…and the quest to see everything

Archive for November, 2011

Sofia’s Lost in Translation


Sofia Coppola‘s choice of indie-trance music on Lost in Translation‘s soundtrack probably blinds me but she  lyrically captures a modern, non-European city that might never be topped by a future film (correct me if I’m wrong, obviously). When slightly washed up action star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) or her heroine Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) look out of the window, there’s a reason. The fluorescent-lit signs and flashing posters depicting a calligraphic language that the don’t understand. Charlotte leisurely walks the scramble crossings in Shibuya, Tokyo and travel the city’s subway system, Sofia making both modes of transportation look less like its notoriously hectic reputation. She also visits Buddhist temples and enjoys a nightlife that somehow involves a fake shootout, in both times having fun without having to fully drain her energy.

I’ve forgiven Johansson in misjudged performances she will have after this but hers here is probably the best she’ll ever give. Charlotte uglies herself up, agonizing in moments when she feels alone,  abandoned by her husband or when around B-list movie star Kelly (Anna Faris). And her rapport with Bob, her being childlike and girly, captures the spontaneous air that Sofia tries to capture. It’s easier to watch her boredom and frustration and her spark that help cure those things. Bob is the only person to make her smile, pulling out her effortless glow.

This is probably the second most beautiful movie Woody Allen never made as both writer-directors have, in their movies, bourgeois pseudo-intellectual misanthropic characters. Charlotte has a disdain for Hollywood – embodied by characters like Kelly or her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). She, when the occasion arises, prefers to sing classic 80’s tunes as opposed to the usual Queen-Journey-top 40 often playing in karaoke bars. (Interestingly enough for Sofia to create a character who is also a Yale graduate majoring in Philosophy but is barely, if ever, seen with a book. On vacation.). Although this quiet snobbery doesn’t stop her from befriending Bob, both of them are in Tokyo for showbiz related reasons, both of them bored and wanting to get out although they’re free to do so anytime.

Most Allen films have characters or devices holding up a mirror against their protagonist’s insanity or at least find someone to cure them. But Sofia, in making these two characters meet, encourage each other’s misanthropy even to a racist level (I’m not the first one to say this) specifically on Bob’s character. It’s understandable to feel anomic in the Japanese urban landscape that equally and inadvertently exclude them as ‘foreigners’ but it shouldn’t excuse their language and attitude. “Why do they switch the ls and the rs here?” I don’t trust my interpreter. I refuse to learn the language. These people like eating body parts of white girls like Charlotte. Murray pulls these lines off with his wit and comic timing but I still feel uncomfortable with his and the movie’s xenophobia.


Guilty Pleasure? 27 Dresses


I’m sorry for inflicting this movie unto you, which began Katherine Heigl‘s reign of terror of  romantic comedies, making films more sexist that the ‘sexist’ Knocked Up. I tuned into 27 Dresses just when the impossibly altruistic Jane (Heigl) juggles two weddings during the same night. The Brooklyn Bridge backdrop during a montage makes it obvious that the studio didn’t want to pay real money for an on location shooting if this queen of box office flops follows her tradition.

Jane’s tricks a handful of people except for one man, Kyle Doyle (James Marsden), a marriage hater who writes for the style section of a minor league newspaper. Which, by the way, what other kind of newspapers are there in the Big Apple between the New York Times and tampon wrappers? Maulik Pancholy and Michael Scott’s girlfriend, by the way, costar as Kyle’s co-staffers. Anyway, Jane’s idealistic, he’s cynical, they bicker until the hour mark where he relents and they fall down the fuck in love.

Movies like this sets up glamorous stars like Heigl into ‘best friend’ types. Let’s dye her hair to a honey brunette so she’ll look frumpier compared to her hotter blonde sister, Tess (Malin Akerman), the latter falling in love with Jane’s boss (Edward Burns, Christy Turlington’s husband)! And what kind of person goes to the club and wears a top that makes her look like a Regency-era woman? Although I do admit that there are parts of this characterization that I believe. Heigl morphs her slender bone structure into showing us herself in her younger years, the kind of girl-turned ingenue with puffy cheeks and wore braces as a child. And there’s something about her line deliveries, a little husk in her alto voice, effectively playing a woman that’s frazzled yet witty.

And you know what? I also don’t mind the script, making its main gimmick to make Heigl look like a loser. It also allows its ensemble of B-list actors to talk on top of each other. This is the kind of movie that would be deemed a ‘classic’ had it been released in the 80’s or earlier. James Marsden’s charisma willfully distracts us from how Kyle is Jane’s terribly written foil.

Again, it’s ridiculous to have Katherine Heigl as the ‘always the bridesmaid’ type but it’s equally unfair for the talented Judy Greer to keep holding the ‘slutty best friend’ torch. She thanklessly gives the movie its dirty tongue colour – watch out for some daddy issues and sexual references from other characters too – and she slaps Heigl here, which is something, I assume, that you also want to do.


