Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Second Disc: Sadako 3D, First Impressions

Welcome to The Second Disc. This is when I take the time away from the limitations of my own collection for a little while and discuss film further into simple reviews. These side entries will dive into different genres, key moments that interest me in film's history, some of my favorite directors, and of course films I don't personally own... yet, among other things.

Today's episode will cover: Sadako 3D.

Sadako 3D is a Japanese horror film that was released on May 12th of this year. It's the latest installment of the Ring franchise and is based on S by Koji Suzuki, who also wrote the original Ring novels first released in the 90s. This is Suzuki's first Ring novel in over 10 years. Sadly since I live in the United States I've only been able to get a small amount of information at the time. I have a poster, basic plot info, and a trailer but without any subtitles. I am especially upset I have no info on the book it's based on. I certainly don't expect the book to hit the states for a long time. It took years for the original novels to come here but I've concluded that's because of the success of the remake in the early 2000s. So it's going to be a while before I see this movie unless I import it when it comes out on home video internationally. For the time being I do have some comments to make on it based on the little I have.

Point number one: Suzuki's involvement.
When I first heard about this I thought it was an attempt to bring back a popular franchise for the sake of winning a few bucks at the box office. Basically making a similar move when it comes to sequel after sequel or remakes of the many franchises we have here in the States. These sequels and remakes rarely involve the original creators or even someone who's been involved for a long period of time. The perfect example of this is Darren Lynn Bousman who directed and was involved in more Saw films, Saw 2, 3, and 4, than the original creator James Wan. Still Bousman was not involved in the later sequels and it was very present in it's style and execution. The point I'm trying to make is that when the original creator leaves a franchise it tends to nose dive because it may go in a direction the fans don't want it to go or goes in an inappropriate direction for the series. But then I came to find out the original creator is involved with this project! Again, very little information is found on the subject so I don't know how involved he was. His name just may be attached because he wrote a new novel. Wait, he wrote a new novel and that's the source material for the new film?! That's what surprised me the most about the film. Maybe it's because I am far too used to Joe Nobody writing a script made up of all the bad ideas he's had over the years stapled together into a script into a movie that looks and feels close enough to get the idea they're going for. So with the involvement of the man who created the franchise it certainly could be a good film. Not great, but at least pretty good. What tipped me off as a potential in poor quality is....

Point number two: The trailer.
Below I have posted the trailer so you can see what I am talking about.

So at first there feels like there could be potential for this one, for maybe the first 20 seconds or so. You've got a new generation of characters learning about this horror that has plagued many before it. Seeing the hint that the means of Sadako coming over is through a computer, which is a logical decision at this point in tech, reminds me a lot of the Spiral, 13 episode TV series that played in Japan. That was based around the cursed video being on a disc. Also in the first half or so it does give the hint that there may be somewhat of an atmospheric sense to it. I think I'm honestly really letting a lot fly by me at this point and am trying to keep up the potential it'll at least have some redeeming value. I'm a huge fan of this franchise and have been screwed plenty of times before. Not to mention this is the first Ring film from Japan in over 10 years so it's safe to say I'm pretty excited for any sort of addition. What comes next is in the trailer is so poor I wasn't even disappointed since I expected it. I realize using 404 - File Not Found is the computer equivalent to the fuzzy TV noise the first film utilized. It doesn't have the same type of terror to it. A fuzzy TV is a constantly moving image with a nasty noise attached to it which makes it all the more unnerving. Seeing the 404 error makes me feel like I should check my internet connection or restart my computer. It's just sitting there, plain and simple, not doing anything else. Gives off more of an annoyance than anything. Maybe it executes it better in the film, I don't know, I will in time. Then of course comes the hint at the famous 'Sadako coming out of the screen' sequence with the new adaptation of it. No more VCRs and TVs. Sadako is now streaming! Now I realize the Japanese film industry doesn't have to booming bucks we do in Hollywood. I would like to argue that the effect shown in the trailer (and the performance) looked really bad and overblown. Keep in mind that back in 1998 for a fraction of the budget they pulled off the same effect but far better acted and far better pulled off special effects wise, and it was done very indie. To finish off this section I am going to include said video below. Keep in mind this is the climax of the first Ring film so, spoilers...

Point number three: 3D
I should have figured this would be diagnosed with the cancer that has been hitting far too many films recently. The plague of 3D. As you can tell I am not a fan of 3D at all. I've seen a few flicks with the new tech of 3D and I find it to be distracting or not really noticeable enough because I'm immersed enough into the story and everything as is I don't need a gimmick to force me into it. I know many people have made the argument about Avatar (A film I am glad I haven't seen) and it's 3D but not everyone has the tech or the knowledge to create the 3D experience I heard that one put together. It's a gimmick that should not be required for any film for it to be a complete experience. So with that said the idea of taking what I consider to be a pretty intelligent franchise (in some cases) and utilizing 3D as it's way to scare the audience is scary in and of itself. The only aspect of this that I can see working is having Sadako coming out of the TV/monitor. It's very iconic for this franchise to have something related to that. Doesn't mean they have to use it but I digress. And that's the only instance where they could make good use of the 3D and it's entirely a gimmick that would only be effective theatrically. At home it just isn't the same especially on a widescreen, flat panel HDTV with 3D glasses on. Now if it could be done with an old school TV that would be different, yet the blue and red of old school 3D that would be required would kill the effect in a different way. Part of making horror is with subtlety and atmosphere. When you have your key villain literally jumping out at you it takes that subtlety and atmosphere and throws it out the window.

No, sir, I don't like it. The teaser gives off more of a bad vibe than a good one. As a fanatic of this series I have of course examined it over and over, read the books, seen all the other films multiple times, so I would say I have a good detection method on what's best for the franchise. What seems to send the strangest vibe in my direction is the combination of what's seems to be contained within the film and Suzuki's involvement. I still ask the question how involved he was in the film itself. I wonder how close to the source material this one stuck. It just seems so odd that Suzuki, the original writer of the story, would include tropes made famous by the film adaptations that were never in the original books to begin with. I am speaking of the crawling out of the TV scare that everyone seems to know the franchise by. The original stories were pretty smart with a very well thought out, scientific solution and explanation to what's going on in the world you're experiencing. If Suzuki's new novel is well represented on the screen then I may be hesitant to check out his new book whenever it hits stateside. It feels like he's falling from grace. He's good at what he does and his Ring stories are some of my favorites. I can only hope that his book is better than how this new film looks. In the end I am a huge whore for this franchise so I'll be sure to pick this one up when it hits DVD. And yes I'll probably import it even cause who knows when this will come to America. I'm impatient.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: The Most Beautiful

Version I Watched: Standard definition Eclipse series DVD as part of the First Films of Akira Kurosawa box set.

Starring: Takashi Shumura, Soji Kiyokawa, and Ichiro Sugai.

History: An original story written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, set up to as a propaganda film from the Japanese end (Obviously) during WWII. Kurosawa filmed at an actual factory in Hiratsuke and to get a better performance out of the actors he also had the actors live on the campus of the factory during filming. Since this was filmed during wartime there was a government order to save film which explains why there are no credits in the film aside from a title and 'The End.' Kurosawa would end up marrying Yoko Yaguchi, one of the actresses, shortly after filming. They would stay married until her death just under forty years later.

