Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Roxanne - Reaction

Steve Martin's retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac turns out to be an enjoyable romantic comedy. That one sentence expresses both the features and flaws of the film. Steve Martin is good in his role as C.D. Bales, playing it with the appropriate flair of Cyrano. But, because I know the story of the play, many aspects where the script deviated bothered me:

  • The movie is more comedic than the play. While this could have been fine, much of this comedy came in the form of slapstick humor from the troop of incompetent firemen who Bales leads. I don't appreciate this type of humor much and also felt it besmirched Cyrano's aura. After all, he led a perfectly respectable military troop. Still, both the play and this movie have some features of humor that I did enjoy.
  • The movie had the typical American ending, omitting from the play the death, the nunnery, and the years of silence. As such, it lacked the deep tragic nature of the play and any themes about honor and memory. Still, while I can complain about this significant difference, I can appreciate Roxanne as light fare and as a movie that's great for a date.
  • C.D. Bales isn't as sharp as Cyrano. Cyrano's an eloquent renaissance man. While Bales is at times good with words, at other times he's inexpressive or not that bright. (How many objects are in the universe/sky? "More than fifty.") Martin's Bales is clearly intended to be more identifiable to the average American than Cyrano. (Bales doesn't, for instance, fight off fifty people in an alley.)
Although some of the best scenes in the movie came from the play, I think I would've appreciated it more had I not previously seen Cyrano de Bergerac. Instead, I kept thinking about the discrepancies between the two.

Incidentally, the costumes (e.g., hair), setting, and especially the opening credits have a very 80s feel. However, I quickly ceased noticing.

Friday, May 18, 2007

My Neighbor Totoro - Reaction


A lovely, creative, magical animated film about two sisters moving to a new house in the countryside near a forest, and the fantastic, extraordinary creatures they meet. With such a strong imagination and sense of wonder pervading the film, it's good for kids or anyone like me with a childlike curiosity about the world. Although it's a simple story playing out in a benign, innocent world with no bad guys -everyone, even the strange creatures, in this film is both good and cute-, it still captures the heart. Especially noteworthy is the fun musical theme and the good drawings of the countryside and sunset.

Although the copy I had (made in 1994) included a dubbing into English, I watched it mostly in Japanese with English subtitles. I tried switching to the English audio track a few times but found the English voices whiney or just plain wrong. I did, however, listen to the two songs (opening and closing credits) in English. These were done well.

Di Yin tells me all Asian children grow up watching this movie (and others by this director in this style). Recently, he's also done Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Souvenirs - Reaction


A tender, charming, lovely documentary about a father and son bonding on a road trip. The father, who fought with the jewish brigade in the second world war, inadvertently reveals that he may have left some "souvenirs" (kids) in Holland or Denmark from his time there during the war, sixty years ago. The father shows little interest in this aspect of his past. As the father heads to his brigade's reunion, the son, an aspiring film maker, pretends to begin making a documentary about them and begins manipulating his father as they head toward other places his father visited in WWII. The son plots to / hopes to find a sibling.

The father is a lovable, fun to watch, jewish wit. Wry at times, he brings humor to the film.

I enjoyed watching the father and son grow closer on the trip, finding secret similarities such as both of them had trouble being soldiers.

Amusingly and perhaps a little disturbingly, the son wrote the outline of a script beforehand, plotting how he'd manipulate his father to get to the places and to get the scenes he desired.

The underlying theme considers how one thinks about and connects to the past (or declines to do those things).

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Reprise - Reaction


A decent movie, simultaneously dramatic and comedic, and with substantial emotional depth. About two hopeful authors who are friends, one of whom has a psychosis, as they deal with their success (or lack thereof), romantic issues, and writer's block. As such, an underlying theme to the film is how people seek creativity and inspiration. It's also, to a lesser degree, a movie about male bonding, friendship, and growth, as we watch how the group of five friends in their twenties interact and mature.

The story is presented in an unusual manner. Mostly it's told through an omniscient narrator who sometimes proposes hypothetical futures. These segments, generally introduced using the conditional "would have" or "could have," work well, partially due to their quickly cut scenes. Each truly feels like the compressed mosaic of a life. This structure leads to a sense that what actually happened could have easily not happened or could've happened and turned out differently.

Also, the movie acquires a dry, quirky, often ironic sense of humor from narrator's tone.

There's another feature besides the narrative structure that's uncommon: some scenes between characters (especially romantic partners) are made by adding sound to cuts of real scenes of the characters in which they don't move their lips. In addition to putting more emphasis on the acting, it contributes to the question of what really happened and what only happened in a character's mind. This alludes again to main characters' professions: as authors, they translate things they think into words, regardless of whether those words actually came out of someone's mouth.

Due to its depth, slightly experimental structure, and difficult to categorize nature, I think it certainly qualifies as an art house movie.

It's good work done with a sure hand. I wouldn't have guessed this is the director's first film.

