Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Agony and Ecstasy

Eighteen (2009) - Jang
Teen love is a fickle affair. It's that intense bittersweet period which we remember and cherish for the rest of our lives.

Eighteen tells the story of star-crossed High school lovers, Mi-jeong and Tae-hoon in a 6 months time frame.

In our teen years, there were definitely times when we hate our parents with passion. The fear and frustration that hang over the film originate from one pivotal scene in the beginning with Mi-jeong's crazy father: Tae-hoon and his parents are summoned to Mi-jeong's house after the young couple gets back from the secret trip to the beach. Her father makes them to write down their alibi separately and interrogates them on when and where they spent their time together. When their stories don't match up, he throws an alcohol assisted fit- a table gets overturned, glasses break, faces gets slapped, and plenty of expletives are uttered including 'whore'. In the end, Tae-hoon is made to write up a penance, swearing that he won't see Mi-jeong again until they enter college.

All the elements of typical Asian wayward youth films are present- loneliness invoking motorcycle tracking shots through the neon cityscapes, silent moments on the beach, disapproving parents, prolonged embraces that only teenagers in love can understand...

Eighteen's strength is in its realistic depiction of that short precious teen year. It is one of the most un-fetishized, realistic representations of a teen love story I've seen in a while. And it's refreshing. Cutting back and forth between present and a few days the young couple spend their time alone in the beachside resort in Kang-won Province (which is the prime getaway destination for every Korean youth). The effect is immediate and intimate and the young actors convey the feeling of agony and ecstasy very well.

Review at Twitch

Monday, September 27, 2010

Danke Schön Dolores, Danke Schön

Across the Bridge (1957) - Annakin
When a German born industrialist Carl Schaffner(Rod Steiger) hears the news of investigation by the Scotland Yard on his company while on a business trip to New York, he plans his escape to Mexico by train. But on the way there, he finds out that there is an arrest warrant out for him and that the border is notified of his disappearance. He manages to swap his identity with a fellow traveler by drugging him, taking his passport and throwing him overboard. Then he discovers the guy he took the identity of is a wanted man in Mexico for assassinating a Governor there.

So starts this unusual noir that is in part Trading Places, part Strangers on a Train and part Touch of Evil that develops in to the best love story btwn man and his dog ever put on film. Elaborate and not too convincing plot settles down when Schaffner gets stranded in the small Mexican town with no chance of escaping. His luck turns sour when his ignorant gringo millionaire shtick no longer buys him any help, thanks to a Mexican police chief who seems to be bent on teaching the man a lesson.

Adapted from a short story by Graham Greene, with all the financial scandals and the US-Mexico border issues, Across the Bridge really needs to be revived for today's audience. Steiger is of course, at his sweaty best, going from a bespectacled, hands rubbing industrialist to a calculating thief and a murderer to a "habla Inglés?" bum in the dusty streets of Mexico with a dog named Dolores as his only friend. Danke schön, Dolores, danke schön.

Sensual Panique

Alucarda (1978) - Moctezuma
After her parents' death, 15 yr old virginal Justine(Susana Camini) is sent to the convent/orphanage. There she meets Alucarda (Tina Romero), a dark haired beauty with mischievous smile. They develop a relationship quickly even though Justine smells danger around her new, mysterious friend. After their naked blood-letting initiation with a Puck like creature, the Sisters and the priests at the convent suspect that the girls are possessed by the devil and perform a barbaric exorcism on Justine on a cross. A big mistake.

I'm not a huge fan of Mexican Panic Movement of the '70s that includes Arabal and Jodorowsky who presented surreal, counterculture epics. But their colleague Juan Lopez Moctezuma seems he had a different sensibility. It's very sensual and I like it a lot. The film has almost eastern European feel to it (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders comes to mind). Vibrant color palette and organic looking sets are quite beautful to look at. Plenty of nudity, vampirism, beheading and spontaneous combustion occur throughout, all in the sacred ground. The craftmanship and its subversive nature of the film makes it more than just a b-horror.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"These Go to Eleven..."

