Friday, July 11, 2014

Crash (2004): ...And Burn

The Other Films (Revisited)
Crash (2004)
dir: Paul Haggis

Original Review (Circa 2006)
Originally Posted to Livejournal and IMDB

I wrote this as a two part review. Part two has spoilers.

Part 1
No, this isn't that one about the sex with car accidents. This is the one about racism in L.A. You know, the one where everybody is a racist, and race is the topic on everybody's mind at all times. Race.

Its like the movie has a form of Tourette's Syndrome where race is the constant theme. Race. Racist. Racism. Race Relations. Relay race.

Paul Haggis made a movie which took the structure of Magnolia, which was used to show the disconnect of people who are tangentially connected, and then screwed it into a 1'53" mental vomit about racism in America. RACE. In the 24 hour period we have 7 stories running parallel all connected and about race. The first hour, people say ridiculous stuff and do absurd things in an effort to be real about racism in America.

For example, the story with Ludicrous and Larenz Tate provides the comic relief. Too bad, the first half of their story is lifted straight from The Bonnie Situation in Pulp Fiction. RACISM. Their section is the Quentin Tarantino section where, instead of being cool and talking about foot massages and religion, the characters talk about race and racism. CONSTANTLY.

The other good thing about it is the Mexican story when the Mexican guy is talking to his daughter. He gives her his invisible impenetrable cloak to protect her from bullets. Decent writing, but that's only because the writers have had daughters and know what they would say in his place.

The rest of the stories are extremely ludicrous. The Hindi does not act in any semblance of realism. The scene where he's trying to get the lock fixed and the Mexican tells him he needs a new door is abbreviated and stupid. Why would anybody act like that? Is it realistic? NOOO. It reminds me more of the convenience store clerk from The Doom Generation. "Six Dollar Sixty Six Cents girly." If i ever watch the second half of the movie, I hope his head is shot off and his bodiless head starts coughing up relish.

I haven't mentioned race in over a paragraph. RACE. RACISM. RACE FOR THE SUN. Better. Then, there is the black guy who wants to be white, Matt Dillon who has a chip on his shoulder against blacks, Ryan Phillippe who looks beautiful and does nothing, and various other bad actors acting badly with bad dialog. When Matt Dillon molests the black producers wife, could I help it if I was cracking up? When Philippe is second guessing his writing up of his partner for racism, can I help but crack up? The movie is so funny when it is being racist. Racist. RACIST I tell you.

Now, mind you, this movie was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Editing, besides a nod to Matt Dillon who actually did attempt to do a decent job. Who was paid off for that one, I have no clue.

Don't see it unless you feel like being preached at about the racism in society through a bad and unrealistic script from 2 white men over fifty who have no semblance of reality or interaction with real society in any way shape or form.

Grade: D-


Part 2
The second half of Crash takes any and all story lines in the first half...and spews them back out in a sort of redemptive, conclusionary, the world is a big coincidence kind of way. And it is in fact one of the worst ways to do it.

Take 1999's Magnolia. People weren't conveniently tied together over and over again. They were just connected in a strange way that happens more often than you think. You know somebody who knows somebody who did something that you knew somebody else was also involved in. Crash takes this wrapping into a serious extreme.

The stories are lined up so everybody meets again. Are there only 5 on the LAPD force? Aren't these people working weird shifts? Dillon and Philippe were a late shift then an early one the next day? And, why did Tate have to be the murdered hitchhiker? Wouldn't it have had more emotional tension, as well as realism, if it had been somebody we had not been following all day long? Like Phillippe just picks up a random hitchhiker and then freaks out. Everybody'd be freaking out.

Eventually, in the second half, the touching invisible cloak scene is used to get the Hindi to shoot the daughter. It ticked me off and made me feel dirty. Not that the Hindi shot the daughter, but that they created a beautiful touching scene and then had it be the direct cause of people tearing up. It really ticked me off. At the writers, not the scene.

The whole movie is fake and totally uncalled for. The coincidences are far too many and they require an extreme suspension of disbelief. Unlike Magnolia which was connected mildly, this had connections upon connections upon connections which were just so over-the-top. The only good part in the second half was when Sandra Bullock falls down the stairs. She doesn't die though. She should have. I cheered when she fell.

