Tag Archive for foreign

Audition: The Sound of Horror is Silence

Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri.

This is the sound of my nightmares. Not any real pain I’ve endured or a specific shocking scene from a horror movie: the sing-song call of a young woman bent on revengein a Japanee horror movie.

auditionaoyama Audition: The Sound of Horror is SilenceAudition is Takashi Miike’s nightmare about a widower trying to move on with his life. It is a film about misplaced expectations, regrets, and the folly of misogyny. Shigeharu Aoyama is not a bad man by nature. He resents his late wife’s passing and takes out his aggression on every woman he encounters. The doting husband at her sickbed died the moment her heart stopped beating.

Miike wants you to have a visceral reaction to Audition. The sound is very exaggerated. A knife hitting a plate is as loud as a door slamming shut in real life. Waves crashing on the shore have the impact of a tractor trailer blasting down the highway. The exaggerated ambient sound is foreboding. Voices are clear, but actions are literally louder than words.

By the time Aoyama holds a fake casting call to find a willing young replacement wife, Audition is unmistakably surreal. The sound and emotional responses to daily human interaction are otherworldly. A show stepping on thick carpeting at a hotel should not be so loud as to pull you out of your seat. Everyday stimuli are transformed into the basis of your worst nightmare.

auditionayami Audition: The Sound of Horror is SilenceAoyama falls head over heels for a former ballerina named Ayami. She’s seems like a deep thinker and captivating in person. The problem is that nothing she claims to have done can be verified in real life. She is a living ghost, quiet in a world filled with overwhelming sound.

Never trust the quiet ones. Ayami’s silence makes her one of the more intimidating figures in modern horror. By the time you see her work in motion, you struggle to reconcile the docile intellectual with her savage actions.

Miike flips the expectations of horror in inventive ways with Audition. The scariest moments come from silence, not sound, yet the exaggerated sound creates a startling and unfamiliar world where you hope nothing worse can happen.

Thoughts on Audition? I rewatched it earlier today and was surprised by how much I had blocked from my memory. That one scene at the top of the post is perhaps the only one I remembered well. Share your thoughts below. Love to hear from you.

A Separation Review (2011, Film)

A married couple in Iran have amicably agreed to a divorce. There is only one sticking point: who does their daughter, Termeh, live with? If Termeh goes with her mother Simin, they’ll be leaving Iran within a few weeks on a visa. If she stays with her father Nader, she’ll be helping him care for his rapidly ailing father in the throes of Alzheimer’s. The judge hearing the divorce case refuses to grant custody to either parent. Simin moves out of the house, forcing Nader to hire a full time caretaker for his sick father.

Until the caretaker actually shows up, A Separation is a fairly typical divorce/custody drama placed in a less explored context. Iranian law is largely based on the teaching of Islam. The faith of the nation helps define legal proceedings. As such, there are cultural complexities that make many simple interactions we might take for granted in the United States taboo within that nation.

aseperationvalues A Separation Review (2011, Film)

A Separation hinges its entire premise on interactions between men and women in Iran. Razieh, the caretaker, is put into distress within minutes of arriving on the job. Nader’s father has soiled himself and she is afraid that it would be a sin for her to physically touch him. He is not family and she knows that she is not allowed to touch him unless it is an extreme emergency.

Everything spirals out of control from there. Writer/director Asghar Farhardi crafts a tense and unpredictable drama predicated on faith, truth, and gender roles. Every character introduced by name winds up in front of a judge arguing in an ever expanding case of he said, she said with blood money on the line. No character is safe from having a darker side emerge when dealing with the legal disputes.

The only potential problem with A Separation is how much the film hinges on the complexity of the Iranian legal system. Obviously, as this is an Iranian film from an Iranian filmmaker, the context of the story is clear for its target audience. Buoyed by international success at festivals and awards ceremonies (it won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and was nominated for Original Screenplay), the film is being viewed by a much wider audience. The linear plot is clear and the build of tension is undeniable. I just wonder how much more effective the long series of investigation scenes would be with a better understanding of the laws and cultural customs of Iran. The big issues are clearly explained early on; it’s the little things that go beyond my knowledge and understanding.

aseperationlegal A Separation Review (2011, Film)

You do not need the full context of the legal system to understand how well made A Separation is. The movement of the camera is particularly impressive. Seemingly every character is treated in a slightly different way. Razieh’s husband Hojjat, a man quick to temper, is given quick cuts and sharp angle changes to reflect his temperament. Razieh gets a slower, more ponderous camera, as each decision she makes is a thoughtful one based on years of teaching. Termeh’s moments are quick and smooth, reflecting her attempts to stay away from conflict and just keep moving forward. Simin and Nader are both centered on the screen as much as possible. Simin moves more during her scenes, adding a fluidity that goes against the far more grounded shots of Nader. The camerawork is a clever touch that visually defines the differences between the major characters in the story.

A Separation is so well executed with such a great sense of tension that I struggle to think of a reason not to see it. You might not understand all the complexities of the legal process, but that process is only used to bring out rich character based conflict and twists.

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts on A Separation? You know I want to hear them. Sound off below.

Film Review: Trollhunter (2011)

Trollhunter is a curiosity. Even in the context of the post-Blair Witch Project found footage/documentary horror genre, Trollhunter is something very different indeed. A group of film students decide to investigate a strange series of bear deaths. What they discover is an elaborate conspiracy instigated by the Norwegian government to hide the existence of trolls from the world.