Turn It Up to 11 (2009) - Baek
No, unlike what its title alludes to(from the classic 1984 rock mocumentary This is Spinal Tap), chronicling the vibrant Korean indie rock movement, Turn It Up to 11 is a real deal. And yes, it's loud. It's good times.

It begins with Lee Kyu-young, an aging punk who comes back to his hometown, Incheon, to settle down after having a kid, leaving his rock'n'roll days in Hong Dae (an area known as the mecca for Korean youth culture near the famous art college, Hong-Ik Univ). Then he gets an idea of turning a defunct tiny bar in the motel alley(crummier Korean version of love hotel zone in Shinjuku) to a club where indie rock bands can play. Because of Lee's reputation from his olden days, his label Ruby Salon attracts the loudest band in the lot, Galaxy Express (the name comes from Japanese anime from the '80s), a trio of good looking, hard rock playing kids in black attire. They are not only pretty faces but also very talented, heading for their inevitable stardom. Then there is Tobacco Juice: a bunch of (in Lee's words) lazy douche bags whose reggae tinged melodious music is unbearably catchy but because of their laziness, rarely manage to put on a live show. In the film, more than once do they miss their own gig because they get drunk at the bar (director Baek Seung-hwa gets to capture all these because he's the drummer of the band).

There are interesting parallels to be drawn with Lee and the English unorthodox rock promoter Tony Wilson who was memorably portrayed by Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, about '80s Manchester music scene: Tobacco Juice is Lee's Happy Mondays- talented they are but too much of slackers to be ultimately successful.

As Galaxy Express gains popularity through word of mouth while appearing in various prestigious music festivals in front of growing adoring fans, and being regarded as the loudest rock band ever, Tobacco Juice struggles to put out their first studio album in 4 years. Their journeys are filled with joy, friendship, drama, self-deprecating humor, dirty online chats, Chinese dubs, diehard fans, instant ramen noodles, many weird and charming characters, massive quantities of soju and other alcoholic beverages and best of all, very awesome music.

Even though shot in mostly underexposed hand-held video camera, constantly moving from darkly lit small bars to clubs to living rooms to stages with a narration that is more of a fanboy ramble, Turn It Up to 11 nevertheless succeeds in intimately capturing that intoxicating youthful energy of rock'n'roll. As Lee jokingly answers at the end when asked what rock'n'roll is about. "It's about nothing. You have a good time and the show is over and you go home", the film captures those short beautiful moments before we go home.

Review at Twitch

Monday, September 20, 2010

Different Era

The Missing Person (2009) - Buschel
An alcoholic P.I. Rosow (Michael Shannon) gets a phone call at 5 in the morning. He's supposed to get on the train from Chicago to LA. It's a tailing job and there is a money in it. So starts one of the most unusual noir I've seen in recent years involving Bogey era style private eye in the post 9/11 world.

After losing his wife in NY, ex-NYPD Rosow is a damaged fruit. But it's the circumstances that have changed, not his character. Writer/director Noah Buschel relies largely on Shannon's droll, Gould in Long Goodbye-esque performance to amplify that we are indeed living in a different era, albeit it's only been 9 years since.

The Missing Person says a lot about mutual understanding, fraternity in tragedy. It also says about that there will always be opportunities to make profits off of it. With well composed framing, funny self-aware one-liners, Shannon's gin-soaked pitch perfect performance and great supporting cast- Amy Ryan and John Ventimiglia in particular, this peculiar film is another great little film gem that never properly got distributed and went straight to dvd. A real shame.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Everyman Blues

This Sporting Life (1963) - Anderson
Richard Harris is Frank, a miner turned rugby player trying to woo the cold widow Margaret (Rachel Roberts) of the lodging house. Frank is a good man, but not totally innocent when he wants to get ahead. Grieving Margaret won't budge at his advances though, no matter how hard he tries. He becomes successful, buys things for the widow, goes to ravish parties his boss throws after the games, even takes up on the seduction of his boss's old wife. But he soon finds that he is looked down on by the poor and the affluent alike: "You are just a big ape in the football field!", Margaret pronounces it for him on everyone's behalf. He can't have one thing he wants the most, the affection of the widow.

