Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October 2012 Rundown

JCVD (2008) – Mark it 8.

Introducing JCVD to friends is one of my favorite cinema hobbies.  One only needs to see Jean-Claude Van Damme’s initials in the title to assume it's some kind of generic action crap that made him famous, despite my insistence otherwise.  Yet JCVD turns that assumption on its head as the Muscles from Brussels’ meta performance starts to blow you away.  Playing himself, Jean-Claude is an aging washed-up action star with mounting personal and professional troubles.  Because of a case of “wrong place, wrong time,” poor Jean-Claude gets swept up in bank robbery that forces his real life to resemble his on screen persona.  I cannot recommend JCVD enough - so cool, so funny, and so unique.   It’s a Saturday afternoon cable TV action film for the art house crowd; a combination you didn’t know you wanted to see until you finally give it that chance.

Tokyo Story (1953) – Mark it 7.

Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is one of those films you always see on the “all-time greatest lists,” but one I always neglected for some reason.  Having seen Tokyo Story now, I recognize why so many view it as a masterpiece, though it is hard to get overly excited about it initially.  The film is undeniably slow and a little difficult to sit through, but as soon as the film ended I was so glad to have given it its proper attention.  It is so powerful because the film's message is universal.  While the two elderly parents visit their busy and disrespectful adult children in 1950s Japan, its themes of family and aging still resonate in 2012.  The film deepened my respect the people who are closest to me because having regrets after they leave would be a heartbreaking burden.  I think that is a realization all Tokyo Story viewers have, explaining why it is still so renowned 60 years later.

Woody Allen:  A Documentary (2011) – Mark it 8.

Since laughing with my Dad at Sleeper and Bananas as a little kid, I have been raised to be something of a Woody Allen fanboy.  As I watch more and more Woody films, his genius because clearer and clearer.  Woody Allen:  A Documentary is a loving two-part, three-hour documentary that follows Woody’s illustrious career from joke writer and standup comedian to playwright and iconic director (and clarinet player!).  Mixing interviews with Woody and his friends, family, critics, and peers with archival footage and film clips, it is fascinating to hear the stories behind his work, get a sense of his unique creative process, and realize his impact on the world of cinema.  After watching Woody Allen: A Documentary I’m itching to revisit his classics and seek out his films I’ve yet to see, and I’m expecting that my love for this filmmaker will continue to grows.  He’s one of our best.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012 Milwaukee Film Festival

The Milwaukee Film Festival became an autumn staple in my city at about the same time the cinephile bug first bit me in high school, but I never actually made my way to the theater to check it out until 2012.  I would read about the films showing, circle the ones I wanted to see, and end it there (though for many of these years, I had the excuse of being away at college).  But since starting this blog in February, I feel more committed to improving my film education whenever possible.  Taking chances on the unknown and being pleasantly surprised is one of my favorite cinema experiences.  For a week and a half in October, I got to take those chances often and hope for the best.

I’m excited to say that, with the help of a fellow film buff friend, our ambitious schedule of five nights of film is complete.  In planning out the agenda, I was pleased with our healthy mix of what I envisioned as the “film festival experience”:  two foreign films, a documentary, a unique silent film experience, and a small indie.  

Now is the time to report on what I thought of these films...

Mourning (2011) – Mark it 5.

Directed by Morteza Farshbaf
Starring Kiomars Giti, Sharareh Pasha, Amir Hossein Maleki

After recently watching six Iranian films while playing along with Filmspotting’s marathon, I was very excited to check out Mourning.  I had read that director Morteza Farshbaf was a protégé of one of Iran’s most preeminent filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy), so I was excited to see how Farshbaf measured up to start my Festival experience.  Unfortunately, Mourning is not on the level of any of the Iranian I watched this summer.  

The film centers around the relationship between a boy and his deaf aunt and uncle during a very long road trip.  We know that the boy’s parents have run on him in the middle of the night during a fight, leaving the boy with an aunt and uncle who try to guess what could have caused such a incident.  The aunt and uncle then must figure out how well they can care for the boy if this circumstance is long term.  These conversations, communicated through sign language and lip reading, take place during their drive through the Iranian landscape, and that’s about the extent of the narrative.  Traffic jams and car problems add some variety, but not enough to make it engaging.  Mourning is built on an interesting premise, but the execution was just a little too dull to get me excited.  Many of the other Iranian films were also slow in pace and simple in story, but they had something special that was missing in Mourning.

Let the Bullets Fly (2010) – Mark it 6.

Directed by Jiang Wen
Starring Jiang Wen, Ge You, Chow Yun Fat

While writing this review, I learned that the star of Let the Bullets Fly, Jiang Wen, also wrote and directed the film.  This must have been something of a passion project for Wen, and that love for the story shows during the film.  You can tell that everyone involved had a lot of fun during its making, and I had a lot of fun watching this crazy movie.  From the Festival program, I thought Let the Bullets Fly would be a serious gangster crime drama (in a Chinese Godfather mold), but what it turned out to be was highly entertaining and light Chinese Western action comedy:  Shanghai Noon meets Kill Bill.  The violence was cartoonish and over-the-top, the action was well choreographed, and the jokes hit their mark.  

