essentially a series of episodes or set pieces. The best of these all revolve around beautiful, almost unexpectedly lyrical scenes within the context of a war movie where music and image engage in intricate little dances.

There is a sequence where young soldiers glide down country roads and through deserted streets of a shell-shocked town within the “safety” of tanks. They bop and sing to a folksy, Dylanesque tune and pass a bag of candy back and forth as they casually crush sides of buildings by turning too sharply and rolling over parked cars, crushing them like toys. Then, silently, a bullet pierces a soldier’s throat and the music, like the tank, is stopped dead in its tracks.

Then there is my favorite scene. A soldier, overwhelmed by feelings of fear and confusion over the whereabouts of the enemy – or even the very nature and identity of said enemy – pirouettes into the middle of a street and sprays the surrounding buildings, some adorned with giant posters of national hero President-elect Bashir Gemayel, with an orgy of bullets while a delicate waltz of tinkling piano keys defies the images on screen.

Ultimately, “Waltz with Bashir” is a creative examination of post traumatic stress disorder. There is an astute scene where our narrator, just home from the war, walks the streets of his home town. He moves about and turns his head from side to side peering into restaurants and down alleys at normal speed while everyone around him is racing at accelerated speed. It is as if his mind has been chemically altered by his experiences and now everyday life seems unbearably trivial, everyone taking everything for granted.

In this sense, it’s a movie that demands to be experienced – and occasionally endured. It stands alongside such classics as “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home.”

“Waltz with Bashir” is rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content. It screens at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 8 at 3:00 and 5:30.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Kite Runner

Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors. – Advice to Amir’s father in “The Kite Runner.”

Perhaps, instead of calling this series “From Israel to India,” we should have titled it “From Hollywood to India.” Our series opener “The Kite Runner” – despite its faraway setting – is really a Hollywood movie through and through. It may be set in Afghanistan, but its methods of storytelling and its sense of dramatization owe everything to the Hollywood tradition.

This is almost certainly a good thing, a fine point of entry for an audience used to dramatic highs and lows, of heroes and villains. Two films down the road, with “The Willow Tree,” audiences will be asked to struggle a bit while deciding who to root for – if anyone – and exactly why.

Directed by Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace” – yes, the James Bond movie), “The Kite Runner” relates the troubled story of two boyhood friends, Amir and Hassan. Set in the present, it tells most of its tale from the safe distance of a flashback. Amir, now a writer living in San Francisco, is cradling his first book in his hands admiringly when the phone rings. It’s Afghanistan on the line, a voice from the past, calling him to come back.

We meet the youthful Amir – and Hassan – during a kite flying contest. It’s a brutal display with kites diving and ducking as flyers attempt to cut opponent kites from the sky with strings coated with ground glass. Amir is a great flyer. Hassan, his assistant, retrieves fallen enemy kites. He’s a kite runner, also a great one. He instinctively knows exactly where a cut kite will land. They’re a great team.

Amir’s father is proud of his son’s skills with a kite in the air, but not with how he hesitates to stand up to his enemies on the ground. His father is ashamed of him. Returning home after the kite contest, Amir overhears his father bemoan to a colleague, “A boy who won’t stand up for himself, becomes a man who won’t stand up for anything.”

Later, Amir gets advice of a different sort. Amir describes one of his stories to Hassan: “It’s about a poor man who finds a magic cup. He learns that if he weeps into the cup, his tears turn to pearls. At the end of the story, he’s sitting on a mountain of pearls and holding a bloody knife in his hand and his dead wife in his arms.” To make him weep, he has killed the one he loved most. To this, Hassan asks simply, “Why didn’t he just smell an onion?”

The central scene – following the big kite flying tournament – tests Amir and Hassan’s friendship to the limit. It is an agonizing turn of events. It is almost too much to watch. The film may have gone too far and certainly paints its villains too black. But, motivated by shame and feelings of cowardice on Amir’s part and pain on Hassan’s, the two boys are forever changed. They grow apart.

The final movement of the movie follows Amir back to Afghanistan in the present day, responding to the phone call. It has the feel of a man determined to right many wrongs. It’s Amir’s battle to reconcile the conflict between his father’s words and Hassan’s question. His father had expected his son to be certain colors. Hassan had hoped for other colors. Now, it’s the moment of truth. Which crayons will Amir choose?