Harris shines in this film about everyman trapped in the rigid hierarchical society- a man who thinks he got a handle on things even though he has no control over anything. It's amazing how much he resembles young Brando: his hulking physicality, boyish vulnerability, add Paul Newman's soulful eyes and there you have Harris.

There are a lot of great scenes with Harris. My favorite would be him singing at a club- arms crossed and awkward, he exudes his vulnerable charm the best. Anderson makes the most of Harris's great performance, accompanying with almost documentary like, natural filmmaking. This Sporting Life is a heartbreaking film. The ending really got to me.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Death as the Ultimate Trip

Enter the Void (2009) - Noé
 photo 2e4766f8-5879-4980-bd45-ce18e991e024_zps094dbb42.jpg
Quite possibly the worst film I've seen in a long time. I'm not saying this because the film is hard-to-take in a typical ugly-side-of-the-humanity, 'Gaspar Noé way' but because it's so painfully boring.

Obviously Noé was going for the psychedelic visual masterpiece á la 2001 Space Odyssey ditching the narrative in the gutter, since the plot is so insipid it had to be intentional- it reminded me of the worst of boy filmmakers' (Luc Besson and Danny Boyle) work, if they ever made R rated films: Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is a small time druggie/dealer in Japan who gets killed by the police and spend the rest of the movie floating around watching over his beloved younger sister Lisa (Paz de la Huerta), a stripper, until he is conceived (graphically) and reincarnated again.

Acting is unbearable- two male lead (non actors) are horrendous and de la Huerta again proves she is nothing more than a hot body. In an interview that came with the press kit, Noe talks about wanting to do a film in Japan for a long time because it's so fascinating and since Tokyo is THE city of neon lights. Funny, because in his hands, Tokyo becomes the dullest city in the world.

He really tries hard to invite the audience to FEEL the movie with the first 20 minutes with continuous POV shots, then after Oscar's death, over the shoulder shots of him from his childhood till his death (again!), then overhead crane shots for the rest of the film. The problem is this: The CGI enhanced visuals are at first somewhat impressive. But then it goes on forever, repeating the same boring overhead gliding-over again and again. When the camera descends into and out of various holes and lighting fixtures for the umpteenth time, you feel like you are sitting in a personal cinematic hell. There is really no point looking at your watch anymore- it is purgatory. Fitting. But I'm pretty sure this isn't what Noé intended.

It really does not have that hypnotic power they intended at all. It's worse than blurry visual clusterfuck of Michael Bay action sequence. Noé probably thought he was making a Kubrick but ends up with Transformers painted with Day-Glo. I honestly think 3D is a perfect match for him. If you are still curious about this film, I strongly advise you against seeing it sober.

Roller Derby - Way of Life

Brutal Beauty: Tale of the Rose City Rollers (2010) - Mabry
What's not to like about seeing sexy tattooed girls in hot pants rollerskating really fast, going round and round, bumping off each other violently? Roller derby seems like a dream sport for any respectable punkabilly. Brutal Beauty follows the Rose City Rollers in Portland, OR. as they compete in the 'bouts'. They play in teams like High Rollers, Break Neck Betties and Guns N Rollers. The girls are dedicated bunch. They all have day jobs but when it's the derby season, they practice 3-4 days a week. Roller derby is more than a hobby, it's an effective anger management, psychotherapy and, um, way of life. Players go by their flamboyant alter ego names, Blood Clottia, Cadillac, Smack Ya Sideways, Marollin' Monroe, White Flight... They have dedicated superfans who travel with them when they go to regional and national games.

