Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Later, when you become older and wiser."

Lust och Fägring Stor/All Things Fair (1995) - Widerberg
It's 1943 Malmö. A good looking fifteen year old Stig (Johan Widerberg) from Stockholm has a crush on his comely English teacher Viola (Marika Lagercrantz). Just like any boy in his class, sex is the only thing in his mind. In class, he does all the small silly things for Viola to notice him and surprisingly, she does. Their sexual encounters go unchecked for a while, until Viola's door-to-door salesman husband Frank (Tomas von Brömssen) finds out their secret. But Frank is too beaten-up-by-life and drunk to really care. They become good friends, listening to Mahler together and laughing at Frank's wacky inventions. Viola's constant sexual demands become too much (and tad bit close to Piano Teacher territory) for naive but good-hearted Stig. Their roles become reversed: the old becomes childish and the young becomes wiser.

What's different about All Things Fair is it's completely devoid of sensationalism associated with its taboo subject. Unlike real life TV tabloid stories about teacher sexing up students for everyone to see, the affair stubbornly stays private. Stig is a kid with a good head on his shoulders. Jealous Viola fails him in her class as he grows out of love and falls for a neighborhood girl his age who's willing to give up her virginity. But he's wise enough to handle the situation himself- his mom (who is kept in the dark about the affair) asks him if there was anything he wanted to tell her. He replies with wry smile, "Later, when you become older and wiser."

Beautifully written and richly rewarding with all the WWII details- schoolyard Jew hating for their hairy thick schlongs, Frank crying because he can't listen to Mahler anymore because now he hears Hitler's speech at the same time ("Can't believe it's the same language!" he wails in disbelief), All Things Fair is a great gentle last film by Bo Widerberg.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Burden of Remembering

Code 46 (2003) - Winterbottom
In Code 46, people are divided by series of codes related to genetic modifying of the bodies. Traveling is highly restricted and regulated by health document called papalle, a highly prized item. William (Tim Robbins) a fraudulent papalle investigator with the help of empathy pills, flies to Shanghai to find a culprit in a slick papalle processing company. There he meets Maria (Samantha Morton), a worker and suspect in the fraud case. William instinctively knows she is guilty, but something in her draws him and they fall in love.

Code 46 is a rare film that succeeds in evoking the melancholia of remembering the past without much words. The mood Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs) creates with natural looking cinematography and music is just right reflecting the complicated globalized future world. The film is light and fluid. It floats above all the trappings of bad sci-fi. It also captures small very beautiful moments effortlessly- it's like looking at someone's intimate polaroid snapshots. And Morton is adorable. This is what Wong Kar-wai's overly stylized, voice-over driven, editing exercise, 2046, should've been. Code 46 achieves it in 90 minutes gracefully.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hungry Hungary

Taxidermia (2006) - Pálfi
Visually audacious but ultimately hollow, Taxidermia tries to be high art when it's not. Spanning 3 generations of sex, gluttony, beastiality and over the top grossness, the film seems to give a satirical look at Hungarian history in search of their national identity.

It starts with a sex obsessed army Private in WWII era. A compulsive masturbator, Private Morosgoványi fantasizes about everything, even an open carcass of a pig. The next segment is a very round competitive eating champ who first meets his future cheating wife(also a competitive eating athlete) at an international eating competition while the enthusiastic Hungarian crowd cheer him on. These burly guys occasionally take breaks to walk over to the vomitorium during the competition. It's an absurd premise, reminiscent of Roy Andersson films. Then it moves to present: a skinny taxidermist who stuffs his blob of a dad and makes an art out of his body.

Its dazzling but heavy handed visual approach at appearing profound left me pretty bored, honestly. The themes and visual cues in each segment is sparse and don't quite gel together to make the film any more coherent.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Wild Sound

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008) - Wolf
I first heard Arthur Russell's music from some art school student's ipod. It sounded like 80s African pop music: beat heavy, fresh, accessible yet different. Then I asked her and she told me who it was. Russell died of AIDS in the early 90s, but left some very beautiful music behind. A Iowan farm boy with the voice of Nick Drake and the face of Denis Lavant, he got mixed up with the Beat crowd in San Fran and NY, became a staple at the Kitchen, NY's hub of avant-garde artists and musicians in the 70s. His weapon was cello. When everything around him was punk and disco, he produced music someone dubbed as 'Buddhist bubblegum pop'- part dance, part country, part avant. If he wasn't a perfectionist, obsessively changing his music all the time, he could've been as well-known as his contemporaries like Philip Glass and John Cage. Russell was always seeking and experimenting but it really showed in his voice and lyrics that, at heart, he was a gentle kid from the Plains.

