Films, 2001

  • pi. usa, 1998.
  • mulholland drive. usa, 2001. Having just seen this again, I have to put some comments in. This is a truly fabulous film – everything that a film buff loves. It’s amorphous; don’t expect a clear narrative, logical progression, or anything so trite. The biggest virtue of the film, in my view, is that no one can agree on what exactly happened. Better yet, everyone who likes the film comes away and argues about the plot, about the meaning of symbols (what is that blue box supposed to mean?). And reinforcing the bewildering plot is a sumptuous style and excellent score, cinematography and directing. This one’s a winner, folks.
  • gosford park. uk, 2001.
  • the shipping news. usa, 2001.
  • the castle. australia, 1997.
  • the lord of the rings. new zealand / usa, 2001.
  • le dîner de cons (the dinner game). france, 1998.
  • le temps retrouvé (time regained). france, 2000.
  • trust. usa, 1990. My friend Lars insisted over and over again that I watch a Hal Hartley movie. Eric Brochu played this for a new movie night, and I now see why Lars liked the director. Initially, it felt a little too much like Ayn Rand: selfish characters interacting. But I warmed to the style, the verbal sparring and unreality that Hartley seems to favour. Good acting, and incredible considering the budget.
  • fucking åmål (show me love). sweden, 1999. Yes, after hearing about this film umpteen times from Lars, I finally got around to showing it. In fact, I played it for the Green College film nights, to much acclaim. It’s quite a well-assembled film, with excellent character development, and utterly real. If virgin suicides was the first film I’d seen that showed the high school prom accurately, then this is the first film that shows the high school house party correctly. I really liked the sympathetic shots of Elin’s male love interest – obviously a dim fellow, but still a nice guy, still human. Prime quality.
  • warren miller’s snoworld. usa, 2001.
  • kandahar. iran / afghanistan, 2001.
  • planet of the apes. usa, 2001.
  • rosemary’s baby. usa, 1968.
  • tilsammans (together). sweden, 2000. I have to put in a good word for this flick, since it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year. If you’ve grown up with left-wing parents, then run to the nearest specialty video store and rent this film! Set in a 1970s Swedish hippie commune, it follows a wide range of characters lives. The primary focus is Elisabeth, who has just left her alcoholic, abusive husband to join her brother in the commune. The strange characters in this house are vividly portrayed, and the humour is first-rate. The director, Lukas Moodysson, does a great job of developing sympathy, and doesn’t take any cheap shots. Even the abusive husband is deserving of sympathy. This is the best comedy that I saw in 2001. (Note that I didn’t seen amélie until 2002…
  • le 15 février, 1839. québec, 2001.
  • atanarjuat, the fast runner. canada, 2001. The first film in Inuktitut is good, and not simply as an anthropological curiosity. A traditional Inuit tale of betrayal was set to film with real panache. Handheld cameras reveal the scale of the Arctic landscape and the rhythm of life in the north several centuries ago. The culture is undoubtedly alien, but human elements remain at the forefront, although there are (thankfully) no apologies for lifestyles that may seem politically incorrect to Western sensibilities. I found this film truly engaging, both in terms of culture and story.
  • moulin rouge. usa, 2001.
  • la goût des autres (the taste of others). france, 2000.
  • the godfather part ii. usa, 1974.
  • eat my twisted shorts. various. I saw this at the festival juste pour rire / just for laughs festival recently. The National Film Board put on two sets of shorts, one regular and one “twisted”. There were some hilarious films amongst the twisted set, plus a few that were a little too disturbing. The standout was definitely rejected from don hertzfeld (usa, 2000). From the first few seconds of stick drawings, the audience was already giggling – it’s that good. The premise is that the animator was commissioned to do a series of commercials for the (fictional) Family Learning Channel, which were rejected. And you can see why they’d be rejected… they’re kind of messed up and disturbed.
  • ai. usa / uk, 2001.
  • taxi 2. france, 2000.
  • apocalypse now. usa, 1979.
  • pulp fiction. usa, 1994.