The worst part about the movie is it pulls a Magnolia. Not just in structure, but it has a montage over the song "In the Deep" where you see everybody being depressed. Magnolia took this and had post-modern commentary on it by having all of the characters singing along to Aimee Mann's Wise Up. Unfortunately, Magnolia came out in 1999, while Crash came out in 2005. Its hard to make commentary on a movie which won't be made for another 6 years, but it happened. Somehow.

Utter waste of my time.

First half: D-; Second half: lowest grade ever; Overall: F---

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tentacles (1977): Jaws vs Giant Octopus

Tentacles (1977)
dir: Ovidio G Assonitis

Italy in the 1970s and 1980s were all about churning out cheap rip-offs of American blockbusters trying to capitalize on the latest thing. When Jaws became the latest American blockbuster, filmmakers everywhere saw it and said, "We can do that, only cheaper!" In some cases, it turned out amazing, as with the Roger Corman-produced, Joe Dante-directed, and partially John Sayles-written Piranha, which is all about a summer resort town where the river has been invaded by man-eating fish. It had style, panache, and a sense of humor and pacing, all of which Jaws lacks in spades.

Then, you have Tentacles, a sort of "what was anybody thinking?" get rich quick Italian import that rips off Jaws beat for beat, but the pure insanity of the film keeps it entertaining.

Tentacles focuses on the summer resort town of Ocean Beach, where several people turned up missing in short order, and then being found in the water frequently skinned and dead. Right off the bat, you know you're in for a special movie, because Tentacles wastes no time in dispensing characters. The first victim is a baby in a stroller, who is mainly referred to as "The Little Fatso" by his mother's friend. His mother leaves him in a stroller on the edge of the cliff next to the ocean, when he disappears. The next victim is a salty sea captain with a wooden leg, who also has fat jokes aimed at him.

Then, we get to the real stars of the movie, John Huston and Shelley Winters. They play as a brother/sister pair who seems to be way too salty and quasi-incestuous. Winters is a complete alcoholic, making drinks as soon as she gets up, while Huston calls her a fat slut in so many words. Huston's main story is that he is a reporter investigating the deaths and suspects they have something to do with nearby construction work. While Winters' main job is to drunkenly take her and her neighbor's kids around town and get them entered in the sailing contest, where surely somebody will die.

I can't tell if Winters is just playing drunk or is actually soused in her scenes, which includes a general lack of volume control, and constant one-upmanship of her kids. During the first day's events, she wears the most obscenely gigantic sombrero while she forgets her kid's name, and then complains that she spends too much money on the children while downing yet another drink. By the time she tells her neighbor that the kids want to be in the race, the neighbor says she trusts Winters, and you have to wonder who in their right mind would trust their kid to an alcoholic with vodka on her breath.

Huston gets off a little better, playing the saltiest reporter to get to the bottom of the story. Along the way, he meets with business men, but also an orca trainer who really cares about his Orcas. I mean, REALLY CARES about the orcas. Like, tearjerkingly cares.

Of course, it all ends in a gigantic orca fight with a giant octopus. This being Italy in the 1970s, they didn't really care too much about animal well-being, and so it seems they ripped apart a real octopus, who may have been living when it was ripped to pieces by the orca puppets. Which may be a bit nauseating to more sensitive viewers (far more than the off-screen murder of The Little Fatso in the stroller).

If we can forgive that bit, however, there are many treasures in Tentacles to be found. The awkward dialogue. The giant sombrero. Walkie Talkies that irritate the octopus. A constant barrage of fat jokes aimed at everybody because they're fat Americans (HA HA). Corpses who float feet up. Dead fish who sink face down. It's all so ludicrous that one can't help but be entertained. Tentacles isn't a good movie, but it's a great bad movie. And, it's a much more entertaining movie than Jaws would ever be. Jaws wishes it were this interesting.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Snowpiercer (2014): The Faults in the System

Snowpiercer (2014)
dir: Bong Joon-Ho

The capitalist system has faults. It's a fact. Every pure ideological system has faults in it, especially when you take the human factor into account. The human urge for tribalism, as well as the human urge for natural selection both factor heavily into the capitalist system's faults.

