Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I am an epitom of beauty

I love messages like this in response to my baby photo that's still lingering on friendster...

If i say you are a beauty,i swear thats an understatement..What else can i say other than to say that you are an epitom of beauty.I really has just gone through your profile and i can't stop until i get to know you better.Hello dear,this is Brian from Laferia Texas in United States Of America,love to know you better

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Cinematic Beauty Journies of Giovanna Chesler and Timoleon Wilkins

I just watched this slideshow that my dad sent, which was the perfect reminder of the roots of my relationship to aesthetic beauty and why I find filmmakers Giovanna Chesler and Timoleon Wilkins so important.

I'm sure my dad is a huge influence on how I see the world and why beauty is so important to me. I'm grateful that now, as an adult nearing middle-age, I can finally see the interconnectedness of my dad's slideshows and his ever-present camera and my own career path and my love of avant-garde film. But there are others who've also had a huge influence on me.

photo by Timoleon Wilkins
When I first met filmmaker Timoleon Wilkins in San Francisco in the mid-1990's, he was my boss at an art-house movie theater in the Tenderloin. He invited me to a lot of experimental film screenings and showed me even more work at his home. I fell in love with his imagery and with everything he was teaching me about avant-garde film. He also encouraged me to pick up my parents' super-8 camera and start shooting Kodachrome. I've noticed since that many of the things I shoot are things I think Tim would shoot and I often wonder if he taught me how to see things or if it is our common vision in the world that is one of the things that brought us together in the first place. Tim taught me that beauty was absolutely worth capturing on film simply because it was beautiful and pleasing to look at. Now, like Tim, I store beautiful images for later use, not knowing how I might use them or what work they might comprise in the future.

still from Timoleon Wilkins' Drifter

Giovanna Chesler's photographic beauty then is more deliberate. I first met Giovanna when we screened her 16mm work at a film festival I was working on in Chicago and she came in from San Diego for the screenings. I have programmed several of her works in various settings over the past ten years and each time I am struck by the beauty of her composition and by how genuine her work is, how heartfelt. But the most obvious thing I think of when I think of Chesler's work is her ability to fluidly move between genres and to do each genre excellently and authentically. Giovanna is a perfectionist filmmaker who creates compelling fiction (BEAUTEOUS, BYE BI LOVE), documentary (PERIOD: THE END OF MENSTRUATION?) and experimental forms (HAND.SOME and BEAUTEOUS: GIOVANNA), as well as smart internet work that involve collaborative group projects that engage communities (HPV PROJECT). It's no coincidence that BEAUTEOUS is a key word even in her titles. Chesler deconstructs beauty even as she creates some of the prettiest images in modern cinematography.

still from Giovanna Chesler's BeauteouS

In fact, maybe that's the difference between Wilkins' and Chesler's work- Tim captures images purposely  without purpose and G's images and stories are expertly planned and calculated. But both of these filmmakers use the full frame, filling it with beauty.

Tim was remarking the other day that he can't take photos of flowers, implying that photos of beautiful flowers are cliché and unoriginal because people are not interested in the subject matter. But he said that he practices his technique by shooting flowers and the like and that he can give them to his family as christmas gifts.

Tim's take on beauty can be summed up with this clip that he shared with me.:

I don't really agree with Mr. Scruton's rather simplistic view of art and beauty, particularly his notion that beauty is not subjective (or constructed, for that matter...). But I do think this is important to ponder. I, for one, enjoy images that please my eyes and I want more. That's why I love the work of these two filmmakers.

You have a chance to catch their work!

Tonight at Anthology Film Archive in New York, Giovanna will be presenting a program of her work, including her gorgeous and compelling BEAUTEOUS: THE TRILOGY and her latest, the poignant narrative BYE BI LOVE. The show starts at 7:15pm.

Tim exhibits only on celluloid, so catch him when you can. His latest masterpiece, DRIFTER, screened recently at the New York Film Festival and will be screening at the London Film Festival on October 22 and 23 and as part of the TIE festival at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee on October 26.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Women on the Guardian’s Film Power 100 List

