Friday, May 22, 2009

THIS IS ENGLAND

by Tobias

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Shane Meadows is a filmmaker by trade but he could also teach sociology. His powerful semi-autobiographical THIS IS ENGLAND illustrates quite frighteningly how lack of familial connection and economic downturn can generate violent class tensions.

Set in Thatcher’s England circa 1983 when the country had just come out of the Falkland War and was experiencing rising unemployment, the film charts the tumultuous adolescence of Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) an angry 12-year-old who joins a group of skinhead punks after repeated bullying at school. Within this ragtag gang he finds male role models that fill the void the death of his soldier father has left. The kind leader Woody (Joe Gilgun) takes Shaun under his wing and takes him to get his head shaved. Eventually the young boy completely adopts their wanton punk lifestyle; starts wearing their clothes, listening to their music, making out with girls, and finds a way to channel his rage through the vandalism of abandoned buildings. But his blissful new life of rebellion and acceptance takes a disturbing turn when Combo (Stephen Graham) a friend of Woody’s gets home from prison. This man’s racist ideas about England and her national identity stir up confused emotions in Shaun, and also split the gang.

The director's realistic portrait of subculture and disaffected youth is blistering. It effectually captures the intolerance and ideological supremacy of England’s early-'80s skinhead movement. Thomas Turgoose's performance as Shaun is solid and thankfully never precocious kid-film material, and Stephen Graham’s scary turn as the extreme and rather despicable Combo is simply explosive – a real scene stealing dramatic performance.

Shane Meadows nostalgically uses period punk rock and ska in an atmospheric way similar to the way Scorsese uses 60’s pop in his work.

This heartbreaking film closes with an appropriate homage to Francois Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS on a gloomy beachside; the innocence of a child’s face hauntingly staring into the camera. THIS IS ENGLAND balances that Truffaut lyricism with the gritty realism of Alan Clarke (SWEET SIXTEEN). In many ways, it’s the U.K.’s answer to Tony Kaye’s AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998).

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

FIGHT CLUB

by Tobias

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David Fincher's FIGHT CLUB is truly one for the ages. It's a brilliant piece of pop-culture satire and one truly fucked-up psychological thriller. Both this film and Chuck Palahniuk's knock-out source novel tap into serious sociological angst, in a similar way to Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and David Cronenberg's CRASH (1996 - not to be confused with the Oscar winner of the same title from 2005).

Its operatic fight scenes are already cinema landmarks, like those exhibited in Scorsese's RAGING BULL (1980). Fincher amplifies the stylistic brutality of his scrap scenes to a disturbing borderline pornographic degree here and injects them with a level of sexual body horror. It really has to be seen to be believed, very hard to describe.

In my book, FIGHT CLUB has already gone down as one of the quintessential examples of new-millennium filmmaking (alongside THE MATRIX, RUN LOLA RUN, THREE KINGS, and CITY OF GOD) because of its hypnotic aesthetics, slick technical craft, and provocative storytelling.

WOLF CREEK

by Tobias

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It's a little sad to me that it took an Australian to perfect the slasher genre we Americans pioneered in our tumultuous 70's. Oddly enough, this film is atmospherically in as much debt to the young angry Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, as much as it is to Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS or Nicolas Roeg's WALKABOUT. The existential dread that permeates from the screen during Greg McLean's disgusting and subversive WOLF CREEK is almost unbearable. The beautiful yet cruel ancient desert outback locale (shot majestically on HDV in anamorphic widescreen) seems strangely at ease with the primitive violence that transpires.

One of the more disturbing screen villains in recent memory is featured in this ungodly bleak film, and I'm worried he could sadly become a recycled stock character in more commercial rip-offs, remakes and sequels: see the fate of Rutger Hauer's character from the THE HITCHER (1986). I wouldn't be surprised if this film hasn't already seduced studio suits like Mike Fleiss and Michael Bay to pump it full of hollow spectacle and unnecessary showmanship.

I've read that Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have endorsed this Aussie shocker in the same way they heralded Eli Roth's HOSTEL films, and I must say that while that TV-baby gore fan appeal is certainly here to some degree, Greg McLean's uncompromisingly brooding film tends to polarize most horror buffs I know. Probably due to the nature of his atmospheric craft and smart character development. I actually care about these limey backpackers unlike the archetypes in most studio slasher horrors like I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER or the TV quality characters created for the mindless antics of the SAW franchise, concocted solely to be picked off one by one for pornographic amusement. I've never really understood why audiences find this torture to be thrilling, I feel like it is just too crappy a formula that any monkey with a camera could create. I grew to like the characters in WOLF CREEK too much, because what happens to them really traumatized me a bit. I stubbornly hadn't read much about the film before I first saw it, and the truly horrid impact of its events really made me feel uneasy. In that way, I won't claim that I think it's super fun escapism, because I actually find it to be a rather horrible experience to witness - as a great 'horror' film should be - that's kinda the brilliant nihilistic punch this film packs.