My Personal History: This was my first viewing. The box set was a Christmas present.

Review: Well here's something a bit different than my other reviews so far. Get used to it because I love Kurosawa's work and I've been meaning to get through the four disc box set I have for a long time. Not just that but I'm pretty into the early days of film as well. What fascinates me most about this film being born and raised in the States is it's a topic we see a lot but not from the perspective it's from. This was filmed during and the story is set during WWII but of course from the Japanese perspective. At it's most basic level the film is about a group of factory workers who get an emergency quota increase for a temporary amount of time because of a development in the war. What starts out as a pretty fun group of girls slowly downward spiral and become to succumb to the stress and fatigue the longer hours and more demanding work that comes with the new quota.

So I think I know what you may be thinking. It's a war film that was produced during the war and I've already stated it's considered a propaganda film. To answer your question there isn't really any sort of racism toward the other countries they were fighting aside from what you would expect. There's one line where they mention destroying America and Britain but that's the mindset at the time. I know how we felt about Japan during that time but from a modern perspective we sure love the hell out of their electronics (I love Playstation ^_^). So what this film does instead of bringing down the enemy to get their point across what was done was they glorified their country and their work ethic, and the work ethic among these girls is fantastic. At a level I couldn't possibly imagine. To point out how big of a commitment they have toward their work and country during this time of war is their response to the increase in quota. Their leader, Watanabe (Played by Yoko Yaguchi), goes to the management because she is requesting an even heavier work load. The men were given a 100% increase whereas the women were only given a 50% increase. Watanabe requests a 2/3 increase since she believes the girls she oversees are capable of such work. Up to this point in the film the only way we've seen the girls is in a fun and goofy way. They really act the way one would expect a group of young girls who look between the ages of late teens and early 20s would be. They are perky and fun! Also when they are first shown in the factory working they're hardly working. They're at their stations talking to each other and when they see their boss coming through the area they quickly jump back to work acting like they've been concentrating the whole time. It's great character development especially for when their life gets more stressful during the emergency quota and their attitude changes.

Sometimes it enhances a film to watch it under a certain context. An earlier Kurosawa film, Sanshuro Sugata, is interesting to watch knowing that the film was edited by 17 minutes shortly after it's initial release by the Japanese censors and it was unfortunately never recovered. So you're left watching the film wondering what was missing. What sort of character and story did it add and what was taken away by it not being there. Questions left unanswered by the cruelty of time and old school handles of film. This one doesn't quite have such a history but watching it under a certain context is helpful. I stated earlier that this film was shot in a real factory which Kurosawa used to given more of a documentary-like feel. It may be a case of how words are being used but I felt it gave it more of a realism factor instead of documentary but I suppose that's the same definition only using two words to describe it. Knowing it's a real factory instead of "WOW! That sure LOOKS like a factory" adds a lot to it. It's like the difference between using a real car and a real road for a car chase and crash sequence instead of using CG. It also enhances the realism factor knowing the girls lived in the actual dorms as well. It was super helpful because they look incredibly comfortable with each other and their surroundings. Lastly there's the fact that it's a film from the era it represents makes you feel like you are really there in the war instead of feeling like it's a representation of the war retrospectively.

So the quota gets bigger and the girls have a lot more work to handle. The big conflict that comes up is getting sick and unable to work. Speaking from an amazingly lazy American perspective the idea of getting a day off work especially during busy season can be the most incredible thing that can happen. Not for these girls. They are avoiding any chance of getting caught being sick. They truly know and feel the love for their country in the time of need. Their dedication does seem to come out of a sense of fear, though. The reason they don't want to get sick and go home to get better, or at least what I picked up on, was that it would have been shameful to wind up back home in this time of need. It is never made explicitly clear, or nothing I noticed. Yet this is how I felt it came across. The same sort of reaction comes from Watanabe much later in the film. She was working a long shift, was interrupted, and once she returned she was so tired that she misplaced the sight she was calibrating and then it was missing in and among 2,000+ sights. Her guilt was so strong she dedicated almost 24 hours straight with next to no breaks just to find it and properly calibrate it. The guilt she would gain from the idea that it may, not guaranteed to, but only may cause the lost lives of many soldiers drove her insane. Much like the last film I reviewed I'm sure there are tons of cultural things in this I'm not fully understanding. From my perspective I do wonder then if some of this dedication is out of fear or actual dedication. One of the girls has been running a fever for days but is trying to avoid their residential nurse from finding out so she doesn't have to go home. It's a situation where I'm not sure if they're actually dedicated or are just in fear of who would be disappointed in them. Watanabe is showing dedication because I know most people wouldn't want to take the risk of being responsible for someone else's death. However I'm not sure how many people would go dang near crazy trying to fix it even after their management told them to stop because they're double checked before use anyhow. If there's more details to educate me on things of this nature culturally please let me know. I'm curious.

This was a pretty neat look at the early years of a great film director. I wasn't that terribly immersed into it at first yet the second half was really engaging. I'm trying to think who this would specifically appeal to in this day and age. The reason it has stood the test of time is because of Kurosawa. If he wasn't as big of an influence on cinema as a whole this film may have been forgotten through the ages. Or maybe I don't know what I talk about and it could still be considered a classic. But since the film's availability was next to none until Criterion came into the picture with their hard on for Kurosawa and decided to release this and three other films together. So in short this is a pretty cool thing to see for Kurosawa fans to see where he started and what he was doing while still trying to develop what he would become famous for. Otherwise I would also send this the direction of history buffs. Depending where you're living chances are you're only seeing wars from one perspective. This film is a good chance to get a unique perspective of the biggest war in recent history.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: Whispering Corridors

Version I Watched: Region 3 DVD from Thailand.