18) Angelina Jolie, Actor: Salt, Changeling, A Mighty Heart
22) Amy Pascal and Jeff Blake, Studio executives: Co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and vice-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment
29) Kate Winslet, Actor: The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Titanic
30) Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, Producers: Goldeneye, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace
33) Tessa Ross, Commissioning executive: Controller of film and drama, Channel 4
36) Christine Langan Commissioning executive: Creative director, BBC Films
38) Keira Knightley, Actor: Never Let Me Go, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice
58) Tracey Jacobs, Agent: Co-head of Talent, United Talent Agency
62) Claudia Winkelman, TV personality: Presenter of Film 2010
64) Sofia Coppola, Director: Somewhere, Lost in Translation
66) Tilda Swinton, Actor: We Need to Talk About Kevin, I Am Love, Michael Clayton
70) Clare Binns, Film Programmer: Programming-Director of City Screen
74) Kristin Scott Thomas, Actor: I’ve Loved You So Long, Leaving, Nowhere Boy, The English Patient
83) Kathryn Bigelow, Director: The Hurt Locker, Point Break
90) Nikki Finke, Web Entrepreneur: Editor in chief of
93) Janet Pierson, Programmer: Head of Film programming, SXSW
96) Jane Goldman, Writer: Stardust, Kick-Ass
99) Catharine des Forges, Distributor: Director of the Independent Cinema Office

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Move over!

Programming Committee, my film discussion blog with Jenn Hsu, is up and running. So, for blurbs on every film I ever see from now on, look for us there!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sunset Community Film Festival

I've been a fan of Wayland He's Life of Wayland since Rebecca Devlin first shared it with me a few years ago. At the 6th Annual Sunset Community Film Festival, held at Ulloa Elementary School in San Francisco on March 5, He made dozens more fans. His latest short, a funny animation called Worm War I, won the audience award for best film, and I heard many a serious discussion between 6th graders and uproarious laughter from the 3rd graders sitting behind me about the video.

The entire program, chosen and compiled by youth media group SCREAM members, was very good and it was professionally well presented. The best part was sitting in a theater full of an audience of young people, watching a program entirely made and presented by young people, and experiencing the extreme pleasure of everyone involved. Half of the time I had no idea why they were laughing, but they sure were having a good time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Barbara Hammer and Silas Howard at the Hammer

What a great night. I wish this conversation could have lasted a lot longer- they were just getting started. But what an excellent combination, whoever thought this one up!


I can't believe I finally finished it. After three viewings over the course of two weeks I have finally finished watching David Lynch's enigmatic Inland Empire (2006). Clearly (well, I use that word loosely...), this film is about Laura Dern's character Nikki Grace's psyche. It's about psychology, movies and reality vs. make-believe in a hodge-podge of visual styles and genres, but mostly horror. I bet if I watched it again I'd get it, but I can't imagine I will ever, ever be driven to do that. If you know me, you know that I'm all about film and media that make you go, "WTF?!" But WTF?! And Whatever.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Part of the joy of staying with Mark and Andrea off and on for the past few months has been cooking for them. This also gives me a chance to return to the heart of this blog. Mark is an economist who sometimes works for the World Bank, though appallingly he's never eaten at the World Bank Cafeteria. Out of pity for that deprivation, I like to prepare meals for them when they return from work...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Nordwand Schmordwand

This looks miserable, right? Well it was. There was also a lot of ACTING! bleh. This was a big night out to the Royal with Andrea and Mark. And I guess I never got bored enough to think of leaving. But this movie was a one-trick-pony. What did we need this for? We didn't.

Les chansons d'amour

I finally watched Love Songs (Christophe Honoré, 2007)- and I loved it! Never has a musical worked so well, in my book. I actually didn't mind at all when the cast broke out in song, it seemed as natural as I ever do when I sing while walking down the street. And it was such a relief of a story. French, yes, and refreshingly real! The guy who looks like Albert from Little House on the Praiarie aka Ismaël (Louis Garrel) would drive me up a tree with his silly joker antics. But other than that, this movie did not annoy me at all, remarkable for a musical movie. The songs are actually good. And I'm sure if my French were better I would have appreciated it even more. I love the sexual fluidity, the matter-of-factness of the affairs and the way they affect everyone's lives in the film. And I love that it ends up GAY gay. And I love that it just ends abruptly in the middle of just another love story. And that it's to a Barbara song- no proprietary musical last song-ness. Yum.

The Yacoubian Building

Hmmm...this was a tough one. Admittedly, I am ignorant of classic Egyptian film and Egyptian cinema in general. But The Yacoubian Building (Omaret yakobean) (Marwan Hamed, 2006), touted far and wide as the biggest-budget Egyptian film to date and a great cinematic accomplishment, was hard to take. I'd been expecting something pretty great, since this was the talk of the International Film Festival Rotterdam during my first year there, and I was really disappointed to have missed it then. It was so soap opera-like that I wasn't sure I could finish it. Upon finally viewing it, the main thing I took away from it was that the story entailed a lot of gross sexual coercion in the name of social advancement. That and the realization that I don't know enough about Egyptian history...or ANYTHING about Egyptian history for that matter.