As such, Snowpiercer isn't just an allegory for capitalism, so much as it is an allegory for every caste system that has ever been set up.

The set-up for Snowpiercer comes from modern times. There is an extremely long train that was built to continuously moves around a series of interconnected railways on an annual circuit around the Eurasian hemisphere. After it was built, the corporations decided to try to combat climate change by launching a chemical into the atmosphere, sending the Earth into an Ice Age, where the only thing that seems to have survived is this train.

The train is set up as a caste system. The rear of the train are the poor people, who have to eat protein bars that look like black Jell-O bricks. They live in squalor and tight quarters with bunk beds and poor lighting. The front of the train are the rich people, who are, according to the poor people, getting to eat steaks and live like kings. At the very front is the engine, where the leader rules the whole train from front to back.

The train runs on a perpetual motion engine, and so there is little to do but sit and wait. The poor people have sex and children, and wait around until the guards come in to give them their food. Now and then, the guards will take two children up front, and periodically scour the back for people to work with the front people. One such resident is a violinist, who is forcibly separated from his wife to live life in the front to play violin for the rich people. Two children are forcibly taken from their parents at the beginning of the film, for reasons not explained to anybody. When the poor start to revolt, the guards take one of the passengers and freezes his arm by setting it outside the window and then shattering it off.

Even though the poor don't work, and didn't pay to be on the train, the conditions are so insufferable that a revolt would always be bound to happen. Spurred on by Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis (Chris Evans) and his side kick Edgar (Jamie Bell) lead a revolt to take over the engine, going through the various trains that get increasingly classier and more decadent as they get closer to the engine. Along the way, they fight guards and big bosses on several occasions, much like a video game.

Which brings us to the first problem of Snowpiercer. The fighting sequences are not that good. I know I've been a bit spoiled by The Raid, but the fighting sequences start out afflicted with shaky cam, and with an inability to discern who was fighting who, or where anybody was. Joon-Ho, who previously directed the suspenseful The Host, has very little grasp on how to direct a fighting sequence when there are too many people involved in the fight. The camera is all over the place, the editing is strange, and the people are indiscernible. Plus, the timing of the scenes are off. As the movie goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people to deal with, Joon-Ho's direction gets slightly better, but the initial rebellion, the axe sequence, and even a little bit of the classroom sequence are all fraught with problems that seem to dissipate by the sauna sequence.

The set-up for Snowpiercer isn't subtle in its intentions. Anybody paying attention to politics anywhere should be able to parse out Joon-Ho's political statements with a flinch of the eye. But, Snowpiercer is far more nuanced than one might give it credit for. It asks questions about food supply in closed systems. It asks questions about overpopulation, and slave labor. It asks questions about political indoctrination and obedience. Most of all, it asks questions about idealism and intent.

To say that Snowpiercer is a gung-ho radical "take over the system" movie is to deny it the whole final act it has been working towards. In the final act of Snowpiercer, Boon-Ho decimates all the ideology that he has been building up for the first 100 minutes of the film. For 100 minutes, Boon-Ho gives the microphone to the Occupy movement, essentially. The poor. The ones who have been oppressed. But, in the last 20, he gives it to the leader. The 1%. The owner of the train. The builder. And the controller of the engine. And in the final 3, he ends with the most radical note in an already very radical movie.

There are flaws in Snowpiercer. A lot of them, in fact. The fighting is the most major one, in my opinion. The score swings between not bad to HAAAAAANS ZIMMMMMER boring. The elements in the allegory don't always hold up to real world equivalents, or do so in much more minute/subtler ways. A simultaneous flaw and also benefit is that Snowpiercer doesn't answer all the questions it raises. The emotional climax is played too earnestly. And, there are a lot of weird techniques that seem to draw attention to themselves for illogical reasons.