The movie ends with a kite flying scene of a completely different flavor, one that is peaceful, a happy day for Amir, finally. It offers reassurance that we’ve been longing and hoping for, that knives have been replaced by onions. It makes me sure his next book will be one I’d love to read.

With our second movie, the Israeli war movie “Waltz with Bashir,” we truly begin the trek of the series title. And after passing through Iran and Kazakhstan, we will end up in India with “Bombai” (“Bombay”).

“The Kite Runner” is rated PG-13 for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence and brief strong language. It shows at the Grand Theater on Thursday, October 1 at 3:00 and 5:30.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fall 2009 Series - From India to Israel

October 1 The Kite Runner - 2007 (Afghanistan and USA) - 128 minutes, PG-13
October 8 Vals im Bashir (Waltz with Bashir) - 2008 (Israel) - 90 minutes, R
October 15 Beed-e Majnoon (The Willow Tree) - 2005 (Iran) - 96 minutes, Unrated
October 22 Tulpan - 2008 (Kazakhstan) - 100 minutes, Unrated
October 29 Bumbai (Bombay) - 1995 (India) - 130 minutes, Unrated

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Snow Walker

“The Snow Walker” is a mystery to me. How could a movie this entertaining, this well made, and this gorgeous not be a huge hit? I’m sure its impassioned director Charles Martin Smith was more than puzzled. He was certainly heartbroken to see something, so clearly a labor of love, vanish as if engulfed by a blizzard, seldom to ever be seen again.

Based on a story by Farley Mowat, “The Snow Walker” has Smith on familiar terrain. He previously starred in Carroll Ballard’s superb film of Mowat’s “Never Cry Wolf.” Both are fish out of water stories where a man is gradually humbled by nature. Here, the man, Charlie, is flying about delivering goods to Inuit homesteads – and hoping for some lucrative trading – when he gets stuck with something unexpected, transporting a very sick young Inuit woman to a doctor.

While transporting her – characteristically far from his flight plan – his plane blows an engine and crashes in the middle of – at least to his eyes – nowhere. All he can see is tundra and water and more tundra, and a strange young woman who is so ridiculously calm that she simply climbs out of the wreckage and starts fishing. His reaction is yelling and sobbing and throwing broken bits of airplane into the air.

“The Snow Walker” opens with a shot of a mysterious figure emerging from a blizzard. It is a religious image. It immediately made me think that this is how legends are born. The impossible sight of a bearded and battered white man emerging from the frozen wasteland must have seemed only possible to the Inuit people who greeted him as an act of the gods.

Of course, behind every legend is a story and “The Snow Walker” rolls back the clock to tell that tale, one full of humor and sadness, and one that reveals an unsung and unexpected hero behind the hero, a young woman named Kanaalaq.

Once stranded, the film takes on a comedic, circular structure. Charlie is a man too self-centered to stand a chance. He’s one to believe it is him against nature while he will only survive as him with nature. And Kanaalaq will teach him this, but, first, he must lose his self, bit by bit.

He tries to fix the radio and accidently breaks it. He throws a tantrum. You can almost hear her laugh. He celebrates finding a rifle only to slip and fall, losing the remaining bullets. He leaves her to trek away for help, but you can still sense her sad amusement as he gets stuck in the mud and loses a boot to the muck.

But, after he awakens surrounded by a storm of mosquitoes and flees shoeless across the jagged rocks before collapsing, defeated; she can laugh no longer. She appears above him and begins treating his wounds and bites with mud and grass.

He has been reduced by his arrogance to little more than what he had at birth – later, Kanaalaq will scamper away with his clothes to mend them leaving him naked in a pond – and now the very earth he was fighting heals him. When the pair arrives back at the site of the crash, their real journey can finally begin.

Hopefully, when the movie plays at The Grand Theaters on Thursday, April 23 as the final movie in the Cinema 100 film series, it will emerge like Charlie from out of that blizzard, at least for one night for everyone fortunate enough to be in attendance.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Red Shoes

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known as The Archers, regularly opened their movies with an arrow striking a target. If the arrow struck the bull’s eye, that was their opinion of the finished product. In “The Red Shoes,” that arrow hits the bull’s eye. Boy does it ever hit it.