When Taha (Mohamed Imam) became involved with a more radical sect of Islam, it was such a relief to focus on something substantial, something beyond the shame of characters stuck in poverty and feeling yuck-o about sexual favors demanded according to class and status. I guess there was also a fair share of political corruption. And it was thick with the message that violence breeds violence. But the homosexuality stuff was a bit much, not to be celebrated as I'd been lead to believe. The film has caused great controversy in Egypt for  its depiction of homosexuality. But when the Bey Hatim Rasheed (Khaled El Sawy) indulges in a flashback montage in which he is talking to [hideously rendered] portraits of his parents, and his homosexuality is explained by an assertion that his black African caretaker molested him as a child, I had to groan.

The grossest part was probably the clown-like face and particularly the smile of the aged Pasha (Adel Imam) who somehow easily won the heart of the hot young thing of the film, a woman who'd been vehemently discerning till that point.

I haven't read the book, but it MUST be better than the movie...

When the Patriarchy Let's You Down

Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) (Ellen Kuras & Thavisouk Phrasavath, 2008) is not a typical documentary. More than most docs, it attempts to- and succeeds in- telling its story through images more than words, and that works for the most part. It's an interweaving of recent interviews with amazing footage captured in the 1980's when Kuras first started following her Lao tutor, Thavi (co-director Phrasavath) with a camera. Nerakhoon dramatically reveals long-buried and/or never-revealed ugly secrets of US imperialism and dirty work that left allies abandoned and families in ruin, in particular that of Thavi. To that end, it's also the story of botched patriarchy and how political betrayal ruined his father and eventually his family. The doc also reveals truths about new refugees in the US, the living conditions of new immigrants and the price of assimilation. Are things really better for refugees once they reach the US? Does their chance for survival truly increase? It's a story of multiple betrayals, what we're willing to forgive, who we trust.

Once the family gets to the US, the doc moves seamlessly back and forth between Laos and US, between 1984 and the present, requiring its audience to find clues to figure out where we are, why we're there. From Ellen Kuras we expect beautiful images, and she delivers. There are a lot of orange robes of novices, Buddhism all over the place. And then there is unexpected and horrible community destruction due to gang coersion and involvement of young new immigrants. What emerges is a highly compelling collaboration between documentarian and subjects, revealing the interconnectedness of humanity.

Viva Women Directors!

I am ecstatic! Driving home from watching the Oscars, I felt high like I felt when Obama was elected (which in itself felt like when Mandela left prison and when the borders were opened between East and West Germany).

OH MY GOD!!!!!! Kathryn Bigelow!!!!!!!!! Viva women directors! Viva women filmmakers!!! Viva our voices being heard!!! Viva women calling the shots!!! This is a dream realized- Finally a woman has won the Oscar for Directing. My next dream is to see a woman win for Cinematography- starting with a lot more women DP's being hired. What a beautiful day!!!

(As I just wrote to a kick-ass 19 year-old friend whom I've known since she was 4... Only 3 times before in the 82 year history of the Oscars have women even been NOMINATED for Best Director:
Lina Wertmüller in 1976 for "Seven Beauties" 
Jane Campion in 1993 for "The Piano"
Sophia Coppola for "Lost In Translation" in 2003
Today is an historic day! In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win for Directing. Sad but true... and WONDERFUL! She also won Best Picture for "Hurt Locker!" Now what I really want to see is a woman win Best Cinematography. THAT is a male-dominated field...)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Maverick Mother

Australian humor is a particular brand of humor, something I'm not necessarily accustomed to. It's somewhat innocent and cheesy, like Canadian humor, yet it can be raunchy, but not as bad as British humor. That might threaten to ruin Janet Merewether's autobiographical 2007 doc, Maverick Mother. But somehow it works, her fantastical dramatic interludes serving only to illustrate her seemingly cliche desires to procreate, and they keep the tone of the work lighthearted and flowing.

