August 20, 2014

Worm

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Doug Mallette - 2013
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

Talk about support for independent filmmaking, Synapse Films has come through in a big way. Filmed in "Middle Tennessee" by a gang from Watkins College in Nashville, for a stated budget of almost $10,000, Worm is about as independent as a film can be. At the very least, this film may prove encouraging to those who think a degree from one of the better known universities and / or a budget of at least six figures, if not seven, is required for that first step in cinematic glory.

The film takes place in an unspecified near future where people apparently just completely go blank when they sleep. A new product allows people to dream, the kind that offer refreshing sleep, in the form of worms that are offered in jars with daily delivery. The worm are placed in the ear, and induce an immediate, dream filled sleep. And yeah, the premise is creepy, and you can guess that nothing good is going to come out of having a live worm, actually bunches of them, trolling around in your noggin.

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Socially inept Charles, the son of the apartment maintenance guy, tries to ingratiate himself with one of the residents, Reed. Trying to get at Reed's stash of worms under the pretense of fixing a light, Charles meets June, Reed's girlfriend. Not having much money, Charles gets the lower priced dream worms which he switches with Reed's higher priced variety. Charles also starts having dreams of being with June, with disastrous consequences in real life.

One might consider Worm something of a parable about the various "miracle cures" that turn out to have unforeseen, and deadly consequences. I don't know if this was intentional, but the basic premise of Worm reminded me of David Cronenberg's Shivers. The big difference is that Mallette's worms are suppose to be benign, so much so, that there is a cartoon mascot for the company, Fantasites, as well as children's masks and a stuffed Fantasites worm doll.

The DVD comes with a commentary track by Mallette with three members of the production team. One of the more interesting aspects is to know that while the basic story structure was planned out, the dialogue was improvised by the cast. For novice filmmakers, the commentary may prove useful in having an idea of what to watch for when making a film on an extremely limited budget, especially something like Worm that makes use of a few special effects. In some instances, the limited funding is a hindrance, as shown by a dependance on available light. The DVD also includes the original short film that inspired the feature.

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August 18, 2014

When I Saw You

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Lamma shoftak
Annemarie Jacir - 2012
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

The first image in Annemarie Jacir's film is a pair of roller skates worn by a young boy. A title announces that the film takes place in Jordan, 1967. On the soundtrack is Arabic rock music. That opening scene belies what is to follow, although those with some knowledge of history should pick up on the clues immediately.

The young man, Tarek, lives in a refugee camp in Jordan with his mother. They are among the Palestinians displaced by the Six Day War. The population increases seemingly with another truckload of passengers. Tarek gazes at each truck with the hope that his father will be among those new residents, or that someone will at least have news of this father. While Tarek is illiterate, and barred from school for distracting the other students, he proves his ability with numbers, figuring out large sums in his head. For a moment there is the dread that what is about to come is a Palestinian variation of Rain Man.

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That Jacir indirectly addresses the political context of When I Saw You is ripe for interpretation. Tarek expresses his longing to return home to his mother. The reasons for why the two live in a camp in what is later revealed to be a more remote part of Jordan are never explicitly stated. Seeing Yasser Arafat on television discussing the Palestinian fedayeen, Arafat's paramilitary group, Tarek only understands that these are people returning to the Palestinian territories. Wandering on his own to return home, Tarek is discovered by a man he recognizes from the village, and is taken to a fedayeen boot camp. It is later at the camp that a news report mentions an attack by the Israeli military of the refugee camp.

There may be other reasons why Jacir chose indirect historical references for her film. In the greater scheme of things, Jacir's story might be understood as that of Tarek seeking out a place where he belongs. A perpetual outsider even in the refugee camp, Tarek seems to find a temporary home with the fedayeen, where his ability with numbers is noticed by the Mao enamored military leader. While home is a specific place for Tarek, Jacsir also suggests that home is an abstract ideal.

That the DVD is released at this time makes watching When I Saw You more difficult. For that matter, it's impossible for me to be entirely objective regarding the tangled history of Palestine and Israel, and that whole, messy, conflicted region. On the other hand, I'm not one to run away from a film or filmmaker that might want to challenge my point of view, because I like the idea of writing about independent filmmakers. And I hope to see Jacir's debut film, Salt of this Sea.