Writer/director Andre Ovredal hits on a good concept here. One of my favorite documentaries is a nature documentary called The Legend of Bigfoot. A world class documentary team (the Marx family actually filmed a number of Pacific Northwest creatures for the first time in history) goes on a journey to find the location of bigfoot. They discover evidence from Native American tribes–sculptures, paintings, totems–that begin to change the way they go after the colossal beasts.

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The TSS keeps the knowledge of trolls hidden from the world

In many ways, Trollhunter takes the same approach. The documentary crew goes after the man killing the bears. The evidence leads them to a deeper discovery: the existence of trolls. As they go further on their investigation, no only do they see the trolls, they see how things like down power lines, rock slides, and tornadoes could be the work of trolls. It reaches the point that you feel stupid for not noticing these things before.

That is the greatest aspect of Trollhunter. You know it’s not a real documentary. Trolls don’t actually exist. Yet, at its best, you start to believe the expertise of the government’s top troll hunter. You’ll question rock patterns, tracks in the woods, and any explanation any expert gives you that isn’t “trolls did it.”

For all the authenticity, Ovredal tips his hand too often to special effects. Anytime the trolls are onscreen, the illusion is ruined. Could you imagine Cloverfield if you saw the whole beast every time he attacked? What about seeing the inner workings of the mind in Chronicle every time they sent a potato chip in the air? In the fake documentary/found footage vein, less is more. Create believability but don’t test the audience with so much special effects.

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We learn so much, yet they explain so little

The design and mythology of the trolls is strong. The execution is lacking. You can’t just say “trolls eat Christians, charcoal, and tires” and then not explain the attraction. Well, you can if you don’t take the time to explain migratory patterns and genealogy. There are just these moments when you realize how ridiculous the whole conceit is. A towering ancient monster with extra heads used to scare off other trolls? Terrifying. Seeing them in full and lingering detail every time they show up? A bit boring.

Trollhunter has a bit of an identity crisis. If it wanted to be a low budget fake documentary, it should have gone all the way. Focus on the facts and tease the audience with their presence. If trolls actually showed up like this in real life, the government wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret for a day, let alone decades or centuries.

If it wanted to be a monster movie, it needed to focus more on the conflict. The motivation of the troll is written out with one diagnosis in the final scene that doesn’t actually add up. Why, even with that, do they attack humans? Why do they leave their territory? Why do they fight with each other? None of their motivation is explained. There just isn’t enough relevant information to shift tactics in the last fifteen minutes.

Trollhunter has its charms, but it just doesn’t quite gel as a cohesive horror film.

Rating: 5/10

Thoughts? Have you seen Trollhunter yet? You can stream it on Netflix right now. What do you think? Sound off below.

Of Note: Certified Copy Blu-ray: Criterion Collection

I’ve praised the film Certified Copy before. I believe that writer/director Abbas Kiarostami made a brilliant meditation on how we develop relationships. It’s beautiful, it’s sharply written, and the leading performances from Juliette Binoche and William Shimell are extraordinary.

certifiedcopycriteriondisc Of Note: Certified Copy Blu ray: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection cover of Certified Copy is deceptively simple

This week, Certified Copy finally came out on DVD and Blu-ray. The gray cover of the Criterion Collection is rather unappealing at first glance. It’s a shame they chose that shade because the dull frame belies a really cool visual trick. The split image of Binoche and Shimell is a reflection of itself. If you know the film already, it comes from the scene where the pair are wandering through an art gallery, neither one exactly thrilled with the quality of the work. The cover is a great play on the conceit of the film, with the characters evaluating their own performances in the relationship that might not exist.

But obviously, you don’t judge a book by the cover. The Criterion Collection has more than enough to keep a fan happy. The footage has been remastered with a newly mixed 5.1 surround sound presentation. There are special features like commentaries, interviews, and even a rare short from Kiarostami’s early career.

Yet the coolest, must have feature of the Criterion Blu-ray is the essay included in the case. Godfrey Cheshire re-contextualizes Certified Copy as a reflection of Abbas Kiarostami’s creative life. Though the director is no stranger to risks, something big had to motivate him to work entirely outside of Iran for the first time.

Cheshire proposes that the increased censorship and political action taken against filmmakers in Iran pushed Kiarostami to work outside of the country. The film confirms a deeper philosophical discussion of the value of art in society. Both characters take on the role of an oppressive force, fighting against the value of the other’s view of art and refusing to relent on any points. Instead of opening a dialogue, they fabricate excuse after excuse to pretend that any issue is caused by the other person, not a fundamental disagreement on the role of art in the world.

Though I hadn’t noticed the parallels before, Cheshire’s argument is a compelling one. I think it overreaches just a bit when you take Juliette Binoche’s original audition/interview into consideration. Kiarostami described the story of Certified Copy and then claimed everything had really happened to him. She responded with shock and he said he was lying. Then she tried to convince him that it was the truth but he wouldn’t budge. Her reactions helped define her character in the film.

While politics can be applied to the story, I think the true art of the narrative is building narrative about creating art. You have no idea if anything you saw was true, yet it feels so real by the end that you have to believe it. Except you know for a fact that they made a lot of things up as they went along. Except for how you have no proof of that.

For all the bells and whistles on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, this essay–accompanied by lovely stills intentionally split in half from the film–will mostly likely be what causes me to pull Certified Copy off the shelf again and again. The film is great on its own. The essay and the added features open it up for further analysis. It’s an ambiguous story that might be more open than I ever imagined on first viewing.

So will you be picking up Certified Copy? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film. Share them below.

Instant Watch: Alternative Schools

In this edition of Instant Watch, we’re going to take a look a three films all about alternatives to traditional education available to stream at Netflix. Even when a traditional classroom is in the picture, the behavior of the students and staff alike push it beyond the boundaries of your standard public school experience. It is by coincidence alone that all three films were nominated for Academy Awards. Maybe the Oscars are big on films that comment on education.