History: Surprisingly little is found on the history of this film especially since it's the first in a franchise. An original story written by Jung-Ok In and Ki-hyeong Park and then was directed by Ki-hyeong Park. It was released in South Korea on May 30th 1998. Over the next few years it was slowly released in other countries but the states didn't get it until 2005 on DVD. The film was enough of a success to spawn many sequels. The fifth one, A Blood Pledge, was released as recent as 2009.
Personal History: This was my first viewing. I bought this on a whim at a video rental store (One of the few that are left).
Review: Asian horror has been taking the world by storm, or at least it was around the turn of the century. For about a decade there's been a large series of Asian horror films made apparent in the mainstream media in America whether it was straight to DVD or in the form of many a remake. Some examples of Asian horror remakes include The Ring, The Grudge, Shutter and Mirrors. Some were successful (The Ring, The Grudge), and some were not (One Missed Call currently holds a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes). This is a trends that's been dying out as of late minus a few straight to DVD sequels. One of the common themes was that the original was way better than the remake as is a common theme just like how the book tends to be better than the movie, but it would matter who you're talking to. Usually the way the originals are better than the remakes is because of what Asian horror does best, atmosphere. The typical theme of Asian horror is to spend a lot of time building the horrifying environment that surrounds the story. Rarely will it use cheap jump scares that tropes American horror. Instead it forced you to realize and understand the horror that is present and whatever it is truly hates you and probably doesn't even want you dead. It probably wants to torture you with fear and decide only then if you live or die. What makes them scary is this building of fear so even the exposition scenes wondering when the terror comes makes the overall experience unsettling instead of just "scary." The remakes may from time to time retain some of this but only by happenstance. It replaces a lot of it with the modern American horror tropes of jump scares and cheap thrills that makes middle school girls scream and no one else. To the best of my knowledge, Whispering Corridors has not been remade... yet... but does it still hold onto a lot of the things that makes Asian horror so great or is it one that didn't quite grab the attention that some other films have?
Well the subtlety of this said genre doesn't make an appearance right away, it actually starts off somewhat explosively. It's the beginning of a new school year and late at night the day before classes start one of the teachers is frantically looking for something that clearly terrifies her. Another teacher believes she's just cramming to be prepared for the next morning to teach so he dismisses it. Finally she gets on the phone telling someone about a student has returned to the school, but this student has been dead for years. Unable to further explain she's cut off by an attack on her life. She is strangled by a young girl then hung as if it were suicide. The whole event is somewhat graphic and doesn't quite have that subtlety one would expect from this type of horror. At least when it pulls it off it pulls it off in that specific style that Asian horror does. It's hard to explain. It's a certain type of feel and emotion that comes from these films that's so unique to their country. It isn't just that feeling I get from this one, though. I doubt this was intentional but I got a strong 80s horror feel out of it. It may have been the DVD I was watching. The version I own isn't the creme de la creme. The DVD menu looks quite cheap and the video isn't top notch. It's easy to tell it wasn't digitally remastered or at least not much. So it has a great VHS feel to the video feed I was watching. I would also like to point out this was made in the late 90s making the 80s feel give it an outdated feel. Not the intentional 70s style some grindhouse-esque films put forth. But it wasn't just the version I own that I feel caused this. It very well could be the production value of the film. Can't say for sure how strong the South Korean film industry is. Sure isn't as strong as the American industry, which of course goes without saying. It's also the music choices, the acting, it just gives off this vibe of the 80s to me. This was a trend that came and went as the film went on, especially when a primitive camera trick was used to create a cheap scare.
The rest of the story as I'm sure one would imagine takes place in the school where this murder happened. This is an all girls school and from what I read it's apparently a typical all girls school. A fact I hope they only mean in clothing and setting because the way the teachers treat their students is not so pleasant. I've heard stories and stereotypes involving countries like China, Japan, Korea, and related countries in the area having it a lot tougher in their schools but I cannot imagine this is the norm. My guess is it was exaggerated for the sake of terror. The title is very appropriate for this film. Whispering Corridors is a title I originally thought was in reference to the ghost(s) that roam the halls of the school seeing as I heard this was a ghost story. Turns out it represents the gossip and rumors that goes from girl to girl between classes, a theme that's very present in this film. One of the first big controversies in the school the other faculty members try to stop before it happens is the destruction of the reputation of the teacher who they believe committed suicide. Well dead or not the girls were still talking about this horrible teacher because she was painfully strict in the figurative and the literal sense. There is a brief flashback where all the girls in her homeroom are lined up in the hall and when one of them accidentally does adhere to her strict rules the teacher strikes the student in the hand with her ruler. So hard the strike causes her skin to split open. It was hard to predict something like this based on her introduction when she was killed. Not saying it's an unpredictable character choice especially when it comes to a school setting. Things like this were not hinted at initially and if anything it was going to be a bunch of young, high school girls who make her seem like a horrible person instead of them speaking about how horrible she treated her students. It was around this point that I started to care less about her character causing me to care less about her death. It's one of those things where unless they're killing off the characters who were more likable or that you would want to live. But their teacher was a huge, abusive pain. The same type of person the audience hopes gets killed off.
After the murder of their teacher she is replaced by an even worse teacher. He flat out tells his students to forget any sort of social life for the upcoming plan year and then decides to plan exam for the very next day. Class is dismissed in favor of them going home to study. The teacher is very physically abusive, too. At different points throughout the film he throws a chalk board eraser at a student, hits another in the head with a book, slaps one in the face, and another he basically beats the ever living piss out of. Granted each time one of the students was acting up or disobeying orders. Physical abuse I would never consider to be a justifiable solution to this sort of thing. It's the type of things a student either gets a stern talking to over or get sent to the principles office. Now going back to the time when he beat the ever living piss out of one of the girls. One of the students has a hobby on the side of painting. What she wound up painting was a portrait of the teacher who dies at the beginning of the film hanging where she was found. It's only show in brief glances so the audience never gets a full glimpse of it for a long enough time. It is quite dark and grim as any portrait of an individual who appears to have committed suicide. The teacher gets understandably upset when they come across this painting stating the VP nearly fainted when they saw it. Still, taking their frustration out on a student physically is not an okay thing, which does establish the harsh nature of the school even further. The only thing is that this makes his inevitable death all the more justified. The story was building it's way toward it.
As I keep talking about I keep thinking how this film lacked pretty heavily in the two major aspects it needed to succeed in. The story and the scares, or rather their execution of these elements. My main problem is that this film is sold as a ghost story but I don't feel the film itself brings a whole lot of attention to the supernatural aspect of it, either that or their efforts on bringing it out was poor, but probably both. Throughout the first third of the film it would jump from place to place giving more and more info causing more confusion not really knowing what's going on right away. This is partially due to the poor writing and bad editing. A subplot involved a former student who is now a teacher at the school. When she was a student her best friend committed suicide in the art room (now abandoned) and it's hinted that it's her friends ghost that haunts the halls now. Each time this subplot is visited we find out an ounce more about her friend who seems to be one of the most wonderful girls anyone could meet. Hard to imagine why she would possibly commit suicide. It just felt like not all of this was coming together properly and communicated well as I've been saying over and over. So many times I found myself confused by the story, what's going on, who is supposed to be who in the story, why said person is important, and the reveal about Miss Hur's (the woman who used to be a teacher) friend's death. It's revealed later in the story in a flashback how her friend dies and it appears to be more of an accident than a suicide. I felt like there was something I was missing when the moment came. Was it really an accident? What's just happened? How is she haunting the halls? The yearbooks that are covered in blood imply she is possessing students? But then how did she kill the teacher at the beginning of the film? My problem is that it felt like she needed to possess students to carry out her kills yet it felt like there were some kills that didn't require it especially when she appeared before the two antagonists at the end of the film as if she is really standing there. So was that just her spirit? There's just so much going on that doesn't seem to make total sense in context of the film's logic. While finishing up this entry I did some re-reading of the little material I had at hand. What I found is apparently there's a lot of social commentary with South Korean schools at the time. So I imagine there were a lot of cultural things that went into this film that I of course wouldn't understand. I still don't get how that could possibly be relevant to a ghost story... but again it's a cultural thing.
This was a movie I bought on a whim. I was fascinated by the little I've read about it (The little there is) and it wasn't priced too high. I finally got around to it, and while I didn't have very high expectations since I didn't know what to expect, I was still pretty disappointed. It just didn't live up to its cult status in my eyes. That's why they call them cult films, not everyone loves them but a select audience. The strange thing is how even though I found myself dissatisfied I am strangely fascinated by it. I definitely want to see the films that follow and what direction they take. The sequels are only related in title and theme. Characters and story continuations do not make an appearance. It's all in the ghosts and how it's always an all girl school or a cast mostly in young, teenage girls. What this film reminded me of a lot was the Tomie series, a Japanese horror series all themed around a girl named Tomie who keeps coming back to life murdering men. The similarities end at the fact that they're both Asian horror series that have a lot of entries and they're not the highest quality entertainment. Something about them is fun to watch, though. The best way I can describe it to an American audience is how it gives off the same thrill as watching the Friday the 13th films. They're mindless horror fun. I have a feeling when I get my hands on copies of the later Whispering Corridor films I would enjoy them solely for those purposes. Since I critically examined the first one and saw what it really is I can only expect that from the rest of them.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