Wolf does a great job showcasing Russell's music using an archival footage, interviews and some lyrical images shot by Jody Lee Lipes. And it's good to see his don't-know-him-but-love-him-all-the-same parents. Good to know that there are some decent folks out there.

Arm Around You
Home Away from Home

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Small (almost) Vegetarian Pies

Made them today because I saw our vegetarian friend Menshahat making them the other day and was inspired. It's a little time consuming but the end results are real worth it. Thank you Mensha.

For the filling you will need:

1 bunch kale middle stems removed and coarsely chopped
2 portabella mushroom diced
1 Medium onion diced
5-6 cloves garlic chopped
10 fingerling carrots chopped
a dozen asparagus chopped
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp ginger powder
3-4 tbsp Olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

*1/2 cup fresh mozzarella cheese cut in cubes, if you desire

For the pie crust:
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 stick butter or 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup cold water

In a deep pot drizzle olive oil, throw in vegetables with spices, cook it in high heat until the vegetables' volume goes down in half. Set aside.

Preheat oven 390F degrees.

Divide the pie dough in two. Make them into balls. On a lightly floured flat surface, roll them out with a rolling pin, one at a time to thin sheets. Cut the dough into round discs that could fit in the large 12-muffin pan. You have to make at least 24 discs (one for the bottom and one for the top).

Grease the muffin pan with butter or vegetable shortening. Lay down the pie crust discs at the bottom. If they are too small for the muffin pan, you might have to stretch them out individually with the rolling pin. Place vegetable mixture in twelve muffin holes with crust at the bottom. Put mozzarella cubes on top if desired. Cover them with the other set of pastry crust discs. Make sure the bottom and top pastry crust meet at the edge so you can seal them. Brush butter or vegetable shortening on top. Make sure you fork some vent holes on the tops of your little pies.

Bake it in oven for 35-30 minutes or until golden brown. Let it sit for 10 minutes. Then cover the pan with a cutting board and put the pan upside down. The pies should come out easily.

Serves 3-4 people, either as an appetizer or meal. Enjoy.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Art Supply Stores and the Cure

I was at a Dick Blick art supply store on Bond Street the other day and noticed the music playing there. It was the Cure's In Between Days. Then it occurred to me that they were playing the same music when I was in school, in the early nineties. The music never changes much in art supply stores. It's either the Cure or the Smiths. How could that be? There have been art stores long before the Cure or the Smiths ever existed. What did they listen to back then? James Taylor?

Good song by the way:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Art as Commodity: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) - Banksy
Exit Through
Banksy, an elusive underground British artist who's known for the stunts he pulled at various museums (sneaking in his incongruous, ironic art and place them in between classics) and his witty stencils and sculptures on the streets all over the world, is credited as the film's director here and also in it with his face forever under the hood and his voice distorted for legal issues. But the film belongs to a little fat Frenchman with mutton chops named Thierry Guertta, aka. Mr. Brainwash.

Guertta was an accidental tourist to the scene. Following his cousin known as Invader (he started putting up the Space Invader mosaics all over Paris in the late 90s) with a video camera forever attached to his hand, Guertta rides the tide of this DIY guerrila movement with Shepard Fairey (whom he runs into at a LA Kinkos making gigantic copies of his now-famous Obey Giant) and slew of other artists including, Neckface, Swoon and others in other cities. Guertta was a fanboy of sort, documenting all their activities in thousands and thousands of videotapes. His white whale was Banksy. There is a funny bit in the Guertta interview where he becomes speechless when he recalls the first time he meets the notoriously reclusive artist. They become a good friend after Guertta being a Banksy's posse during the artist's stunt in Disneyland with his Guantanamo inspired orange-jumpsuit-and-black-hooded blown up doll on the anniversary of 9-11.

The origination of the doc in itself is an interesting story (if everything told here indeed is true): Encouraged by Banksy, Guertta makes a street art documentary from his extensive footage- which the artist later describes as utter shit made by a madman with a very short attention span (we get to see some of the unwatchable collage of random images). After that, he makes Guertta leave all his tapes with him with the intentions of making this doc and advise him to concentrate in his own street art activities. Guertta follows his idol's advice to the heart.

Having studied studio art for three years in school and been married to an artist with a considerable talent and dedication, I've always had strong opinions about what is considered art. When street art took off last ten years or so, peaked with Shepard Fairey's Hope poster for the Obama 08' campaign, I was thoroughly disgusted by its rampant commercialization.