Much like the ice formations that build on the tracks, the flaws in Snowpiercer present merely elements that jar the movie, but never completely derail it. The pacing and visuals of Snowpiercer outside the fight sequences are spectacular, the tension is top notch, and the acting is completely aces. Tilda Swinton practically steals the show with her imitation of Margaret Thatcher, and Evans is perfectly capable of most of the scenes in Snowpiercer, with one major exception towards the end.

Snowpiercer gives both action movie thrills, and intelligent fodder to chew on for days. Modern caste systems, constant rebellion, the justification on either side, and how it could be applicable or not to modern society are all topics that aren't left with answers, and the most dangerous answer is still in the movie, which ends with a note of hope and promise. The allegorical fodder makes Snowpiercer a Required Viewing, even though it has some deep flaws throughout the film.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Stories We Tell (2012): Exorcising Demons on Screen (Documentary)

Stories We Tell (2012)
dir: Sarah Polley

The process of making a documentary is frequently personal and intimate. You discover a topic, you start interviewing the subjects, you edit the piece, you re-interview the subjects, you continue editing, and you get closer and closer to the piece of work.

But, Stories We Tell is personal straight out of the gate. This is a documentary by Sarah Polley about her own family. There's not much more intimate than you can get. But, the topic isn't just about her family, but about everybody's memory of the family, and more specifically, her long-deceased mother.

Sarah, in the process of making the film, all but excised herself from the topic at hand. She interviews all her siblings, her father, aunts, her mother's friends, and her mother's ex co-workers and lovers when she could. Her father also reads from a memoir, in which he details situations from the past. She gets specific and generic memories about her mother, all from different perspectives. Some remember her as a flirt, others say she was chaste. Some remember a vibrant lively personality, others remember somebody who was distant. Some say she was an open book, others say she had many secrets.

Such is the power of memory.

Polley, early in the film, tells one of the subjects that the interview is less an interview and more an interrogation. This is fitting because of the reliance on memory that this film uses. Interrogations are always about memory. In police work, and in this documentary. Memory is fallible, and Polley doesn't just recognize that, she examines that.

And, part of that is due to the shifting narrative of her life. She spent most of her life under the impression that her biological father was her mother's husband, and she was raised by him. Come to find out, her mother had an extensive affair with a guy in a different city, and she is his daughter. But, nobody knew. They suspected. There was even a game when she was a kid teasing her that she's from a different father, though nobody suspected that to be true.

What Polley is saying about humanity isn't straightforward. She never explicitly comes out and says "what I'm saying is..." Instead, Stories We Tell intelligently lets us draw our own conclusions about the drama in our lives, and how its seen from completely different points of view. Do we put on different faces for different people knowing that they know different things about us than other people? Or, do we see other people differently because of how they present themselves to us? How are all of our realities different from each other's realities when it's the same mass of humanity? Polley's story of the basic human search for love is filled with complex characters that aren't drawn into easy stereotypes, letting us all try to figure out what it means to our lives.

Stories We Tell is deeply personal to Sarah Polley. But, the issues she raises are universal to the human experience. And, they're questions we all should be asking ourselves.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Dance of Reality (2013): Exorcising Demons on Screen (Fiction)

The Dance of Reality (2013)
dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Jodorowsky is constantly exorcising demons through film, but never has it been more explicitly laid out as in the semi-autobiographical The Dance of Reality.

In The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky documents his childhood growing up as the son of Russian Jewish Communists in Catholic Fascist Chile under the rule of then-dictator Ibanez. Or, rather the film is more about what it felt like to be a kid growing up under those circumstances. But, more than conquering the societal differences, Jodorowsky is commenting on what it was like growing up with an unemotional brute of a father who believed he could toughen his son through emotional and physical abuse.

The two central characters are Jodorowsky as a young boy and his father Jaime (played by Jodorowsky's son, Brontis). Jaime is a store owner, a fire fighter, and a card-carrying Communist who also believes that men should be men, and that teaching Alejandro to be stoic in the face of pain and suffering, then Alejandro will be more of a man. Early in the film, Jaime smacks Alejandro so hard, he breaks a tooth. When Alejandro has to go to the dentist, Jaime forces him to not take anesthesia as the pain makes him tougher. But, the child is not without emotional support. He gives himself a coddling mother who speaks only through opera. And, as a directorial conceit, Alejandro stars as himself standing behind his child avatar, telling him things about the future and offering support to his then-self. It's like those exercises where you write a letter to your child self.