My Edition: Criterion Collection DVD.

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton.

History: Based loosely on the 1922 short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The era it takes place in was modernized for the film. The only things that are retained in the film are Benjamin's name and the aging process. The screenplay was written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, and was directed by David Fincher. The film's history began in the early 80s when producer Ray Stark obtained the rights to the story. Over the years some of the directors briefly attached to this project included Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Spike Jonze with the starring role of Benjamin Button potentially to be played by Martin Short, Tom Cruise, or John Travolta. It was originally set to be released in May of 2008 but was later moved to Christmas that same year. It opened in third place behind Marley & Me and Bedtime Stories but still managed to gross approx. 333 million worldwide, more than doubling it's original budget of 150 million.

My Personal History: I saw this when it first hit theatres. This is my first viewing since then, 3 and 1/2 years later.

Review: I'll put it in the forefront I know nothing about the original story this is based on. I do now know how this story is very different from the original story. I couldn't remember who wrote it or how accurate I heard it was when I first saw this, or even this viewing before I started researching for this review. I did wonder how recent it was because of many of the things I saw in this film (Like references to hurricane Katrina). I had this funny feeling in the back of my mind that the story had to have been modernized. It just didn't make sense that this story which has a classic feel to it is referencing events as recent as less than a decade ago. As you read by now I obviously was correct. I was more correct than I thought because of how little in common the original story has with this adaptation of it. But before I become my own pet peeve we need to move forward. This is not the book, this is the movie, with a whole new idea based around said story. It's a matter of what the film does, if it's effective, etc, and it's credibility is not based on how accurate it is to the source material. If a film is judged by that then that mean's Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a better film than the classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory which is something I am not willing to accept.

Before I get into the film I want to quickly touch on what I saw first, like many other people for most films, the promotional material. I specifically picked out the poster I did at the beginning of my review. I feel it's the only truly well done promotional material released (in America at least) for this film. It's a great tease for what's to come. For those who are somewhat familiar with the plot get a peek into what Benjamin's life is like at the beginning. He's born an old man. Those who don't know the plot are caught by a bizarre image. "Why is that baby wrinkly? Does he have a disease? What's the story?" It draws a lot of attention toward the film and I feel that poster would be effective in bringing in an audience. Now the most popular posters I felt were not only poorly done but also just really annoying to look at. I seriously can't stand looking at the mainstream posters that came out for this film. The two I'm talking about are the ones of Brad Pitt's face and of Cate Blanchett's face. First, Brad's face looks like someone stuck a tube of helium in the back of his head and now they're pumping until his eyes pop out. Then Cate's face looks like a plastic surgeon has taken all of her loose skin and is now right behind her stretching it as far back as it will go (ala Brazil). The only other one I did actually like was one showcasing one of Benjamin and Daisy's first meetings. They're sitting under a table with a candle lit and a great quote, "You're different from anybody I ever met..." is a fantastic poster that doesn't make it painfully obvious who is starring in the film and delivers on the story. The sad story behind this poster is the similar one's that follow (so this is more of a criticism as a whole) which are the exact same template only with the "insert photo here" spot in the middle changed and the quote below it changed. It makes the promotional material as a whole look really cheap and poorly made.

On to the actual film...

So this film starts off different than I thought it would... with Hurricane Katrina? Daisy in lying in bed in a hospital and right from the start it's easily implied she's going to die any day or any moment now. She is with there with her daughter at her bedside. Due to her failing sight and strength she asks her daughter to read from a diary written by Benjamin. So I have some beef right off the bat with this whole element of the story. Yeah it's cool that they're reading from a diary written by Benjamin himself. It's a pretty cool way of telling the story in the same way of sitting around with your grandfather who lived through both world wars, served for the president, and made out with Marilyn Monroe and he decides to tell you all about it in a single sitting it's so fascinating. The major problem I have with this is we see exactly where Daisy winds up, without Benjamin by her side which either means she lives longer than he does or he leaves her for whatever reason at some point. Not to mention her daughter clearly has no idea who Benjamin is which seems kinda odd for Benjamin having such an impact on Daisy's life that she wants his diary read to her on her DEATH BED! Whatever, make the best of it, just try and enjoy it.

One of the first things I noticed about this film was the CG work. In terms of casting at different ages it makes sense to cast literally different people for different ages such as they did with Daisy. With Benjamin there was going to be a heavy load of CG or hardcore makeup for the film anyway no matter who was cast in his early life to mid teens. I must say that going with Brad Pitt playing Benjamin at every age (Minus when he's super old/young) was a fantastic choice simply because of what was able to be done with the CG work. I can say without a doubt that Benjamin in his early life when he is an old young man is some of the best use of CG that's ever been done in the history of cinema. Far too often is CG used in a way where it looks painfully obvious (Which could have been a cause of laziness, budget, time, etc) but in this it was done truly TRULY well. Brad Pitt's face flows seamlessly with the rest of his fake body for the film. It gives a real to life feeling that he is an old man. This is amplified by his performance as well. He felt his... age? I legitimately forgot it was Brad Pitt playing the role until he got much... older? The way he walked, the way he talked, the way he carried himself overall. It was really strong. And another thing that I felt was strong initially was the relationship and bond between Benjamin and Daisy. They first meet when they're still less than 10 years old. One of my favorite scenes is very brief but very effective. It's the evening they first meet. Daisy, at this age played by the wonderful Elle Fanning, wakes up Benjamin in the middle of the night. She drapes a sheet over a table and they light a candle so they can see underneath. Benjamin is already in love with this girl after meeting her just that day so this is amazing for him. Daisy is fascinated by him because of his unique condition unable to comprehend at that time what makes him the way he is. The chemistry is beautiful and well establishes the kind of life they will experience with such high emotions.