My viewing partners and I questioned not the acquisition of sperm demonstrated here, but Merewether's stubborn, then annoying, then obnoxious, then incredible persistence in contacting the "father" long after he'd ceased to respond, seemingly making it clear that he wanted nothing to do with the wishes she'd manifested. But other than that, I found it entertaining and relatable as an illustration of modern motherhood. Well done.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Roller Derby Queen

The family story goes that when I was born my dad said I would be a roller derby queen. He also wanted to name me Zwingliana if I was a girl and Heinrich if I was a boy. (He was working on his PhD in Swiss Reformation History, though how that relates to roller derby, I'm not sure...) It always seemed like an eccentric early-70's reference until the recent surge of roller derby popularity that has swept the nation. Considering I was an active member of the drag king community at the turn of the century and the burlesque movement in early Decade One, it would have been a logical successive turn, had I only been a bit younger.

Drew Barrymore, however, is about my age and is undaunted by fears of being too old or seeming too trendy to make a movie about the Austin roller derby scene and she plunges right into this subculture in her debut feature Whip It. I'm truly glad to see her taking the creative helm in her own project, and it's decent entertainment. I never once thought, "when is this going to be over" or "wow, this is really crap." It isn't a work of genius either, but as Barrymore herself has attested, this is just a first attempt at directing, only the beginning.

I appreciated Whip It's depiction of perpetual teenager Ellen Page's Bliss Cavendar and her desire to break away from the beauty pageants her mom has subjected her to for years. She's freakier than that and she's smart and she's stuck in a small town. She needs an outlet and finds her answer when she joins the Hurl Scouts and adopts the moniker Babe Ruthless. It's a relief to see a teenage girl like this, someone I can relate to, someone who was more like me as a high-schooler. I imagine that's true for a lot of us.

another bad title and the danger of poor memory

A friend of mine lamented recently that his memory is going to crap, particularly bad news for this friend who is a history professor. In the same vein, I've been freaking out about my increasingly bad film programmer memory. What good is the wealth of film information my mind has gathered if I can't recall a director's name, film title, or recollect a plot detail. More and more this happens to me and it's scary. My wonderful Grandma Nelson suffered from Alzheimer's, which was especially awful in her last decade, and it made the rest of the family wonder if this would be our fate too.

The memory-loss fear came up again when I watched Youth Knows No Pain (Mitch McCabe,  2009) with my friend Jessica in New Orleans in our HBO binge. I know that I had seen this doc before. But was it in consideration for my program at NMWA? Was it at a festival, on a screener, in a theater? If she released it in 2009, I must have seen a rough cut or another version of the piece, a shorter one maybe. Where the hell did I see this? And it wasn't called Youth Knows No Pain, was it? Not a memorable title anyway, rather an awful one, and not suited to this doc, which is about our internalized agism and the fear of getting old, or rather the fear of LOOKING old. I must admit, especially in the last couple years, I'm feeling the "I look so old" thing as I never expected I would. And as much as theoretically I am much more concerned about the memory-loss associated with getting older, my vanity also gets stronger each day and the looking-older thing gains importance. Ugh.

Youth Knows No Pain is a feature length doc that follows filmmaker McCabe (whose name is really familiar- I know I've screened work of hers in the past. What was it? When was it? How come I can't remember anything?) whose father was a plastic surgeon and died in a car accident that she and the rest of her family survived when she was a teenager. The doc serves for her as a tool to pay homage to her dad, but more to indulge her own fears of aging. She interviews various people who have had plastic surgery and delves a bit into their psychology, what it's meant for their self-image, for their social lives, their intimate relationships, how they view youth and how they view plastic surgery in general. It's a disturbing and mildly fascinating of investigation.

I saw another documentary that was submitted to a film festival I organized a few years ago, I think it was from a Dutch director, examining plastic-surgery-happy Americans and their obsession with youth and beauty. It was actually very wry, entertaining, compelling, the most memorable bit being of a 16 year old girl who was getting labiaplasty because she thought she had flabby vagina lips, her mother sitting next to her in agreement the whole interview. What the hell was that doc called?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Towelhead or Sex and the Arab American Teenage Girl at the Turn of the Century in Texas

Another night, another HBO movie, though this one had a festival and arthouse run before being relegated to cable and DVD. I imagine that a big part of the reason it wasn't more successful is its title, Towelhead. I had a vague idea what this movie was about, thought it had something to do with Arab Americans in the US, definitely about men, maybe men in the Middle East, something to do with the war? That did not compel me to see it sooner or to seek it out in a theatrical run. In actuality the film was nothing like I expected. It's a really compelling story of a girl coming of age in Texas and the sexual awakenings, adventures and misadventures that she has. Based on the autobiographical book "Towelhead" by Alicia Erian, it was eerily reminiscent in tone, setting and some content of my friend filmmaker Susan Youssef's feature script Marjoun and the Flying Head Scarf, which she's been working for a few years on adapting from her short film of the same title.