Half Nelson (2006)

Something is going on with 8th grade history teacher Dan Dunne. He refuses to follow the set curriculum out of boredom, pushing students to examine the entire history of the world through dialectics. Mr. Dunne is addicted to cocaine. His student Drey finds him in the girl’s locker room, high. They begin to form a friendship over the shared secret, forcing them both to confront their understanding of their lives, the education system, and how friendship really works.

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Dan Dunne wanders into school late for the first time.

Half Nelson is a very relaxed film. There are no emotional highs, no sustained fights, and only one scene where anyone’s voice rises above proper classroom behavior. The great strength of the film is how underplayed the dramatic arcs are.

Ryan Gosling is Dan Dunne. There is not a moment in the film where he steps out of the downward spiral of a man who believes he finally has his life under control. Everything, from the disinterested saunter into the school building to his over inflated sense of self, rings true. The fate of Half Nelson relies on this performance and Ryan Gosling makes everything feel real and effortless. It’s enough to make you worry that your local teachers might get away with this behavior.

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Drey watches out for her teacher in Half Nelson

Perhaps the most cliched element of Half Nelson is the mandatory bond between teacher and student in an education drama. However, Drey is not your typical student relying on a teacher for guidance. Shareeka Epps gives a strong and nuanced performance as Mr. Dunne’s student who uncovers his drug addiction. It would be so easy for Drey to become this magical child who completely changes everyone’s life who encounters her. With Epps’ performance, she’s not. She’s not perfect. She’s not a bright spot in a troubled world. She’s simply a child getting by with a mother who can’t afford to spend more time at home.

Half Nelson refuses to meet your expectations. This is not the typical public school drama. There are no troubled youth needing redemption. There is no major test or challenge the students have to overcome. In fact, the classroom scenes are only used as a framing device to gauge the changes in Dan Dunne. There’s subtext about the Civil Rights movement, but it’s never drawn to the forefront. The white teacher becomes friends with his black student and worries about her safety.

Writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden do a remarkable job staying away from what you expect in a teaching drama. This is a character study of a man who refuses to open up beyond a glint in his eyes. It’s a coming of age story where the young girl is already more adjusted to reality than the adults teaching her. It’s a study in drug abuse that chooses to show how well people can get by in society while high.

Half Nelson is a film that slowly washes over you. Dan Dunne draws you in with his confidence, then leaves you to piece together the rest yourself. For people willing to actively engage with a film that has no easy answers, Half Nelson is a rewarding viewing.

Rating: 8/10

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Precious faces dueling educational forces in her life.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009)

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Director Lee Daniels pushes Precious to be an inspirational but realistic look into a young woman's psychological development.

Precious is one of those films I’ve been obsessed with since it came out. Part fantasy, part drama, part deeply psychological character study, director Lee Daniels’ powerful feature about a sexually and psychologically abused 16 year old teenager takes a challenging novel and turns it into a piece of cinematic magic. It must have been hard to imagine how a story so driven by internal monologues and terrible abuse could translate to the screen. Lee Daniels takes Geoffrey Fletcher’s Academy Award winning adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push and turns it into the kind of film that makes you appreciate the magic of filmmaking.

Perhaps the saddest part of Precious‘ legacy is the cultural narrative of the film. Despite incredible direction, writing, performances, design, and editing, Precious could have been subtitled “The Mo’Nique Show.” It is true that Mo’Nique gives an outstanding performance as Precious’ abusive mother Mary. She is not a caricature of an abusive parent or a cartoonish villain. Mary is terrifying because she is all too real. There are clear mental health problems happening that Mary has no interest in addressing. So long as she gets her welfare check on the basis of living with Precious and lying about caring for her granddaughter, she’s fine with whatever happens in her life.

preciousschool Instant Watch: Alternative Schools

Precious is greeted by her new teacher at the alternative school.

The reason the focus on Mary and Mo’Nique’s performance is so unnerving is the caliber of acting in the film. If Mary didn’t exist as a character, any number of the other women in the film would have stolen all the focus in the supporting cast. Paula Patton actually behaves like the teachers I work with. She takes the role of a teacher at an alternative school for troubled young women and wrings out every possible special moment. Mariah Carey goes toe to toe with Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe as their welfare agent and manages to steal focus while confined to a rolling chair in a gray cubicle. Even smaller players like Sherri Shepherd as the school’s secretary and Xosha Roquemore as a wacky classmate bring much needed warmth and humanity to the film.

Gabourey Sidibe plays Precious to perfection. It’s so hard to describe what she does in this film. She’s the narrator discussing her life experience in voice over. She’s the superhero of her own fantasies, the villain in her own reality, the epitome of self doubt to her new teacher, and the worst mistake in the history of the world to her mother. She is a child forced to grow up too fast, a woman incapable of understanding her life beyond her relationship to her mother and father, and a person trapped in a pattern of escapism. Sidibe needs more screenplays that showcase what she can do. It is a sin to waste this much talent on bit parts in ensemble comedies.

The problem with Precious is one of branding. This became the film known for the abusive mother and the troubled child rather than the far more positive direction and arc of the film. Precious is a victim who forces herself to improve her life. She goes to school, she makes friends, and she slowly comes to terms with her worth as a person. She dreams big–could she be a movie star? a rockstar? a model? happy? fulfilled? confident?–and finds a way to overcome the obstacles in her life.