So how is roller derby played? There are Pivots, there are Blockers and there are Jammers. Even after Wheels of Justice (the all-star team for regional/national competitions) coach Rob Lobster eloquently demonstrates at work using donuts as players (he works at the famed Voodoo Donuts in Portland), I still have absolutely no idea how it's played. Don't matter though. It's all about the girrrl power, it's about comradery and friendship, it's about competitiveness and it will save your soul.

Brutal Beauty barely touches upon subjects like being role models or seen as sex symbols.
Don't matter, it's endlessly entertaining as the girls shout colorful obscenities at each other, tumble, elbow, we share their passion for the game. The film made me look up the local roller derby league. I might get hooked, too. Drew Barrymore's movie didn't make me do that.

Review at Twitch

Thursday, September 16, 2010

God Complex

Terrarium. It's a tiny world in a jar filled with moss, gravel, charcoal and small mementos, all self sufficient. A mini biosphere. And it's created by you. We've been contemplating making our own for quite some time now. The other day, armed with a tupperware and spade, we went for moss hunting in Prospect Park, scaring some unsuspecting old ladies- one asked us if we were burying something. We shook our heads guiltily, saying that we were gathering moss off of boulders. I don't think she believed us.

Then we found a place that sells Reindeer Moss- spongy, bright green living things that come in a plastic bag. My lady, a person who creates things for a living is very enthused about making these. Soon our cluttered apartment will be filled with tiny little worlds in glass jars I'm sure. World within a world.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Girls in Prison

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo (2009) - Beesley
Oklahoma leads America in incarceration. Female incarceration rate there is two times higher than the national average. 75 percent of all inmates are in there for drug offenses and 80 percent among them are mothers, according to a correctional officer appearing in the film. Since 1940, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has been holding annual Rodeo. It has been more than a mere gladiatorial spectacle. It's become a well-loved tradition, especially for its inmates and their families. For the inmates, it's once a year refuge from boredom of being incarcerated, a breath of fresh air. It's also a great honor to be selected to represent their respective jails. For their families, it's the only time they can enjoy watching their loved ones being free and happy.

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo starts with Danny, a tattooed and bespectacled convict describing his passion for rodeo. If you ever saw him on the street, you wouldn't be able to tell that the man is serving a 30-year sentence for murder. Personable and articulate, Danny sees rodeo as a perfect metaphor for freedom: "Being out there is to touch something that I gave up when I was sentenced." He laments. This is why they risk their lives being gored by bulls and thrown off broncos.

The film belongs to a female prison rodeo team though. They all have been struggling through broken homes, drug abuse, abandonment issues and separation from their children. As we get to know Rhonda, Jamie, Crystal and Foxie, same picture emerges from them: they have paid more than enough for the crimes they committed when they were young and stupid. They have wised up and all of them deserve a second chance.

As the team prepares for 2007 Rodeo, there are heartbreaks- a broken collar bone, contraband use (lipstick, they suspect) and subsequent suspension from the team, emotional family reunion and parole hearings. But all of them seem very happy when they are practicing on their jerry-rigged bull.

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo succeeds in putting human faces on the statistics and shedding light on the broken justice system where they insist on locking people up rather than investing on treatment and support. And there is plenty of death defying action by spirited beautiful women too. Definitely one of the best documentaries I've seen in recent years.

Review at Twitch

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Extraneous Purchase No. 1,574

I know we have a lot of crap in the house but just look at this:
It's a cat lantern. We found it at a stoop sale while wandering around Carroll Gardens area. It was so bizarre and with a 50 cents pricetag, we couldn't resist. It also meows when you turn it on.
Press play below to listen to perhaps the saddest meow in the world:

All I can say is, in case of emergency, I want my Cat Lantern to guide me.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Call to Prayer

Sister Leisl has always been her favorite. Even though she was a couple of years senior, she couldn’t help but feeling like a little girl at the presence of her.