Towelhead- which originally had the much more appropriate title, Nothing Is Private- was directed by Alan Ball, of American Beauty fame, and it contains a lot of social and sexual taboos like those that made him (in)famous with that film. A lot of it is hard to deal with, partly because we so infrequently see healthy images and stories of childhood sexuality. Of course, in this case, that is complicated with inappropriate and criminal behavior on the part of adults. Young-looking 20 year old Summer Bishil plays Jasira Maroun who discovers the orgasm when perusing her neighbor's porno mags while babysitting his son, and she wants more. She's oddly open and frank about it, as though she does not understand that sexuality is private, and she's without shame. It's actually a bit overdone- to me it seemed like she was mentally challenged at times, like when she approaches neighbor Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart) and requests access to his Penthouse magazines, because she likes "how they make her feel." I don't believe that a 13 year old girl would present that so transparently. (At all. I did something like that when I was 7, but I certainly didn't say it was because of how they made me feel.) Mr. Vuoso is creepy, if only because of his idiotic lack of self-critique in falling in lust with the barely-teenager and believing that something is legitimately going on between them. It's an old tired story, but in this context of early 1990's Gulf War Texas it's spruced up in a truly interesting way. Jacira (pronounced Jazeera) has come to a white sub-division in Houston to live with her father (Peter Macdissi) after her mother back in Syracuse (played by Maria Bello) kicks her out for shaving her legs (at the suggestion of her mother's boyfriend...). I kept waiting for the scene where we learn that papa Maroun has a secret loverman, because this guy is GAY. But that never happens, which I guess is ok, but it was confusing. In any case this snooty French-speaking Lebanese Christian is an asshole, a pretentious jerk and an unloving father who is abusive in the name of discipline. I think Macdissi is simply a terrible actor, and that is the only significant flaw of the film (besides the title) in my eyes. Toni Colette plays the vigilant, right-on and refuge-providing neighbor, Melina. Her bleeding heart Peace Corps veteran husband happens to speak excellent Yemeni arabic that the Beiruti Mr. Maroun understands perfectly when reprimanded in a face-saving way.

I guess, once I got past the deceptive title of this film and beyond the bad-actor gay-but-not-gay father, I really liked this movie for it's complex characters and community questions delving into race and ethnicity in the US. But most importantly, it's important in its portrayal of the sexual agency of a young woman just starting to figure out what gives her pleasure in the world and navigating this tricky territory.

The Joy of Cows

Okay, it didn't make me weep repeatedly as it did my friend Jessica (she also exclaimed, "Oooh I love autism!" as the movie began...). But this biopic about autistic cattle expert Temple Grandin was a very nice film. Claire Danes does an excellent job embodying the title character, and Catherine O'Hara as her sympathetic Aunt Ann is also a standout (and finally given a substantial dramatic role). Produced by and screened on HBO, Temple Grandin (Mick Jackson, 2010) tries through visual techniques of enhanced flashes of bits and pieces of what Grandin is seeing to convey what it is like to be autistic. I have no idea if this is accurate or if it's possible to convey what it's like to live as an autistic person, but I liked it. In typical biopic fashion, the audience follows Grandin from her summer before college on her aunt's cattle ranch when she discovers the comfort of the cowpoke, through adulthood, all the while summoning flashbacks to childhood and school to explain where she is now. It entertainingly relays her triumphs and struggles leading to her innovations in understanding how cattle work. It's definitely an inspiring, uplifting story, but it's also funny and not too sappy. Unless you're my friend Jessica.

The Black List

During downtime throughout carnival in New Orleans, we caught a lot of HBO entertainment. One pleasant find was Elvis Mitchell's The Black List (dir. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2007). When it came on, I immediately thought, ah yes, Black History Month. But whatever. It's a great portrait of amazing people coming from very disparate parts of culture, their only commonality being that they are black. Yet there are unifying elements. Every person is shot against a grey background, well lit, well dressed, everything's real classy. The interviews were insightful and frank, inspiring and not too sentimental. My favorites were Thelma Golden, Colin Powell, Lorna Simpson, Toni Morrison, Serena Williams, Chris Rock. It's an appropriately celebratory piece and I'm definitely glad we caught it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Old Joy

I finally watched Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, a film I kept missing at Rotterdam a few years ago and have not made a chance to see since then. It was perfect for my flight from Denver to New Orleans- and a glimpse of male nudity always perks up an airplane row!