Precious is not a depressing film. It is joyful. It is heartfelt. It is beautiful and inspiring and realistic even in its use of fantasy to explore the human psyche. Does the tone make the terrible abuse easier to watch? Barely. The film is balanced between the dark and the light in a way that naturally brings out the best and worst in every moment. It is a lifetime of experiences distilled down to one year of a young woman’s life. If you have about two hours and feel up to it, Precious will not let you down.

Rating: 10/10

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The siblings of Dogtooth celebrate their teachers/parents' wedding anniversary.

Dogtooth (2009)

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The siblings of Dogtooth are adults trapped as young children by their parents.

Dogtooth is a strange film by design. Writer/director Giorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou craft a story of educational abuse unlike any other. Father and Mother teach their three adult children–Son, Older Daughter, and Younger Daughter–false definitions of words and bizarre lies about the outside world to confine them to their large remote home for life. Their only chance for escape is the loss of their dogtooth (right or left, doesn’t matter), which means they are old enough to walk through the gate and not be killed instantly.

Dogtooth doesn’t really have a story. It’s a meandering look into a bizarre and abusive family. The children haven’t developed psychological reasoning beyond small children because their parents wouldn’t let them. They compete in dangerous games and tasks to earn stickers on their bed frames. They’re savagely punished if they step out of line and rewarded with more indoctrination if they do well.

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The siblings in Dogtooth invent strange games to occupy their time.

Its so hard to understand what, exactly, is happening in Dogtooth. It’s not a character study as the characters don’t evolve or show depth beyond their initial introduction. If it’s meant to be a comedy, it is very dark and bloody. The gags are dry and the abuse going on is hard to swallow.

What I fear is that Dogtooth might be losing a lot in translation. It’s a Greek film with a lot of flatly delivered dialogue. My suspicion is that, with the readily available subtitles, we’re losing out on clever wordplay and idioms that don’t translate well. Perhaps it’s a fitting satire of a Greek cultural or political institution. I just don’t have the frame of reference to judge it in that context.

The reason I’m so torn on Dogtooth is that I enjoyed watching it in spite of how little sense it made. It felt very much like Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, only without an accessible lesson or theme to grab onto. The family does strange things just to do strange things and the technical filmmaking makes them interesting. The film has a fantastic eye for color and framing that makes it a perverted piece of moving art.

It’s hard to recommend Dogtooth beyond a twisted sense of curiosity. I remember a lot of writers were very confused that this received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It’s just so strange that it’s hard to imagine its audience. It’s not campy enough for the cult fans, dark enough for the horror fans, or absurd enough for post modern comedy fans or Modernists. It is a self-contained exploration of a twisted educational fantasy and doesn’t strive to be anything more.

Rating: 5/10

Thoughts on these films? Suggestions of other alternate schooling films on Netflix? Sound off below.

Blu-Ray Review: Battle Royale: The Complete Collection

battleroyalethecompletecollection Blu Ray Review: Battle Royale: The Complete Collection

A sharp blood-stained school uniform finishes off this manga-sized Battle Royale Blu-ray collection.

Battle Royale is riding the wave of good fortune surrounding The Hunger Games to its first proper home video release in America. Kept at bay for many years due to its original proximity to the Columbine High School shootings, this modern masterpiece about a group of junior high students forced to fight to the death has gained a tremendous worldwide reputation. The original novel from Koushun Takami spawned an award winning film adaptation, a controversial sequel, a popular manga series, and a strong reputation for shock value and sci-fi innovation.

The Blu-ray set, subtitled The Complete Collection, feels like a no-brainer purchase for fans of the series. I didn’t give it a second thought when I shelled out the extra fifteen bucks on Amazon to get four discs of goodies. But does the largest release constitute the best value? It turns out that The Complete Collection is a decidedly mixed bag beyond the single best transfer of Battle Royale released in America.

Disc Two: Battle Royale (2000, theatrical release)

Director Kinji Fukasaku turned a lot of heads when he decided that his 60th feature film would be an adaptation of uber violent dystopian/teen romance/coming of age/social satire novel Battle Royale. What could a 70 year old man bring to a story about young teenagers fighting to the death with their friends and classmates? Anyone who doubted Fukasaku’s relation to the project was shut down as soon as the film began screenings.

Battle Royale is one of the most heart breaking and fully realized visions of an alternate future to grace the world of cinema. After WWII, Japan and China formed an alliance that reset the balance of power in the world. Now, at the dawn of the millennium, young society is in chaos. Children refuse to go to school and actively fight against authority.

The government’s response is the Battle Royale Act. This increasingly popular program sees a randomly selected classroom of 9th graders dropped off on an abandoned island with weapons and explosive devices strapped to their necks. If more than one of them is alive after 72 hours, they all die. Only one victor can emerge to reach the honor of adulthood.

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42 young students are forced to choose between life and death in a twisted government game.

As grim as the premise sounds, Battle Royale is as sensitive as it is bloody. Kinji Fukasaku did an incredible job getting 42 teenage(ish) actors to develop motivations and react in realistic manners. The result is a film that elicits laughs as often as shock value. The story only works because Fukasaku made sure we care about the children.

In a wise decision, Fukasaku had screenwriters Koushun Takami and Kenta Fukasaku (his son) play up the importance of the most shocking stories. The first couple to commit suicide have a beautiful and meditative moment on the edge of a cliff before jumping to their doom. A young track athlete gets to confront the boy who ruined her reputation in a satisfying moment of justified revenge. Most important of all, the two most cold-blooded killers in the game–a silent transfer student and a charming bad girl–get to show off just how dangerous the motivation of a life or death battle can be. While Takami’s original novel contains these moments, they are given equal weight with the other students’ experiences in the story. Fukasaku was not afraid to play favorites in order to make the best film he could.