Penile * Vaginal * Anal Wart Treatment
Confidential, Private Dermatology Office
Consult and Same Day Genital Wart Treatment
Call: xxx-xxx-xxxx

They were playing tag in the convent courtyard. As it was usually the case, the game ended up becoming a ticklish affair. The courtyard was soon filled with shrieks and laughter of delight.

Adoptees & Natural Parents Can Find Each Other.
xxx-xxx-xxxx xxx-xxx-xxxx

The sudden shower started to fall and broke the game abruptly, making them flee in all directions. But She didn’t. Standing in the now empty courtyard, she looked up. The rain felt good on her face. It drowned out all her senses. Everything became blurry.

Ages 18-60 years old in good health for participation
in brain imaging medical research assessing the effects
of cocaine on the brain. Confidentiality maintained.
Transportation & Fee Provided

She felt arms around her waist, softly hugging her from behind. Then she felt a hot breath brushing against her right ear, “You are it.” Sister Leisl said in a hushed voice.

24 Hour Prayer Hotline
Call anytime with any need.
This is a line dedicated for live prayers only

She didn’t hear the phone ring at first or ignored it. She didn’t want it to end, standing there, in the rain, in Sister Leisl’s arms. But it was the phone in the hallway, ringing mercilessly. She was on duty.

After a long while, someone picked up the phone.

Hah, hah… Hello, Sister Madeline speaking, hah, hah…
Oh, hello. Is it a prayer service line?
Yes. Hah, hah. Yes it is.
So how does it work? I mean, I’m wondering how to go about it.
Sorry. I’m kind of out of breath…Let me…
It’s okay.
Well, if you think you need a prayer for something in your life, I say a prayer for you. And if you’d like, we can pray together.
Do you need a prayer?
No Ma’am. I don’t think I need it now. I just wanted to know how it works. But if I ever need one, I’ll call back.

And then I hung up.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Central Park Carousel - 9/7/2010


American Apparel the movie

Stay the Same Never Change (2009) - Nakadate
Having missed its New Directors/New Films appearance last year and a couple of traveling screenings this Spring, I was very excited to hear that Museum of Modern Art acquired photographer/visual artist Laurel Nakadate's feature Stay the Same Never Change. So I saddled up and went up to MoMA to see the film on a sunny afternoon for what could be the last chance to catch it on a big screen.

This plotless, episodic film featuring young girls in Kansas City could be best described as feature length American Apparel commercial or teen porn without sex. Girls in short shorts are lounging around in their houses, wandering out on empty streets inarticulately describing their lives. The mood is ominous and harmless at the same time. It's not completely insulting to male viewers in a jailbaiting kind of way since there are some truly beautiful shots and funny moments. It's a Harmony Korine movie in mini-scale, put together very amateurishly.

One girl is in the habit of calling random numbers from an open phone book and warning/consoling the unsuspecting persons on the other line about tornadoes. Another girl talks to her teddy bear as if it is a boy she likes in school while wearing a dress she bought for her wedding night. She then swims in the river in her bikinis and asks two hunky fellow swimmers to drawn her. Another one is sitting in the woods surrounded by men(some shirtless) who just left their wives and girlfriends behind. Then there is a girl who makes a full figured male doll which resembles Fabio and takes it to a drive in movie(I think the movie they are watching is Evan Almighty).

I understand what Nakadate is going for. These are girls in the heart of America, always flirting with danger, helpless and most of all lonely and their diet consists of froot loops. Stay the Same silly, beautiful selves, being objectified by men and Never Change. The thing is, there is already far better, mature version of the film out on the same subject, Virgin Suicides by Sofia Coppola.

Is it really a work of art? It deserves to be archived into MoMA database? I'm no art critic but if one suggestive image from American Apparel campaign achieved the same thing as this, why aren't they acquiring Richard Kern photos? Or have they done so already? Disappointing.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Forgive but never forget

Romero (1989) - Duigan
Raul Julia plays Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador who was gunned down for speaking out against military violence on its citizens in 1980. Romero, a timid, frail man of books and privileges gets elected by the stolid church to keep things the way they are- El Salvador under military dictatorship, even though the civil unrest is growing.

