Archive for May, 2007

Once

May 24, 2007

Once is basically a musical, but not at all like Chicago or Dreamgirls. Well, except for that one word title thing.

The film opens with a man (Glen Hansard) playing a guitar on the street in some city that we later learn is Dublin, Ireland. His guitar is beat up and he’s mostly ignored, but he sings and plays well. We learn that his day job is fixing vacuum cleaners at his father’s vacuum repair shop. The female lead (newcomer Markéta Irglová) comes from Czechoslovakia, sells flowers on the street when she isn’t playing one of the pianos in a neighborhood music shop.

I hate to say much more about this film, because it mostly avoids the standard cliches, and even pointing out what those cliches might be would ruin the little surprises and the spontaneous flow of this wonderful little film. It’s a musical in the sense that the main characters play music and sing, and that moves the story forward, but not in the sense of characters breaking into song spontaneously and unbelievably as they would in a classic musical. So even if you don’t think you like musicals, you owe it to yourself to see this film. It won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, so it’s not just me saying that.

Note that it is rated R. As far as I can figure out, that’s due entirely to language, including a fair number of occurrences of the F-word. But it really seems tamer than many PG-13 or even PG films, so it would likely be safe for any teenager.

I should also mention that the camera is often shaky, so if you get motion sickness with SpastiCam™, you might want to sit further from the screen than usual. And the sound quality is not quite as good as you would want it to be, especially early in the film, though this did not bother me very much.

I saw the film at the Camera Cinema Club in Campbell, CA. There was a valiant attempt to get the filmmakers to the screening, but their schedule required them to leave the U.S. just a day or two prior. So instead there was a pre-recorded interview with the head of the Club with the writer/director and the two leads. Here are a few things I wrote down:

  • Hansard is the lead singer with a band called The Frames, and he was also in The Commitments
  • He played music on the street as young as 13, more for the experience that to make money (and in fact he said that on days when he actually did need money, he never made any)
  • Irglová was only 17 years old when the film was made, although she pointed out that she was only one month shy of being 18
  • She really does come from Czechoslovakia and met Hansard when she was 13
  • Almost all of the songs were written by the stars
  • The director calls the film an “art house musical” and compares it to the 1950’s version of A Star is Born
  • Most of the shots are from far away, like from across the street, because the actors were uncomfortable with a camera in their faces; this likely contributed to the shaky camera
  • The actor who robbed the male lead at the start of the film was actually attacked by bystanders since the camera was so far away they didn’t realize it was a movie being filmed
  • The music came first, in the sense that the writer/director has followed Hansard’s music
  • The script is not biographical, but pieces of the actors’ lives did inspire parts of it
  • Irglová wishes she could write something to dance to instead of the depressing stuff (her words) that seems to come out
  • The film was shot in about 13 days

I’ll give it a strong 3.5 stars out of 4 stars. See it, and also buy the soundtrack.

Seen 5/20/2007.

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Black Book

May 19, 2007

If you think of Paul Verhoeven as the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, you would be right. But Black Book is a World War II film mostly in Dutch (Verhoeven’s native tongue), which is not exactly what you would expect. Okay, there is more nudity than you would normally see in a war drama, but it usually seems integral to the story. Not always, mind you, but usually.

Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is a Jewish singer living in hiding in occupied Netherlands. Early in the film there is a chance to escape to an unoccupied part of the country, but things go wrong. She finds some other sympathetic members of the resistance, including businessman Gerben Kuipers and doctor Hans Akkermans. As you can tell from the trailers, Rachel ends up working for the Nazis, dying her hair blond and using the name Ellis. The key Nazi character is named Müntze, and is played by Sebastian Koch who you may remember from The Lives of Others.

I don’t want to give too much more away. The film is beautifully shot, and it’s not surprising that this is the most expensive Dutch language film ever made. But it is also quite difficult to watch at times, because the brutality of war, especially on the small scale, is not glossed over.

What is unusual about the film is the way it does not paint the two sides of the conflict as purely good and purely evil. Rather than black and white, you see shifting shades of gray, and I thought that made the film well worth seeing.

I’ll give it a strong 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 5/13/2007.

After the Wedding

May 12, 2007

After the Wedding is the latest film from Susanne Bier, who also directed Open Hearts and Brothers. This one stars Mads Mikkelsen as Jacob, who runs an orphanage in India. The orphanage needs money, and he learns of a possible donor in Copenhagen (Denmark), where he’s from but doesn’t seem keen to return to. But for the good of the children, he agrees to go.

In Denmark Jacob meets with Jørgen, a very rich man. Since Jacob has no one else to see in town, Jørgen invites him to come out to the (large) house in the country for the weekend, whereJørgen’s daughter Anna is getting married. We also meet Jørgen’s pretty younger wife Helene, and their two young sons.

This is a Danish film, so revelations are made and difficult emotions are bared. I won’t reveal any more of the plot to avoid spoiling the surprises, but I will recommend that you not form an opinion about anything or anyone too quickly. The acting is all excellent, and it is no suprise to me that this film was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar®. While I would definitely pick Pan’s Labyrinth over this one, I would have a harder time deciding the relative ranking of this one with The Lives of Others (which won the Oscar).