The emotional core of the film is the love story of Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa. The two TV veterans–Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda–make the relationship feel real. These are two young people who were afraid to approach each other romantically in school. Drawn together by a shocking twist early in the game, Shuya and Noriko team up with their terrible weapons (a pot lid and a pair of binoculars, respectively) to find a way out of the games together. They never lose faith in each other because they know that neither one of them would survive on their own. It’s a beautifully realized arc that is edited within an inch of its life to never overwhelm the all consuming presence of the game.

Battle Royale has never looked this beautiful in America. I was practically crying at some of the visuals on the island. Though the tension played a role, the juxtaposition of the beautiful cinematography and the unimaginable violence shocked me into responding. By the end, I was numb and exhausted. The film is overwhelming in the best way possible, forcing you to experience every moment without a chance at escape.

Rating: 9/10

Page 2: Battle Royale II: Requiem

Page 3: Special Features

Film Review: Pina (2011)

Pina Bausch was one of the most revered choreographers in the world when she passed away suddenly in 2009. Her style, descended from the Tanztheater school (essentially expressionism combined with dramatic elements), blew up in the 1970s, making her a driving stylistic force in the world of modern dance for four decades.

Director Wim Wenders planned to film a documentary in 3D about Pina before her sudden death. While he was resigned to abandon the project without his subject alive, he was convinced by her company of dancers to complete the film. Together, they collaborated to recreate Pina’s iconic choreography through the dancers who either originated or replaced Pina herself in the pieces. The result is one of the most original and mesmerizing single-subject documentaries to come out in years.

The film opens on an empty theater space with Pina’s handwriting on the back wall. Her voice begins and ends the film as the camera pans out to the empty audience. Suddenly, the stage is full. A dancer wearing an accordion and not much else is reciting a poem about the seasons in front of three layers of skrim. Dancers in formal attire begin filing in behind her, one by one, to repeat her tightly choreographed movements about the growth of grass through the year. They file past the first skrim, then the second, then the third, as the camera hovers just outside of their reach.

pina3d Film Review: Pina (2011)

In Pina, the late choreographer's dancers recreate her iconic works all over Germany

What Pina does better than any film I’ve ever seen is capture the style and energy of dance without relying on a thousand quick cross-cuts, reshoots, and unnecessary close-ups. Wenders wisely lets Pina’s choreography be the star. If the camera moves at all during a dance, it’s only to focus the eye on a subtle and distinctly Pina sequence in a performance.

Never is this style more effective than the first full dance sequence. The first big scene is a piece that dance fans will be familiar with: “The Rite of Spring.” It’s clearly chosen as one of the Pina recreations to introduce the audience to her style with a well-known piece. The erratic stomping and large group formations of the original controversial Modernist masterpiece are present. Everything else is Pina.

The stage is filled with loose earth shoveled out by stagehands and raked to a smooth finish. One by one, the female dancers come out on stage and begin to dance with the dirt. They grab it, the fall in it, they coat their bodies with it. Once dancer grinds her flesh into a red dress sprawled out on the stage, pushing dirt further and further away from her. She is the sacrifice to bring on spring. She will be forced by the leader of the men to dance until she dies so that life may once again grow from the dirt. When the evaluation begins, there is no doubt that Pina wanted the story to come through above all else. These women are on the verge of hysteria, dancing for the elder and praying he does not choose them.

From there, the numbers become more and more abstracted. In a recreation of “Cafe Muller,” three dancers perform on a stage, filled with chairs and tables, with their eyes closed. The all-seeing owners manipulate them one by one until they’re all broken. In “Iphigenie,” three generations of characters attend a dance where the men and women alike are evaluated for partnering purposes like horses before raw sexuality overtakes the radical rock music they dance to. In “Full Moon,” the dancers explore the elements of stone, water, and air, as they push, splash, and throw each other into stranger and stranger scenarios. To Werner’s credit, by the end of the film, the large recreations make sense.

A particular stroke of genius in Pina is taking the choreographer’s smaller numbers outside of the theater. The soloists–all interviewed in voice over as they stare out, either impersonating Pina’s stoic gaze or remembering her life in tears or joy–perform on trains, subways, parks, public swimming pools, even grassy medians on busy roads. Pina’s work is so powerful that you actually see the non-subjects in the film first look with confusion at the dancers, then lose the ability to look away at all.

Pina’s work is broad and dramatic, but there are recurring elements that become the language of Pina. First is the use of nature. One dancer comments on how every piece insisted on the feel of natural elements. They performed on sand, dirt, stone, water, and more to get her vision across. Second is a raw sexuality defined by the individual. The women all perform in dresses with no bras on, while the men typically strip down to tightly tailored trousers and wide open shirts. They obsess over their own bodies at the expense of making real connections with others.

Most distinctive of all (and the reason Pina’s choreography works so well in 3D) is the self-manipulation of the body. These dancers are forced to literally push themselves around. Their bodies cannot go into motion unless their own arms or legs force them. The left arm cannot move until the right hand grabs it and throws it away from the body. Pina’s choreography is an explosion reaction of the physics of human life and is mesmerizing even when it confuses the audience out of context.

Pina‘s only fault is trying to show too much of Pina’s work. Early on in the film, an interview always precedes these out of theater dance moments. The dancer explains what lesson they learned from Pina that impacted their performance in that solo. By the halfway point, there are interviews with dancers where they say nothing, giving the audience no context for what they see in that field or that factory. Even worse, the last two main dances are so fragmented by elements of other dances that you can easily lose the context of those numbers to the unexplained fragments surrounding you.