"Sorrow is just worn out joy" is the line, spoken by freewhellin' Kurt (Will Oldham), that the title comes from, and I've been trying to think about how this is the theme of the film. The weepy Pacific Northwest is certainly the perfect setting for such a theme, and the buddy movie aspect of old friends coming to terms with adulthood in their own particular ways was a good context for this emotional nostalgia. It's largely a film about just that: male bonding, manhood, masculinity, life responsibilities, growing up, becoming an adult, procreation... It made me think about the man-friend-couples I know and how they are and aren't allowed to express their affection for one another, what is an acceptable amount of attachment, and how friend-pairs sometimes grow apart as much as romantic pairs.

The context of Mark's (Daniel London) wife's pregnancy is also interesting to me with regard to the fact that his pending fatherhood is mentioned only briefly at the beginning of the men's brief camping trip. Yet it is the coming infant intruder that seems to so threaten Kurt, or at least it is a manifestation of Mark's increasing distance from their friendship, a threat that seems in some way to be the cause of Kurt's current sorrow. I kept thinking about how different it would be if Kurt and Mark were women, going on a camping trip right before a birth like that, how omnipresent that coming presence would be in its advent. But this was a bromance, and that was the point.


Some people I know and trust have raved about Up, how deep and complex it is, how much it's a story for adults, how it made them cry. I wasn't terribly excited about it myself, but it wasn't a complete waste of time. I think I appreciated the Pixar technology in this film more than I have in other Pixar films. And I like the intergenerational story, the idea of an old man and a young boy becoming friends. I like the fact that the romantic couple of this story does not have kids, yet they live out a happy life together. And even more I like that Mr. Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) by the end of the film takes on responsibility for Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai) in a non-conventional family role. (It would be nice if some of the boys receiving medals at the end of the movie could have been accompanied by someone other than a normative father figure, but this is a Disney film...) I probably like Dug (the dog voiced by Bob Peterson) the best, but after a while his humor got tired too. No matter- it was all entertaining enough. Oscar nomination-worthy, no. But neither is Up in the Air, which I really liked. C'est ça...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Devil Came on Horseback

Wow. I've been meaning to see The Devil Came on Horseback (Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, 2007) for a while. Tonight a year+ old article in Harpers, Nick McDonell's  "The activist: Alex de Waal among the war criminals," left me wanting to make more sense of the situation in Darfur, and this film certainly helped with that. I was at first skeptical that Brian Steidle, an ex-Marine and African Union hired monitor of a ceasefire in Sudan in 2004, was our entrée to this situation. But, as I came to learn, he was in fact the one to expose this situation to the world, starting with Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. In an op ed piece, Kristof published some of the thousands of photographs that Steidle took, along with his account of the genocide occurring in Darfur. The story burst out from there, but somehow not enough, and that is part of the puzzle that this documentary leaves its viewers pondering and the inaction it leaves viewers wanting to react against.

The story is absolutely horrifying, a call to action against a genocide full of the worst atrocities you can imagine. I suppose that is exactly why Steidle's photos are so important to the story (in a way that reminded me of Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib or Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure). They are proof, they are undeniable, they are terrible, they are haunting. Equally disturbing is the frustration Steidle expresses in his inability to get the world to react in a meaningful way to the genocide. ...

Crazy Good

This evening I went to Crazy Heart and came home to Sam's crazy chicken in time to meet crazy Nihar at the corner bar. Crazy Heart was crazy good. I'm trying to live by the theme of it, "give love another try" like I'm trying to live by "carpe diem," simple mottos that ain't always so easy. I see why this film is such a hit, so touted for the great acting. I was very skeptical, didn't expect to like it at all. It's probably Maggie Gyllenhall (a present crush because of interviews) that made me go see it. But it's really Jeff Bridges' Bad Blake (and Colin Firth's Tommy Sweet, for that matter) that makes this film great. And the script and the music- it's just a great story that is completely believable and relatable.

MG acts first like a therapist and she's also super sexy from the start. Bad Blake thinks she's too good for him. He is enchanted with her classiness (and her youth?). She gets all shy and bashful, which was for me off-putting. I mean, really? This old scruffy dude complaining about his hemorrhoids is that intimidating to you? I didn't expect to, but I totally bought their love story, it made perfect sense. It's chemistry that draws them to each other, like it always is, and they have it.

Just as important as the love story, the struggling musician story, the buddy story, and indeed central to the story as a whole, is Bad's struggle with alcoholism. It's good to see alcoholism portrayed humanly, as the fatal disease, the killer that it is. I've seen a few friends struggle with this disease and it's heartbreaking how it destroys lives, just as it does here. When Bad calls his friend Wayne and says, "I wanna be sober," it's a moment of great triumph, but with a deep breath in anticipation of the long road ahead. In that sense the ending was very real too. But I won't spoil it for you...

