Archive for March, 2007

Volver

March 22, 2007

Volver is perhaps the last of the 2006 awards season films I will see in a theater. Which is probably just as well seeing as how it’s now Spring 2007.

Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) lost their parents a few years back in a fire, and their aunt Paula is not doing well, though aunt Paula is stubbornly living on her own. Meanwhile, Raimunda’s husband has lost his job, so she resolves to start working Sunday, the only day of the week she isn’t already working. Raimunda’s daughter, also named Paula, is, well, she’s a teenager (although it turns out the young actress who played her was only 11 at the time).

While Raimunda lives in Madrid, back in the small town she comes from the men die young. And the few men in this film don’t play very big roles. Besides all of the women already mentioned, there are also Agustina, an old family friend who lives next to aunt Paula, and Raimunda and Sole’s dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura), who appears to some people.

Besides the dead mother, this film has quite a few odd moments, and it’s really hard to say whether this is a drama, a comedy, a thriller, or what exactly. And that’s not unusual for a film by Pedro Almodóvar (Talk to Her and Bad Education, among others). It’s best to go into this film without any clear expectations. I found it quite good, and what I had read about Cruz being a much better actress in Spanish than she is in English was true.

I give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 3/21/2007.

Advertisements

Hollywood Dreams

March 21, 2007

Hollywood Dreams is a small independent comedy about a down-on-her-luck actress from Iowa named Margie Chizek (Tanna Frederick). The film opens with a funny (in a cringe-worthy way) scene of her auditioning for a part that she wants so badly she keeps breaking down in tears. After a funny (in a strange way) segment on a dieting secret you may not want to know about, Margie ends up essentially homeless, and is discovered by a man named Kaz who says he’s a producer.

I don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t go into much more plot detail. I will say that the sexual preferences and gender roles of one or more characters are key themes in the film. I also found myself thinking of similarities with Being There on a couple of occasions.

I did enjoy the film and thought it was well done, especially considering its small budget. The performances were good but not extraordinary. I would recommend it.

The lead actress was at the screening at the Camera Cinema Club in Campbell, CA. The director (Henry Jaglom) had also planned to attend but was sick, so he was on the phone. Here are a few things I wrote down from the discussion (which may contain some minor spoilers):

  • The actress said that this was her first film, and that like her character she is from Iowa [It turns out that she lied about this being her first film. According to IMDb, she was actually in a soft-core lesbian film called Inescapable, which was directed by Helen Lesnick, who also directed a cute little lesbian romantic comedy called A Family Affair that I saw at some film festival.]
  • The director wanted the feel of old movies like All About Eve, so he made Tanna watch lots of old movies for a year
  • The director actually put Tanna under contract, which no one does anymore (and he hadn’t previously done either)
  • The film was fully scripted, but there was an opportunity to play around like in acting class
  • According to the director, acting is lying, so better liars are better actors
  • Tanna heard from another actor that writing to Jaglom and praising his movies might get you a part, so she did; she later admitted to him that she hadn’t actually seen the movie she was praising, which got her the part
  • The actress says the director loves a good hustle
  • The actress studied her actor friends’ ambition for fame and found that most had a traumatic event in their past
  • The director didn’t fit in as a child, and was a misfit and class clown, which he feels leads to a drive to be seen
  • The director has known people whose entire personality was created to fake straightness; this was part of contracts and was managed by the studios; and this has not entirely changed, as demonstrated only 12 years ago when straight stars were unwilling to publicly support a gay-tolerant ballot proposition
  • The bed scene was all done in one take, and the dog licked without provocation
  • The house in the movie belongs to Zack Norman (who plays Kaz, the producer) in real life, and the artwork is really there
  • The Mallomar chew and spit idea came from the director: he did it himself, and he knew others who did, but Tanna disavowed knowing about it before the movie
  • The movie opens in May

I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 3/18/2007.

Film Movement

March 14, 2007

Film Movement is a way to get access to interesting independent and foreign films that have little if any distribution in theaters. If you don’t live in an area with a good independent theater, this may be your best source of interesting films.

You can buy individual films, or for substantially less per film you can subscribe to a “film of the month club.” Each month you get a DVD with a feature film and a short film (although one time they had an all shorts DVD). At least some of their films become available on NetFlix, although not immediately. Recently they went green, sending out their DVDs in minimalist envelopes rather than normal DVD cases protected by environmentally-unfriendly bubble-wrap envelopes.