The breadth of work and the visual style of Pina overcomes any confusion the direction causes with artistry. Pina Bausch’s work was extraordinary. Her dancers revered her because she insisted on bringing out the best in every performer in ever production. She did not cast aside dancers when they reached the ancient dance age of 30-something, but embraced their changes and increased limitations to expand the artistry of dance. Pina is a worthwhile tribute to a visionary artist that deserves to be seen in theaters.

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Film Review: The Illusionist (2010)

theillusionistblog Film Review: The Illusionist (2010)

The Illusionist prepares to take the stage.

Sylvain Chomet is one of the most exciting writer/directors working in film today. He is an artist dedicated to the pursuit of thoughtful and gorgeous animation. With a distinctive voice and a knack for purely visual storytelling, Chomet has ridden a mixed-media animation style to four Academy Award nominations.

The Illusionist is his second feature-length film and he more than delivers on the promise of The Triplets of Belleville. Adapted from an unproduced screenplay from Jacques Tati (Mon Ocle, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday), The Illusionist follows an aging stage magician as his career fades away during the rise of Rock’n Roll. The unnamed illusionist meets a young woman at a private party. She becomes convinced the Illusionist is really a magician and joins him on his final tour, receiving gifts through sleight of hand that the illusionist spends all his money on.

What makes The Illusionist so compelling is the hand drawn animation. The characters, backgrounds, and props are traditionally animated. This gives them a very distinctive look in a field dominated by computer generated animation. However, Chomet often incorporates computer animation techniques to enhance the look of the hand drawn animation. Lighting is altered with filters, moving background textures fill out even the most static shot, and all of the coloring is done on computers. What you get is a flawless blend of two seemingly competing art forms that results in something beautiful.

That is the best word to describe The Illusionist: beautiful. Whether the scene is happy or sad, wistful or melancholy, the images onscreen wash over you like a moving painting. It’s quite extraordinary that someone is willing to still spend the time to lead something so labor intensive that runs its course in eighty minutes.

As a character study, The Illusionist thrives. The unnamed magician is a proud and caring figure that slowly comes to term with the shift in the entertainment industry. He lives in an apartment complex with other novelty acts also clinging on to what’s left of their appeal. He can clearly see that the clown and the ventriloquist are succumbing to depression, yet he drums on in the hope that some audience still wants him.

The young woman is not as well-defined, which helps the character study but hurts the film. She becomes a foil to the illusionist. As he slowly realizes that the place for magic in the world is shrinking, she refuses to back down from her belief that magic is real. She is a singularly motivated character: all she wants is gifts from the magician.

This choice by Chomet in adapting Tati’s screenplay drags the narrative into an expanding cycle of recurring images. The illusionist sees the young woman look at something she wants. He finds a way to earn the money to buy it. He performs a magic trick to exchange the old item for the new gift. She finds something else she has to have.

There is a lovely sense of melancholy surrounding that cycle. The Illusionist becomes sad and nostalgic in the best ways possible. You don’t keep watching because the story is great. You watch because the animation is beautiful and the mood gives you something to latch onto. Sylvain Chomet gifts us with a tonally strong animated feature that, once again, relies so little on dialogue that anyone anywhere in the world can enjoy the film.

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Film Review: Certified Copy (2011 US, 2010 France)

Certified Copy is a sweet and strange little romance about perception, artifice, and imitation. Filled with framed images of real Italian settings and naturally layered images, writer/director Abbas Kiarostami riffs on the nature of originality for 106 minutes in three languages.

Starring Juliette Binoche as Elle, a french woman living in Italy, and William Shimmel as James Miller, a British writer promoting an art criticism book in Italy, Certified Copy flows effortlessly through bizarre changes in character, tone, language, setting, and story. What starts as a simple story of a woman trying to debate an author on the merit of his work shoots off in exciting new directions as soon as Elle and James meet in an antique shop.

certifiedcopyblog Film Review: Certified Copy (2011 US, 2010 France)

Film Review: The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) (2011)

Here’s how you know whether or not The Skin I Live In will appeal to you. Look at the following statement and gauge your reaction. Writer/Director Pedro Almodovar riffs on classic horror film Eyes Without a Face, translating the action to psycho-sexual politics and gene therapy. Keep your reaction in mind as you go through this review.

Antonio Banderas takes on the role of Robert Ledgard, a surgeon running a boutique medical clinic from his mansion. He lives with his main housekeeper Marilla (Marisa Paredes) and a patient named Vera (Elena Anaya). Vera wears nude body compression garments because of the surgeries Robert Ledgard is performing on her. The insight you get from his lectures–how the successful grafting of cadaver faces onto living faces led to experimentation with genetically spliced flesh on small mammals–should give you an idea of Ledgard’s role. He is Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyl hidden behind the charisma of Count Dracula.

However, as the film goes on, what you think is the actual plot of the film becomes as relevant to the story as Marion Crane’s robbery is to Psycho. The narrative is always shifting to new and unexpected places. The overarching influence is Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. From the near-imprisonment of young Vera to the layout of the mansion to the circling group of fellow-scientists convinced something is wrong at the Ledgard estate, the film’s brand new story (adapted from Thierry Jonquet’s novel) is balanced on the visual structure and narrative beats of the classic 1960 chiller. The difference is not one of possibility but of scientific fact. The facial transplants predicted in Eyes Without a Face are a scientific reality. Otherwise, the films could take place at the same time and be equally plausible and compelling.

Film Review: Dead Snow (2009)

deadsnowfacebook Film Review: Dead Snow (2009)

Dead Snow is the Nazi-zombie horror film from Norway. For some, the first half of that sentence is all they need to know about the film. I will even admit that the Nazi-zombie hybrid is what drew me to this film in the first place.

