March 2005 Archives
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In case you were worried that the Walt Disney Company was pulling out of the sick violence biz, today's New York Times will set you straight. Even though someone else will now be paying for Harvey and Bob Weinstein's gourmet meals (see photo), the new studio head, Dick Cook, reassures us that "family-friendly" Disney "will not be turning its back on the extremely violent fare that helped make the Weinsteins ... famous."
The new Miramax release, "Sin City," based on the "graphic novels" of Frank Miller, features "cannibalism, castration, decapitation, dismemberment, electrocution, hanging, massacres, pedophilia, slashings and lots and lots of torture."
For anyone naive enough to think about actual human suffering while watching images of "the heads of five prostitutes mounted on a wall, or a dog eating the legs of a still-live boy, or a man ripping out the genitals of another man," the director Robert Rodriguez (who, to judge by the photo, is just getting started on gourmet food) notes that the MPAA gave the film an "R" rating because "they got the stylization, they got the abstractness of it and it was obviously not a realistic movie."
Whew. But go easy on the red paint, Hans Hofmann, because along with buckets of "white blood, and yellow blood," this movie has "plenty of red blood." Why? The ever-so-sensitive Mr. Rodriguez wants "to make clear that characters getting beaten to a pulp were, indeed, feeling pain."
When movie stars lend their glittering names to political causes, the effect is sometimes ludicrous.
The movie "Simone" (2002) stars Al Pacino as an egotistical director fed up with egotistical actresses, who is given a computer program capable of digitally creating the perfect star. The movie is a dud, perhaps because Mr. Pacino sleepwalks through it, and Rachel Roberts, the lissome model who plays Simone (short for Sim One), could learn a lot about acting from the animated paper clip on Microsoft Word.
But there are a few good bits, including a TV interview given by Simone while ostensibly "on a goodwill mission to the Third World." With a few keystrokes, the director projects his star's immaculate image against a backdrop of filthy hovels, burning garbage, and starved dogs. The irony is underlined by the fact that Simone does not seem to have a clue about why she is there.
One could compare this to Don Cheadle's January trip to Darfur. Nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Paul Rusesabagina (the hero of "Hotel Rwanda"), Mr. Cheadle had something to gain from lending his name to efforts to stop the genocide of the Sudanese government.
But so what? This was a case of a star's self-interest coinciding with a moral emergency. And to judge by Mr. Cheadle's actions since then, his commitment is more than a career move. Find out more on the website he co-sponsors with Mr. Rusesabagina.
One of the coolest DVDs I’ve seen recently is "What To Do In Case Of Fire?" ("Was tun, wenn’s brennt?"). Since the answer to the title question is "let it burn," ("brennen lassen"), I did not expect to like this film. It’s a post-punk German version of "The Big Chill," and I am on record as not liking punk or the "The Big Chill" (which I find about as authentic as Las Vegas).
But "What To Do" impressed me from the opening sequence, a home video supposedly shot by six "creative anarchists" in the Kreuzberg section of West Berlin in 1987. Hand-held, jump-cut, overlaid by graffiti-style graphics and driven by a pounding soundtrack, this video shows the six joining a battle against armored police who are trying to evict squatters, and then planting a sizable bomb in an abandoned mansion.
At that point, the video ends. The bomb ticks, then gets stuck. And twelve years pass before it explodes, set off by a real estate agent in the new, unified Berlin, who is showing the property to just the sort of wealthy businessman the anarchists of the 1980s were trying to keep out. No one is hurt, which is important, because the rest of the film asks us to care about the six bomb-makers as they reunite to block a police investigation.
"What To Do" impressed me because in the first place, it is smart. Its cynicism cuts deep but not too deep, and is largely directed at the group’s own myth of itself. While none of the six has reckoned fully with this myth at the beginning, all do so by the end. This is not true of "The Big Chill," which gradually chokes on its own self-righteousness.
It is also fun. In "The Big Chill," the former radicals reunite for a funeral, which is unfortunate, because it gives them nothing to do but smoke joints and jaw. In "What To Do," the six former anarchists must act, thereby illustrating Aristotle’s dictum that only through action is character revealed. We judge them not by what they say but by what they do. And eventually, they all do what is right.
It’s possible that an old Kreuzberger would find "What To Do" as phony as Potsdamer Platz. The real Autonomen, as they called themselves, pulled some nasty tricks to keep "imperialists" out of the neighborhood. For example, they waged a campaign of threats against a restaurant that was too bourgeois for their taste, finally shutting it down by throwing human feces all over the place. The Autonomen didn’t care that the proprietor was a well known Marxist filmmaker; they just wanted to be the most nihilistic kids on the block.