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August 17, 2014

Coffee Break

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Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan - 2011)

August 14, 2014

Mr. Majestyk

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Richard Fleischer - 1974
KL Studio Classics Region A Blu-ray

Anyone familiar with the novel by Elmore Leonard can not help but be a little disappointed that the plot for Mr. Majestyk isn't a little more clever. All Vincent Majestyk wants to do is harvest the watermelons on his 160 acre farm. Things start off badly when a would-be contractor shows up with a crew described as winos who are already working the fields. Chasing the small-time hood off his land, Majestyk gets in deeper trouble arrested with a trumped up charge. Things get worse when a fellow prisoner, a hit man, decides to hang around the town of Edna, Colorado, to extract revenge when the law-abiding Majestyk spoils his plans for escape.

I can pick on this film for a story that defies credibility. The migrant workers' clothing looks too clean and new. But I also like that a film about a Colorado melon farmer was actually filmed in Colorado, mostly in the southeastern part of the state, in Otero County. There's some state pride at work here. And at least that part of Mr. Majestyk is relatively accurate.

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This is unmistakably a Seventies movie. In addition to one of the most iconic movie stars of that decade, Charles Bronson, he is pitted against one of the actors who could well be considered one of the more iconic big screen bad guys, Al Lettieri. Putting aside the question of how a notorious hit man could have been caught by small town cops, Lettieri should have been arrested by the fashion police for those awful checked jackets and matching pants and shirt outfits that he's forced to wear in this film. Also pegging this film to a specific era of filmmaking is the score by Charles Bernstein, part Morricone-lite with a flamenco guitar styled riff, alternating with someone on the wah wah pedal. There's also an indirect reference to activist Cesar Chavez that might fly by younger audiences.

Richard Fleischer's visual style here is straightforward and economical. Much of the action and dialogue is done in group shots, with an emphasis on two-shots. Rather than cutting back and forth between characters, Fleischer takes his time to compose shots informing the viewer of where the characters are in relation to each other, as well as the space they are sharing. Without stretching the point too much, the film is about the dichotomy of shared spaces, Majestyk's open melon field versus the enclosed spaces of the jail, police station, even cars versus open bed trucks.

Keep in mind that Elmore Leonard's novel was written after the screenplay as a movie tie-in, and is closer to what he had envisioned for the story. Leonard was reportedly unhappy with the film, with the characters being a bit over the top, especially Lettieri as the volatile hit man. And yet, and yet . . . it's what makes Mr. Majestyk fun to watch. Sure, there is Linda Crystal as the Chicana union organizer, giving the proceedings a whiff of social consciousness. But there are also guys blown away with shotguns, a couple of car chases, a shoot out in a small town, and thugs blasting watermelons to bit with shotguns. This might not be classic Fleischer, classic Leonard, or even classic Bronson, but I'll take it just the same.

August 12, 2014

We Won't Grow Old Together

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Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble
Maurice Pialat - 1972
Kino Classics BD Region A

The first thing I noticed was the frequency of blue. The blue came was in various shades - turquoise, powder, royal blue. The blues as it were would mostly be seen as part of the Jean's life - his shirts, bed sheets, table cloth, and his car. Probably not surprising considering that Jean is essentially the on-screen proxy for Maurice Pialat, not the happiest of men.

This was was first time seeing this film, though not my first exposure to Pialat. It took me a while to get into the rhythm established by Pialat. The narrative as such is a series of meetings and partings, sometimes within the same scene, of Jean, a documentarian, and Catherine, a younger woman who hasn't quite figured out what she wants to do with her life. The two aren't happy with each other, nor happy without each other. Jean is especially brutal at times, both verbally and physically towards Catherine. It is only through the dialogue that one understands that years have passed. The film begins when Catherine and Jean have been together for three years, and the next three are an irretrievable downward slide.

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In one scene, Jean refers to the Italian poet Cesare Pavese. An interesting choice in that Pavese was simultaneously a romantic, yet held most people at arms length, a celebrity during his lifetime with a very public, failed relationship with actress Constance Dowling. A prize winning writer, Pavese committed suicide at the peak of his career. In somewhat similar fashion, Jean wants the companionship of Catherine, yet can't get her out of his apartment, his car or his life, fast enough.