WOLF CREEK'S apocalyptically hopeless vision of true horror clearly stands apart from the other dull movies dished out by current splatter peddlers.

ERASERHEAD

by Tobias

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One of the more uncompromising works ever committed to celluloid alongside UN CHIEN ANDALOU and BEGOTTEN.

This is what it would probably look and feel like if you could photograph the inner workings of David Lynch's mind while he was having a fever induced nightmare. Personally for me, it's the only filmed art that has come strangely close to actually resembling the atmosphere and imagery of my weirdest nightmares. The kind of dreams you wake up from scared but then start to laugh once you think about them in detail.

I can't recommend this picture for most people, and that's not because i feel like the majority of American audiences are dumb, it's because I believe most people are systematically conditioned to intellectually respond only to much more traditionally structured and narrative films that have very clear stories and obvious themes. Possibly conditioned by televised programming? I don't know. I don't mean to sound arrogant or condescending if you take it that way. I just feel like it's polite and probably best to not expose someone to this film who you suspect only appreciates films that are aesthetically similar to genre literature. Lynch's work is aesthetically more similar to surrealist poetry and paintings. It appeals more to the right hemisphere of the human brain. I can imagine how frustrating and pointless a picture like ERASERHEAD could be perceived by a person who is analytically on a different track. I've observed many personality types that are much more comfortable and content in a proverbial psychological bubble where all film and art is similar and realistic and nothing too strange ever happens without being deciphered or explained in the end.

There must be a rule somewhere that states the cinema is not allowed to evolve or be unconventional or daring or personal or anything all of the other fine arts are allowed to be.

L'ENFANT

by Tobias
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Like Robert Bresson, or Roberto Rossellini, the Dardenne brothers have some serious theological undertones to their cinema and they don't try to hide the influence of their faith on their work. Don't let the christian stuff turn you off though, being very aware of the negative connotations that can come along with it. You won't find any traces of disgusting fundamentalism or obnoxious evangelical showmanship. No, the Dardenne's films exhibit a spirituality born of genuine compassion and redemption. Their objective hand-held camera work gives THE CHILD (L'ENFANT) the gritty realism of a documentary, to me, a documentary about what true humanism is at its very core.

The main character is a sinner and thief who has made up his mind to sell his newborn son on the black market, and I don't want to give away too much, but the film then takes a path through a series of emotionally painful events that eventually beat the concept of real salvation into the viewer's mind.

Like Hirokazu Kore-Eda's NOBODY KNOWS in 2004, I found this picture to be so emotionally devastating at times that it was almost physically painful to watch. However, for me, the agonizing sadness a very empathetic viewer endures during the film is just rewarded by the overwhelming catharsis at the end. So transcendentally spiritual, it has put an everlasting effect on me after viewing, and it just makes the sappiness of Hollywood endings even more obvious, if they weren't already. It's a miracle how profoundly deep art can move a person, and this film is very much a miracle of modern cinema for me.

Monday, May 4, 2009

THE ORPHANAGE

by Tobias
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A creepy and methodically crafted horror jewel in the spirit of such contemporary genre classics as THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE and THE CHANGELING (1980).

Director Juan Antonio Bayona, making his feature debut here, seems to have inherited an aesthetic soul and style from just about every Spanish film artist of old and new; ala Victor Erice, Alejandro Amenábar, Guillermo del Toro, etc. THE ORPHANAGE is the type of intimidating film debut that can drive a struggling filmmaker mad with envy. Bayona seems to arrive as a fully formed professional that knows how to expertly control composition, sound, and countless other cinema atmospherics to raise the scare-factor of his film. Although not necessarily unique, Sergio G. Sánchez's neat little script plays with ghost story conventions more than you would think and he gives it some intensely taut plotting and thankfully it's all anchored by an inventive and bravura director.

This, at times, psychologically bothersome movie managed to simultaneously startle me with its effective hair-raising scares and move me with its intense spirituality. Something about actress Belén Rueda's beautifully expressive face is able to capture the diverse and chaotic emotions of grief and fear in this film so well. She's the greatest performance and the moral center of the movie, she has me glued to the screen every time I see it.

Horror buffs fed up with the current mass of mindless schlock pumped out by the U.S. studio machine (torture fests, hackneyed remakes of classics, Americanized Asian horror) will be swift to embrace this handsomely gothic Spanish gem.

DAYS OF GLORY

by Tobias

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Great companion viewing with Amos Gitai's KIPPUR.