As he grew older/younger and the CG and makeup became less apparent things actually started getting somewhat more confusing. It felt like for both Benjamin and Daisy by the time they reached a certain age they didn't appear to change much at all until they got to a much more noticeable age. This is where the slow pace and subtlety of the changes in their age falls apart a little. A lot of the fun of this film is watching Benjamin slowly become not old. Once he hits the appearance age of around 50 or so the changes aren't that significant as it would in real life so I guess I shouldn't be complaining, but the issue I had is that it was a lot harder to tell his age because in one scene it felt like he was 50, the next 30, the next 40, etc. The same goes for Daisy in the opposite direction. I guess this is more my beef with aging stories in general since in 30 minutes you get to see characters age from childhood to teens to adulthood which is a greater change in appearance and everything. After that they may as well be the age of the actors playing them until there's more makeup brought out to make them look even older. The actors at least do act their age in this. I must applause the leads for their work. One actress that was going to play Daisy before Cate Blanchett was cast was going to be Rachel Weisz which wouldn't have been as well acted but would have been a lot nicer to look at (But that's a discussion for another day). But Cate Blanchett knocked it out of the park with her performance mostly when she was at her much older age. Her presence as an elderly person in her 60s+ was spot on, which was assisted greatly by the superb makeup. Brad Pitt made me believe he was a child stuck in an old man's body. He walked and talked like an old man but his attitude was very childlike. A perfect example of this is when he is in his wheelchair earlier in the film and he rolls right to the edge of the stairs on the porch damn near falling down the steps so he could watch and admire the other kids playing across the street. Once he reached a certain age it felt like he just stopped aging, he seemed to stop changing period. He actually did little change over a lot of the film. I felt well into his 30s-40s he was still that same man he was as a child, the naive and clueless person he's always been, which wasn't helping his case because Daisy became a rebellious, horny bitch by the time she was an adult. Such a shame for someone who was such an angel in her child years. Then all of a sudden a change of pace happens somewhere around halfway and they're completely different people. Now you'd think they were a couple of fun loving hippies who are living to party up and down in their apartment they have almost entirely unfurnished. That is more so a complaint on the story itself I guess...
Yes I mostly touched on their elderly (elderly?) performances, that's where they came alive in this story. Watching them act out their story when they met that middle spot in their ages just wasn't as exciting considering the story that's being told. And I'm again super thankful for the makeup and CG work so they don't look like that old guy from the six flags commercials back in the day.

Narrations can really be a hit or a miss. It doesn't work because it insults the intelligence of the audience as a way to say "You can't figure out what's going on so we'll just tell you." But it also works really well because there is so much going on or so little time to tell such a long and complex story that it needs to be there or you'll be left wondering "What the hell just happened?" This is more of the later. Since the film does start out with the presentation that it's being revisited through a diary it makes total sense to have the narration by none other than Benjamin himself. This is one of the few cases where narration works out well, much like some of Shion Sono's films. I do believe that any film can be done very well without a narration and as it may have been implied I prefer it that way, which also brings me to my next point, how the film could have been enhanced without the modern day backdrop for the film. Aside from the fact that they show us where Daisy ends up at the beginning of the story but they also introduce us to and try and get us to care about her daughter. Her daughter Caroline (bah bah bah, so good, so good, so good) easily was created for the means of telling the story even though it could have been easily been told through a chronological method and even still have the narration and would have been a better experience. My biggest question with a lot of what happens in this modern day backdrop is who cares? Having Hurricane Katrina present makes it feel like there's an impending threat on the story itself. This hurricane has nothing to do with Benjamin's life and it doesn't have to do with Daisy's life either aside from the fact that she's on her death bed while it's happening. What is the threat here? Is there supposed to be a threat that the story won't finish by the time the hurricane hits and then whoops, that's it? I can imagine how bad that would look. Half way through the story right when Benjamin really starts developing a life for his own, he hasn't quite won over Daisy yet, etc, etc and then well, end of credits. Sorry, the hurricane hit, the books gone, we don't know the rest of the story that's all we had. Another thing that bugs me with the modern day backdrop is how they keep attempting to make us care more and more for Caroline when it's really hard to care. The audience didn't pay it's way in to watch the Curious Fascination Caroline Has With Her Mother's Ex-boyfriend. The biggest attempt was when Caroline found out Benjamin was her father. All I thought during this like during a lot of other parts in this modern part is who cares?! It gave no emotional pain and betrayal because she wasn't very established character. Every time I saw her I just wanted them to go back to Benjamin to see what he's up to.

As I've been thinking about this film more as I've been writing this I've come to realize I don't have a whole lot to say about it. I don't mean to say it's a bad film. I actually think this film is fantastic and one of the best that came out that year. The thing is that it's good in a way that a lot of classic American films tend to be. One of the ones that came to mind while watching this was Forrest Gump. It's a story that takes place during key, iconic moments in recent history starring a man who is unlike anyone else around him and throughout his life he does and participates in a lot of crazy and/or exciting shit all leading to a heartfelt conclusion that will bring any audience member to nearly tears. Turns out I was right in thinking this because Eric Roth who wrote the screenplay for Benjamin Button also wrote the screenplay for Forrest Gump. It's already known that these stories are both based on books but the comparison is sickening when it comes down to looking close at the details. Don't fix what isn't broken as they say. I also find it somewhat odd how... by the books this film is for a director like David Fincher, the man who brought us Fight Club, Se7en, and The Social Network (Which is a good film but I never understood why it got best picture attention from so many people when it came out). Seriously, though, this is a superb film. Take my criticism to heart because isn't that what criticism is all about? Finding all the rough spots and pointing them out despite the fact?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review: Dancer in the Dark

Version I Watched: Region 2 DVD from Denmark.

Starring: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, and David Morse

History: Conceived as the third is Lars von Trier's "Golden Heart Trilogy," the other two films being Breaking the Waves and The Idiots. An early concept for the film titled, "Taps" would feature tap dancing in every single scene. This idea was scrapped because it wasn't conceivable to teach untrained performers such as Bjork the complexity of tap dancing and have it performed well in an efficient amount of time. When the film was made it was made with a budget of 120 Million Swedish kroner (or 12.5 Million USD). It was a huge hit at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and received with standing ovations. The film was a box office success earning approx. $45 Million worldwide. The song, "I've Seen It All" featured in the film was nominated for the Academy Award for best song.

My Personal History: This is my first viewing. All I knew about it was what I read briefly and from screenshots. I hadn't even watched a trailer before watching it.

Review: My history with Lars Von Trier films is not the most extent. It is also based mostly on his more recent work. Before this film I had seen Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia. Having a general idea of his work I somewhat knew what I was getting into for this film. I especially knew I wasn't going into it for the laughs. LVT is easily one of the hardest emotional hitters in modern cinema. Although he did direct a comedy once back in 2006 but I don't know how that turned out. I also have even less experience with the work of Bjork, which is relevant because she doesn't just act in this film. She also sings. And not only did she sing the songs she composed them as well. Having both of these limited experiences with the two main individuals involved in this project gave me a fresh perspective on the film without any sort of bias. I can't even really compare this or make expectations in stylistic choices based on the LVT films I had seen before. Antichrist and Melancholia were much more modern in style and execution, not to mention a bit more explicit (Especially Antichrist) while Dogville was so crazy unique in it's visual and set style alone anything shot not on a sound stage where all the buildings are freaking mimed isn't comparable to that (AMAZING!) film. Then the only thing I knew about Bjork was her music is considered by many to either be considered amazing or weird depending who you're talking to. Regardless of these factors it's always best to be hesitant when a musician crosses over to acting, or when anyone who has a specialty in a particular art goes over to another art. They've made an establishment in one area so it seems strange to jump to a different one. Some succeed... most fail miserably or have to take a few hits before they're good at it (See Mark Wahlberg for example).