Set in the ballet world, “The Red Shoes” tells a tale of three principle characters. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a talented young composer, brimming with enthusiasm, perhaps too much so. Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) is a beautiful and eager ballerina. Asked why she lives she says, “To dance.” And the master of the company is Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook in his most memorable performance). The three form one of the great tragic triangles in movie history.

I could write on and on about how gorgeous “The Red Shoes” is and how the Technicolor images are so vibrant and alive that they jump from the screen and envelope the viewer. It is stunning. Film director Martin Scorsese listed it among the greatest color films ever. But I’d rather describe to you my two pet ways of interpreting the movie.

The movie begins with college students rushing the cheap balcony seats of a ballet performance. Craster leads the way and nearly trips and tumbles over the balcony before sprawling out to hold three front row seats. He is there to hear the music. He immediately starts to bicker with two students there to see the dance. It is ears versus eyes, music against image.

The movie climaxes in an extended performance of the ballet of the title, which very quickly leaves realism behind and becomes a heart-stopping ballet of the cinema. Music and images clash and overlap and then merge with ocean waves even crashing into the stage at one point. It is also the passionate beginning of a romance between its composer/conductor Craster (ears) and dancing star Page (eyes, and her eyes are unforgettable).

Powell and Pressburger were celebrated for their innovations in the interplay of image and music. They pioneered the technique of playing music on the soundstage during shooting and choreographing character movements to the movement of the music. “The Red Shoes” is their ultimate showcase.

Horror director George Romero (“Dawn of the Dead”) has long admitted Powell and Pressburger among his favorite directors. And watching “The Red Shoes” makes this seem perfectly natural. The movie is dark, obsessive, and tortured. It plays like a horror film. And at the center is Lermontov, a character of brooding intensity. He constantly emerges from and then retreats back into the movie’s many expressionistic shadows. He is a character whose destructive nature borders on bloodlust.

Yes, in its aching heart, “The Red Shoes” is one of the all-time great vampire movies. As you watch, consider this: Lermontov is an elegantly dressed man with a pale complexion who is seen almost exclusively indoors or at night. When we see him outdoors in daylight, the cinematography is pointedly, blindingly bright and he always wears dark glasses as if cringing from the light.

And consider the way he treats Craster and Page as people to be sucked in, bled dry, and then discarded. “The Red Shoes” is like “Nosferatu” with the neck bites tastefully removed.

So, mark your calendars for Thursday, April 16 when Cinema 100 will screen “The Red Shoes” at the Grand Theaters. You will be in for a treat and one of the greatest movies the cinema has to offer.

“The Red Shoes” doesn’t carry a rating. It is a beautiful film, suitable for adults and teens, but maybe too dark – and in at least one particular moment too scary – for young children.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father

When it comes to movies, I like to keep my ear to the ground and listen for faint rumblings from film festivals. I like to hang out in Internet discussion boards and shoot the breeze with other film buffs, hundreds of ears to the ground being better than one.

I first heard Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father coming a few months ago. And now, during the past few weeks, its faint rumble has turned into a roaring stampede of lucky people-in-the-know rushing to see this incredible new documentary.

Like The Thin Blue Line from 1988 – and every bit its equal – Dear Zachary dwells in the sub-genre of the true crime documentary. It is a tale of murder recounted by a filmmaker who knew the victim since childhood.

Director Kurt Kuenne already had a wealth of footage of Dr. Andrew Bagby. He had dragged him in to star in his little amateur movie epics since he first caught the moviemaking bug. Shattered by the news of his friend’s murder, he set out to interview everyone who knew him and, thus, find a way to see him on screen one last time.

What he learns about Andrew and the woman who killed him and everyone who knew him – and about himself – is quite a rollercoaster ride. There is happiness. There is much more sadness and anger and hatred and desperation. The documentary uses all the devices of fictional movies like plot twists and suspense and withholding of knowledge until the most dramatic moment.

So much of the movie’s effect – the reason it is so engaging – is how these techniques keep us guessing as we’re glued to the edge of our seats. I won’t spoil anything here. I will say though that Andrew was one heck of a great guy who unfortunately had one horribly fatal attraction.