Personally I like art that shows the signs of artistry- labor, thoughts, something created by artist's own hands. The biggest problem I had with Shepard Fairey is that he doesn't have any skills nor wits other than tracing the original imagery and putting some color over it (he has a clothing line and is getting sued by an AP reporter who took that Obama picture for copyright infringement). I love the work by Swoon, whose intricate, beautiful wheat pasted paper-cuts all over NY show she can really paint and draw well.
*On a side note, I recognized her when I saw her on the screen, she is that very attractive waitress at a now-defunct Latin bistro in Brooklyn I frequented. Regrettably- I was just one of those yuppie customers for her. I should've said hello had I known!

Banksy does two things right in this doc: It is a very well made, good archival material for street art movement, with a lot of humor: the guerrilla style, tag-and-run aesthetic brings a lot of funny, entertaining moments.
It also questions the nature of art and art as commodity- Guertta, now Mr. Brainwash, tries to become an 'artist over night' (in his own words) by having a solo show titled, Life is Beautiful, in grand scale, taking over a huge space in LA, churning out one bad street-art-meets-pop-art print after another, then promotes the hell out of it and makes millions (and the whole process is hilarious).

Banksy himself is not immune to the commodification of street art. He is the one who had a grand art show in LA (featuring a painted elephant no less) that attracted Hollywood's who's who and made street art the toss of the art auction houses over night. Whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of his elaborate joke or not, Banksy raises some interesting questions about the legitimacy of being an artist by presenting his own creation (figuratively or otherwise), Mr. Brainwash.

*Shepard Fairey criticism by Mark Vallen for anyone interested.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fraternal Instincts: 10:30 P.M. Summer

10:30 P.M. Summer (1966) - Dassin
Atmospheric, fast paced film starring Melina Mercurie(Dassin's Anna Karina) as an aging alcoholic Maria, on vacation with her husband Paul (Peter Finch) and young, radiant friend Claire (scrumptious Romy Schneider). Through the dialog we learn that it was suspicious Maria's idea to bring Claire along because she wants to witness her husband's affair with Claire first hand. They arrive in a rural town in Spain en route to Madrid. There is a terrible storm and the whole town is in uproar because there has been a double murder- the film starts in rain, where a young Spaniard witnesses his wife and her lover in the heat of the moment and he shoots them both. Maria feels strange fraternity with the young man. He is on the roof, hiding! She has to help the fugitive!

10:30's strength is in its visuals- with a lot of overhead tracking shots and zoom-ins, the striking color photography and the crazy tango bar scene are quite beautiful and energetic. Arid vista of rural Spain and streets are stunningly photographed and resemble Antonioni's work. Great first half, but with the Marguerite Duras's slight script on brittle relationship, suggesting the affair maybe be all in Maria's head(with an arty fantasy/dream sequence), the film starts to run out of steam. The Antonioni-esque ending is neither resonating nor fitting with the rest of the film.

Alaska is for Lost Souls: Limbo

Limbo (1999) - John Sayles
Limbo Starts out like a typical John Sayles (Matewan, Lone Star) lesson in social anthropology. This time it's in Alaska: there are two types of people- ones who wear four thousand dollars worth of Gore-Tex and treat the 49th State like a theme park and there are the rest- working class sad sacks at a local tavern, drinking and lamenting. Then it turns into a lost in the great outdoors movie without abiding to any of the genre stereotype. It's a marvel to observe three people trapped both physically and figuratively in dread called life where the only outlet just might be death.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Donna) and David Strathairn (Joe) are both marvelous as lonely middle aged people who made some bad choices in their past and now only live for a couple of moments of bliss- on stage and on a fishing boat. Donna's morbid teenage daughter Noelle connects with Joe's earnest, guileless observations on their stranded-on-a-deserted-island situation. What can I say? Not a single false note in its two hour running time, Limbo is a beautifully written film about purgatory(with an end) that is effortlessly carried out with much affection and melancholy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hollywood Apocalypse: The Day of the Locust

The Day of the Locust (1975) - Schlesinger
Waldo Salt (the blacklisted writer of Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home)'s script based on Nathaniel West book from 1939 is a biting satire on Los Angeles. Sleazy faced Tod Hacket (William Atherton) is a lowly set artist at the Paramount studio art dept. He falls in love with his neighbor, a two-bit blond actress Faye (amazing Karen Black in her best role) who lives with her drunk vaudevillian father (Burgess Meredith, showcasing some numbers that are truly cringe worthy). But Faye chooses to live with a mild mannered accountant named, ahem, Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland playing against type here) 'because he doesn't want anything from me'. The human tragicomedy ensues. Ah, the lovely losers, chasing their hollow dreams in the dream factory.