The very first thing seen in this film is of all things, an overture. I should have come to expect something like this from LVT. This is the first sample of the work Bjork composed for the film. It's short but sweet. The overture is accompanied with a blend of artistic visuals that splash in color. The reason for this visual has to do with how LVT wanted the film to be presented theatrically. In the European versions of the film the overture would play in a dimmed room just before the curtain opened. However since many American theatres do not have curtains anymore he chose to go with the visual companion to keep somewhat of the original vision he had for the overture. I like it when films have an overture. If for anything it is for the aesthetic value of it. What I didn't realize going into it was how well it fit with the musical aspect of the film. That's right, before going into this film I had no idea there would be song and dance numbers. So after the viewing I felt it was even more appropriate to have that overture in there just as LVT based a lot of his artistic choices on the classic American musical. That's not to say he didn't bring his own ideas into this, I mean, this is LVT we've got here. When he makes a movie he's the one in charge. And in charge he is! Right after the overture it jumps right into things...
Which I would like to make a quick aside to. I'm not a very big fan of opening credits period. I can't stand when movies take an eternity to get going because it feels the need to have a musical montage listing everyone who stars in the movie no matter how short they may be in it. A title is enough to get things going. I like it even more when there is no title, too. It just gives a better sense of immersion. I am hesitant to say I have a few exceptions to this complaint in general, such as Watchmen. The opening credits overlay the montage that gives history to the film's story in order to set things up. But that could have been done the exact same way without the credits covering everything up. Aside from that the only other exception would have to be the classic films when the credits were at the beginning period and then when the end rolled around, it was the end, without any after film credits. Okay... back on track.
The title is presented and we're off. It opens to a play rehearsal for a small production of The Sound of Music. I hate to say it but I have a complaint right off the bat with this film. It's the visual style chosen. It was shot digitally with handheld cameras. Now I do not have any issue with films being shot digitally. I kinda like it because it gives more of a realistic feel to the film instead of the other world HD cameras that shoot most films these days. What I don't like is how they tend to be put together. Usually when they're shot it's shot handheld. This means a lot of the time the camera is moving even when it's technically a "still" shot. It's dizzying and feels sloppy. Rachel Getting Married would pull a similar trick less than a decade later and it doesn't look any better. The only time I ever feel this style works is when it's a found footage style film because it makes sense for the camera to be jumping around all the time. Luckily later in the film it was decided to use a tripod for at least a few moments.

It's best to get used to seeing Bjork because she is in pretty much every single scene in this film. She plays Selma, an Eastern European woman who travels to America with her young son having hopes and expectations it would be similar to a Hollywood musical. She works at a factory making not a whole lot of money to support herself and to save funds on the side in secret. Selma lives in a trailer home with only her son and has become close friends with her landlord and cop husband who inherited a great deal of money some years ago. What seems to keep her going is her friend from work Kathy and her love of musicals. She is in the Sound of Music production as previously stated. It's easy to tell they've got a lot of work to do. They're stumbling quite a bit through the songs. This is a good, lighter opening to the film that makes it easy to jump into it despite being a little awkward seeing them stumble a lot. Does make me think of some of the productions I've been in when we didn't know what we were doing yet. Shortly thereafter it moves onto what Selma does for work. She works in a factory with heavy machinery which is where a fair chunk of time is spend in the film. This is also when we first see her express herself as a mother in the story. Now, I felt the introduction of her character was a little unfortunate. I get that she is upset her kid isn't in school but I also felt she was a bit harsh. Either that or I was surprised to see her so heated so quickly. Made me wonder how the rest of the film would be if that's how she was. Strangely that's one of the few moments we actually see her angry. What I soon learned was how much I liked Selma's character, something Bjork helps deliver really well. I really appreciate the humble, naive type of person you may run into in life. I can easily say I knew a few people like that mostly in college and I really liked them a lot because they're easy to be around. This is especially true when you need to be around someone who is easy to be around. I also find Bjork to be adorably cute in this film. I can imagine many guys would have mixed feelings about that thought but I like her. Her soft spoken selfless nature is very appealing which makes her character's broken English easy to get around. Which brings me to my next point. Her accent and dialogue delivery was fantastic! I found her performance to be very believable. Sure it helps that Bjork isn't from America but I'm sure a lot of what she did was in a performance to make herself feel especially foreign. Like I said she has a tendency to quite a bit of broken English throughout. The thing is that I never found myself annoyed by it and I was always interested to hear what she had to say next. In short, I really enjoyed watching Bjork and her playing the character she did.

Despite living in poverty Selma seems to have at least a pretty decent life. She somehow has time and energy to be in a musical production albeit it's a very small community theatre, she has time for her child at night, her landlord and husband are very nice and friendly to her, and she even gets to go to the cinema pretty frequently to enjoy another classic musical, something she uses to escape from the harder parts of her life. Not only that but there's a pretty nice (only slightly creepy from my perspective) guy interested in her who offers her rides home from work on a nearly daily basis. This turns around with a confessional scene early in the film. One night Selma's landlord's husband Bill comes over and tells Selma a terrible secret of his. The large amount of money Bill inherited a while back is running dry. His wife just spends and spends because she "knows" how much money they have. Bill is far too afraid to tell his wife because he feels she won't love him anymore. His salary isn't enough and unless he gets more money within a month or so they'll be flat broke. To comfort Bill, Selma reveals a secret of her own as well. Selma's large, thick glasses showcase partly how bad her eyesight is. Actually, she reveals her eyesight is so bad that she will be going blind within a year. It's a disease she's had her whole life and she knew it would happen to her one day. This disease has been passed onto her son. Up to this point there has been hints given toward her frugal nature not just because of how little she already has but because she isn't "one of those mothers" which I'm assuming she means to spoil her child. On the inside she is hiding the fact that she saves up what she can on the side to help pay for a surgery to treat the inevitable for her son. Keep in mind this is also a disease he is unaware of. She hasn't told him because the stress and worry would only make it worse for him, and not just mentally. It's implied that the condition itself will get worse. It's at this point where it's made clear what she was doing at the eye doctor's office at the beginning of the film. She was looking over a sheet of the eye chart, cheating on her eye exam to avoid anyone finding out about her condition. It may be just me but even thinking back to my first impressions I didn't really feel like it was clear she had an eye condition until after she said something about it. Then it was VERY clear she had an eye condition especially with what followed in the film. It may have been just something I missed with my first viewing for all I know, but with first impressions I felt it wasn't really clear until it was told to us. Before leaving for the night Bill tests how bad her eyesight is and pretends to leave only to stand in the corner next to the door. Once Selma believes Bill is gone she goes to her secret hiding place for her money. Bill makes note of where it is and leaves. Who we thought was a nice and decent enough man turns out to be desperate and backstabbing in nature.

