Monday, December 19, 2011

Review: In Time

If you like to watch beautiful people run, this movie is for you.
Sometimes, a film's only job can be to convey a compelling set of ideas. Sometimes, that is all a film needs to do. In Time, the latest piece of sci-fi from writer/director Andrew Niccol of Gattaca renown, needed a little bit more than the fascinating thought experiment it shows us. The experiment presented here is a near-future world not unlike our own in many ways, wherein all humans are genetically engineered to cease aging at 25, and are then given a year of time, which has replaced our idea of money. One pays rent in days and weeks, and works to earn more time; the poor must work tirelessly and waste not a second, for when a person's clock (emblazoned stylishly along the forearm) runs down to zero, they die. The wealthy are essentially immortal, and the less fortunate live in a poverty that threatens to kill them at any minute. The brilliant simplicity of this scenario is the best kind of science fiction. A universal, complex, and controversial facet of life such as money is morphed only a little, and the entire thing in turned inside out and thrown to the extremes. 
On a conceptual level, the script is great, but on the practical level, it is gruelingly dull and blandly stupid. The dialogue is frustratingly trite, and the plot is so thinly laid out that it might tear at any moment. Not helping things are the clumsy direction, and mostly over-done or under-done acting. Justin Timberlake, who is a natural at comedy but not so much with the drama, never finds the depth or complexity necessary for his portrayal of Will Salas, our protagonist from the ghetto who suddenly comes into a century of time and goes on the run from the Timekeepers, a temporal economy's lawmen. Timberlake glides handsomely across the surface of the film, never making a big impression or drawing us into the world he is supposed to inhabit. Even in the most extreme situations, he doesn't seem to be concerned, and so we are not concerned for him and our attention drifts to the consistently pretty photography, or to the mysteriously sloppy editing. Cillian Murphy reliably delivers a suitably world-weary and no-nonsense portrayal as Raymond Leon, a Timekeeper who gives chase when Salas takes possession of what might be ill-gotten time. Murphy knows exactly what kind of movie he's in, and we end up wishing he was the protagonist instead of Timberlake, who never seems to know what is needed of him. 
The main take away and best aspect of In Time is the concept it is built to display, and it does an okay job if it. It's just a shame that the package could not have been a little more graceful and robust, instead of a blunt, dumb instrument of conveyance. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Scenes from the Great Recession

Color in the Pan Teaser from Corbett Jones on Vimeo.

Here's a nice little taste of a documentary about modern day gold seekers in California. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

The Green Wave, cont.

Some good news for a change.
An Iranian court has overturned the lashing sentence imposed on an actor after she appeared in a film critical of the Islamic republic's repressive policies, according to Amnesty International. Marzieh Vafamehr, who appeared with her head uncovered in the film My Tehran for Sale, was released from prison after her sentence of one year in prison and 90 lashes was overturned on appeal. Vafamehr, wife of the acclaimed film-maker Nasser Taghvai, was arrested in July after Iranian authorities took exception to the film about an actor whose theatre work is banned in Iran.
 The Iranian authorities detained Vafamehr for criticism of the exact repression they enacted upon her and continue to level on many of her fellow actors, filmmakers, and artists. Doesn't the government realize that the more they try to squeeze and silence dissent, the more it will slip out of their iron grasp?

(Video: Trailer for My Tehran for Sale, 2011.)

Kickstarter Project: Elder's Corner

from SIJI on Vimeo.

I recently came across this intriguing project via Teju Cole, who compares it to Buena Vista Social Club.  From the film's Kickstarter page:
Shot against the colorful and gritty backdrop of some of Nigeria’s urban cities particularly Lagos and through the clever use of extensive in depth interviews, archival footage and still photographs, Elder's Corner will take viewers on a musical journey through the country's turbulent and colorful history. It will chronicle and showcase the lives and work of some of the leading exponents of the various musical movements that spawned Afrobeat, Juju, Apala, Highlife and Fuji music.
As of this writing, the project is less than $1500 away from being funded. You can donate here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Green Wave

Perhaps what fascinates me the most about Iranian cinema is the urgent, visceral interaction between the zeitgeist of oppression in the country and the craft the filmmakers use to react to and comment on it. With renowned directors like Jafar Panahi (Offside) and Mohammad Rasoulof (The White Meadows) being arrested and banned from filmmaking by the Iranian regime, the stakes are so high for all filmmakers in Iran that such jeopardy cannot help but coat the characters and stories in their films.

The latest example is Dog Sweat, wherein young Tehranis pursue such innocent desires as alcohol, companionship, and musical expression, all in the face of systematic oppression.

The trailer is reminiscent of another recent Iranian film, No One Knows About Persian Cats. This, the fifth directorial work by Iranian-Kurd Bahman Ghobadi, follows a couple of bandmates as they race around Tehran trying desperately to both secure visas to travel to London for a music festival and plan one last underground concert in their home country before leaving. The film is a wonderful and at times hysterical journey through the electric, boisterous world of illegal music in urban Iran; its a universe that is quite similar to yet terrifyingly different from the one this American viewer inhabits. What might get you played on KEXP in Seattle will get you arrested in Tehran if you are not careful.

