Friday, July 30, 2010

2009 in 2010- July 29th

July 29, 2010

Tokyo Sonata (2009) ****
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

My tweet:

Tokyo Sonata
(2009)- Strange and beautiful look at
a family/country that's not quite dealing with these difficult times. **** out of 5

Other thoughts:

Directed by a filmmaker most known for Japanese horror, this tragic drama, which completely condemns the Japan of today, contains unabashed strangeness which makes something that could have ended up as an Ozu knock-off into a beautifully haunting, genre-bending experience. A father loses his management job but, because of his pride, doesn't tell his family and instead dresses in a suit everyday to wait in long employment lines and eat handouts for the homeless in a park. Meanwhile, his wife, who isn't as stupid as her husband thinks, tries to preserve her husband's dignity by keeping mum about the fact that she knows his predicament. Their 10 year-old son, meanwhile, desperately wants to learn how to play the piano, and their older son has joined the American military. The situations are extreme, but the frustrations and stresses are all-too-universal in today's tough economic times. In many ways, Tokyo Sonata serves as a cautionary tale of what could happen to people forced to live in a dehumanizing situation within a country that doesn't care about them at all. All this politicking occurs within a shiny package containing a putrid stench.

Pirate Radio (2009) **1/2
Directed by Richard Curtis

My tweet:

Pirate Radio (2009)- Interesting concept but executed poorly--cartoonish and not at all funny. Songs are too on the nose. **1/2 out of 5

Other thoughts:

There's one major reason why I didn't like Pirate Radio, which was called The Boat That Rocked when it was released overseas before coming to the United States. It's not because of its excellent cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans and Kenneth Branagh. It's not because the actors aren't having fun on screen, and it's not because the film is taking itself too seriously, which it isn't. The major reason I didn't like Pirate Radio is because it simply isn't funny. The whole thing plays out like a bunch of sketches aboard a ship full of cartoon characters playing music so completely on the nose with whatever is happening at the moment. There's supposed to be a sense of joy and jubilation which is meant to be infectious. The script sadly lets down both the cast and the viewer.

The Yes Men Fix the World (2009) ***1/2
Directed by The Yes Men

My tweet:

The Yes Men Fix the World (2009)- Call to action doc that's painfully uncomfortable. Unfocused activism but admirable intentions ***1/2 of 5

Other thoughts:

The liberal gimmicks that the Yes Men attempt and pull off would make Michael Moore cower in shame. Like Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat and Bruno, I feel like giving these two guys fist bumps for having the sheer audacity to take the risks they do. They successfully impersonated a spokesman for DOW in order to announce on BBC for an audience of millions that the company was going to spend tens of billions of dollars in restitution for a disaster that took place many years ago in India. One of them convinced a crowd which included the governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans that he was an assistant secretary for HUD and announced that the federal government was going to open all shuttered public housing. The doc is truly painful to watch at times, considering they're often rebuked on camera once their cover is blown. Personally, I can't understand how they're not automatically put in prison for fraud. Their actions caused a stock market blip for DOW the day they made the announcement, but maybe even more troubling, the people in India were given false hope by two individuals purporting to be on the victims' side. Personally, I didn't find their stunts all that politically effective, but I will say that it's truly something that they were able to pull them off, and a movie about these stunts certainly makes for compelling viewing.

Burma VJ (2009) ****1/2
Directed by Anders Ostergaard

My tweet:

Burma VJ (2009)- Impeccably well-crafted look at Burmese injustice as well as the reporters who risk their lives to show it ****1/2 out of 5

Other thoughts:

It was interesting watching Burma VJ right after The Yes Men Fix the World. The Yes Men are trying to influence their world for the better, but they'll never have the same impact as the illegal reporters within Burma (Myanmar) who risk prison by secretly filming a 2007 revolution against the militaristic government led by the Buddhist monks. They take the footage of the will of the people and the brutal injustice of the government and smuggle it out of the country so the world can hopefully step in and make life better for the Burmese people. The narrator is called Joshua, and though we can hear his voice and see his silhouette, his face and true identity are hidden from the viewer since he wants to continue doing what he's doing despite the fact that by the end of the revolution, it's much more dangerous for these reporters. Many were imprisoned and haven't been heard from since. It's inspiring to see people so committed to such a noble cause, and it ought to make us in the free world appreciate the rights that we have. This documentary is absolutely fascinating and expertly constructed. Burma VJ lost to The Cove at the Oscars which is too bad because it's a better movie, and the win could have given this film the word of mouth needed for more people to see the awful things going on within this closed country.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

2009 in 2010- July 26th

July 26, 2010
The Maid (2009) *****
Directed by Sebastian Silva

My tweet:

The Maid (2009)- Fascinating oddity. Rich character study based on how the judgments of the viewer can be so wrong. ***** out of 5

Other thoughts:

Raquel the Maid is unlike any character I've seen in film, and credit for this ought to go in large part to Catalina Saavedra who gives an amazingly brave and nuanced performance. She's so troubled that any day, she could quite possibly go over the edge into complete insanity and hurt people she genuinely cares about. After years of living with and working for a well-meaning but emotionally distant family, Raquel begins to crumble under the physical and emotional pressures of her job. When one maid after another is hired to assist, Raquel passive-aggressively tortures each one since, in her mind, both her territory and her livelihood are threatened. Without this job, which is really her identity, Raquel would be lost. She eventually passes out, presumably due to years of inhaling chemicals from cleaning products, and a replacement named Pilar is hired much to Raquel's irritation. By the time Pilar enters the picture, the viewer has pretty much written off any chance that Raquel can get better. Most would probably assume that she needs hospitalization, or at the very least heavy medication and therapy; however, we learn that it doesn't take much at all for Raquel to truly come into her own, and Pilar is the right person at the right time to allow Raquel to see the fun that can be had. Silva's brilliant character study continuously surprises, and as such, it forces the viewer to question why certain erroneous assumptions are made about Raquel's inferiority as a person. This is a wonderfully joyous movie, but at the same time, it's far from naive. There's no sweet, happily ever after ending--quite the opposite, in fact. The Maid shows life at its most damning, but in its own sly way, it suggests that we not give up on people as quickly as many of us are prone to do. Without a doubt, this is one of the strangest, most uncomfortable and wonderfully surprising movies I've seen.

The Song of Sparrows (2009) **
Directed by Majid Majidi

My tweet:

The Song of Sparrows (2009)- Majidi's storytelling is naive and cheap. He's best with arresting visuals which are lacking here. ** out of 5

Other thoughts:

If The Song of Sparrows was made by an American director, I doubt that it would have a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. This movie is shallow and manipulative, which comes as no surprise to me considering how much I truly despised Majidi's 1999 sapfest Children of Heaven. That film sentimentalizes poverty and relies on close-ups of crying faces of children in order to get audiences on board with the stakes at hand. I felt unclean after that movie was over, since I believe it was made for no other reason than to make European and American audiences feel all warm inside at the expense of the harsh realities within a country like Iran. Yes, there's a niche for sappy movies in the marketplace, but Majidi, who has notable skill as a visual filmmaker, clearly has the potential to challenge audiences, much like another Iranian director Abbas Kairostami, instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator. The Color of Paradise, also from 1999, was a much better film than Children of Heaven, and its opening sequence at the school for the blind is absolutely amazing. That film told the story of a blind boy who is experiencing a new environment through his other senses, and this allowed Majidi to present gorgeous visuals in the same vein of someone like Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog. Sadly, though, that film similarly got lost in the goo as the plot ultimately became about a father's true love for his son. The Song of Sparrows abandons the visual splendor of The Color of Paradise, though I admit I do love the scenes with the ostriches at the very beginning. Thankfully, this movie isn't quite as offensive as Children of Heaven considering that it doesn't spend the entire movie making us feel sorry for sad children--it only spends about half the film doing that. The other half has us journeying with a sad father, and while an adult in peril isn't as cheap as children in peril, the screenplay and the performances are still fundamentally lazy. Majidi offers an extended sermon about how families should love each other, and as such, this whole story feels like one of Jesus' parables from the Gospels played out on screen. Therein of course lies two huge problems. First of all, this whole mess feels familiar, and second, Jesus was going for simplicity while also challenging his uneducated listeners. Majidi's got the simplicity down pat, but there's nothing surprising or challenging about his message. If this is your kind of thing, that's fine with me. I'll be sure to get you a subscription to Reader's Digest for Christmas.

A Town Called Panic (2009) ****
Directed by Stephane Aubier & Vincent Patar

My tweet:

A Town Called Panic (2009)- Plastic barnyard animals holding a mirror up to humanity's destruction. Hilarious yet brutally cynical. ****/5

Other thoughts:

It's always nice to know that there are people out there whose minds are as strange as mine, and thankfully, some of them make movies. A Town Called Panic is truly a one of a kind, and I hope more films like it come along. The whole thing plays out like an ADHD child's stream of consciousness play session right after eating copious amounts of sugar snacks. As such, one really should be in the right kind of mood to watch. It might just annoy the hell out of a viewer who is cranky or has a headache. Utilizing classic stop-motion animation and based on a French television series, the three main characters are a father (a plastic horse) and his two whiny sons (a toy Indian and a toy cowboy). At the beginning, the boys forget that it's horse's birthday, and they decide at the last minute to build him a brick barbecue, though they end up ordering over thirty million more bricks than they should have. This all leads to mayhem which pretty much destroys the entire town and has the characters chase after thieves all the way to the core of the Earth. The humor is absurd, but everything is completely family-friendly, which is quite an accomplishment. I think of a show I admire like Aqua Teen Hunger Force which has the same type of stream-of-consciousness structure, but that one makes little sense considering that it's marketed to viewers high on any number of substances. There's a place for a show like Family Guy which exists in a medium traditionally marketed to children and takes its off color humor as far as the FCC will allow. A Town Called Panic is totally strange, but it's not at all offensive, and I also believe that it has something to say about humanity's destruction of the environment, though it's possible to enjoy the movie without even acknowledging its cynicism. This is a little treat of a film that I implore you check out, but only when you're up for it.