Since the severity of her condition is settling in she understands time is running out. She is nearly to the point of paying off the doctor's bill but wants/needs it quicker. Among other things she decides to take on the night shift to get paid more. With more pay comes more responsibility. Selma isn't lazy but does struggle with keeping up sometimes between her failing eyesight and her tendency to daydream on the job. This is the first of many moments where one of the more unique aspects of the film comes alive. I had no idea going into this film that it would be similar to a musical. A tone made up of the noises around her play through her head and she starts singing and dancing. What I liked most of all about this was that we got to see exactly what was going on inside her head while she daydreamed. It wasn't even a short glimpse, it was a full song and dance number. As I said much earlier I do not know Bjork's music at all. Since watching this film I've been tempted to look up her music for comparison sake... but until I finish writing this I'm not going to listen to any of it so I can hang onto a clear opinion of the music based entirely on what was presented in the film. What was presented in the film was fantastic. I like Bjork's singing voice with her unique way of speaking and diction. Not to mention the sound of her voice while singing I felt was nice to listen to. The song stays fun and exciting and the camera work HAS TRIPODS! It was finally a lot easier to look at this film with a balance, un-jolting camera wobbling around with every shot that moves (or intends to stay still). At this point I'm still trying to figure out the placement and purpose of this song and dance number. I get that it's her imagination getting her through work... there's got to be something more to it. By the end of the song it hits reality again where Selma is far too lost in her daydream to realize she improperly uses the machine she's working with, too distracted to notice it, and breaks it. This is the beginning of Selma's spiral into her demise with all the terrible things that happen to her. This mess up at her job eventually leads to her being fired.

The second song that shows up is initiated by a comment Jeff, the man who has a crush on Selma, makes in regard to her sight. Each day after work he shows up to give Selma a ride home in the hopes of creating a bond where they can be together. She consistently refuses choosing to ride home on her bike instead. On the day she's fired she is out much earlier than usual and for the first time hoping Jeff is there to assist her, he isn't. It's earlier than usual for him to be there so she decides to walk home by the train tracks. She uses the tracks to find her way home since she cannot see well enough on her own. When Jeff shows up Selma is long gone. He runs to catch up with her on the track where they meet at a bridge. When the train starts heading their way Selma moves off to the side of the track, as does Jeff, but Selma still makes sure to mention to move to the side because the train is coming, not noticing that he has already moved. That and some behavior she is showing he says "You can't see, can you?" The subject matter of this song is how Selma has seen it all. It feels like this song is her internal monologue on how she's made peace with not being able to see any longer. In the song (in her head) Jeff asks about different sights and sounds of the world she is yet to see. Her reaction to all of them is a smaller comparison of the same thing or that she doesn't care about seeing what he mentions. It's around this time I realize the songs come into play when she is in the most stressful moments in her life. Here's a guy who is interested in her, and she is sorta interested in him but doesn't have the time for a boyfriend, who is confronting her about her sight so she escapes by singing about it in her head. What I took away from the song's lyrics was Selma making excuses. I believes she really does want to see all these things Jeff sang in the song, only she wanted to make it appear she didn't care as a way of dealing with the idea she won't see anymore inevitably. By the end of the song it cuts back to the train just passing by them with a lie about her sight. She claim she can see just fine. She isn't fooling anyone. It's very obvious to everyone around her how bad her sight has gotten.

Where the plot turns into an even more depressing direction is when all of Selma's saved up money is stolen by Bill. I knew this would be coming but it's sad to see what happens in the meantime. Selma may be naive but she isn't stupid. The first place she goes to is Bill to confront him about his crime. He promises she'll have it back in a month (An empty promise if you ask me. As far as I'm concerned he was never planning on giving it back). She takes it only to be threatened by a gun. Her resistance is strong but her emotions are not. She does all she can to walk away with the money. Only she is covered in tears on top of it. An accidental shot hits Bill and he finds himself on the ground begging Selma to shoot him. Bill hates his life and would rather be dead than out of money and admitting to his wife they're out of money. He went as far as stealing from a soon to be blind woman. He is now choosing death over admittance. When he was first introduced Bill felt like such a nice, level headed guy. His actions here make him to be a huge coward. He's a liar and a thief (But he only "lied about being a thief"). It's easy to see Selma doesn't want to kill, who would want to? Her bawling while shooting him blindly by covering her eyes and looking away, then to finish the job by taking Bill's safety deposit box and bashing his face in with it brought on such a sense of sadness. Here is a sad and desperate woman who was driven to kill to get the money she needs for her son. Again such a selfless act... only a selfless act with mixed emotions from those watching. Her next song following the murder is about her doing what she had to do. I realize she was out of options, or at least the options in clear sight but was murder really the way to go? Maybe in the midst of a stressful situations it can be an action that comes up to compromise the situation... but still. Even in a situation like that it must be easy to think that it could only make things worse. Here's Selma, who just killed Bill, who has been lying to his wife about the money and a few other things about Selma (claiming Selma is in love with him) so everyone and everything is against her. The saddest part is that there is no way out for her except to flee. Only that isn't an option either because she doesn't have the resources to do so. She has been placed in a situation where there's no way out for her. She has a way to save her son, but that's about it. So she convinces herself she did what she had to do considering the situation.

Following the murder Jeff comes to Selma. He takes her away from the murder scene eventually stopping at a particular location where Selma takes the rest of her journey by foot instructing Jeff not to follow her. She begins walking, eventually walking to the hospital where her son will get his surgery. She pays the doctor (Played by Udo Kier, I can't wait to review Flesh for Frankenstein, I love that movie) and walks back to Jeff. I had some confusion with this brief moment of the film. First, if Selma is so blind that she couldn't tell a man was in the same room as her (When Bill hid to see where she hides her money) and she needs to walk along the train tracks as a guide to get home how on earth did she find her way to the hospital on an open path without the crutch of a track that sticks out of the ground? It just seems odd that she could make it so far on her own. We've been set up with such horrible eye sight so I don't know how it all works out in the end. Also another thing I was wondering was the instructions Selma gave Jeff. She told him not to follow her but she never said or hinted at anything about having him there when she gets back. Was it at Jeff's own free will because of his feelings for her or did I miss something along the way? Regardless, once she gets back to Jeff's car he mentions how she can still make it to rehearsal. So they go to the rehearsal but word has traveled far enough to her director where if she shows up, he calls the cops. He does everything to keep her there waiting for them to show up by having her watch what they've been rehearsing. This is the only song where I don't feel it is based on the stress of the situation. It came off on the enjoyment of the situation. I guess it could be argued that Selma is stressed knowing the cops are on the way to arrest her so she's just enjoying the best of the situation. I don't feel she's smart enough. She's been so ignorant (but in such a sweet way, I love Selma's character) I believe she loses herself in the song and dance. If she were stressed about being taken away knowing the cops are on the way I feel she would have reacted in a different way. So here's another conflict in story. Selma doesn't seem to be the smartest egg in the batch, but if this is her intention to just enjoy some good song and dance before being arrested why wouldn't she do something even smarter than that? Why would she go straight to someone who knows her VERY well and everyone who knows Selma knows this about her. It's like seeing in a cartoon the sign that points "safety" one direction and "certain death" the other direction and the character chooses death. So either the song is initiated by the joy of the song and dance which would contradict when all the other songs come up or it would be out of stress knowing what's to happen conflicting with what I believe her mindset would go toward. Either way it felt like it was contradictory.

