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.