Rachid Bouchareb's INDIGENES (DAYS OF GLORY) is a good old fashion war film with grit and heart. The story follows a handful of Arab soldiers from Algeria who have joined the French military to combat Nazism in WWII. Once they have bravely fought a couple of battles in Europe they soon realize that some of the racist French officer's see them as lesser grunts and deny them promotions and equipment. The film then takes on the form of both a combat film and a civil rights film with tons of sociological heft to boot.

This is a very character driven drama and a lot of the battle sequences are intentionally unsensational, that may bore most mainstream audiences, but for those of you who enjoy a thoughtful history piece in the cinematic spirit of Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI, I think this film will interest you. Branch out and rent it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

CORALINE

by Tobias

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The fine line between dreams and reality has been Neil Gaiman's signature obsession on paper for sometime, and I believe stop-motion master Henry Selick (JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) has brought one of the author's best stories to the screen with his dark adaptation of CORALINE.

This is one of the best uses of 3D technology that I've seen at the cinema, there aren't gimmicky shots of shit flying at the audience for shock sake (MY BLOODY VALENTINE: 3D), instead Selick uses the technique as a means to immerse the audience visually in an otherworldly atmosphere where landscapes and objects feel like they have real texture. You feel like you become a part of this ALICE IN WONDERLAND quality story, It's really a thrill for the senses while it lasts, wish it was longer though. Every frame of the movie has an imaginative richly layered depth, there's always something interesting going on in every corner of every frame.

Although she's a hyper stylized character with a ginormous head, this plucky little girl is very endearing and realistic. I think Coraline embodies the imagination and longing of adolescent life at that age so well, makes me wonder where Neil Gaiman got his inspiration for her character from. In a slightly different way, I think she's just as good a role model for young girls as Abigail Breslin's title character from last years KIT KITTRIDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL.

Friday, May 1, 2009

SUGAR

by Tobias

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Director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s SUGAR would be boilerplate sport-film uplift if not for their classy and honest lyricism. These filmmakers have a real gift for writing interesting and charismatic characters that are easy to empathize with.

SUGAR is an affective portrait of a Dominican boy’s coming-of-age within the ultra-competitive world of U.S. pro baseball. It successfully commingles the kitchen-sink realism of the filmmakers’ early documentary work with the poetic style of their previous feature HALF NELSON (2006). It functions as the story of an immigrant’s experience as well as it does a baseball drama. Unlike the idealized sports fare Hollywood dishes out each year, this movie depicts the successes and disappointments of its protagonist with a poignant degree of truth.

First time actor Algenis Perez Soto's amazingly natural performance as 'Sugar' Santos painstakingly charts the emotional journey of a young man adapting to life in a strange land at a ridiculously high-pressure sport. Already one of the best films I've seen this year.

THE IRON GIANT

by Tobias












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This movie makes me feel like a kid every time I see it. Something about the truthful innocence of its goofy child protagonist Hogarth, the comical fish-out-of-water scenario that plays out with the gentle space giant, the stylized and nostalgic cold-war Americana design -- all of its elements just work like gangbusters for me.

The friendship that forms between the earth boy and the clumsy space visitor in THE IRON GIANT speaks volumes about the value of unconditional kindness and tolerance. In that way, it’s one of the best and most valuable buddy films I’ve seen for children, along with E.T. : THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, THE BLACK STALLION and few others. The film’s sturdy economic storyline (lifted from the Ted Hughes book) is cleverly set in the 1950s era of paranoia and post-war idealism, and evokes early DC comics in the best possible way. Hyper-active Hogarth Hughes is one of the most believable and hilarious animated children ever. His squirrel like mannerisms and the silly imagination he displays while trying to teach his iron friend human etiquette make up the most amusing chunks of the film for me. By the time we realize what dangerous secrets the huge metallic amnesiac has in store for Hogarth, the film has brilliantly started to articulate some strong themes of anti-violence and self sacrifice

I believe imaginative children stories—from Sendak to Seuss to Tolkien to Miyazaki to George Lucas, etc.--have an ability to click with adults as much as with kids because they excavate fundamental human qualities from our childhood many of us sadly suppress as a result of the cynicism and pride of “maturity.” This film does that for me.

Master animation director Brad Bird (THE SIMPSONS, RATATOUILLE, THE INCREDIBLES) crafts THE IRON GIANT with an expressive mix of computer and cell animation, great voice acting (Vin Diesel’s haunting voice fits the robot perfectly), and a moving theatrical score by Michael Kamen . Bird’s skills as a visual storyteller are in top form once again on this film; he’s able to keep the characters interesting and set up some thrilling, and moving scenes.

Immediately after I saw this in 1999, I knew it was an instant family classic, the best animated American film of that year for sure; even the sweet sequel to TOY STORY takes a back seat to it for me.