There are so many great moments throughout- a hanky panky Hollywood party, sexually charged tequila drinking contest, theatrical evangelist stage show, grand Waterloo set disaster, bloody cockfights, and the riot and mayhem at the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille's Buccaneers. The film's visually spectacular- feigning that old soft Hollywood look to the maximum exaggeration, matching its ambitious and crazy script. Its influence on many other films- Magnolia, Short Cuts, Mulholland Dr., etc. are evident. Schlesinger was much edgier filmmaker than Altman ever was.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Untold History: Older than America

Older than America (2008) - Lightening
Georgina Lightening's Older than America digs up some very ugly history in a fictional manner. Lightening plays Rain, a Native American teacher in rural Minnesota who starts seeing disturbing visions. Her mother is in mental institution and she is afraid she'd inherited her mother's traits. Her tribal police fiance (Adam Beach)'s marriage proposal makes matters more complicated. An outsider geologist investigating a minor earthquake near an abandoned catholic school ground causes a stir in the local mayoral election- the incumbent is a big time landowner who is in cahoots with a catholic priest to bury the ugly history of the town. Who are the children Rain sees in her visions? Who's the mystery man?

Catholic sex abuse scandal is nothing new. But it is something else to take Native American kids(savages they were told) forcefully from their homes and institutionalize them into 'proper' humans by physically, sexually abusive priests and nuns up until 1975, ravaging a generation of people permanently scarred and worse, killed off.

Native American culture has been one of my interests for a long time. There are not many films about Native Americans, let alone a good one. Sherman Alexie's The Business of Fancy Dancing proved his great writing skills don't really translate well onto the big screen. For a message movie, Older than America is surprisingly subtle and graceful. Its use of supernatural elements comes off as spiritual rather than a scare and many actors earnest performances are quietly affecting. Sure it doesn't have Hollywood production value or beautiful cinematography. It does suffer from Spike Lee syndrome(trying to do too much in one movie) but it's a good, important film. It's a pity this kind of films don't get distributions theatrically and ends up only on pay-per-view.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Heartbreaking Work: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are (2009) - Jonze
I really hated Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. While he was hailed as the voice of generation-Xers (I guess mine included), I scoffed at his reflection on the frivolous and empty generation. I was very skeptical about his adaptation of Maurice Sendak's very short classic children's book- part of the reason why I didn't see the film until now.

It is pretty much less dense and much more elegant version of Heartbreaking Work. Spike Jonze and Eggers accomplishes in an hour and a half what that book was meant to say in 500 pages, about growing up orphan (or with a divorced parent) and desire for not wanting to grow up. I loved their decision not to have any narration or voice over. Karen O's intrusive soundtrack was annoying at first but...I don't want to nitpick. Lance Acord's cinematography is just beautiful. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully shot films I've seen in recent years. So touching. I have to admit I cried like a baby. I mean, I wailed.

Food for Thought: Food Inc.

Food Inc (2008) - Fenner
Many of the stuff I did know - industrial farming, few big conglomerates running everything, GMFs, patented seeds, corn diet for cows is not natural...
Many of the stuff I didn't know - Ratio of Type B diabetes in minority kids who were born after 2000- 1 out of 2. Morningstar Farms and Kashi and many other so called healthy, organic brands are owned by Kellogg, Coca Cola and Pepsi companies, you can be jailed by badmouthing beef industry in Colorado, Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas was an attorney for Monsanto (the largest agricultural company, patent owner of soybeans, policing farmers with their own police force) and many Clinton/Bush FDA/USDA appointees were corporate CEOs... the list goes on and on. Mad mad world we live in.

All I can say is I am going to cut down on eating meat big time and frequent local farmers market more.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness

It's 6:14am.

Just had a dream and can't go back to sleep. In this dream, I was in town from somewhere and borrowed my dad's car to get around. Then I dropped in at a dormitory where my girlfriend was staying.

I usually dream of buildings, interior of the buildings to be exact. They are always labyrinthine, dark nooks and crannies, but always warm and inviting and never scary.

My dad has passed away a while ago and I don't think she ever lived in a dormitory.

It was an English as the Second Language (ESL) school. People I knew from the past were there, all mixed in together. She was exactly the same as I remember- lovely and adorable and sweet. Her gestures, warm smile, girlish demeanor, the same. I don't remember what we talked about.

She was my first love. It amazes me that after 20 years she still haunts me in my dreams. They put me in melancholic euphoria- my heart gets heavy and I can't shake away the feeling nor I want to. It usually lasts for a day.