The story follows a gang of bandits in the 1920s China, led by the infamous, but noble, Pocky Zhang (Wen).  Zhang and his followers kidnap a nebbish governor-to-be, Ma Bangde (Ge You), so Zhang can impersonate the governor and lead the corrupt Goose Town and make a lot of money. Master Huang (Chow Yun Fat), a local mobster, runs Goose Town and naturally doesn’t see eye to eye with his town’s newcomer.  The two men match wits, over and over, and people close to them are lost in the struggle, as they fight for control of the city.  After many twists and turns – a good editing job to tighten up Let the Bullets Fly could have helped – there is one clear victor.  Despite its flaws, this silly action film is a great option if you just want to just check out with a movie and have some fun.

Blackmail (1929), with the Alloy Orchestra – Mark it 9.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Anny Ondra, John Longden, Donald Calthrop

I may have seen better films than Alfred Hitchcock’s silent crime thriller, Blackmail, but I have never had a better experience in a theater than this one.  If one ever gets the chance to see a live orchestra play the score to a silent feature, rush to that screening!  I’d see the Alloy Orchestra, a trio from Massachusetts that combines a wide array of instruments, accompany any film, especially when it is in front of a packed and eager crowd at the Oriental.  But the experience was all the better when the film has an entertaining story and visual touches that hint at his masterpieces to follow.  Blackmail was dubbed after its initial release and gained popularity as Britain’s “first talkie,” so a screening of the silent version is a rare occasion, adding buzz to the evening's atmosphere.

Blackmail is an exciting film noir, an early installment in the genre, about a girl who cheats on her police detective boyfriend with a devious artist.  Things go bad very bad with this shady character, and the girl must turn to the heartbroken detective for protection.  Hitchcock adds a lot of impressive flourishes that are visually exciting and build suspense.  With the Orchestra’s eerie score, my heart was racing all the way to the end.  If you get the chance to see Blackmail, either the silent or dubbed version, do it.  And if you get the chance to see it with the Alloy Orchestra, don't even hesitate to go.

Last Call at the Oasis (2011) – Mark it 7.

Directed by Jessica Yu

With the droughts that hit the country last summer and the super-storms that are currently pounding the East Coast, it is clear that climate change is a very real, and immediate, issue.  One side effect of climate change, escalated by the world's overpopulation problem, will likely be the world’s supply of potable water is dwindling.  Jessica Yu’s documentary, Last Call at the Oasis, goes into great detail about how huge this problem is.  Like any good (and scary) environmental documentary, the information presented is daunting but in a visually and substantively interesting and accessible way that does leave a small avenue for hope. 

With the expertise of scientists, policy makers, and advocates, coupled with the victims of poor water quality, Yu provides enough evidence to make this crisis undeniable.  The sight of shrinking lake levels (rising oceans and shrinking lakes is a very dangerous combination), dried up oases, and people desperate for a drops of water are powerful images.  This crisis is huge and getting worse, which is easy to take for granted with Great Lakes in our backyard.  Don’t fear completely, however, because the film does plant a kernel of hope to walk away with (spoiler alert: don’t be afraid to drink toilet water – after the professionals clean it, of course).  Desalination is not the answer, but recycled water could be.

Note:  The organization I work for, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, was a proud community sponsor of this film at the Festival.

The Sessions (2012) – Mark it 6.

Directed by Ben Lewin
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy

With a (true) storyline about a 40-year old quadriplegic writer, who spends most of his days in an iron lung, hiring a sex surrogate to lose his virginity, with graphic full frontal nudity and explicit sexual dialogue, there is little doubt that The Sessions will be one of the most controversial films of the year.  But whether or not genitals and sex talk offend a bunch of uptight prudes doesn’t interest me.  I care about how good the film is.  In the end, I found The Sessions to be a nice little romantic comedy filled with memorable performances by its lead actors. 

John Hawkes (terrifying in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone) brings so much life to the character of Mark O’Brien despite being twisted and motionless from the neck down because of a childhood case of polio.  You can’t help but cheer on his sexcapades as he falls in love with his assistants, bluntly discusses his quest with his priest (a hilarious long-haired William H. Macy), and awkwardly culminates the act throughout his sessions with the sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt).  Touches of melodrama follow, likely to incite a few tears in the theater, but that’s okay when the acting is so fun to watch.  I’d say stay away from The Sessions if realistic sex scenes make you uncomfortable.  For everyone else, I think that while The Sessions may not be worthy of the early Oscar buzz it’s receiving, it’s definitely a nice film worth checking out.

In conclusion, the Milwaukee Film Festival was an amazing way to spend five nights over the course of 11 days.  Not seeing a major studio’s next big release made each night a fun $10 gamble.  Beyond the little blurb in the program, being somewhat in the dark about what you are about to see is something new to me and very pleasurable.  You might not love what you pick to see, but there is a guarantee that it will be something new and something unique.  Plus, it provides that one-of-a-kind experience you can only see at a festival (Blackmail with the Alloy Orchestra).  I’m not necessarily on the bandwagon of every film I saw (though they were mostly very good), but I am now on the film festival bandwagon.  While I count down the days until the next Milwaukee Film Festival, I will spend my time when exactly I want to become a member of Milwaukee Film (it’s likely to be soon).