Friday, July 30, 2010

Review: Bass Ackwards

    Linas Phillips proves the importance of cinematography and music to the art of film with his first non-documentary feature, Bass Ackwards.
    After an ill-fated affair with a married woman, Linas (played by Phillips himself) gets a (literally) shit job on an alpaca farm, where he discovers and falls in love with a lemon - a VW bus that has had its middle third removed and then welded back together. Deciding that he needs to move back in with his parents in Boston, Linas takes the strange looking vehicle and sets off from Seattle for a trip across the country. this cross-continental excursion forms the heart of the story; the random encounters he has with strangers on his way East bring a genuine spontaneity to the film.
    Shot by Sean Porter, the film looks singularly gorgeous; it was filmed on a micro-budget by a skeleton crew, but you would never know that to behold it. The camera is always handheld yet never unsteady or nauseating, as is too often the case with films in the so-called 'mumblecore' genre, which Bass Ackwards is akin to in many ways. If Lynn Shelton's Humpday had been shot this beautifully and deliberately, it would have had more going for it than just acting; it would have been a complete film.
   And there is no reason why films of such a small production magnitude and loose style cannot look so good. Film is not just about the writing, or the acting, or the cinematography; it is a marriage of all these elements. the best films bang on all these cylinders, creating an indefinable harmony on the screen that can only be called cinema.
    Another essential element that adds to Bass Ackwards' greatness is the original music by Lori Goldston and Tara Jane O'Neil. it is composed mostly of contemplative, spacious acoustic hooks, with the occasional dollop of gentle electric guitar added for good measure. Not merely obligatory or thrown together, the score is a robust, living and breathing creature that comes along for the ride and acts almost as Linas' sonic mood ring.
    The look and sound of Bass Ackwards together successfully create a  dreamlike blanket of tone that would not exist without either of these things. The writing and acting can be brilliant and affecting (and in this film, they both certainly are), but they cannot stand alone and do not a film make.

Insomnia: Increasingly Fictionalized

Part 3 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan. 
     Insomnia, Nolan's first post-Momento film, is full of metaphors for the writing of a film or novel, from developing details to killing off characters, from constructing a narrative to fandom.
     When Ellie Burr first meets detective Dormer, she gushes about his career, telling him she’s followed all of his cases and that she even wrote her thesis on him in college. She is his biggest fan. Similarly,  as the cops uncover the mystery behind Kay Connell’s murder,  we discover that Kay was a huge fan of local crime author Walter Finch, and even got to meet and spend time with him. It is not a coincidence that Ellie and Kay are both at least partially defined by their respective fandoms; it compliments and foreshadows the collaboration between the men they admire, Dormer and Finch. 
(Warning: Spoilers ahead)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Memento: Extreme Moments

Part 2 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan.
    Christopher Nolan’s Memento comments upon and explores the relationship between films and memory; this is most effectively achieved through the film’s unique editing, both how events unfold in reverse order, and by juxtaposing silent, out of context snippets with the scene at hand.
    Like any experience, watching a film creates memories. Likewise, these memories are unique for each person; what shape they take depends greatly on the individual’s state of mind, previous experiences, world view, and engagement with the film. After you are finished watching a film, you have a new set of memories, and, again, like all memories, they were triggered by intense emotions. Therefore, the parts of a film you remember will be different than those recollected by your neighbor, because you have responded to certain shots or scenes or musical cues based on how they made you feel, and what existing memories they recalled and are now tied to.
    In the case of Memento, for example, if you have ever gotten a tattoo, or you are a tattoo artist or know one, your mind might assign specific emotional significance to Leonard’s tattoos, where as others in the audience who do not share this kind of experience will only treat these inky notes on the body of our protagonist as merely parts of the story. Likewise, if you own the same make and model of the car that Leonard drives, you will more than likely create a memory of the film focusing on this detail, while others will pay it no mind. Technically speaking, you are all watching the same film, but in essence you are not; the film each person remembers will be different, because as it enters the brain it is melted down and blended with a person’s biases, interests, and life experiences to create something completely unique. The filmmakers address this subjectivity directly, when Leonard says, “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record...”