Monday, May 7, 2007

How Is Your Fish Today? - Reaction


A decent enough I suppose cross between a piece of fiction and a documentary on Mohe, a remote, oft romanticized town in the north of China. It's about a screenwriter and his invented character. They're both on journeys: the character to escape the police (though they don't appear to be pursuing him) and the screenwriter to escape the monotony of his life in Beijing. It's told in a very literary manner, not simply caused by the narrator speaking often (i.e., many words) but rather in the tone. One can tell the people that wrote the film are writers. The section of the movie focusing on the screenwriter further supports this belief; those scenes do a good job exemplifying the solitary life-of-the-mind of a writer.

The film has at least two levels of reality: the screenwriter and the character. For most of the film, these levels are kept separate. The beautiful music contributes to the distinction by changing mood to indicate which parts are story and which are real life. Near the end of the film, this demarcation blurs. And then the situation is further complicated by some documentary-style scenes of Mohe, in a few of which one can feel the film-makers' presence. (This occurs earlier in the movie as well, though not as often or visibly.) This felt odd, like the film acquired yet another level.

Before the showing, the director revealed she was originally intending to do a documentary on Mohe. However, after visiting, they realized it was a small, boring, impoverished town -- nothing to make a movie out of. So they combined a script with the documentary footage and ended up with this oddity.

I found my attention wandering not infrequently. I didn't miss parts of the movie -- it's simply that I had time to lose focus before the narrator said more lines or the scene changed. This occurred more often after the narrator arrives in Mohe and the movie acquires a documentary feel and loses much of its narrative momentum.

Fish imagery comes out repeatedly. I'm not sure what it means. Spottings include:

  • the fish in the writer's studio (that usually don't survive the week, yet he recently bought another because a professional told him he needed to buy one to balance the energies in his studio);
  • the fish in the frozen river, perhaps representing the commonality between Mohe and Russia. (The fisherman shout the question asked in the title to their foreign compatriots.)
  • the fish as a dish eaten in a long, slow scene by a couple in Mohe;
  • the fish caught by the crew from the frozen river as part of the documentary section of the film;
  • the fish hanging from the line in the southern town from which the fictional character escapes.
The director/co-writer, co-writer/actor (who played the screenwriter), and composer answered questions after the screening. The director had some interesting comments on the film and how they made it:
  • The striking, and strikingly long, nearly silent fish eating scene near the end exemplifies the relationship between man and wife in rural China.
  • The film was made on a small budget. That fact wasn't obvious: it looked fine to me.
  • They had difficulty filming in Mohe because, at negative thirty degrees Celsius, the camera batteries would drain within twenty minutes. Thus, they could shoot very little outdoors each day.
  • The people on the train to Mohe and in Mohe itself were very open around the camera. They talked and behaved as if it wasn't there. It's amazing to watch -- one doesn't see this type of openness in the western world. The director believes it's because most media, especially reality shows, hasn't made it there yet. They have no preconceptions about how people on camera should act or how the camera can distort things.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Zolykha's Secret - Reaction


Some movies attempt to portray that war is hell. Zolykha's Secret portrays that life in rural Afghanistan is nasty, brutal, and short. This thesis is reiterated throughout this long movie, as seen through errant fields of land mines, gender inequality (arranging marriages, beating women, prohibiting doctors from treating women, denying education to women), cultural oppression by the Taliban (even disallowing kite flying), and the difficulties of depending on nature (e.g., drought). It's as if there always is something bad lurking around the corner. Since the movie gives this feeling, it's suspenseful for (uncomfortably) long periods.

Fundamentally, it's a bleak tragedy of film, portraying the forbidding, inhospitable, and harrowing life in rural Afghanistan. It's like the land itself is cursed. I tried to determine when things start to go wrong but could not. Perhaps they're always wrong.

In all these ways, the film successfully reminds the viewers how privileged we are and how hard and unfair life can be. It's good to know, but it's certainly not fun to watch. I felt as if the movie could've been much shorter while still making the point as successfully. Indeed, I got the message before the film was half over. Had I left then, I would've saved myself over an hour of being uncomfortable.

Notably, the film ignores the current political situation. That, and its inclusion of the ghost of previous warriors, makes the film and its message feel timeless.

The director answered questions after the screening. He filmed using non-professional actors. One of his hardest jobs was to get permission from the entire family to use each actor, an especially difficult task for the actresses given the cultural and gender attitudes. Also, he filmed an hour outside of Kabul. To do so, he needed to get permission from various tribal chiefs, guaranteeing he would neither do anything obscene nor make fun of Muslims. In short, this involved building trust over time. Apparently, this area has gotten worse in the last two years -- he would not be able to film there today.

Minor note: the opening sequence was cut poorly. In between each clip was a few seconds of a blank screen and silence. This was very irritating; if it continued for more than five minutes, I probably would've walked out.

The music (Arabic/Afghani/Middle Eastern) fit well.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Third Monday in October - Reaction

A well crafted documentary focusing on student-council president elections, covering four schools with differing amounts of resources. Although it may sound like keeping track of candidates in four separate races is a lot, I found the documentary and the differing personalities made it easy. The structure revealed the similarity of adolescents throughout the country. All these wanna-be leaders, just at the cusp of adulthood, are earnest, passionate, awkward and surprisingly mature in some ways and immature in others. I was surprised to realize I cared about the students and the outcomes of the elections.