As a self-confessed DVD addict, I of course have been a subscriber since Film Movement began over four years ago. And as someone who prefers to watch films in theaters, I haven’t watched most of them. So how can I judge their quality?

I have seen several of their films at film festivals, and mostly they have been very worth films. Campfire was one of my favorite films at Cinequest in 2005. He Died with a Felafel in His Hand was a highlight at the Hawaii International Film Festival in 2002.

I’m writing this blog entry today because I just opened an envelope and found that their latest film is The Bothersome Man, which won the top award at the Cinequest that just ended. I picked it in the middle of the pack of the films I saw, but it continues to percolate in my memory, so I suspect it is better than I rated it.

Final Cinequest 17 Thoughts

March 13, 2007

It was a pretty good festival. There were really no movies that I hated, and only one that in retrospect I would have skipped. But there were also no films that were truly outstanding, that I could rave about without reservation.

In any case, below is an attempt to rank the 20 movies I saw from best to worst, though the middle ones (6 to 16) are pretty close in rank.

  1. The General (it’s not entirely possible or fair to rate this silent classic on the same scale as the others)
  2. We Shall Overcome
  3. Outsourced
  4. Maria’s Men
  5. Slumming
  6. Pure Hearts
  7. The Namesake
  8. The Prince of Soap
  9. Just Sex and Nothing Else
  10. Prague
  11. The Bothersome Man
  12. Who Loves the Sun
  13. Out of Balance
  14. Owl and the Sparrow
  15. You Are Here
  16. Fresh Air
  17. Pingpong
  18. Border Post
  19. Act Normal
  20. All the Days Before Tomorrow

So who’s ready for next year?

Owl and the Sparrow

March 12, 2007

Owl and the Sparrow is a story about a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl named Thuy, whose parents are both dead. She’s being raised by her uncle, who runs a bamboo shade “factory.” As the film opens, Thuy makes a mistake and is thoroughly chewed out by her uncle, who tells her that she’s useless. Thuy packs a backpack, empties her piggybank, and leaves for the big city (Saigon).

In the city, the story expands to include Hai, a zookeeper who especially likes elephants, and Lan, a flight attendant, both of whom Thuy meets, becomes friends with, and is helped by.

The film is a little too sentimental, but manages to keep from going excessively in that direction, and it looks far better than it has any right to given its budget and shooting schedule (more on this below). I left the film only mildly positive about it, but it has grown a bit on me overnight.

Director Stephane Gauger, a producer, and the actress who played Lan (Cat Ly) were at the screening to answer questions. Here are a few points I wrote down:

  • The director apologized for the film being shot almost entirely handheld, wondering how many people in the front rows had motion sickness (it wasn’t that bad, but a few hands did go up)
  • He wanted to make a film in Saigon, which is where he was born (his mother is Vietnamese)
  • Some atmospheric shots were from Hanoi, and the montage of kids looking directly at the camera was from all over Vietnam
  • Everyone who worked on the film spoke Vietnamese
  • This was the Cat’s second film, and she hadn’t been back to Saigon in quite some time (she spoke English like a native)
  • The script was written in a month
  • The film was financed on credit cards
  • The filming was done using two Panasonic MiniDV 24p camcorders
  • The little girl who played Thuy was cast just two days before shooting began, and it was her first film
  • The shooting schedule was only 15 days (there was a significant sound of surprise from the audience when he said this, because the film didn’t look rushed)
  • The fast shooting schedule was made possible by keeping all of the shooting locations close together, using two handheld cameras, and by not setting marks for the actors to hit
  • The score was written by a Vietnamese American, and it is his first score
  • The director does want to show the film in Vietnam, although it does have to be approved by the censors (the script was pre-approved so it has a reasonable chance)
  • Cat is slightly older than the actor who played Hai, and while a relationship of an older woman with a younger man would have been taboo until recently, that is softening today

I’ll give it 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 3/11/2007 at Cinequest, where it was the closing night film.