Here's Sam's Crazy Chicken! Yum.

Steve McQueen's Hunger

Like most of artist Steve McQueen's work, Hunger is absolutely beautiful. It's also deeply disturbing, in a visceral sense that I haven't experienced since Precious. That's probably at least partly because Hunger is based on the true story of a "blanket" and "no wash" strike that lead to a hunger strike of IRA prisoners held in Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. The stillness of this film echos the monotony, the disturbing silence that must have existed there. It's, well, imprisonment. The film is full of shit, spread all over the walls of each cell as part of the prisoner's protest to being denied political prisoner status by the British government. This image is so strong you can absolutely smell it and it's overwhelming. We watch an orderly pour bleach onto pools of piss that prisoners have poured out their doors into the hall, and we watch him sweep the liquid all the way down the hall toward the camera, methodically, as if to hypnotize the viewer, the pools reflective and somehow beautiful. I love it when experimental filmmakers and video artists make narrative features, because then we get this beauty, this stillness, this pause. And the film is indeed slow, but this is called for. It takes time to fully contemplate what is happening and to digest the horrific violence the prisoners endure (historical echos of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo). The sound design is amazing- sparse and quiet, so that there is an overlying tension and we can hear every little thing. The confined, entrapped, seclusion of the prisoners is contrasted with extreme low angle shots of a prison guard in the outside world with the sky behind him, no limits. In the same sense we see birds crossing through prisoners' dreams and at the end of the film flashbacks to outside times, forests and trees, causing my friend who'd gone to the bathroom to exclaim, "is this the same movie?"

Friday, February 5, 2010

When in Rome, enter Storm immediately

Shannon and I wanted to go to a movie the other night. She vetoed Crazy Heart for its potential creepiness, and the only other film that fit our schedule was When in Rome. We thought we would enjoy a light rom com on a Sunday night, but boy were we wrong. Within 10 minutes of watching the zany hijinks of a not-so-smart Guggenheim curator at her sister's wedding in Rome, Shannon gave the thumbs sneak into the neighboring screening room that was showing Hans-Christian Schmid's compelling Storm

The film began immediately as we were seated- perfect timing! And it was excellent. I have a large-international-organization fetish (thus too the premise of this blog) and Storm fed that for one thing. But I was also captivated by the strong women characters and the fact that the lead, Kerry Fox as Hannah Maynard a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, was extraordinary. The truths that she uncovers regarding Bosnian war atrocities play believably (and unfortunately) with the bureaucracy and unjust justice of deal-making in international courts that she experiences. Anamaria Marinca (of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) as her Serbian witness was also great, and together these two women drew me in. It's such a relief to see strong and smart women lead characters dealing with life as women deal with it. I don't think it's a coincidence that the film comes from Europe. (I don't need to remind you that we tried to see When in Rome before ducking into this...) When will Hollywood catch up?

Prison of the Mind

Terry Gilliam's Brazil is one of my favorite films. I was a fan of his Fisher King, I liked Twelve Monkeys as a take on La Jetée, and I appreciate the aesthetic of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But I couldn't sit through Tideland, and Gilliam's latest The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus was a disappointing mess. To appreciate a Gilliam film one must be fully taken in and I never got into this one. Perhaps I should have reverted to my motto for the new year, "Low expectations are the key to happiness."...

BUT, disappointment aside, there are things I liked about this film. I liked the idea. And I liked the compromise that had to come about in using 3 other actors to play Heath Ledger's Tony after he passed away- I thought that actually worked quite well. There are certain cynical Gilliam bits that I appreciate, for example the children's chorus singing about child exploitation and the chorus line of police encouraging violence-lovers to join their ranks. And, of course, aesthetically there is always richness to Gilliam's production design. Although, as my friend Shannon pointed out, CGI may not be a good development in concert with Gilliam's extraordinary imagination- there may be too much possibility, so that it gets out of control and loses focus. Nevertheless, it was a nice little film that didn't grab me in the end. What's next, what's next?