Thematically, the movie's about how we choose leaders. Even in junior high, despite popular belief, it's not just a popularity contest; passion, qualifications, and speaking ability count. A secondary topic is how political ideology comes into play. In some campaigns, it was mentioned; in others, not. And, in any case, we see how an adolescent's ideology and attitude toward politics is strongly shaped by his/her parents' views.

The music, energetic and notably well chosen, and good cutting help maintain the film's forward momentum.

The director, a camera-man, a principal of one of the schools, and one San Francisco student who lost his race answered questions after the screening.

In the first question, the principal had to defend himself and the actions of one of his teachers to an incident in the film that made all us moviegoers gasp. A teacher had approved a speech. Later, the candidate was disqualified for giving the speech, told it offended a member of the staff and was never approved. The teacher did not stand up for her decision. In answering the question, the principal defended the teacher, saying the movie did not see everything that happened and that the permission was rescinded later, not on camera.

Apparently the cameraman actually had a strong influence on selecting who to follow and film for the movie. Mostly the decision was opportunistic but it still showed he had a significant amount of autonomy.

Even though the student present at the Q&A was one of the more mature candidates, I could still tell how he'd grown in the two years since the movie was filmed. He presented himself well.

The director said the students to whom she's shown the film all commented on what geeks they were back then and how now, at fifteen, they were so much cooler and more mature.

Incidentally, the movie's web site includes profiles of the students, presented exactly like one would see in a real election. Cute.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Bunny Chow - Reaction

[South Africa]

A chill, low budget, meandering, black and white indie flick about three comedians who go on a road trip to perform at a rock festival. It's the story of their adventures and their attempts to pick up / keep / not alienate women along their way. As such, although it has funny moments, it's fairly pointless and random, making many scenes simply feel like weird sketch routines.

One neat fact: the people playing the comedians are actually comedians, in effect playing characters not far from themselves. Their real-life camaraderie comes off well in the film.

I initially found watching the movie difficult due to the motion caused by the use of a hand-held camera. However, I got used to it relatively quickly.

While the press literature suggests that the name bunny chow, a South African meal of hollowed-out bread filled with vegetables, meats, and curries, symbolizes the "melting pot that is the city of Johannesburg," I disagree. I claim that it symbolizes how random the movie is and how it lacks much overarching structure.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Vanaja - Reaction


A movie that's worth watching if only for the beautiful Kuchipudi dancing and for the interesting display of South Indian culture. This film does an excellent job at capturing the atmosphere in South India through the characters, costumes, and setting.

It begins with a girl who decides she wants to be a dancer, joins a household ruled by an old dancer, gets lessons, and picks up dancing (almost impossibly) fast. It seems as if it would be a heart-lifting tale. But then the story splits. The main path follows her through a dark tale that begins with problems relating to inappropriate sexual conduct, problems that get exacerbated by her low station (caste) in life. This tale didn't appeal to me because it included very few positive relationships and implied all men, or at least all men depicted, are evil. Thus, I found I didn't care much about the characters.

Meanwhile, the other path is simply the girl learning to dance better. While I enjoyed watching it, I felt it had little substance and certainly couldn't hold up the movie on its own.

The film speaks about the caste system in India, the strength of family ties, and how one particular woman comes of age.

The director spoke after the showing. He was so eloquent and charismatic in speaking about the movie and the decisions he made that my assessment of the movie instantly increased. He described how he recruited some actors with elder-care help wanted ads, another with a posting in a gym, and the children by going to a school. For the former, he interviewed them and gradually changed the conversation to acting -- in effect, a bait and switch. Hence, all the actors were non-professionals and in effect were type-cast, playing a similar role to their real station in life. This worked really well: I couldn't tell the actors were amateurs because they all seemed so natural. This page includes some of these great stories about recruiting the cast members and filming. The cast page which gives the background of the actors, is interesting as well. The girl who played Vanaja didn't know how to dance before being recruited for the movie. She apparently picked up all her skills from extensive lessons over the course of a year. I imagine that's why the director thought he could portray Vanaja as learning as fast as she did -- because his actress learned impressively fast as well.

The director also described his ongoing adventures with the Indian censor board. He planned ahead a bit by filming alternative cuts of some scenes, but the board still has some quibbles that he's working on resolving.

This film was submitted as part of his MFA at Columbia. He should be proud -- it's pretty good for a first work.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Emma's Bliss - Reaction


An excellently done, bittersweet tale about dying well and the fear of death. It's about a woman who cares for her pigs until the very end, when she has to cut their throat to send them to the butcher, and what happens when she meets a man who knows he has inoperable cancer and a short time to live. It hits all the right notes: good acting, good soundtrack (with especially good use of surround sound to give the feel of a farm), and good direction. A movie like this could easily feel manipulative or heavy-handed; that's not the case here.