You Are Here, The Bothersome Man, Prague, and We Shall Overcome

March 11, 2007

You Are Here is a Rashômon-style film with various people relating their memories of the same night and often the same events, so the viewer eventually pieces together a fairly complete picture. Along the way you have to reevaluate what you thought you understood or assumed.

The characters are almost all in their early 20’s. Ryan is a DJ in a club that serves as the central venue of the story. He is in love with Cassie, a struggling actress. But as the movie opens, he wakes up in bed with Apple, Cassie’s friend, not sure exactly how he ended up there, although he does remember a lot of pretty messed-up shit. Mick is the cool guy with the British accent and a Zen philosophy who Ryan calls from Apple’s bathroom to try to figure things out. And there are at least three more fairly prominent characters.

My appraisal of the film varied quite a bit as it progressed. The characters are not people I would normally interact with, and are not really people I would want to hang out with, but they are mostly at least interesting. And they are well portrayed, seeming three (or at least two) dimensional and fairly real. The plot took unexpected turns, and the visual style was often interesting. The music wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, but didn’t suck either. So on the whole I was glad I saw this film.

The film seemed not to be 100% finished, by the way. At the end it said “End Titles,” and that was it. So maybe it will be a little different if you get a chance to see it.

The Bothersome Man opens with Andreas standing on a train platform. Near him a couple is kissing passionately, sort of. They look distracted and they don’t really seem present. It was funny and creepy at the same time.

Then flash back. A man at a rundown gas station in the middle of f***-ing nowhere puts up a welcome banner. A bus arrives carrying only one man: Andreas. He’s taken by car into town, and he’s given an apartment and a job. But things are weird. He sees a man impaled on a metal spike fence, dead, but people just acknowledge it without really reacting.

I won’t go further to avoid spoiling anything about this Norwegian film that defies easy categorization. It reminded me of Dark City (what I can remember of it), but with some of “The Prisoner” and a little Groundhog Day thrown in. I’m not a fan of horror or violence, and was happy that that was not pervasive, but what was there was still quite disturbing and made me look away from the screen. Luckily the film was intriguing and interesting enough to make me still glad I saw it.

In Prague, Christoffer’s father has died, so he and his wife Maja go from their home in Denmark to Prague to get the body. Christoffer is unemotional, which he attributes to the fact that his father left home when Christoffer was 12, but Maja keeps pushing him to open up.

It’s hard to talk about the movie without giving away too much, but suffice it to say that this lives up to the stereotype of Danish dramas: difficult emotions, confrontation, and some sexual situations.

There are a few things that lighten the mood. The most prevalent one is the language barrier, since no Czechs speak Danish. When Christoffer uses English as an intermediate language, he is liable to get a beer when he orders coffee, for example.

I should also mention that SpastiCam™ is pretty pervasive throughout. Sometimes it’s big movements, and sometimes it’s just small shakiness, but the camera is rarely still or smooth.

The performances, especially by Mads Mikkelsen, are excellent, and the story is engaging even though it’s depressing. So I was glad to have seen it.

We Shall Overcome is a Danish movie based on actual events. It is set in a small rural town in 1969. The main character is Frits, a middle school-aged boy whose family runs a dairy farm. At the start of the film his father Peder is taken away to an institution, not quite able to cope with life. Frits’ mother Stine buys a used black and white television to keep the family occupied, and Frits is enthralled with the news of the civil rights movement and Vietnam demonstrations.

The school year starts, and Frits is out of step with his classmates. His hair is long, at least when compared to other boys, and he doesn’t want to say what he did during the summer since his father’s situation is not public knowledge. We learn that the school is run with an iron fist by headmaster Lindum-Svendsen, who was just recognized for 25 years in his position. He feels that there is no problem that can’t be solved by a beating or the threat of one. And anything that doesn’t match his old-fashioned vision of how school should be is a problem.

The other key characters are Freddie Svale, a hippie music teacher who has just arrived to teach on a trial basis, and Iben, a pretty girl in Frits’ class.

I won’t go into more detail because I didn’t know much going into this film except that it was Danish and had some connection to Martin Luther King. I loved it. It’s a little manipulative, but much better and original than a film like The Chorus. It’s my favorite film of the festival (leaving The General out of competition).

I’ll give 3.5 stars out of 4 stars to We Shall Overcome, and 3 stars out of 4 stars to the other three films.