The supplements, Nick Pinkerton's booklet notes, and a video essay by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, are helpful in discussing the unusual structure of the film. There is also an interview, from 2003, with Marlene Jobert, discussing the conflicts between Pialat and Jean Yanne, who played Jean, and her own attraction to playing the part of Catherine. A hint for the youngsters - if you want to know where Eva Green got her looks, Jobert is her mom.

One of the surprises was to know that Luciano Tovoli was the cinematographer. Better known for more stylized work with Antonioni, Argento and others, the visual look here is stripped down, seemingly artless. This is not to imply carelessness, far from it. The shots are carefully composed on behalf of the interactions mostly between Jean and Catherine. While the hirsute Jean Yanne does much of his acting with his body, Marlene Jobert's acting can be seen in the various small facial expressions while she is being berated. This is not an easy film to watch, but Maurice Pialat would not have it any other way.

August 10, 2014

Coffee Break

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Edgar Ramirez in Carlos (Olivier Assayas - 2010)

August 08, 2014

Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through

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Mari Asato

Edited by Gabrielle Kelly & Cheryl Robson
Supernova Books - 2014

I don't know what it says about me that the problems I have with this book tend to keep on nagging me, even when there are chapters here worth reading. Certainly we have progressed a bit from Andrew Sarris dismissing Ida Lupino's abilities as a filmmaker, and his characterizing of the women film directors "as little more than a ladies' auxiliary". Various things that could have been dealt with better in Celluloid Ceiling also point out as what work still needs to be done.

A case in point is my inclusion of a photo I took of Mari Asato. Adam Bingham has a chapter providing an overview of Japanese directors. Well and good, and those who have been reading this blog might recall that I have written about two films by Yuki Tanada. Yet in closing his chapter, Bingham makes a general mention of women working in genre films, citing Wizard of Darkness and the existence of a sequel to Ju-On (The Grudge) without mentioning either filmmaker. Why Bingham does not feel the need to name these two capable filmmakers is unclear. Shimako Sato has a good number of accomplishments as writer and director. Mari Asato will hopefully be afforded films with more generous budgets, but in the meantime, her Ju-On: Black Ghost is worth seeing.

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Roh Deok

The chapters by Beti Ellerson and Maria Williams-Hawkins shed light on African filmmakers, usually the least represented in film festivals or in any kind of discussion of "world cinema". Ana Maria Bahiana provides as overview of filmmakers from Latin America. Dina Iordanova's chapter on filmmakers from South Eastern Europe (Greece, Turkey, the Balkans) is quite heartfelt. The chapters on Arab filmmakers came just in time with my scheduled review of a film by Palestinian Annemarie jacir. I should also mention that I have corresponded over seven years with Thai film journalist Anchalee Chaiworaporn who contribute chapters on filmmakers from Southeast Asia and South Korea.

Jacqui Miller's chapter on Hollywood directors points to a need for greater scholarship on the early silent era, when Lois Weber was not the only woman behind the camera. On the other hand, pioneer Alice Guy-Blache should have been represented by a chapter that did seem written for unsophisticated high school students.

I am also unsure what to make of a discussion of Canadian filmmakers that does not mention Patricia Rozema. I was surprised that the chapter on British directors did include Joan Littlewood. And if one is going to discuss women in Hollywood, how about a little note for Juleen Compton?

The choice of photos is especially questionable. Apparently Dennie Gordon is the BFF of editor Gabrielle Kelly. While it is interesting that Gordon is an American director who made a Chinese language rom-com for a Chinese audience, critical interest in her work might be characterized as negligible. Three photos in addition to a portrait on the back cover might make some readers certain that Gordon is one of the more significant filmmakers of our time. More so than Ann Hui, four time Best Director winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards (and still the record), more than Hong Kong's Mabel Cheung, two time Best Director winner, or Philippines' Joyce Bernal, who proved with D'Anothers that a woman can make a movie raunchier than Bridesmaids. Not to mention Cate Shortland, Australian Directors Guild winner for Lore, pioneering Swedish filmmaker Mai Zetterling, or France's otherwise overlooked Nadine Trintignant. Where's a photo of Julie Dash, a woman as beautiful as her films?

As one might tell from the other two photos included, of Siege Ledesma and Roh Deok, both presenting their debut features at the last Udine Far East Film Festival, the history of women directors has future chapters to be written. Celluloid Ceiling is not without its merits, but also is not without several caveats.

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Siege Ledesma

all photos by Peter Nellhaus - 2014