Dear Zachary is the latest in what I see as the future of movies. Shot mostly using a consumer camcorder and then edited on a laptop (from a mound of digital tapes we see piling up in a Styrofoam cooler throughout), the movie is, like 2003’s Tarnation, a deeply personal homemade movie of the very best kind.

These movies are proof that the democratization of movie making by affordable equipment is much more than a mere pipe-dream. People are picking up cameras everywhere and making movies that rival the entertainment value of the very best Hollywood has to offer.

Kuenne has a lot of material and a lot of story to tell and his filmmaking is filled with urgency. One of the side effects of his tearful passion and need to tell the whole story at all costs is that Dear Zachary is edited very briskly. You’ll need to keep your eyes on the screen at all times. Rarely does he hold a shot for more than a second or two, and often less.

This has drawn some criticism with people referring to its “MTV editing.” I don’t agree. MTV editing was all about style and lack of faith in the audience’s attention span. Here, the style is a perfect expression of Kuenne’s urgency. He was a man clearly overwhelmed by all the information he was gathering and haunted by what it all meant.

Dear Zachary is likely to be my favorite movie of the year.

Frozen River

Independent (Indie) films face an uphill climb. They can’t wow us with special effects or engage us with great actors. They can’t adapt bestselling novels. They don’t have the budget. Instead, they must offer an original voice or performances filled with honesty or take us into unfamiliar cinematic territory.

Frozen River playing April 2 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Series offers all of the above. It’s not a great Indie film, but it certainly has a lot of what it takes.

Spanning a few days before Christmas and set in a small town on the border between New York State and Quebec, Frozen River tells the story of recently single mom Ray Eddy. She is struggling to raise two boys and has wild dreams of buying a double-wide trailer house, keeping their flat screen from being repossessed, and getting her younger son the hot wheels car set of his dreams.

Her minimum wage job of course makes all of these hopelessly, well, hopeless. Fortunately – or unfortunately – they live on the edge of a Mohawk reservation that spans the border between the two countries, a border marked by the frozen river of the title.

This narrow strip of land, and perilous strip of ice covered water, offers a lucrative side occupation for those desperate enough to take advantage – human smuggling.

Okay, I’ll pause for a moment. The plot for Frozen River is one of its weaknesses. It is predictable and has some ridiculously contrived passages, the most egregious involving a young couple and their baby. It also contains some acting that has an amateur, regional theater quality.

These are all just part of the low budget Indie game though and easily forgivable here, for two reasons. Frozen River has a wonderful sense of place and Melissa Leo gives an amazing performance as Ray Eddy.

The film’s frozen world of desperate people living in rundown trailers and driving beat up cars feels painfully lived in, authentically heartbreaking. Maybe it’s the winter we’ve been going through, but I identified with every ice-covered twist and turn of the dark country roads. I shivered when Ray was called outside in her robe by a police officer. I felt the icy draft from a bullet hole in a camping trailer door.

This is a key responsibility of an Indie film lacking the money to take us somewhere dazzling or exotic. It must instead take us somewhere believable and identifiable. Forget sets and fancy effects. I’m talking taking cameras into real diners and asking real waitresses and real patrons to please become actors for an hour or two.

And that is just how Melissa Leo comes across. She is so worn and frazzled and working-class tattooed that she feels like someone found, accidently, as the cameras were about to roll. Her body is a topographic map of hard living and sleepless nights and too many dinners of popcorn and Tang. She is simply a marvel.

While many of the actors around her struggle with the range of emotional notes they are asked to play, Leo glides through Frozen River – scene after scene – like a master. She sneaks up on you and makes you weep. I highly recommend the movie for her performance alone.

It is one of the Motion Picture Academy’s most sparkling accomplishments that it recognized and plucked this diamond out of a mound of otherwise ordinary, everyday stones. Melissa Leo would have earned my vote for the Best Leading Actress Oscar.

Man on Wire

I’m deathly afraid of heights and approached Man on Wire with a certain trepidation. Was I going to be able to sit through a documentary about a man who thrives on walking tight-ropes spanning ridiculously high expanses, without any safety nets?