This is the first Jodorowsky which has a directly identifiable major influence, namely that of Fellini's Amarcord, right down to the affinity for gigantic breasts (Alejandro's mom is remarkably well endowed), and bizarre sexuality. A major scene has Jodorowsky being invited into a young circle jerk, but then being rejected because he has been circumcised, while the other boys had not. Another is when he and his mother strips and cover themselves in shoe polish while chasing each other around the room. Clearly, Jodorowsky is exorcising some deep demons through this film.

The Dance of Reality is in part how he remembered childhood, and in part how he wished childhood actually was. He completely removes his older sister from the picture, explores Oedipal fantasies, and also sends his father on a third act journey to try to kill Ibanez, resulting in him being brutally tortured for no real reason and then coming back home broken and contrite. This blends seamlessly with Jodorowsky's usual heightened visuals and overloaded symbolism where the fantasias are filmed with the same surrealism as the realistic portions.

While Alejandro isn't explicit about which parts are real and which parts are fantasias, this is the first time he actually comes right out and explains what he means with his symbolism. Where Jodorowsky used to be content to give just a handful of dialogue that explains what's on screen, here he's spelling everything out through the dialogue. One representative scene is when a spiritualist gives Alejandro a metal symbol from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions, and then explains that each symbol represents the same God...but then Alejandro's father flushes them down the toilet telling him that God doesn't exist. Because this film is more about exorcising personal demons than exploring universal ideas, it is a little forgivable, but it's still the most spelled out movie of his career.

Because of the digital, and the leaning on Amarcord, Jodorowsky's warped fantasies also are less absurdist or surreal than what he used to lead us to. His visual composition is still as stunning as ever, but has now become bolder and more saturated than in films past. However, gone are the strange imagery of potato Jesus statues or church bloodbaths. The medium didn't allow the pervasive strangeness of Jodorowsky's oeuvre.

In the end, The Dance of Reality is more like Jodorowsky lite. He's more interested in exploring his personal past than exploring universal ideas or even general history. If the symbolism gets too strong, he's always around to explain what's happening, and we don't have to work for anything in the film. At 135 minutes, it also feels a little long in the tooth. Despite the flaws of The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky lite is still more entertaining and interesting than most mainstream films, and it's still highly recommended. It's Jodorowsky at his most accessible, and should be a good starting point if you've never experienced him before.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Manuscripts Don't Burn (2014): Scathing on the Fly

Manuscripts Don't Burn (2014)
dir: Mohammad Rasoulof

SIFF 2014 Film #29

In 2011, Mohammad Rasolulof, an already accomplished director, was arrested and had a 20-year ban from making any films imposed on him by the Iranian government. In secret, Rasoulof broke that government-ban and made Manuscripts Don't Burn, a film which is an indictment of the Iranian government, and it's attempts at intellectual censorship. The end result is a harrowing indictment of not only censorship but also cultural manipulation and how the whole system is set up against everybody's best interest.

The main characters of Manuscripts are not the intellectuals, but a pair of Iranian government assassins who are chasing after a manuscript. The assassins aren't rich or even paid all that well, as one of the two assassins has a sick child who is trying to gain admission to a hospital, but he doesn't have the money to pay for the stay. The assassin is constantly calling their government bosses to try to get the finances transferred to his account so he can prove he can afford for his son to have whatever surgery is needed.

The manuscript is written by a wheelchair-bound intellectual poet who had written a book that was essentially an anti-government screed that had over 100 instances of censorship inflicted upon it. One of the major instances is a story about a group of poets on a bus trip to Armenia, which was supposed to be driven off a cliff in the middle of the night. They intervened and survived, but were warned to be silent about it. The uncensored manuscript is put to a small circle of intellectuals for safe keeping, and the Iranian government is trying to keep it repressed.