I’ll give it 3.5 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 5/3/2007.

Murch

May 4, 2007

Murch is a feature-length documentary about film and sound editor Walter Murch. Murch is perhaps the best known editor, which isn’t saying all that much, because editors are generally ignored. Oh, and he’s won three Oscars®.

For whatever reason, possibly because editing today uses quite a bit of technology, I’ve had an interest in editing for several years, and I have read Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye. I have been known to say that screenwriters, cinematographers, and editors all have about the same impact on a film, before, during, and after filming respectively, but editors get the least attention of the three.

The documentary mostly features Murch as a talking head, though it also has clips from the films he has edited and/or done sound for (THX 1138, The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, and Jarhead), as well of some segments showing him working. The talking head segments are also made more interesting with unusual editing, often mirroring the subject being discussed.

The directors, Edie and her husband David Ichioka, were there to introduce the film. Edie was a former assistant to Murch. [I also find it interesting that the directors are listed on IMDb under what I assume is David’s original last name, but they are listed on the film festival web site and the film’s official site by her last name.] They noted that making this film has caused them to see details in many of Murch’s films in a whole new way, and their hope was that we would get some of that as well.

After the screening, Walter Murch came down to answer questions from the audience. Here are a few things I wrote down:

  • He started by commenting on the Geneva Convention scene from The English Patient, which was included in the documentary, lamenting that now it’s the U.S. that ignores it
  • He had no part in the editing of this documentary
  • The documentary was shot in London in two sessions – he was there for the Cold Mountain press tour, while the directors were there for Corpse Bride
  • How do you decide if music is needed and if so which music? He said that the director is at least involved in the tone if not in the exact details – music can be a powerful and potentially dangerous force – he tells film students to expect miracles – he prefers to find the visual tone before adding sound
  • The Conversation is a film about sound told from sound person’s point of view edited by someone (Murch) who started in sound (as a kid) – there is very little dialog in the second half of film, freeing the mind to listen to other sounds
  • Are today’s movies too long? He hears this a lot, but doesn’t seem to feel that way himself – if you look at the running time of the first assembly of a film and take up to 30% off, that’s like filmic Weight Watchers, and you don’t lose anything real – more than that requires bone crushing or real serious surgery, and is risky and doesn’t always work, but sometimes does — The Conversation started over twice as long as it ended up – the greatest films usually do do this
  • Are new longer versions of great films a good idea? Apocalypse Now Redux was originally going to use branching rather than being a new accepted version of the film – he is not entirely positive this kind of thing is a good idea, especially after the original cut is well known – technology keeps changing

Here’s a bad cameraphone picture of Murch on stage:
Walter Murch

I’ll give the documentary a strong 3 stars out of 4 stars, and Murch himself a 4 stars.

Seen 4/29/2007 at the Castro Theater, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

What Really Matters

May 1, 2007

The central issue of the 2004 Presidential election was terrorism and the Iraq war. The first debate of the 2008 election (which I missed – why were there no repeat broadcasts?) also highlighted this topic. But is this what really matters most? Is this what should be getting the money, the manpower, and the attention?

In my opinion, no. The following are what I would choose as the top five issues facing the country and the world today, in roughly descending order of importance:

  1. Global climate change, a.k.a., global warming: This seems like the one that is most likely to make a big difference, up to and including death, to billions of people. If sea levels rise much, big sections of land that people live on will have to be abandoned, and in many cases these are people without the means to start over or even evacuate. In places like Africa there could be devastating and deadly droughts. This could change everything, and probably will. Solving it would also have the side benefit of solving the problem of more demand for oil than the supply can support.
  2. Intolerance: The biggest form of this seems to be religious intolerance: Sunnis and Shias, Catholics and Protestants, Israelis and Palestinians (at least partly religious), religious people and atheists, and so on. Non-religious intolerance includes things like the divisions between gays and straights, Democrats and Republicans, one race and another race, pro-choice and pro-life, and more. When has a war not had intolerance at its core?
  3. Violence and fear: The media encourages us to be fearful, but also to think of violence as a solution (or even the solution) to problems. War and the death penalty is killing done by the government in our names, so it must be okay. Is it?
  4. Politics: Do we have to accept that politicians become corrupt and/or cynical, are beholden to big corporate donors, work harder to ensure their own reelection than they do for their constituents, win elections through mass marketing rather than on the issues, and get elected though voting systems that are unreliable and unauditable? I sure hope not. If so, then it’s much harder to fix the other problems on this list.
  5. Education: The current system doesn’t work very well. Most students don’t work very hard, and their teachers are underpaid, overworked, and the ones who have the ambition to improve things are far too often stuck in an inflexible system. I don’t have a clue what to do about this, but if we keep turning out graduates who have a hard time operating a cash register or understanding the different sides of election issues, we’re in deep trouble.

After that would probably be pandemics (e.g., bird flu and AIDS), and health care availability and costs.

9/11 sucked, but we (the United States) have responded to it so poorly that the cure has become much worse than the disease. And on top of that, the cost and the attention given to it (and especially the Iraq fiasco) makes it impossible to tackle what really matters.

Update: There is a transcript of the Democratic debate here (New York Times).