  • pleasantville. usa, 1999.
  • the godfather part i. usa, 1972.
  • yi-yi (and a one and a two). taiwan, 2000.
  • chungking express. taiwan, 1999.
  • the dish. australia, 2000.
  • man on the moon. usa, 1999.
  • the virgin suicides. usa, 1999. So, the dark little flick from Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sophia came my way recently. I knew nothing about this, going in, but was pleasantly surprised. It’s not an easy film, and my John Woo-fan friends didn’t take well to it, but it’s well made. Flipping quickly from funny to bleak, it takes some adjustment. I liked the cinematography, and I really liked the shot of Lux leaving the football field… that really stayed with me. The little documentary-style inserts were intriguing too; usually, tricks like that feel manipulative, but this story lent itself well to that treatment. I’ll be watching for more from this director, and not just on account of her father’s name.
  • roman holiday. usa, 1953. Okay, so my friend Naomi loved it, and Sameera liked it too. Naomi even imitated Hepburn’s moves when she visited Rome. And it’s cool to see all of that familiar Roman landscape. But it’s still a pretty schlocky story, dripping over with silliness. I think I’d have to watch this in a really lovesick mood to enjoy it properly… I’m too critical otherwise. (Okay, it is funny, it isn’t too culturally insensitive, and it’s a classic. Don’t take my critical uppiness too seriously.)
  • wild strawberries. sweden, 1957. Ya gotta watch some classics some times. Ingmar Bergman’s best known film filled my evening a few nights ago, and it wasn’t bad. I’m not sure what to make of it overall – some of the characters seemed way too outlandish for 1950s Sweden – but it was well-made. I loved the silly flirtatious girl, and the yesteryear characters’ wickedly wanky mustaches. I still have trouble getting absorbed by black-and-white the way I do with colour, though.
  • la veuve de st. pierre (the widow of st. pierre). canada/france, 2000. Ben, c’est le premier film français que j’ai vu depuis… euh… septembre. Malheureusement, ça ne vallait presque pas la peine. Les trailers étaient les pires que j’ai vu de ma vie – des films québécois que j’espère sortiront jamais de la belle province. Le film lui-même avait des points forts: la cinématographie est exquis, des bleus muets et les paysages maritimes éblouissants. Quelques-uns des comédiens faisaient bien aussi, y compris Daniel Auteuil, mais la reste ne vallait pas la peine. Peut-être j’avais malcompris trop de la dialogue française, mais je trouvais l’histoire ennuyant et maladroit. Trop révisioniste pour mes goûts.
  • being john malkovich. usa, 1999. I’d heard so much about this film that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. The premise is cool, from the half-floor to entering John Malkovich’s brain, and much of it plays out well. I loved the world filled with John Malkovichs, and the ra-ra-puppeteering games. But I didn’t take well to some of the bits that felt too much like… my high school joke videos. The “we’ll build a place for midgets” gag was just sad, as was the “isn’t John Cusack pitiful?” running joke. Okay, the hippy people are clueless, just as the ad exec is predatory – show me a new cliché, guys. Ordinarily, I’d overlook this, but it doesn’t belong in such a highly rated film.
  • snatch. uk/usa. Okay, I probably shouldn’t admit that I really liked this… but then, I haven’t seen lock stock, so I don’t know how derivative it is. The film had me laughing most of the way through, even if it didn’t make much sense at times. Mostly, it’s about Brad Pitt’s kickass accent, or the gratuitous Madonna reference, or the slicin’ dicin’ Brit accents. I don’t know why del Toro is in this film, since he does basically nothing… but whatever. Enjoy.
  • oh brother where art thou? usa. I’m not used to the Coen brothers, honestly – I liked the big lebowski, and I liked this film, but I can’t really say why. The zany humour, the musical numbers, the uselessness of George Clooney’s character, the wacky interweaving of Homer references… none of these really explains how such an off-the-wall film was so damn enjoyable. I really did like that music, though, and I’ve never been one for country or bluegrass, although I have a soft spot for dixie jazz… which wasn’t in the film. So, screw my critical skills, and suffice it to say that the flick’s good stuff.