I’ve been fooled by both horror sub-genres many times before. Modern Nazi horror tends to move very slowly and hide the promised threat until the final minutes. Modern zombie films have a bad habit of bending any rule they can think of to make their zombie a brand new experience. Thankfully, Dead Snow avoids both of those pitfalls. Instead, it falls for the unfortunate trappings of a well-meaning comedy/horror film.

If I had just watched the first hour of this film, I would not have thought it was a horror/comedy at all. It introduces us to seven young people visiting a remote mountain cabin for their Easter holiday. They drink, they play games in the snow, and they begin to push each others’ buttons. A mysterious stranger arrives in the middle of the night, warning them of the dark and blood-soaked history of Nazi occupation in Norway. The young people do not heed the warning and begin to come face to face with the undead army of Colonel Hanz Herzog.

Film Review: Cello (2005)

celloblog Film Review: Cello (2005)

I go off on justifying violence and scary content all the time in film reviews. If there is one thing I hate in horror, it’s gratuitous violence. If it serves no greater narrative purpose than upsetting the audience, it’s worthless. Cello, from writer/director Woo-cheol Lee, refuses to justify anything that happens in its running time. There is no plot, no character development, and no reason for anything that happens in the film to happen.

What little story there is goes as follows. Hong Mi-Ju is a music professor. She has flashes of a horrible car crash that cause her severe anxiety. A former student threatens to take revenge on her for a bad grade. Strange things begin to happen for seventy minutes. A bunch of blood is splattered for ten minutes. Then a twist ending kicks in that does nothing to illuminate or justify what happened in the rest of the film.

Cello is the kind of film that breaks my heart.

Film Review: Ab-Normal Beauty (2004)

abnormalbeauty Film Review: Ab Normal Beauty (2004)

Oxide Pang Chun (of The Pang Brothers directorial team) steps out on his own to write and direct the startling visceral horror film Ab-Normal Beauty. The film is part character study, part social commentary, and part shock film. When art student Jiney (Race Wong) becomes obsessed with photographing death, her life spirals out of control. Shot with various photography-inspired filters and edited to represent the myriad of traditional photo lab techniques, Ab-Normal Beauty becomes an exploration of the international obsession with death on film.

Oxide Pang Chun is no stranger to commenting on and advancing the form of horror films. His collaboration with brother Danny Pang The Eye used all of the cliches of the haunted house film to comment on why ghost stories hold such power in so many cultures. Even the most old-fashioned technique was brought into a new context to make every scene far more terrifying and memorable than it had any right to be based on approach alone.

Ab-Normal Beauty raises the stakes in this style of filmmaking. Though the visual techniques are subtle and beautiful, the content is harsh and unyielding. Jiney is haunted by the memories of being abused by her older cousin when she was a child. Though the English subtitles use the phrase “bullying,” it’s quite clear by her refusal to spend any time with boys and men out of principle and the flashback sequences of the event that the actual cause is sexual abuse. The film sets up a revenge story hidden by the guise of a Repulsion-styled descent to madness character study layered in with grizzly shots of hyper-realistic death.

Instant Watch: High School K-Horror

On this edition of Instant Watch, we take a look at a unique horror series from South Korea. The Whispering Corridors series, also known as the High School Girl’s Ghost Story series, is a unique horror concept. If you’ve ever heard the original concept behind the Halloween series in America, you’ll know that it’s hard to get it to come across. Essentially, Whispering Corridors films are thematic sequels. Each film tells a stand-alone horror story told in an all girls high school with a ghost. How the ghost is used, what kinds of students are focused on, and the source of the horror is as widely varied as you can imagine.

The first three parts of the series are available to stream right now on Netflix Instant.

Whispering Corridors (1998)

whisperingcorridors Instant Watch: High School K Horror

On the eve of the new school year, senior class teacher Mrs. Park dies under mysterious circumstances on the school grounds. She is found by friends Ji-oh and Jae-yu hanging from the school walkway. Replacement teacher Mr. Oh threatens, taunts, and beats the students to get them to cooperate with his policy of not discussing Mrs. Park’s death. When students and teachers begin to experience strange phenomena in the school, it becomes clear that ignoring the circumstances of the death will not stop history from repeating itself.

Whispering Corridors is a bold horror film for many reasons. For starters, the high school students actually talk, walk, move, behave, and look like actual high school students. The casting and screenplay are equally great. Writer/director Ki-hyeong Park and co-writer Jung-Ok In do not rely on making the students wise beyond their years. They don’t sexualize the girls and they don’t have them act like mini-adults. These are young people about to be thrown into the real world and they’re still finding their way. It takes guts to actually write realistic teenagers without toning down the content of the film.

That’s the second great part about Whispering Corridors. This is brutal. The violence when the ghost attacks is genuinely disturbing. This isn’t a glossy Hollywood slasher; it’s not even a campy and gritty dark comedy/horror like you regularly see come out of Japan and China. This is borderline gialli without the exaggerated color washes to make the nightmarish violence seem safe. There are scenes in this film that will stick with me for a long time because of the execution and realistic style.

The most disturbing aspect isn’t anything related to the ghosts; it’s the dichotomy between new and old teaching methods on display in the film. Until March of this year, teachers in South Korea were permitted to physically strike students as punishment. Whispering Corridors hinges upon a critique of discipline in South Korean schools. The new teacher that the students respect instantly is kind, caring, and compassionate, while the older teachers that strike their students are cruel, miserable, and self-absorbed. It’s an interesting subtext that slowly builds to a dual supernatural and realistic climax. The realistic climax is far more haunting than the ghost, though the ghost exists as a foil to the cause of the realistic climax.