But this is not the tone of "What To Do." On the contrary, it is suffused with a youthful, funky exuberance that was doubtless what made Kreuzberg appealing in the last days before the fall of the Wall. So I recommend it highly - in the spirit of anarchism that knows how to liberate without doing harm.
Back in January I wrote about a new film from Germany called "Head-On" ("Gegen die Wand'), which at that time was playing only in New York and L.A. To judge from the number of reviews popping up everywhere, the film has been deemed sufficiently marketable to open in a few more cities (like Boston). So here is my review again, if you will forgive the repetition. This film, the fourth from Turkish-German writer/director Fatih Akin, is worth seeing.
Comic, tragic, absurdist and affirmative, "Head-On" is about two people moving at escape velocity...but in opposite directions. Cahit (Birol Ünel) is a Turkish-born denizen of the Hamburg punk scene whose marriage to a German woman has failed, sending him into drink and depression. As the film opens, he leaves his miserable job picking up empties in a bar and drives very fast into a concrete wall ("Gegen die Wand" means "against the wall").
Alive but banged up, he is next seen in the waiting room of a psychiatric clinic, where he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a daughter of Turkish immigrants who rebels against her tradition-minded family by slashing her wrists.
Recognizing scraggly Cahit as a kindred spirit, Sibel conceives a better escape route than suicide - marriage to a guy who, being Turkish, will pass muster with her family, but who also, being a complete lowlife, will not care about the wild fling she hopes to enjoy once she’s free. As it turns out, Cahit does care. Or rather, he learns (re-learns?) what it means to care. And Sibel is drawn, reluctantly, into caring for him. They don't live happily ever after. On the contrary, some grim things occur before the end (this is a German film, after all). But they do pull each other back from the brink.
"Head-On" is so timely, it's easy to miss the subtleties. For example, the New York Times describes Sibel's background as a "cloistered society where women are kept captive by their fathers and brothers." But this is a caricature. Sibel's father (Demir Gökgöl) is strict, and her brother (Cem Akin) is a bully. But they are not the Taliban. If they were, then Sibel's mother (Aysel Iscan) would not dye her hair blond and chain smoke. And the hilarious scene where Cahit comes to call would not end the way it does. After listening to his son berate Cahit, the father turns to Sibel and asks, "Is your mind made up?" And when she says yes, the stern old man shrugs: "What is left to say? When two people are in love..."
For Cahit and Sibel the road is not just rocky, it is land-mined. Against the presumption that it’s always good to shake off the fetters of tradition and religion, "Head-On" opposes a distinctly unromantic portrait of the liberated Western lifestyle. Cahit wants to end his life of booze, drugs, impersonal sex, and selfish behavior; Sibel wants to start hers. But for a moment they glimpse something better: not the old ways, but not their total rejection, either. The sweet spot is when, after cleaning up Cahit's pigpen of a flat, Sibel cooks him a meal of stuffed peppers. The music on the soundtrack is perfect, the camera lingers on her hands, and even though the film contains several sex scenes, this is the most erotic.
There is no hotter issue in Europe right now than the assimilation of large Muslim immigrant populations. But Europeans still have a tendency to think of assimilation as a one-way street. Here in the nation of immigrants, we have learned to think of it as a two-way street. Indeed, in recent years millions of immigrants have come to America and learned new ways. But they have also kept some of the old, and in the process, the rest of us have learned (remembered?) that life is best lived between the poles of individual liberation and the constraints of family and community. If the success of "Head-On" is any measure, then the same lesson is being pondered in Europe.
Ever wonder why, after shelling out nine dollars at the local multiplex, you find yourself squinting at the screen and feeling vaguely cheated by the quality of the image? Every time I've complained about this, I've been told, basically, that SukEmIn Theaters International uses state-of-the-art technology - and, as a not so subtle afterthought, "Maybe you need new glasses, lady."
So whom should I believe, the local popcorn merchants or my own damn eyes?
My eyes, as it happens. "The Big Picture," Edward Jay Epstein's fascinating new book about the movie industry, explains how multiplexes cut costs by employing only one projectionist, causing the occasional neglected machine to jam, and the projection lamp to burn a hole in the film.
The one time I saw this happen was during the closing sequence of "Troy," when the tall towers were aflame anyway. For this moment of poetic justice I received a full refund.
But as Epstein shows, there's a connection between this occasional meltdown and my chronic sense that films look better on my home DVD player: "To prevent such costly mishaps [burnt films], multiplexes frequently have their projectionists slightly expand the gap between the gate that supports the film and the lamp. As a result ... films are often shown slightly out of focus."
Apparently the skateboard set don't care about this, since their eyesight is already shot from all those computer games... But if you care, tell the manager - right after you butter your popcorn.