Seen 3/10/2007 at Cinequest.

Pure Hearts, Pingpong, and Maria’s Men

March 9, 2007

In Pure Hearts, Kriss lives in an institution. He and his best friend Willy watch an old B&W film called Pure Hearts every day, often several times. Kriss can’t talk about anything but the film and its female star, named Linda. Unfortunately the tape he has of the movie is missing the ending, so he isn’t 100% sure how it ends. We also learn that Kriss gave up on reading books after reading the story of Noah’s ark. It seems that Kriss disagrees with Noah, thinking that he should have left the “bad” animals to drown.

Without giving too much away, Kriss gets into trouble when he hurts another patient, and he is no longer allowed to watch his movie. Things go downhill from there.

This film reminded me a bit of Elling, which I love, though it’s darker as you might expect, since this film is Danish and Elling is Norwegian.

At the start of the German film Pingpong, Paul arrives unannounced at the house of Anna, Stephan, their son Robert, and dog Schumann, and says that he wants to stay for an indefinite period of time. Apparently Stephan told Paul that he could come any time if things got too hard at home. Not much later we learn that Paul and Robert are old friends, and that Paul’s father recently died.

The film is hard to descibe, but everyone has challenges in their lives, and we see those challenges all play out in various combinations.

The film is somewhat challenging, as you might guess from what I’ve said, and I liked it quite a bit through most of the running time. Unfortunately, the final act is marred by a character doing something that seemed incompatible with the character I thought I had come to know, mostly ruining all that came before for me.

Maria’s Men is a romantic comedy, though that’s not so obvious from the opening scene. It’s set in a hospital emergency room, where an old man has been brought in after jumping from a third floor window. We also see a closeup of someone being stitched up (or we see it until we look away, in my case). But the music is oddly cheerful. Hmmm. I’m not sure if this is going to work.

We also meet Maria, an emergency room doctor all her coworkers seem to like. We learn that she is a 40-ish divorced mother of three, and that she hasn’t dated in a while and isn’t sure if she wants to or has the time. But then her coworkers try to set her up with a very successful doctor who just joined the hospital staff, and another man also expresses interest.

Maria is played by Ingjerd Egeberg, who I didn’t realize was also in two of my favorite Norwegian films from past Cinequest festivals, Hold My Heart and Detector. On paper she is not a great Hollywood-style beauty, but somehow she manages to pull off the magnetism needed to make you believe that men would be drawn to her. It’s an excellent performance. And the film really worked for me too.

I’ll give Pure Hearts 3 stars, Pingpong 2.5 stars, and Maria’s Men 3.5 stars, all out of 4 stars.

Seen 3/8/2007 at Cinequest.

Out of Balance and Slumming

March 8, 2007

Out of Balance is a reasonably good documentary about global warming, although its strength is specifically exploring the damage that ExxonMobil has done historically (e.g., the Valdez spill) and recently (e.g., memos showing their role in clouding the global warming debate for about 10 years). It’s low budget and a little strident, but not painfully so, and the subject is a vitally important one. I do wish that the film had not used hurricanes so extensively as an example of the outcome of climate change, because from what I have read that connection is not as clear as many others. But the visuals of the destruction are so good I understand it is hard to resist.

The director was at the screening to answer questions afterwards. Here are a few things I wrote down:

  • The DVD is available on the film’s website
  • The director feels like this is a good followup to An Inconvenient Truth
  • The director is touring the country to promote the movie
  • Someone in Washington, D.C. bought a couple of copies of the DVD, and the director didn’t recognize the name, so after some web searching he figured out that the buyer worked forDCI Group, which does lots of work for ExxonMobil
  • An audience member said that the film scared her, but she thinks we need to be scared
  • exxonsecrets.org is a good web site showing all the connections
  • The director spent about 10 months (12/2005-10/2006) full-time on the film
  • The majority of people now know this is real and serious, finally
  • The director is not sure if he should be hopeful or not
  • Government can rally people, and hopefully the next administration will try

The short shown before the film (The Sparky Book) was simple and manipulative, but affecting. Dogs are good.