That was a matinée. In the evening, after Imaginarium, we rented Duncan Jones' Moon. I had no expectations going into the film, but I was pleasantly surprised. I keep wanting to call this film "Home" and I think that somehow that would also be an appropriate title for it. Sam Rockwell plays the caretaker of a station on the moon harvesting an energy-providing substance for a large corporation back on earth. Besides a robot that takes care of his every need (voiced by Kevin Spacey), he is all alone there for three years and is coming to the end of his tenure. But he is much worse for the wear and is having substantial mental breaks. Moon was a great take on solitude, loneliness, and the fortress of the mind, with major echos of Solaris and 2001 in design and feel.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2009 Revisited- My "Best of"

Here at the end of January, I am finally getting around to saying a bit more about the 2009 films that I most liked. In no particular order...

(still from Treeless Mountain)
TREELESS MOUNTAIN was simply a delight. It's a pensive rich tale of two child sisters in Korea, their relationship, dependence on and responsibility for one another for lack of adults. Quiet and tender and wonderful. So Yong Kim, who made the excellent In Between Days a few years ago, is really establishing her perfectionist distinct style and it will be exciting to see what she comes up with next. 

Carlos Reygadas' gorgeous SILENT LIGHT opens with one of the most beautiful sunrises captured on film. It's as though the story comes to life with this awakening in the sparse and vast Mexican countryside. All of the actors are non-professionals, which makes the film seem like a documentary. A shocking, scandalous, yet still tale of Mennonite adultery.
(still from Silent Light)

Another film set in Mexico that made a great impression on me is SIN NOMBRE by Cary Fukunaga. Rarely do we get to see with gritty realism what migrants from the south go through to get to the US, and Fukunaga went to great lengths to make this story authentic. The in depth look at gang life, the migratory process and an ill-fated love story make this film layered and rich.

(still from Munyurangabo)
Shot in Rwanda in only 11 days on a super-16mm camera, Lee Issac Chung's MUNYURANGABO is like no film I've ever seen. Also using non-professional actors and made by a non-native (coincidentally Asian American) director, it's kind of a miracle that this film turned out so perfectly. The first feature film in the Kinyarwanda language, it's a wonderful story of impossible friendship, unlikely forgiveness, and unexpected reconciliation.

With all the hype of Lee Daniels' PRECIOUS, I wasn't sure what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised that it blew me away. Incorporating elements that we've seen before but never in this context, Precious was extremely effective and moving. The film has raised concerns about race and storytelling (Jenn shared this article by Malkia Cyril that I liked). But I was deeply impressed, physically impacted, and I think this is an infinitely valuable film.

(still from Sita Sings the Blues)
Probably my favorite film of the past few years is SITA SINGS THE BLUES (Nina Paley). A gorgeous, brilliant and fantastically fun animated film, there's nothing else like it.  You can watch it here for free. But I strongly urge you to see it in a theater if at all possible (it's playing at IFC in NYC last I checked). Or buy a DVD. It's well worth it and is one of those films you can watch again and again with great enjoyment, lend it out etc. 

I would not have thought that I would include Lars von Trier's ANTICHRIST on a list like this. But the fact is that this movie has stayed with me like no other. I think it would take a lot of work for me to entirely deconstruct it for myself, were that at all possible. Charlotte Gainsbourg's performance is one of a lifetime. And the issues raised are poignant and rarely handled with such intensity and courage.

Another film set in Mexico that deeply impressed me this year was Alex Rivera's SLEEP DEALER. I've been a fan of Rivera as a humorous culture critic video artist for years, so it was exciting to see he was coming out with a narrative feature (like when Miranda July made Me and You and Everyone We Know). But Sleep Dealer exceeded my expectations. I am not a fan of science fiction, but work dealing with race and class and futuristic situations is exciting, like an Octavia Butler book. Sleep Dealer way out-Avatars Avatar.

(still from Sacred Places)
We see far too few images of life in Africa and SACRED PLACES (Jean-Marie Téno) is simply a treat in this respect, fantastic candy for a film programmer and microcinema organizer who dreams of exhibiting film in Africa. Téno's documentary leads us through the streets of the acclaimed Cameroonian director's native Ouagadougou, peeking in on how his countrymen interact with cinema.

I was disappointed with Jane Campion's BRIGHT STAR when I first saw it. I knew I was going to see a period piece and perhaps this film dwelled too much in that realm. But in retrospect the inevitable beauty of a Jane Campion film stays with me, I see fields of flowers full of life, and this alone is a wonderful thing. Abbie Cornish's performance as Fanny Brawne is absolutely outstanding as well, and that too will not leave me.
(still from Bright Star)

There is little I like more than a good documentary that blows my mind with new information and changes the way I live my life. FOOD, INC. (Robert Kenner) is such a film. I'll never look at corn or beef or anything that I regularly eat the same way again.