It was late at night. After she and I parted, I wanted to see her again. There was a door between me and the other side where everyone's living quarters were. It wasn't hard to find her. I knew the way. She was with a young man and he was trying to hug her. She was gently and playfully beating his back with her fists in her usual adorable way. This time though, I didn't feel the fang of jealousy. I was confident enough that she only had her heart for me.

My coffee is ready. I gotta get ready for work.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sea Change: Regarde la Mer/See the Sea

Quite a nasty bit of filmmaking. François Ozon (Swimming Pool, Under the Sand) really knows how to create uneasiness with little. A young woman (Sasha Hails) with her ten month old baby are left alone in a house by the sea. She is a typical bourgeois housewife, bored, waiting for her husband to return. One day, a drifter (Marina de Van) asks if she could set up a tent in the young mother's yard. She first relents then agrees, not out of goodness of her heart but rather out of boredom. Then after a while she invites the girl in for meals and a bath. The ragged vagabond girl seems not so friendly and not too receptive around the baby either. With large emotionless eyes and tough attitude, she could be a sociopath waiting to go off. Aren't you scared traveling alone? The clueless housewife asks her over dinner. I'm the one who scares, the vagabond retorts then picks up the plate and proceeds to lick the plate clean.

Punctuated by masturbation scenes and an anonymous sex encounter in the woods, Regarde la Mer accomplishes something quite remarkable where many psychological thrillers fail, in its taut 52 minute running time. Marina de Van plays probably the scariest character I've seen in a movie for quite some time.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Christmas Tale: Lion in Winter

Lion in Winter (1968) - Harvey
Menacing King Henry II sermons the estranged queen Elenore(Katherine Hepburn) for Christmas. They once loved each other but now all that remain are bitterness and scheming against one another with their three loveless, in-line-for-the-throne sons - the warrior and mom's favorite Richard (Anthony Hopkins), calculating middle one Geoffrey (John Castle) and pimply idiot and dad's favorite John (Excalibur's Nigel Terry). It is a great feat to see O'Toole and Hepburn shouting on top of their lungs as if they were in some Adam Sandler movie. But their verbal acrobatics are quite enjoyable. Throw in very young Timothy Dalton(with batting eyelashes) as King Philip of France, you got intriguing power play for 2 hrs. Hepburn's Elenore, the shriveled up old queen who uses her sexual history as a weapon to get at the king is real fun to watch. So as O'Toole's grizzly Henry who wants to do away with three ungrateful sons and marry his young mistress who'd bear his child.

Granddaddy of all home for the holidays movies where blood is thicker than hate, hurt and tears, I must admit I enjoyed this rather stage-y presentation of a Battle Royal quite a bit.

Pushing Buttons: The Box

The Box (2009) - Kelly
The box is a simple morality play, set in the 70s, Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) style. Combining conspiracy theory, pseudo science and extended bits from Twin Peaks and X-Files with big religious undertones, Kelly concocts, once again, hugely ambitious and cyclical film that is far more interesting and absorbing than average Hollywood fare.

A stranger with a disfigured face (Frank Langella) drops off the box at the doorstep of Arthur, a NASA scientist (James Marsden) and Norma, a school teacher (Cameron Diaz with an atrocious Southern accent). The box contains a clear plastic covered red button. The stranger explains that if they push the button, someone they don't know will die and they will receive one million dollars. The couple struggles with the idea for few days...

By no means the Box is a fully successful film. Kelly's overly labored plot feels like a house of cards ready to come crashing down at any given moment. Spirituality here is treated like a condiment. And there are way too much explanations for it to be enigmatic and mysterious. Oh, Cameron Diaz should realize that she looks very freaky when she is not smiling.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The End is Nigh: Miracle Mile

Miracle Mile (1988) - De Jarnatt
Harry (Anthony Edwards) finally finds the girl of his dreams (Mare Winningham). He's in love. But everything goes nuts one night, after he takes a phone call at a phone booth outside Julie's work (Johnnie's Diner). The phone call warns of the nuclear apocalypse heading toward LA. Harry has only few hours to evacuate. It's four in the morning and he needs to go get Julie. In the mean time, the crazy apocalypse story he tells causes chaos in a big scale.

Miracle Mile has that unmistakable 80s LA spandex vibe mixed in with the tail end of the Cold War anxiety (The fall of Berlin Wall was still a year away). It features horrendous traffic jam and car pileup a la Week End. Harry slogs through all the chaos taking many unnecessary detours. "Are we gonna make it?" Julie asks for all mankind. "I think it's insects' turn." Harry answers. Miracle Mile lacks sense of desperation and suspense. But its raw energy makes up for it to be something special. Remake is in order?