Well, I made it through it and those heights really were ridiculous. The movie was also ridiculously entertaining.

Man on Wire has a ghostly quality. For the second movie in the row in the Cinema 100 series, the Twin Towers play a role. In Taxi to the Dark Side, their destruction started a terrible slide into a Hell on Earth. In Man on Wire, their construction starts a man down a path toward his dreams, his destiny. The Twin Towers loom large throughout the movie. It’s hard to image they are really gone.

Philippe Petit, a French acrobat, experienced the happiest day of his life when he noticed an advertisement announcing the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. His life of juggling and street performing and wire walking had so far been unsatisfying, aimless. Now, this promised new structure, just over the horizon, gave his life purpose.

To him, two flat-topped, equally high towers nicely spaced apart – And did I say very, very high? – offered the perfect challenge to a high-wire performer. Now, if he can just prepare himself for the task and figure out some way to rig a wire between the buildings, once they’re built.

The greatest achievement of Man on Wire is that – through the use of period footage and photographs, interviews with Petit and others involved, and beautifully incorporated recreations – it becomes as suspenseful and engaging as any movie you’ll ever see.

Like a great thriller or heist movie, we follow Petit through all of the preparations. We are with him during all the sleepless nights narrowly avoiding port authority police. We learn just how one goes about rigging a wire between two terrifyingly high structures. We learn enough to try it ourselves, although trying this at home is not advisable.

Before his big walk, we get to witness Petit’s warm-up acts. Almost as dazzling – and every bit as dangerous – are his walks between the towers of Notre Dame and between the supports of Sydney Harbor Bridge. I suppose “walks” doesn’t really describe what he does though. It’s more like Gene Kelley dancing down a very narrow street, occasionally pausing to stretch out and take a nap.

Yes, Petit is fearless on a wire and when cops inevitably turn up to watch his performances he is also quite cocky. He taunts them, teases them, and twirls about just out of reach. He drives them mad while he amazes them with his virtuosity and daring.

The big moment of course comes on August 7, 1974 when he realizes his dream, for a breathtaking 45 minutes and eight round trips between the towers – punctuated by a few cat-naps. It’s spellbinding. It’s magical. You’ll have to see it to believe it. Petit is happy as a kid when it’s over, like a man whose life is finally complete.

His feat makes me tremble. At any moment during those 45 minutes, if he’d allowed his concentration to flag for even an instant. Oh man. I can’t even think about it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Sea Hawk

Finally, unless the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies count, I’ve now seen my first pirate movie. And “The Sea Hawk” (1940) with Errol Flynn was a perfect introduction to the genre. I certainly have the taste in my mouth now to experience many others, the way “Stagecoach” encouraged me to check out countless other westerns.

I now know firsthand why terms like “exciting” and “dashing” are so often used when discussing the genre. Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca,” Flynn’s “Robin Hood”), “The Sea Hawk” is an immaculately crafted Hollywood entertainment with the adventurous spirit of Indiana Jones. And the rousing set-pieces are many:

The adventure sets off to a fast start with a sea battle between a Spanish ship carrying wealth and jewels and the beautiful Doña Maria (played by Brenda Marshall) and the pirate ship captained by Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn). Cannons fire and masts splinter, falling crashing to the decks and pirates, led by Thorpe, swing from ship to ship. It is wonderfully choreographed action. The kid in you is sure to love it.

Thorpe and his Sea Hawks are sent – unofficially and under-the-table – by Queen Elizabeth to the new world (Panama) to steal away Spanish gold and riches. She is a conniving queen and refuses to officially sanction such a mission, but, in private, Thorpe is clearly her pirate. Of course, the Spanish are her equal in deception and a plan to trap Thorpe and his men is hatched.

Learning of this plan to capture Thorpe and knowing it could well mean life imprisonment if not death for him, Maria races by coach to the harbor, arriving too late by mere minutes to warn him. This sequence is gorgeously and breathtakingly filmed and the lingering close-ups of Maria and Thorpe as his ship sails away register perfectly their now fully aware and fully shared love.

The sequence in the new world also beautifully underlines the vast distance separating the two lovers by being filmed in sepia toned color. It’s not as dramatic of a distinction drawn between ordinary and special worlds as was the case a year previously in “The Wizard of Oz,” but the effect is still spellbinding.