The saying of "Manuscripts don't burn" means, essentially, that while the government can censor all they want, they actually don't have the power to remove memories. Until they do. The assassins aren't just going to destroy the manuscripts, but destroy all of the memories of the manuscript from those who have read it, wrote it, and remember it. At this point in their career, murder and death are second nature to the assassins. They even delude themselves to the reasoning they kill, with the father of the sick child questioning whether he's actually doing a good service, or if he's just doing something more immoral.

While the general frame of Manuscripts Don't Burn is a traditional assassin story, the details and the government prescience adds a presence that otherwise would be absent in this rather slow and pondering execution of the usual story. The ponderings of religion and God, and the intersection of religion and government, duty and manipulation of the poor, plus the responsibilities of rebels to try to promote the truth in a lying government, makes Manuscripts more detailed and pointed than the usual generic stories we get.

Rasoulof filmed Manuscripts in secret, and even eliminated all names except his own from the credits. The cast and crew have gone unnamed in the movie in order to prevent them from legal action by the government. But, the secrecy shows. There are some questionable filming choices that seem more rudimentary than thought out, and the pacing is a little erratic even in its heavily plodding pace. However, given the circumstances, one can forgive those technical details over the thoughtful content within the film itself.

Manuscripts Don't Burn isn't an "enjoyable" experience. But, not all cinema should be enjoyable. They should be thought provoking, and Manuscripts Don't Burn has that in spades. Being an anti-government screed, Manuscripts is an important movie, even if it isn't technically amazing.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

La Mia Classe (2013): Going Meta-Overboard

La Mia Classe (2013)
(aka My Class)
dir: Daniele Gaglianone

One of my traditionally favorite formulas is the story by proxy formula. In this formula, it's generally a group setting, and in one remote location. The story, we learn, is happening off stage, and we're learning about it piece by piece through the dialogue only. Generally, this works best on radio or on stage, and it helps to have only a handful of stories progressing at any one point. But, the action only sometimes interrupts the on-stage/screen action, with most climaxes happening off screen as well.

This formula must fascinate Gaglianone as well, as La Mia Classe uses the formula, then makes meta-commentary on the meta-formula, thus making everything meta squared.

Gaglianone is tackling some heavy, hefty, issues with La Mia Classe that affect a broad range of people, namely that of immigration and treatment of immigrants in the country of Italy. He sets La Mia Classe as a cinema verite style peek inside an Italian as Second Language class for immigrants. He fills the classroom with a wide variety of immigrants from a variety of places - Egypt, India, Libya, etc - and with a variety of reasons for not wanting to remain in their own country: money problems, cultural pressures, etc. Through the language exercises, we learn what these situations are, and the struggles that happens because of their being an immigrant.

But, Gaglianone also poses La Mia Classe as a documentary about the making of the narrative feature La Mia Classe and also a behind the scenes of the making of that documentary. He opens the film with the students testing their various microphones before the shooting is supposed to begin. But, before that, we explore the halls of an empty school into an empty room, as if the class had happened long ago in a different time period. At one point in the film, a student walks up to the teacher saying he has problems with his residential status papers, but then at another point, a student walks up to a producer with the same problems creating a hullabaloo. At yet another point, the film is documenting the setting up of a shot for a student to sleep in a park, and then filming the sleeping in the park.

Gaglianone goes overly meta to get the point across that this isn't your traditional poor weepy, but this stuff actually happens, but he loses the point of going meta by making his meta narrative kind of wishy-washy in its status as a non-fiction fictional narrative, and thus making everything seem faker and less urgent than it may actually be in that country.As a counter-example, Interior. Leather Bar. is a meta-narrative where the whole thing is scripted, but it's scripted as if it is a documentary, and doesn't half-ass or confuse any of the scenes. Thus, the scenes in Interior. Leather Bar. while climbing up its own ass still, seem more real than the scenes in La Mia Classe.

The missed opportunity is great here, because when La Mia Classe is on, it's really on. And, when it's off, it's really off. It's a point blank disappointment that's greater because it was reaching for the stars and burnt out before it reached it's destination. The acting didn't help because most of the students seemed to be able to speak Italian with great ease, and the mistakes also seemed scripted. But, what do I know? It's not my language. Nor my country.