Films, 2000

  • traffic. usa. Steven Sodenbergh’s new hit, with one of my favourite actors, Benicio del Toro (the usual suspects, fear and loathing in las vegas). A well-told story; not quite as edgy as I’d expected from the reviews, but then I’m not too accustomed to American drug politics, I suppose. I liked the deep and philosophical stoner kids, and the human portrayal of the Mexicans. In the camerawork, the sepia tones did a great job of conveying heat, and the grainy film gave a nice roughness to the Mexican scenes. There was one great upside-down helicopter shot that I loved, too. A good film, all told – a bit weak from the two principals (Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones), but decent nonetheless.
  • wallace & grommit. united kingdom, 1990s. I’d long been warned that these animations were first rate, but I’d never had a chance to see any of them. Expectations were high, based on reviews of chicken run, by the same animator. And the series didn’t disappoint – hilarious material, brilliant animation, and no shortage of quirk. The DVD consisted of three half-hour shorts, of which the standout was clearly the wrong trousers, which had my rolling on the floor laughing during the fantastic train chase scene, taking place entirely on a model railroad. Other highlights included the trousers themselves, the breakfast routine, the quirky sheep in a close shave, and the sawing scene in the first animation. This is the best animated feature I’ve seen in recent memory.
  • the emperor’s new groove. usa. A Disney movie that I actually liked? What is the world coming to? Yup, this flick’s got enough wit and whimsy to keep me laughing from start to finish, mostly due to the elimination of Disney’s staples: crappy musical numbers and wanky sidekicks. Smart writing, fast pace, and loads of throwaway visual gags had me laughing. Sure, it’s still a kidsish movie, but it’s better than any Rugrats junk.
  • crouching tiger, hidden dragon. china / hong kong / taiwan / usa. The people’s favourite at the Toronto film festival this year, and a fine film. I saw Ang Lee’s excellent ride with the devil at last year’s film festival, and his newest film is even better. How can I complain when he mixes good drama with sizzling martial arts scenes, honestly? Everything I like in a movie, all mixed up together. Honestly, it could have been a disaster, but Ang Lee pulls it off. The acting is superb, the scenery gorgeous, the fights fantastic. Some of the characters’ motivations are a little doubtful, and it still follows the hong kong fu formula a fair bit, but it’s fun. When was the last time that an action movie had enough character that you could question their motivations, anyways? Even though the film is in Mandarin and subtitled to English, it’ll please crowds, I think. Sure, illiterate Joe off the street won’t like it, but… well, keep him away from cinema anyways.
  • a time for drunken horses. iran. I have wanted to see this movie for quite a while. I tried to get tickets during the Toronto film festival, but it was sold out. I saved it for use as a date movie, but a mixup caused that plan to fall through. I thought it would be out of cinemas, but by a twist of luck, the Carleton put it on after it finished its run at the Cumberland. The film’s title may be a little catchy, but everything else about this film is gritty reality. Set in the mountains of Iran at the Iraqi border, it tells the story of a family of orphaned children. One child needs an operation to save his life, and the others go to great lengths to try to pay for the surgery. The “drunken horses” of the title are in fact mules, who must be imbibed with alcohol in order to get them over the cold mountain smugglers’ route to Iraq. The force of this film lies in its truth – the struggles faced by these children are just day-to-day reality for much of the world’s population. The filmmakers brought cameras into a remote town, where many had never seen television, and left them running without an operator, in an effort to capture the children acting as naturally as possible. It’s a charm.
  • urbania. usa. Stranger and stranger. This was a last-minute film choice, after missing another film, and it was very spur-of-the-moment. All I knew going in was 1) something to do with urban myths 2) it gets better 3) there’s a québécois actor in it. It quickly became apparent that the central theme was homosexuality, which was not anticipated, and that it was a little strange. By the end, I had mixed feelings – the movie did have something worthwhile to say, it turns out, but it took a long time and a few awkward moments to get there. The individual parts (acting, direction, cinematography) are all fine, but the story could use a little work. And the urban myth theme still felt gimmicky, especially upon reflection. The québécois guy’s small role was decent, at least.
  • requiem for a dream. usa. Wow… what a ride. A very powerful film, and not for the faint-of-heart. Darren Aronofsky (pi) directs another movie with MTV style, and real content. The film is unrated in the USA thanks to its relentless depiction of drug addiction, but it’s even less glorifying than trainspotting by the time the credits roll. Mostly, it’s a story of addiction, but it touches on medicine, old age, dieting, television, con artists, the sex trade and even racism along the way, and the messages hit like a sledgehammer. Well worth the while, but don’t expect to come out in a good mood. I left with an urge to quit my drug habits: no more alcohol, coffee, or vitamin C for me!