It's not until his radical friend Father Grande (great Richard Jordan) gets assassinated Romero realizes that the cycle of violence is stemming from economic inequality and there needs to be justice for the poor. Julia is amazing. He gives a subtle yet passionate portrayal of the man of god.

Romero is a powerful film. Duigan (usually known for his fluffy fluff movies- Flirting, Sirens) doesn't shy away from showing the brutality of what had been going on with graphic scenes and actual pictures of the deceased Salvadorans. After the assassination, the country enters the 12 year long civil war.

The smallest country from Central America, El Salvador now is still far from perfect, but it joins many Latin American nations that went through horrendous turmoil against military dictatorship supported by the US government and have become reconciliatory, democratic societies. I hear the phrase 'Forgive but not forget' a lot from that part of the world. And it always amazes me. If it was done to me and my family, I don't think I could ever forgive anyone who raped and murdered, ever. My admiration goes out to them.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Walk the Walk

Point Blank (1967) - Boorman
Walker(Lee Marvin) is double crossed by his buddy, Reese and girlfriend and left for dead on Alcatraz during a holdup. A year later, he is getting his revenge and wants his $93,000 share from the holdup. Aided by a man who wants to bring down the 'organization', Walker goes after Reese, Carter and Brewster to get his money with the help of perky Chris(Angie Dickenson).

Exercise in style, Point Blank packs more visual ideas in a minute than an average movie does in its entire length. With its frenetic editing and sound design from the get-go, John Boorman (Excalibur, Deliverance)'s cool filmmaking never loses its momentum. The self-awareness of this neo-noir makes it even more delicious:

I laughed out loud at the scene where Chris says bye too casually to Walker, after helping him out by almost sleeping with a man who makes her skin crawl.

In another scene:

Chris: What's your first name?
Walker: What's your last?
(cut to the next scene)

Marvin's no smile antihero Walker is the definition of cool. As the man of principles, he is fearless and uncompromising. Point Blank is like hyper-stylized Dirty Harry movie but it definitely stands tall above the rest.


The Ruling Class (1972) - Medak
Lord Earl of Gurney, an important parliament member, dies in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident in a tutu, leaving his estate to a schizophrenic mental patient son, Jack (Peter O'Toole) who thinks he is Jesus Christ. It's a natural progression really, his German psychiatrist explains- what could be more holier than the British ruling class? Only god himself.

The power hungry relatives of the deceased has a plan: they will declare Jack insane soon after he produces a son. So they introduce us to lovely Grace (Carolyn Seymour), the implant of Charles Gurney, the brother of the deceased. She immediately falls for love-preaching jolly, silly JC. She does a very hot striptease on her wedding night, not for Jack, but for us audiences.

There are many great scenes in this 2 hr 30 minute extravaganza. One has to do with when Jack is asked to perform a miracle. Another is when Jack is confronted with another delusional false god, angry one at that (he proclaims to be the vengeful god from the Old Testament). If there is only one god, which one is the fake?

This satirical look at upperclass snobbery and the rise of conservatism is filled with plenty of sudden musical numbers and O'Toole's eyebrows. It starts out pretty impenetrable with all the wide angle crane shots of gilded interiors and British twit talk. Then it settles nicely into outrageous black comedy that resembles Monty Python on a quiet day, with a set of fangs.

The Ruling Class is the flip side of A Clockwork Orange in a sense. Jack's transformation as the remnant of the innocent flower child of the '60s to the fear mongering conservative with Jack the Ripper undertones while maintaining his god complex is needless to say, pretty heavy handed. But it's O'Toole's show: he is a great physical comedian!

I wonder why Brits are so good with satires but not Americans, especially about class differences. Is it the good old American Dream that prevents us from making fun of them? The American ruling class is not funny?