After being captured by the Spaniards and being sentenced to row their ships about the sea in chains for the rest of their lives, Thorpe engineers an escape. The sequence beginning with Thorpe’s order to all the men to stop rowing and ending with the Sea Hawks taking control of the ship is a masterpiece, like a step-by-step lesson in how to wage a mutiny. It’s great moviemaking.

I’m at a loss as to why the pirate movie genre died out, even more permanently than the western which still manages re-emergences of popularity every ten years or so. “The Sea Hawk” is remarkably modern and politically relevant. It reminds me of the “Godfather” movies from the 1970s. Queen Elizabeth (played by Flora Robson who nearly steals the movie) is a scheming and maneuvering embodiment of the rich and powerful.

She is someone who can get away with murder. She has the power that Michael Corleone recognizes in American politicians, the all-corrupt power that Corleone will ultimately command as well. You can almost hear Queen Elizabeth uttering the words, “Keep your friends close. Keep your enemies closer” as she lies to the Spaniards and then seductively orders Thorpe to rob them blind.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Taxi to the Dark Side

As a movie critic, I have two responsibilities to you, my reader. The first is to tell you whether a movie is any good – in my well-informed opinion. The other is to prepare you for what you are about to see. Sometimes, that amounts to providing you with information to help you better appreciate the movie. In this case, it is also to offer you a warning.

“Taxi to the Dark Side” is a huge departure from previous “happy” movies in this Cinema 100 series. “An American in Paris” it is not. “Taxi” is a tough documentary to watch. It is brutally frank in its unblinking look at torture and its aftermath. It depicts the very worst things that one human can do to another.

It is a movie about how the unimaginable horrors of September 11, 2001 were answered by the equally unimaginable horrors of Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. And it is a movie expressing great sadness over the United States government and military having chosen that response.

I watched with a mixture of fascination, sadness, and nausea as the movie walked me through a museum documenting man’s boundless creativity. I never imagined how many ways one human could cause another pain. Methods on display include sleep deprivation, forced standing, snarling dogs, sexual humiliation, and something called water-boarding which convinces one he is drowning. The U.S. interrogators depicted make the Marquis de Sade look like Charlie Brown.

“Taxi to the Dark Side” is stunningly well made and always compelling. It weaves photographs and video smuggled out of the prisons with interviews of people ranging from interrogators to victims to experts on the history of interrogation techniques to tell its story. It also includes footage of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld who’ve never looked half as scary as they do here.

A metaphor is used repeatedly to describe how desperate the establishment from top to bottom was to bring someone, anyone, to justice for 9/11. Do whatever it takes to get information, even if it means “taking your gloves off.” This boxing metaphor is later trumped by one of dog fighting. An interviewee says, “If a muzzled dog didn’t get the desired results, someone would take off the muzzle.”

The other point made powerfully is that the young men and women conducting the interrogations didn’t know what they were doing. They were poorly trained and provided with even less guidance and direction from their superiors. One young soldier was chosen for the role simply because he is big and loud and scary. They were just a bunch of young people, college age really, forced into a strange and terrifying situation and left to improvise.

It is the resulting images that will stay in my head forever. A hooded man is forced to masturbate (we see everything) while a woman soldier poses beside him with a cigarette and a wink, like some sorority initiation from Hell. There’s the terrified look of a prisoner as a barely restrained dog is held just one foot from his face. There are images of hooded prisoners chained to the ceiling with handcuffs and deprived of sleep by blaring heavy metal music.

The movie ends with the suggestion that most – or all – of these prisoners were not terrorists before incarceration, but, after the way they’ve been treated, many will become terrorists after their release. That’s the tragic irony. We set out blindly to stop terrorism only to become terrorists ourselves and to become manufacturers of future terrorists. Ooops!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

October 2008 Survey Results

Days of Heaven02516144.14
Blind Shaft4621093.32
Paths of Glory13418103.89
Cool Hand Luke1009234.58
King of California00613244.42

What films or series themes would you like to see for the 2009 Fall Cinema 100 series?