Friday, July 16, 2010

Review: Inception

Unfortunately, due to the nature of Christopher Nolan's latest film, Inception, I am unable to write an adequate review of the film without spoiling it. One of the biggest thrills about seeing the film is discovering just what it is about, who all the characters are, and the world they exist in. To describe that here would be to rob the uninitiated of a rare and breathtaking experience.
I considered perhaps instead talking in depth about how the film made me feel, but I am finding myself at a literary loss. And besides, my emotional state while watching Inception has already been summed up quite thoroughly by a man the Internet has dubbed "Double Rainbow Guy". He hits every emotional note that I did while experiencing the film.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Following: The Hazards of Observation

Part 1 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan

    Christopher Nolan’s debut feature film, 1998’s Following, is a story about the voyeuristic nature of moviegoing as much as it is about a lonely young man who follows people around the streets of London.
    The unnamed protagonist, a struggling writer, begins following random strangers to gather material for his novel. Things take an odd turn when one of these strangers, a sharply dressed man named Cobb, notices him and takes an interest in the young man’s strange hobby, quickly pulling him into a life of petty burglary. The young man joins Cobb, as he is hurting for cash - and human interaction - and justifies his participation in the crimes as a way of accruing story ideas.
(warning: spoilers ahead)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"We create the world of the dream."

With the impending release of Inception this week, I've decided to write a series of essays about the work of director Christopher Nolan; one on each of his films, which include Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and now Inception. One of the things that fascinates me the most about Nolan's films is how they explore the very nature of cinema itself, from creation to consumption. This will be the guiding thesis for each essay. Look for the initial piece, titled "Following: The Hazards of Observation" to be posted sometime this week. I'll try to post these on a weekly basis. Until then, enjoy this:

Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The original Swedish title of this intelligently flashy mystery film, Man Som Hatar Kvinnor, translates literally to Men Who Hate Women, and it is unfortunately quite apt. The horrors that the male villains perpetrate on their female victims are depicted with unforgiving vividness. These men hate women indeed.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo might have been just another competently slick European thriller were it not for the presence of Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the titular tattooed girl. Lisbeth is not your typical protagonist, as the feminist film blog Act Your Age notes:
Utilizing her technological prowess (a rare quality for female characters!), and at times resorting to revenge and physical violence, Lisbeth [....] aims to correct the wrongs inflicted on women by men in power.
With Lisbeth, Rapace expertly crafts a brooding, burningly intelligent performance that elevates the film to a more memorable place than it might otherwise have occupied. Though small of frame, she nonetheless fills the screen with a character that will remain crushingly silent for long periods of time until finally exploding into righteous, ferocious rage in response the afore mentioned misogynistic violence.
Providing a foil and unlikely partner for Lisbeth is investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, who has been hired by a wealthy old business man to uncover the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his teenage niece 40 years prior. 
Once this pair teams up, the film unfolds at a breathless yet meticulous pace as Lisbeth and Mikael piece together a string of decades-old murder cases that are somehow tied to the old man's vanished niece. The investigation is rather standard mystery fare, complete with panning close-ups of grisly crime scene photos and not a few research montages. Two things that save the film from feeling too ordinary are the thrill of the chase, and the always fascinating Rapace. 
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first in a trilogy, based on the books by Stieg Larsson, and it very much feels like it, the way characters are established and the partnership between Lisbeth and Mikael is set up. You will be left with a desire to immediately see the second installment in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire, which has fortunately just opened in US theaters.

Review: Women Without Men

The destinies of Iran and its women are inseparable; this is a major theme of Shirin Neshat's debut feature Women Without Men. Set against the unrest of the Anglo-American coup to remove democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and install the shah, the film zooms in on four women suffering various kinds of oppression: Zarin, a depressed prostitute, who scrubs herself bloody at a public bath in an effort to purge the johns from her body; Munis, a politically aware young woman who voraciously devours news of the demonstrations outside, but is kept from leaving the house by Amir Khan, her religiously zealous brother; her best friend Faezeh, who lusts after Amir Khan from beneath her hejab, much to Munis' bewilderment; and Farrokhlagha, a general's wife who's finding herself suffocated by the pro-shah Tehran aristocracy she and her husband exist in.
 Though the whole ensemble does outstanding work, the one performance that sticks out is Pegah Ferydoni as sweet, unassuming Faezeh. She provides a quiet emotional center for the film. While everyone else is going kind of crazy, she becomes saner and grows quite a bit.
The film follows a kind of dream logic, fueled by the complex history of Iran and the rhythm of Persian poetry. Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi said that if jazz is the rhythm of American culture, then Persian poetry is that of Iranian culture. This kind of poetic focus brings a unique structure to the scenes; each sequence is a whole statement, while still helping to stitch the tapestry of the film entire. This is also no doubt influenced by Neshat's background as video artist. 
In order to get some fresh air away from the tumult of Tehran, Farrokhlagha buys an Edenesque old orchard in the country, to which Zarin and Faezeh are both inexplicably drawn. For a while they live in blissful harmony, but there is a foreboding calm-before-the-storm undercurrent which lets us know that they cannot escape the changes happening in their nation for long.