DO AN ENTRY ON EPSTEIN'S BOOK AND "DEMYSTIFICATIONS" SITE FOR HOLLYWOOD:
Elisabeth Bumiller reports in the New York Times on the movie-viewing habits of the president, whose home theater surpasses anything on offer at Bang & Olufson. (The White House screening room was built during Ronald Reagan's presidency, with $150,000 donated by a group of disinterested citizens who just happened to work for Disney, Universal, Fox, Paramount, Columbia, MGM, and Warner Brothers.)
Unlike LBJ, who slept through movies (a presidential trait found also in my spouse), and unlike Nixon, who watched the same movie over and over (yes, it was "Patton"), Bush seems to appreciate movies, as evidenced by his choice for best film of 2004: "Friday Night Lights," a sleeper about high school football in Odessa, Texas.
If you like movies but don't like Bush, then this is a good time not to indulge in stereotypes. Because "Friday Night Lights" is not your typical sports movie, and its portrait of football mania in the sovereign state of Texas is not painted with red-white-and-blue triumphalism.
Based on a book by H.G. Bissinger, "Friday Night Lights" is pretty formulaic on the surface: a team with one star player (Derek Luke) and a crusty coach (Billy Bob Thornton) passes through trials and tribulations, including losing the star to injury, then pulls together and heads for the state championship.
The first fifteen minutes are so fast-paced, it makes your average hip-hop video look sleepy. But then, mercifully, the pace slows, and the film begins to breathe a wonderful, subtle life. It is not triumphalist - indeed, it shows lucidly what happens to people (and towns) when they become too obsessed with winning.
But neither does "Friday Night Lights" take the easy path of ridiculing the narrow horizon of its characters. Instead, it treats them as full human beings and explores the hard realities behind their passionate compulsion to win. And without giving away the ending, I can say that by the time the team hits the boards for the Big Game, this movie has given new vitality to old cliche about sports being more about honor than victory.
In case you chose not to spend Spring Break in cold, rainy Berlin, here is a good overview of the recent Internationale Filmfestspiele. I like this treatment because the writer takes a critical attitude - a welcome change from the eye-glazing glosses found not only in film festival programs but also in many so-called reviews. Of the films that appeared, I predict that only one, "Sophie Scholl - The Final Days" ("Sophie Scholl - Die Letzten Tage") will make it to the United States. It's good that this one will, but bad that so many won't.
My British colleague Clive Davis recently posted a couple of interesting links. The first is to Chuck Colson's obtuse assessment of "Sideways," which made me agree with Clive that Colson should definitely not be a movie critic.
The second is to an article about how, at press screenings of new films, the "Christian" (meaning evangelical) reviewers are the only ones asking serious questions. This rings true to my experience. One of the talks I gave relating to "Hole in Our Soul" was to a group of young rock and rap musicians who used those styles to convey their evangelical message. They asked me whether I thought there was such a thing as an "evil sound." After battling the blandness of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), these young people clearly did not think there was. But they had given the whole topic a lot more thought than most of the many other groups I encountered on that circuit.
That's why I'm glad not only that Colson is not a critic but also that people who think like him do not, generally exert censorship power over their co-religionists - never mind the rest of us!
I have written about Oscar night elsewhere and will link to that piece ASAP. In the meantime, three cheers for the Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler, winner for Best Original Song, for insisting on delivering a few bars of it himself during the 20 seconds most winners have to thank everyone they ever knew, plus the heavenly host and all the powers under the earth.
Drexler was defying the Academy's refusal to let him perform the song himself. Instead, "Al Otro Lado del Rio" ("The Other Side of the River"), from "The Motorcycle Diaries," a film about the youthful Che Guevara, was Rolfed by the Spanish pop star Antonio Bandera, accompanied by American rock idol Carlos Santana (born in Mexico). Back in Montevideo, Drexler is being hailed as both a winner and a rebel - which is entirely appropriate, given that Che was the first fully commodified socialist revolutionary.
It is, of course, customary to have Big Stars perform the nominated songs, rather than the obscure nobodies who actually wrote them. On occasion this has added emotion and excitement to the proceedings, but not this time.
Beyonce (sorry, my software doesn't have a fake accent aigu) is a very beautiful young woman with great pipes. But somebody - her managers? her fans? herself? - is working overtime to waste both beauty and talent. Even ghastlier than her costumes were the songs she sang. And ghastliest of all was "Learn to be Lonely" from "The Phantom of the Opera." Here the Academy allowed the songwriter onstage, since he is, after all, Andrew Lloyd "Clobber 'Em Again" Webber.
I only have ten seconds left, so I'd like to thank Counting Crows for their energetic and unpretentious performance of "Accidentally in Love," from "Shrek 2." They get my nomination for Best Imitation of Van Morrison and also (hands down) Best Hair.