  • Comedy
  • Music films like Stop Making Sense and Monterey Pop
  • Documentaries, award winners
  • The rise and fall of politics
  • Another Bollywood film
  • Anime (something easier than Paprika like Howl's Moving Castle)
  • Something upbeat!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

An American in Paris

Gene Kelly is best known for taking shore leave in New York City in “On the Town” and, of course, for dancing and splashing down a street with an umbrella, occasionally twirling around a lamppost. Those are the sort of iconic images that engrave a star in our memories.

“An American in Paris” (1951) doesn’t have such big moments to capture and hold our collective imaginations. It isn’t a film of big moments. It is the type of film that gradually accumulates many little moments. It’s a film that sneaks up on you.

Time has been very kind though to this tale of Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), a struggling American painter in Paris. Jerry falls in love with the tantalizingly aloof Lise (Leslie Caron) and has to fight off rich heiress Milo (Nina Foch) who “discovers” him on a Paris street trying to sell his paintings. And complications abound as with all love triangles.

“An American in Paris” looks better each year for two reasons: it is filled with many delightful little moments that never fail to bring a smile and it understands love and heartbreak better than any other musical I’ve seen, produced in Hollywood.

The delight I find while watching classic musicals comes from the joyful and inventive ways they find to develop their characters using throwaway moments such as Henri (Georges Guétary) trying to describe Lise and finding her a collection of contradictions. Also delicious are the way Jerry walks down a Paris street, checking out his competition, and how Milo answers, “Modesty” when Jerry asks what holds up her dress.

My favorite scene though is the song and dance between Jerry and Henri professing their love for a woman while Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) dribbles coffee down his shirt, painfully aware that both men love the same woman.

More than other Kelly musicals such as the comparatively whimsical “Singin’ in the Rain,” “An American in Paris” locates heartbreak at the center of Jerry’s search for love.

The sadness of Milo’s loneliness and the desperation of Adam’s attempts to write music – not to mention Jerry and Lise’s romantic difficulties – actually find their closest counterparts with Miss Lonely-Hearts, the songwriter, and L.B. and Lisa in Hitchcock’s black comedy “Rear Window.”

The film’s only weakness is Caron, in her film debut. She lacks charisma and seems awkward, although she has no shortage of beauty. Director Vincente Minneli had a challenge, to find an actress who could also handle a very challenging dancing role – and a truly formidable dancing partner.

After watching Caron during her lovely and graceful moments by the river and during the extended ballet – one of Hollywood musical’s finest 15 minutes or so – you’ll have no doubt that Minneli made the right choice and erred on the side of dancing ability.

Cinema 100 selected “An American in Paris” along with the British musical “The Red Shoes” (showing April 16) to offer a fun comparison and contrast.

Minneli clearly had Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterful ballet film in mind while making “An American in Paris” three years later: Both films have a keen understanding of an artist’s world, both make stunning user of Technicolor, and both climax with justly famous extended dance sequences.

And both have an appreciation for the pain that often accompanies love. Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, “An American in Paris” finds a happy resolution – at least for some of its characters. “The Red Shoes” – Powell and Pressburger could pass for Hitchcock’s lost brothers – finds a darker dénouement.

“An American in Paris” was made before the ratings board was established. It is appropriate viewing for all ages.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

2009 Winter/Spring Series

Jan. 29 - An American in Paris - USA - 1951 - 113 min - rated approved

Feb. 5 - Happy-Go-Lucky - UK - 2008 - 118 min - rated R

Feb. 12 - Trouble the Water - USA - 2008 - 90 min - Unrated

Feb. 19 - My Winnipeg - Canada - 2007 - 80 min - rated PG in Canada

Feb. 26 - The Sea Hawk - USA - 1940 - 109 min - rated approved

Mar. 5 - The Counterfeiters - Austria - 2007 - 98 min - rated R

Mar. 12 - Taxi to the Darkside - USA - 2007 - 106 min - rated R

Mar 26 - Man on Wire - USA - 2008 - 90 min - rated PG-13

Apr. 2 - Frozen River - USA - 2008 - 97 min - rated R

Apr. 16 - The Red Shoes - UK - 1948 - 133 min - Unrated

Apr. 23 - The Snow Walker - Canada - 2003 - 103 min - rated PG