Cool Story Bro: “Antichrist”


Showing up to screenings two hours before the movie starts, I headed off to the rush line at the Ryerson Theatre. An hour later an older man sells a pair of tickets to whoever wants to see Antichrist.  I raised my hand a second later than someone behind me, who happens to be a French woman who is also pregnant. Dammit. I’m pretty sure this woman lives a twelve-hour drive from Cannes Why didn’t she just see it there?

Half an hour later, she comes back and says “Mai hazzbahnd won’t cam zee eet.” Obviously. Why the fuck do you? Or me? “I want feeftee dallarz for zeez teekehts.” (I am so racist). Fine.

I join the ticket holders’ line and find kids from my university, the ones who make fun of the slightly special needs kid in the film studies department or talk about how Amanda Seyfried was ‘The most BEAUTIFUL woman I’ve EVER seen…” because that’s what sexy hipsters talk about. We eventually headed to the doors where the most beautiful hipster tells some security guard “This film will win People’s Choice.”

It was one of the most fucked up movie I have ever seen.

Later, the most beautiful one tells us that she gave the movie a 3. “He’s a master master master master master master but…” I can’t remember what she said but it’s something like how gruelling he is.” I tell them that I bought my ticket off a pregnant woman. ‘You saved a pregnant woman and her child.” Imagine someone giving birth while watching that movie.

I have no idea how notorious that screening was compared to others. Watching it at Cannes might have been an experience. There’s another fest somewhere in middle America where the audience chanted “CHAos REIGNS!” Apparently someone vomited during the Toronto première but I was probably drowned by my own reactions to hear someone retch.

Days later, in other screenings, I meet industry guys before the Micmacs where the cuter business guy kept saying “That scene where she hammered his BALLS and I’d cross my legs every time he said ‘balls.’

I have new goals during the festival while writing for myself and others – next year’s choices will be actress-y because of Nathaniel. But because of that first movie during that first real TIFF, one of my goals is to see the grossest movie ever. Last year’s is Black Swan and LA Zombie. This year’s is Lovely Molly. Swear I’ll do the best I can to catch the Midnight Madnesses.


FFF: “Der Himmel uber Berlin”


The angels look down upon Berlin. In Wim WendersDer Himmel uber Berlin, they listen to the poetry and grumblings of its different citizens. They hear mostly in German but occasionally in English, like the voices of Peter Falk (Falk), visiting to shoot a movie. They try to comfort people despite their limited powers to send their messages across. When they meet they compare notes. Today is a normal day but they talk glowingly, their excitement towards humans is legitimate in a way, every life a miracle full of climactic emotions and insights.

Claire Denis is Wenders’ assistant direction and it does feel like a Denis film at times, as the camera sweeps to follow the angels and the Berliners in their natural environment. There’s also some impressionistic touches, with the first shot of a child’s eye or many others, like a wing, the inside of a sewer, the angels and their shadows, sequences showing high angle zooms, fast subway cars and the people inside them and an angel reacting to these people in a dark space. The occasional violin in the film score also gives that impression of a continuing German film making tradition.

Among the Berliners are Turkish families, black students and Asian rockers. Colourful graffiti plasters itself unto the Berlin Wall. But it inevitably shows reel footage of the city after the war. The angel Cassiel guides an old man within the obliterated Potsdam district, the latter shocked that the can’t find it in its original bustling form. The movie has its own concepts of statehood, as if Germany has existed before the landmass rose out of the water. The angels crossing the wall feels like a statement although most of the film doesn’t have the preachy tone of every political film. Instead it has the spiritual aura, thus showing a fractured yet evolving country.

It wouldn’t be long until one of the angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) envies the tactile nature of human experience although his colleague tells him to distance himself from such thoughts. He’s partly motivated to become human because of a Barbara Stanwyck lookalike of a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Ganz’s benevolent face shines throughout Damiel’s angelhood that naturally gets stripped when he transforms. He, with the movie, negotiates this premise, the human Damiel having the childlike giddiness brought on by a schoolboy crush. He still embodies the spirit of the city he used to watch.


Mary, Walter and “The Muppets”


Like any sane person who came out of The Muppets, I ended up singing the infectiously unforgettable line ‘I got everything that I nee-eed right in-front o-me’ on the streetcar home. Hats off to Bret McKenzie. But the sugar rush ended because of three grating yet forgivable flaws.

First is vintage store-clad (this is a good thing) Mary (Amy Adams), Gary’s (Jason Segel) girlfriend who si frustrated by her man’s undivided attention towards his Muppets-loving Muppet brother, Walter. Adams sings and dances feverishly, only bringing half of the joy that her scene partners, both human and Muppet, effortlessly produce. She’s more convincing when she’s playing against type than she is as an adorable love interest. It’s not entirely her fault, her face seemingly colourless and lit sloppily. She’s also one of three major female characters who, in a script co-written by Segel, are ‘attention seeking shrews’ ‘distracting men from work.’ An Oscar-nominated actress can’t save badly written characters like hers.

Chris Cooper rapping made me wince in my seat. And the characters’ self-awareness after singing their songs are a bit distracting.