Indeed it is true that all cinema, regardless of national origin, reflects the reality it is conceived in to some degree, but the films coming out of Iran, especially since the unprecedented post-election protests and deadly crackdown, seem like a natural and crucial part of the life of that country. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: The Tree of Life

For an art so young, it is not surprising that vast regions of cinema have yet to be mapped. Terrence Malick is one of only a few bold enough to venture into the untamed wilderness in search of something new; with The Tree of Life, he's gone deeper than before, and what he found is glorious.
If there is such a genre as the memory film, The Tree of Life is of that category. Framed by the premature death of a beloved family member, the story concerns Jack O'Brian as he relives extreme, ethereal, and sublime moments from his Texas childhood.
The film does well to express this restless, endlessly, violently curious boyhood. When you are a child, what surrounds you is your whole universe. And so it follows that the story of young Jack O'Brian should be placed so solidly on par with the frightening, magnificent creation of the universe and the ancient evolution of life on Earth. To a child's fresh mind, nothing has come before, and nothing can be imagined to someday be a memory but this electric moment. Such a vivid, immersive depiction of boyhood has never, I think, been shown to us.
And why not show the birth of everything? It is rendered gorgeously, and to behold such a thing strikes a cosmic chord in all of us, as we are all, of course, citizens of this universe. With such authenticity and grace, The Tree of Life shows us parts of the cinematic language rarely spoken. This film comes at life from both sides; the innocent, unformed, frustrated sponge of ever-changing youth, and the dusty, gray, frozen, existential nostalgia of stagnant adulthood. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Light and Music: Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction is a film about wrestling your own destiny from forces seemingly beyond your control. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a bland taxman whose meticulous life comes unraveled when he starts hearing a voice narrating his actions.
At this point in the film, Harold has fallen for Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker he was sent to audit. He has also recently started teaching himself the guitar, a lifelong dream. These threads reach their apex in this glorious scene. It's a great use of a simple song, first played quietly and unassumingly by our earnest hero, then cranked on the soundtrack as we get our sparkling screen kiss. It is another example of music being utilized as a dialect of the cinematic language.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: My Perestroika

There are two important themes in Robin Hessman's documentary, My Perestroika - Nostalgia is relentless and grows on every memory; and patriotism is far more deeply rooted than simple military parades and flag-waving, and infinitely varied.
Concerning the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the film tells us Russia's recent history through candid interviews with 5 Muscovites who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s as part of the last generation to grow up behind the so-called Iron Curtain, along with frenetic contemporary footage of the transformative time in question.
One brilliant sequence comes as the subjects recall the wave of political upheaval that swept the Soviet Socialist Republics. It begins with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, but soon intercuts dramatic black and white footage of tanks rolling through the streets Moscow. The ballet's impassioned refrain swirls around the urban-bound artillery to form the emotional apex of the film.
For an American, particularly one brought up since the events discussed, the film is an immersive if sometimes bewildering history lesson, related by those who lived it. Like any patriot, they each have a complicate and ever evolving relationship with their homeland. Some insist that life was better in the Soviet Union, and indeed all share at least some degree of wistful, inevitable nostalgia for that bygone era. Others are glad of the USSR's evaporation, while some are just as disaffected and dissatisfied now as they were then. Running through every interview is the sense that life goes on, that this too shall pass. Each person's complacency was shaken by the fall of the Iron Curtain; it taught them that the future is never certain.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

SIFF Review: Without

For reasons we are left to guess at, 19-year-old Joslyn takes a job on Whidbey Island as a live-in caretaker for Frank, an elderly, vegetative man.
Written and directed by Seattle native Mark Jackson, Without is an expertly crafted film that deftly blurs the line between Joslyn's inner, psychological turmoil and the outer, real world chaos that forms as her passive-aggressive relationship with catatonic Frank devolves.
Jackson elegantly stacks the banal minutiae of Joslyn's new job to build a dark, vibrating tower of isolation and tedium that steadily drives our heroine mad. This is a director that understands and can harness the power of moments. Locking all the sliding glass doors, crushing some pills, buying coffee; collectively and on their own, these drops of everyday life have power.
Without taps into a recurring narrative motif in Western storytelling - that of the island as both physical and metaphorical location. From Shakespeare's The Tempest to television's Lost, the island reflects and comments on the protagonist's inner life. We find Joslyn in such a place; she washes up on the cold, gray shores of grief and does her time thrashing about in a borrowed house for a mute, motionless audience who offers no comment but the occasional wordless moan.
Jackson and his cinematographers, Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia, show an aptitude with the unique Northwest color palette, and brush the screen with deep, soggy greens and blues. Taking brilliant advantage of cinema-capable DSLR cameras, the filmmakers get us physically and psychologically closer to Joslyn than film could have. It's exhilarating to see the future of filmmaking unfolding before you so starkly.

Light and Music: The Man Who Knew Too Much

There is relatively untapped power in using music, specifically source music (that which is heard or played or sung by characters in a non-musical), as a cinematic storytelling tool.
I came upon this notion last night after watching Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. Day being, at the time, more famous as a singer than an actress, I suppose it seemed only natural to try and incorporate her hit "Que Sera Sera" into the film some how. When it first appears early in the film, sung playfully by Day and her onscreen son, it reads as just a little forced and corny. But later, once the film has built to it's suspenseful climax, Day's character desperately recapitulates the song in an attempt to find her kidnapped child. Plunking percussively at a grand piano, she raggedly belts the tune until her son whistles back an answer.