  • don’t be a menace to south central while drinking your juice in the hood. usa, 1993? Ah, fine humour. Hyperexaggerated ghetto life, with some of your favourite Wayans brothers. This isn’t a film to show your parents, but it’s funny stuff. I doubt it’d stand up to a second viewing, but seeing the granny-walker mugging was worth the while. I probably should have seen boyz in the hood to get all of the jokes, but even without that context it was a good belly laugh. And besides – with a badass title like that, how can you go wrong?
  • muppet treasure island. usa, 1996? Nothing special here. This was the first Muppets film after Jim Henson died, and they were clearly still regaining their legs. There’s one good joke at the start, and the rest is fairly sad, with lots of poor musical numbers. There’s some very strange humour mixed in (starfish in my pants??) that really doesn’t work. Don’t bother with this, but I hear muppets in space rocks the house.
  • how the grinch stole christmas. usa. This film is the showcase for my current employer’s software, with 65% of the computer graphics generated with Houdini. And beautiful those graphics are, from snowflakes to some very Seussian cloudscapes and trees. The film itself is… mediocre. It’s quite funny at times, but mildly disturbing at others, especially since it’s supposed to be for kids. Expect typical Jim Carrey – if you like him, you’ll like it, if you don’t you won’t. The backstory that pads the film to 90 minutes is hackneyed and horrible, but the acting won’t make you cringe. The one thing that make the film worthwhile is the huge range of visual gags, from milk-and-cookies hats to Seuss noses.
  • ran. japan, 1985. Well, I’ve never seen any Akira Kurosawa films before, so this was a good experience for a cinephile. Kurosawa is a legendary Japanese director, best known for his 1954 film seven samurai, which is still on my must-see list. This film is derived from Shakespeare’s king lear, set in Japan. The film is epic, with battles as violent as braveheart, but doesn’t share that film’s tone at all. Where Mel Gibson’s battles are heroic, Kurosawa’s are silent, no music and sometimes even no sound at all. Kurosawa likes different shots: no closeups, no slow pans, just beautifully composed still shots, smoky battles, harmonious Japanese interiors. That said, I had difficulty absorbing this film – Japanese culture remains fairly alien to me, rife with formal rules and conduct of which I’m ignorant. And I can’t judge much of the dramatic performances – often they seemed either cheap or strange, but that’s probably just my western upbringing speaking; I have no idea what a Japanese lord would do in that situation. All told, a good film, but only for cinephiles I think. In that vein, the DVD came with English subtitles, but definitely no version dubbed for anglophones.
  • the legend of drunken master. hong kong? So now I can claim to have seen Jacky Chan. Good comedy, it must be said. You don’t go into this type of film with high expectations, but I can’t really complain about the film – it was a fun romp. It’s good to see the other side of racial stereotypes – after however many American films with lousy Chinese stereotypes, it was cool to see Chinese versions of the British, dressed up in African safari gear, pith helmets and all, smack in the middle of China. The Chinese traitors supporting the western imperialists all wore suits and often glasses, of course, while our noble heroes adopted more traditional gear… while engaging in most non-traditional drunken boxing. Ya know. Gotta roll with the punches.
  • mallrats. usa, 1996? Okay, I was once a Kevin Smith fan, but my patience wears thin. This is better than dogma (which was pretty crappy), but not a lot better. Once again, Jason Lee carries the picture, and once again the lead character is useless. The sight gags are good, the comic book references suck, the romances are unconvincing. He still can’t write a female role. I think chasing amy was a flash in the pan, and we’ll never see anything else good out of this guy. Sure, it’s funny; sure, you’ll enjoy it. But it’s not a masterpiece.
  • charlie’s angels. usa. Do I have to comment on this film? This was a “hang out with guys from work” film, not an “appreciate the art of cinema” outing. (Just in case that wasn’t clear…) The big issue in this film is not “Was that the right angle for that shot?” but instead “Is Drew Barrymore hotter than Cameron Diaz?” That said, it was still funny, in a post-sexist sort of way. If a film like this wasn’t over the top, I’d hate it, but as it stood… well, even I laughed when they used sexiness to entice the computer geeks away from watching the security system. And there were good action scenes, plus an appropriately villanous villain, and even an appropriate clip of Prodigy’s smack my bitch up thrown into the soundtrack. All pretentiousness aside – guys will find this movie funny, some (many?) girls will be uncomfortable, and it’ll sell a lot of Nokia cel phones.
  • the insider. usa, 1999. I never got around to seeing this in Switzerland, but my parents were big fans, so I tried it on DVD. Having just rewatched heat recently, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels with Michael Mann’s last film: similar setup for tension shots, similarly glum appearance outdoors, Al Pacino again, and even the same artists on the soundtrack. A nice piece of film, with plenty to say: comments on mounties beating up natives in Oka, Québec were remarkably well placed, amongst other things. Mann appears to have a serious political bone to pick, which can’t hurt. It’s a compelling story, if a bit slow at times; I don’t think it’s the best film of the year, but it’s worth seeing.