Whispering Corridors is a great introduction to the eponymous K-Horror style that influenced horror films all over the world in the late 90s/early 2000s. Though Japan may have produced the film with the iconic long-haired ghost girl (Ringu), South Korea is the country that set the standard in social commentary as fuel for graphic ghost stories.

Rating: 7/10

Memento Mori (1999)

mementomori1 Instant Watch: High School K Horror

High school girl Min-Ah finds a diary on school grounds. She begins to read it everywhere she goes. It describes the friendship turned love affair between two of her fellow students, Hyu-Shin and Shi-Eun. While everyone else in the class acts far younger than they should, Min-Ah gets pulled into a shockingly mature and disturbing relationship. She becomes obsessed with learning everything she can about the young lovers. Even the shocking suicide of one of the girls is not enough to stop her new obsession.

Memento Mori, a spiritual successor to Whispering Corridors, strikes a very different tone. This film is all about suspense, expectations, and the blurring between reality and imagination. Min-Ah doesn’t just read her classmates’ shared diary; she lives it. There is no way of knowing what the truth actually is because Hyu-Shin and Shi-Eun’s romance is played out like a perfect movie romance in Min-Ah’s mind. The girls act very differently when they’re in person. Only Min-Ah can’t tell the difference.

This film is less a horror story than an almost-Gothic romance. Hyu-Shin and Shi-Eun are the most compelling characters in the film and for good reason. As over the top as their story becomes, they are at least developed beyond stereotypes. The same cannot be said for the rest of the characters in the film. From the teacher all the students have a crush on to the class clown, every other character in the film acts in the most cliched manner possible. Even Min-Ah becomes a caricature of a young woman possessed by her imagination. Despite a solid performance by Gyu-ri Kim, we never grow to actually care about Min-Ah’s story. Her life becomes dedicated to to Hyu-Shin and Shi-En’s story. They absorb her character. The audience is just never given anything to attach us to the actual protagonist from the beginning.

The film mostly takes on a surreal and cerebral horror style. There are flashes of strange and horrifying things the disappear as soon as they arrive. The dream-like sequences are especially compelling. Memento Mori finds its greatest strength in this absurd building of suspense. It’s similar to the style of the Japanese horror film Spiral, where bland characters are pushed out of their mundane routines by shocking glimpses of otherworldly horror they cannot fight or begin to understand. The difference here is that this film would have worked better as a paranormal romance. There is no reason that a ghost story needs to be a horror film. This film was shoe-horned into the horror form just to be called a sequel to Whispering Corridors.

Despite its shortcomings, Memento Mori makes such a strong statement with the blurred reality of Hyu-Shin and Shi-Eun’s relationship that its worth watching. You care about those characters’ pasts even after only one is left standing. The great mystery becomes not the behavior or Min-Ah but the truth behind the doomed high school romance.

Rating: 7/10

Wishing Stairs (2003)

wishingstairs Instant Watch: High School K Horror

At an all girls art boarding school, the ballet students are receiving the opportunity of a lifetime. One girl from the school will get to compete for a scholarship to an exclusive Russian ballet academy. Best friends Kim So-Hie and Yun Jin-Seong have both decided to audition. Kim is the favorite to win and all the other girls, even her best friend, are willing to do anything to beat her. Yun remembers a story about a magical set of stairs on the school’s campus. If a twenty-ninth step appears, the spirit of a fox will grant your wish. Can she get the boost she needs to win?

Wishing Stairs is a cautionary wish film in the vein of a Wishmaster or Monkey’s Paw. Two girls decide to climb the stairs during the film and both manage to uncover the mysterious twenty-ninth step. One girl wishes for success; the other girl wishes for companionship. The two become locked in a deadly battle of wishes that drag them further and further into dark territory.

This Whispering Corridors sequel once again brings the series into new territory. There’s a darker comic appeal to this film, creating massive sight-gags out of body image, eating disorders, and serious injuries. It also thoroughly plays into the iconic image of the stringy-haired pale ghost starting halfway through. Spirits appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. They hide behind the characters and bend all natural laws to freeze frame forward in one segmented step. It’s a conceit used to strong and novel effect here.

The story of Wishing Stairs is confusing. Unlike the original Whispering Corridors film, these high school girls are acting wise beyond their years. At least the main protagonists are. The nature of their relationship is up for debate. Sometimes, they act like young girls playing dress up; other times, they act like feuding lovers in a long term relationship. The film’s inability to articulate the relationship between the two girls is a huge distraction. It’s made worse by the presence of a third girl, unpopular art student Eom Hye-ju. She becomes obsessed with the popular ballerinas, entangling herself in every facet of their lives. Is she also in love with them or is she just looking for a friend?

What works for Wishing Stairs is a bizarre conceit of nightmares. The characters wake up so often from dreams that you don’t know what is real and what is fake. Is the school actually haunted or are the three main characters just waking from a dream? Can an extra step appear on the wishing stairs or is it just a fantasy? While this further blurs the relationship between the characters, it does wonders to rise this film above the standard tropes of wishes gone wrong films. If the step doesn’t exist, does anything that happens in this film actually happen? Are we just trapped in a never-ending string of nightmares or a twisted alternate reality where murder and mayhem go unnoticed by everyone, even the victims?

Wishing Stairs is a compelling and confusing horror film that works all the better for not being straight forward. Though the character relationships are a bit too muddy to understand, the movement of the story, effects, and performances make it a must see.

Rating: 6/10