And can I declare a fatwa against the premise in movies that the world is ‘cynical?’ Sure, as the movie shows, broken relationships and sketchy characters and greedy oilmen like Tex Richman (Cooper) and power-hungry executives like Veronica (Rashida Jones) do exist. But the world has its equal share of revisionist, retro-living, overgrown children. Our decade-long obsession for cute old anthropomorphic things is the reason Pixar gets awards. Cute is definitely why this movie exists.

James Bobin‘s movie epitomizes cute with the other Muppets whom this unconventional family is trying to reunite. The group find themselves on a mission to stop Richman from destroying the Muppet studio to build an oil well. Richman also wants to acquire the Muppets name to skew the well-known brand from its original content and form. Sound familiar?

The joyful aura is good enough to sustain itself for most of the movie. Despite the mushy middle, let’s remind ourselves that the movie begins with the postwar nostalgia of Smalltown, USA and we fell for it. Then we see the physical comedy, signature Muppets flailing, celebrity cameos like Emily Blunt and Leslie Feist and loved it. Then it sets up Gonzo as Chekhov’s gun and we smiled. And Kermit, the movie’s undisputed star, sings the old tunes as well as new songs and we cried and we loved the movie a bit more. 3.5/5


Reel Asian: Piercing 1


I tweeted earlier that Liu Jian’s début movie Piercing 1 is like “Beavis and Butthead Do The 2008 Economic Collapse And Its Effects On China.” The animation is like Mike Judge’s early work – gaunt two-dimensional figures, the movements are pretty one-two. But it also adds its own spin to a seemingly primitive, 90’s era take on the visual medium. It’s as if there’s no air in this fictional universe – flags and lamps don’t move but smoke rises up in the air. And the palette, lacking the colours yellow and purple, is dour and dark, which seems right with its depressing and scary subject.

Among the handful of characters that it follows are two men who have moved to Beijing. After a boss beats one of them for allegedly stealing, they hang out on a public space. Their litanies in their first scene together resonate with younger people and/or immigrants, as one of them is more defiant against returning to their small town, not even considering if their lives have been better or stable there. It’s like this refusal of an alternative because it feels like a million steps back. The more defiant youth also seems attracted to the trappings of capitalism. The money, the clothes, the promise of women – of which there are only two in the movie who aren’t sexually pursued – the exciting day and light lives, the population.

It loses steam after that scene, as it’s littered with Kafkaesque accusations and assaults. It’s as if every person they meet is misanthropic because of the anomie-inducting big city. The beaten youth comes back to his boss and asks for ‘mental damages’ and gets beaten. While eating noodles, he sees a woman get hit by a motorcycle only for that woman’s police officer daughter to beat him again. It’s like Jia Zhangke and Sion Sino collaborated and made an animated feature, the former’s portrayal of ghostlike modernity mixes with the latter’s theatrical violence. The last scenes veer into ridiculous heist movie territory since i this movie’s world, all Chinese businessmen are also sketchy money dealers. But I do give the movie credit for going into unexpected places.


Birthday Movie: East of Eden


East of Eden has the best hair. Aaron (Smiths album cover boy Richard Davalos) resting with his girlfriend Abra (Tony-winning Julie Harris) after running around a barn, as his good-natured yet impish younger brother Cal (James Dean) watches from behind an ice-cube. Cal perpetually looking like a teenager who just woke up, perpetually watching. Later on, Aaron again lies down on his stomach on his father’s lawn, face up, the picture of pastoral boyhood, weighing in on the Great War and money concerns as if from a distance. Cal lying down on neighbouring farm land, impatiently watching his rows upon rows of bean sprouts grow from up close. Blessed with bounty, the citizens of Monterey establish civilizations under the guise of creation, of failures and successes but are nonetheless wary of the tension that is actually closer than they think.

They are brothers and therefore born rivals, the story marking their competition even through the different personalities of their parents. Aaron taking on his father Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) and Cal with the mysterious Kate (Jo van Fleet) who lives on a suspicious house on a hill. But the lines within the family criss-cross too. Cal’s entrepreneurial skills come from both parents – as much as his business ventures are unethical, he also gets Adam’s wild yet good-intentioned visions of their Californian goods reaching outside the state. The performances also serve as a key to their genetic similarities, Aaron echoing Kate’s tough-love parental instincts towards Cal, in one scene telling him to go watch the rally. Dean, in turn, plays Cal as fidgety as a regular teenager.

The sequence when Cal and Abra go to the  circus, one of the most novelistic and symbol-heavy patterns of storytelling in cinema. These friends walk through a hall of mirrors, skewing one of the most handsome faces in film into monsters. They meet one of Cal’s Mexican girlfriends, he kisses Abra on the Ferris wheel, he climbs down and jumps on a mob. All these events awakening innocent Abra’s sexuality, although her reaction towards him is tame by today’s standards. He becomes an imp again, his jealousy and Adamr’s rejection causing him to tell a family secret that would destroy Aaron, proudly telling his father what he has accomplished. He would twice destroy the angelic female that Aaron holds dear. In a movie about beauty and broken purity, Cal redeems himself, fixing things with his broken self and family as he has always intended.