  • girlfight. usa. I’ve never liked boxing, and I’ve never seen a rocky film. But this film caught my fancy, mostly thanks to its spunky-as-hell lead actress. The direction and editing of fight scenes are probably taken straight from the playbook of boxing films, but they’re still effective, and got my blood pumping nicely. The backstory is good, even if the row of annoying girls behind me thought the male lead was ugly. I found it refreshing to have such a true-to-life looking guy, to be honest, even if he’s no Leonardo DiCaprio. Worth seeing.
  • rocks at whiskey trench. canada. This was the final film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival. This National Film Board documentary deals with a secondary incident during the Oka crisis at the start of the 90s: a group of native women and children escorted to safety by police being hailed with rocks by local Québec residents. It’s powerful footage, and an important chapter in Canadian native affairs. Reviews were dismissive, but from a purely political standpoint, I think this film is worth seeing.
  • harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien. france. Bien, je connais assez peu du cinéma français – j’ai vu un film de Truffaut et c’est peut-être tout ce que je connaît. Mais il faut dire que c’est bien refraîchant à voir un film telment bon ces jours-ci. Je n’ai jamais aimé les comédies noir, toujours trop macabre. Mais celui-ci marchait; c’était vraiment drôle en même temps que les corps tombaient, sans que les caractères en réflissaient trop. (Euhhh.. je ne peux pas écrire en français aujourd’hui…) Bref, ça vaut bien la peine.
  • two thousand and none. canada. A comedy, firing on most cylinders, but not always right. John Turturro leads, and does a sparkling job. He plays a paleontologist who discovers he’ll die from a rare brain condition. In confronting his death, he decides to develop his long-neglected sense of humour, with charming results. This isn’t half bad as a “date comedy”, half serious and half quietly funny. Some of the sex jokes were a little too forceful and improbable for my taste, but I liked the rest.
  • la moitié gauche du frigo (the left-hand side of the fridge). canada. Encore un film de la politique; vous dévinez mes intérêts maintenant, peut-être? Celui-ci s’occupe de deux colocs, l’un chomeur et l’autre cinéaste. Ce deuxième fait un documentaire du premier pendant son recherche de job. Pour compliquer l’affaire, le cinéaste est fortement politique, et il prend l’habitude de intérroger les enterprises pendant les interviews, ce qui n’aide jamais l’interview. C’est bien drôle, les deux colocs s’entendent bien en scène. Le photographie est digitale, qui ne traduit pas bien au grand écran, mais … bien, c’est canadien, on manque l’argent pour des superprods ici. On s’habitue. C’est bon, mais pas formidable. Néanmoins, il a gagné le prix pour “meilleur film d’un premier réalisateur canadien” au festival.
  • smell of camphor, fragrance of jasmine. iran. According to film buffs, Iran is the source for real cinema these days. The AGO’s Cinémathèque had something like six Iranian films in its top ten films of the decade. Needless to say, this piqued my curiosity. I couldn’t get tickets for a time for drunken horses at the festival, so I took this film instead. The plot is pulled from real life: the director, unable to get film scripts past the censors for ten years, is ready to give up on making films. The fiction begins here, as he decides to make a documentary on Iranian funeral rites, and winds up thinking about his own death in the process. Parts of the director’s own life are woven in and out of the film, including his memories of his wife, his son-in-law’s abuse of his daughter; I suspect that many of the friends depicted are his actual friends. Aspects of Iranian life are also included, from the promised funeral rites, to a woman who miscarried due to her husband’s beatings. All told, it’s an interesting look at a different world. The filmmaking didn’t strike me as particularly spectacular, I must say… but then, that’s why I’m not part of the cinema élite, right? I’ll reserve judgment for the next Iranian film.
  • faithless. sweden. Truly a perfect film. The story deals with a director, inventing a film. His lead actress is in the studio, and they are spinning a story from nothing, talking back and forth, using photos as prompts. Slowly, a story of a love triangle emerges, a marriage broken with an infidelity, and the bitter aftermath that must follow. It’s a painful, wrenching story, and cleverly framed in the dialogue between director and actress, questioning motivations, reasons. The acting is truly first-rate, making the Swedish language more beautiful than I’ve ever heard it. The film legend Ingmar Bergman wrote the screenplay, then handed it off to his longtime lead actress, Liv Ullman, to direct. The director in the film is Bergman’s mirror, and, just as the actress weaves the story in the film, Ullman must bring a female voice to the project to make it real. Clever, and cleverer still if you get to see it – I won’t give away any of the surprises. Beautiful cinematography, with perfectly framed shots of Bergman’s cabin, moody lighting, mmm! If you like film, you must see this.