My other movie this day was an Austrian film called Slumming. Sebastian and Alex, two of the main characters in the film, would be yuppie Austrian scum, but they aren’t professional (which is part of the definition of the word yuppie). Sebastian has enough money for a fancy BMW, but they do “nothing.” They spend their time amusing themselves by taking covert pantie photographs of women they meet online, and making up life stories of people they see, loud enough that their subjects can hear their insensitive comments. They use the term “slumming” to mean rich people like them spending time in bars and other establishments in much poorer parts of town (Vienna), and they are just as condescending as you might imagine from that description. Their lives intersect with Pia, a school teacher, andKallman, a loud alcoholic homeless poet.

I thought that the film was done very well, with good performances and an engaging visual style. You don’t really like any of the characters, but you can empathize with all of them to varying degrees. I was very glad that I picked it at the last minute to fill a hole in my schedule.

I’ll give Out of Balance and Slumming both 3 stars out of 4 stars, for very different reasons. Slumming is very close to 3.5 stars.

Seen 3/7/2007 at Cinequest.

Border Post

March 6, 2007

Border Post was co-produced by people from all of the parts of the former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, etc.). It is set in a military post in Yugoslavia on the Albanian border in the late 1980’s. The men stationed there seem to think about sex, drinking, and getting out of the military, and not much else. The main characters are Sinisa (a medical student), Paunovic (his friend), their commanding officer Pasic, and a female love interest I won’t describe further to avoid spoiling things. Pasic has just come down with syphilis after sleeping with a prostitute, and pressures Sinisa into treating him. As a cover story to avoid facing his wife during the three weeks of treatment, the commander invents an Albanian military buildup that forces the base to be locked down.

The Cinequest program compares this film to MASH, Catch-22, and other films. I can see their point, but this film does not come close to measuring up to those classics. To me the humor wore thin fairly quickly, and even though the romance angle (and leading lady) kept my interest, it seemed pretty far-fetched to me. And the ending seemed like it belonged in another film entirely. The bottom line is that while I’m not sorry I saw this film, it was not something I would particularly recommend either.

I give it 2.5 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 3/5/2007 at Cinequest.

Outsourced

March 4, 2007

When I arrived in San Jose for Cinequest this evening, a man approached me and offered me a DVD containing the animated short Guidolon the Giant Space Chicken. Apparently they missed the deadline to get into the festival, so they were just handing out DVDs. [Edit: I have since heard that they did submit it but didn’t make it into the festival, though the short has done well at other festivals.] I haven’t watched it yet, but the whole 11 minutes is apparently available online at the web site linked earlier in this paragraph.

The film I was really here to see tonight was Outsourced, a film about a Seattle man sent to India to set up a call center to replace the people who work for him, and of course his own replacement too. At first I worried that the film was going to have fun at the expense of the Indian people, and while it does do some of that, it makes as much fun of the Americans, and does it all in a surprisingly charming way. IMDb classifies this film as a comedy, and that’s mostly true, but there are touching moments and some romance as well. The main two characters are Todd (Josh Hamilton, who starred in a film called On_Line from Cinequest 5 years ago) and Asha (Ayesha Dharker, who apparently had a small part in Star Wars Episode II). By the time the film was over, both had transcended my expectations from earlier in the film. This is my favorite film of the festival so far.

The director was there to answer questions after the film. Here are a few things I wrote down from that:

  • The film is partly autobiographical, based on times the director traveled in Nepal and India
  • He has wanted to tell this story since 1993
  • Someone asked if they considered subtitling the Hindi that is heard in the film, and the director prefers that the audience be in the same boat as Todd, and for Hindi-speaking audience members to get a bonus
  • Josh Hamilton had been to India and was eager to go back, which helped him get the part
  • Ayesha Dharker understood her character better than anyone else who auditioned for that role
  • It was filmed in Bombay (30 days) and Seattle (2 days)
  • The director was the angry caller near the end of the film
  • A horror movie was filming next to where they shot a rooftop scene, and smoke kept blowing into the shot, and the screams interfered as well
  • The color celebration shown in the film is real, is called Holi, and coincidentally this year is 3/4/2007 (the date I saw this film)
  • The music was mostly composed for film, though some songs were not (such as the opening and closing songs, which were done by the Bombay Rockers)

Outsourced

Above is the director on stage during the Q&A. The light wasn’t very good without a flash.

I give it 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 3/4/2007 at Cinequest.