Historical engineering

Despite my left-wing leanings I’ve never really read Chomsky, apart from his slim 9/11 book. But a few months ago, I bought a copy of Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, a transcript of his 1989 CBC Massey Lecture with accompanying appendices. You can find it online at Z Magazine, and I’ve compiled my favourite quotes as well.

The man is bright. He’s really dissected the media, and come up with an empirical method to demonstrate that media in democratic societies effectively function as propaganda. Unfortunately, his writing is a painful slog, far too wordy and methodical. So I’ve condensed the book to a few bullet points:

  • the media generally reflect the perspectives and interests of established power, supported empirically by his propaganda model.
  • news is rarely falsified, but reporting is highly selective
  • debate is encouraged, within prescribed, presupposed bounds
  • discussion is bounded by the interests of powerful elites, but tactical debate (e.g., hawks vs. doves) within those bounds is permitted
  • some of the basic presuppositions: U.S. foreign policy is guided by a yearning for democracy, and is generally benevolent; no country has the right to self-defense against U.S. attack.
  • method: government floods the news channels with “facts,” which are treated with great weight by reporters

I’ve definitely seen this in action. The Economist frequently reflects the interests of power in its reporting of Venezuela and Hugo Chavez. Despite its extensive coverage of the Ukrainian orange revolution, the Economist quietly omitted discussion of the groundwork laid by George Soros and the implications for U.S. interests, although the Guardian Weekly thankfully covered it.

My respect for Jon Stewart continues to rise. He covers issues within the limits of debate, aiming most of his mockery at domestic targets rather than off-limit international targets. By pointing out the hypocrisy at home, he carefully builds cynicism about the entire system, though, and demonstrates how much vanilla U.S. media sources distort the truth. In his Crossfire appearance, he took aim at its model, which is essentially “tactical debate within the consensus of the powerful elites” (Democratic line vs. Republican line).

First post

Yes, I’ve finally entered the world of the blog. I still loath the term, but I’ve come to value this manner of publishing information on the web. RSS is now my favourite way of keeping up with friends’ activities. And hopefully I’ll actually post random trivia to this blog more frequently than I update the entry point to my main web site.