As expected Selma is put on trial (She sings and dances, there are twists and turns both literally and figuratively) and eventually found guilty of murder. She is given the chance to have another trial in order to avoid the death penalty, the only problem is the money to pay the lawyer hired to do so would be the money she saved up for her son's surgery. This she declines. The choices made during the trial scene and scenes that follow somewhat frustrated me because I felt like she was wasting so much away by keeping her soul pure and helping those around her. She lies about some key details at the trial so she wouldn't reveal the secret Bill told her despite the fact that he stole from her and forced her to murder him. She was still strong willed enough to keeping the secret. She could be fighting for her life so she doesn't widow her son but she doesn't. This and a few other details are hinted at what lead to her death sentence. I do wonder if she tried to tell everyone exactly what happened and the truth behind everything if it would go through. I doubt it would be believed that Bill had no more money or that he asked to kill her. There isn't any sort of evidence toward that. It would also be hard to convince that Selma didn't just try and steal Bill's money because she and Bill are the only ones who knew about her secret stash. Lastly there's no way to tell if her son really has this disease because it hasn't grown enough in his body to be considered evident enough. It doesn't help she cheated on her eye test early in the film either. Really makes me wonder if she did try fighting for her life if it would have helped. It could have made the story even more heartbreaking, or it could have made it more cliche, too.

Now the final scene. I... loved... this... final... scene. It is so heartbreaking. The most heartbreaking of all was the song she sang right before she was hanged. Much earlier in the film Selma talks about why she always left a musical before the last song. She could always tell when a musical would end which she did not like, ever. It made her sad. So she always would leave right before the musical was to end so that way it doesn't come to a conclusion and the musical lives on. The final song Selma sings (With a rope around her neck ready to be hung) is an a cappella reworked version of a song titled "New World," although man fans have given their own titled to it being, "The Next To Last Song." In the appropriate manner of the film Selma painfully (It sounds beautiful, trust me. I mean "end of your life" emotionally painful) sings the song almost to the finish when suddenly she drops down and is executed before finishing. Despite knowing her fate it still hit with great impact, just like the rest of the film.

I was eventually able to move beyond what I felt was poor camera work. What helped was Bjork herself. The songs were amazing and would re-watch this again for those alone. This is one of the better film experiences I've had in recent memory. I still liked some other LVT more (Mostly Dogville!) but this one will rank up there as one of the better films I've seen in my life. I can't wait to watch this one again. This is a truly special piece of cinema that needs to be noticed and remembered and passed down. It's very unlike most things you'll see. You can even say it's very foreign in nature. It doesn't play or act like an American film, which in this country helps a lot.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review: American Movie

Version I Watched: VHS edition.

Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, and Tom Schimmels.

History: Since this a documentary the film itself is it's history. The film was shot between September of 1995 and August of 1997. It was a huge hit at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival winning the grand jury prize. Since then it's gained quite the cult following, especially appreciated by one of my favorite internet personalities James Rolfe, whose videos features tons of references to it.

My Personal History: I got this on a whim my freshman year of college when a nearby Hollywood Video was purging their VHS tapes a next to nothing a piece. The first time I watched this I was a little disappointed by it mostly because I had heard so much hype about it from its cult following. I think I expected something better than I got so I didn't find it that great. I was for some reason attracted to it again and decided to give it another shot.

Review: I don't know how this film could be any more indie than indie is. Maybe Kevin Smith's Clerks would be about as indie as it gets or Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi... but this is pretty hardcore indie as well. It's indie because of the subject matter is indie. There was no major studio associated with this when it was produced and filmed. The film introduces this doc's "hero" Mark Borchardt with his love of storytelling and the "Great American Script" by talking about a radio show he did back in 1995 called The Creeps. He admits to how much of a loser he is at this point in his life. He's telling us how during the taping for The Creeps he was getting drunk and smoking dope, not paying attention to the actors or directing. It was his experience taping it that he realized he needed to take a different direction and to take his major project much more seriously. The film follows Mark as the independent filmmaker he is with a true, hardcore 90s indie kind of love for film. Everything he's made by the point of this film has been shorts on 8mm film and none of them have gone anywhere. The project he is working on during the filming of this documentary is initially his first feature length film Northwestern. He gets funding from his uncle, although he is very skeptical at first. He somehow talks him into loaning out the money for the project. He pulls everything together, gets his case, crew, etc ready to go. Things aren't quite going the way as he planned, though. Things aren't coming together and he just doesn't have enough money to fund the project. After these hiccups he decides to work on a horror themed short he started making a couple years earlier, Coven (which he pronounces with a long O sound). He believes if he can finish this short, sell enough copies of it, he can have enough money to fund Northwestern.

I don't know if it's the way he looks, the way he acts, the way he talks, or a combination of the three that kinda drives me crazy. Okay, I get it, he's a dedicated, hardworking independent filmmaker who is putting everything on the line to do what he loves. But, right off the bat he comes off as so pretentious. His main love of film is from horror but you still see coming out is a mindset not only an overall love for film but this apparent understanding of what film truly is, talking like he knows exactly what he's doing. I find that hard to believe. The moment that made me think about this was when he was setting up a concept shot before he decided to stop making Northwestern for the moment and to work on Coven. There's something slightly off if you ask me about a mid-western guy sporting a mullet, creeper stash, 80s glasses, and usually wearing a Green Bay Packers t-shirt using films like Manhattan and The Seventh Seal to make reference to the shots he's setting up. Between this and when he briefly talks about his ideals and religious beliefs it makes me feel like he thinks he's smarter than he really is. I don't say this entirely based on what he is saying I say this also based on what his friends and family are saying. He's a high school drop out and even those closest to him think he's better off just working in a factory because of his intelligence and determination level toward life. Going off to devote all his time to making movies on such a big risk isn't the best thing for him and where he is in life especially since he also has three kids. Kids he had out of wedlock and the woman he had them with refuses to marry him. Logically speaking he's not in the best position of his life. Even his own uncle who agreed to help fund the film does nothing about talk how he's not gonna get his money back. When Mark tells him how many copies of Coven he's gonna sell his uncle reacts with "That'll be the day." Absolutely no faith in his nephew. Honestly I cannot blame him. I still find it hard to believe he gave him any money in the first place.

What makes this film are the characters. These are very real people but they feel like they were written by the Coen Brothers while they were wasted one night back in the mid 90s. Mark lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Being a WI native I was excited to see what kind of mid-west crap they pull. What they are more like isn't really the "Yah, you betcha" Scandihoovian type of mid-westerner. The people in this came off as the mid-west hicks. The type of personality, talk, actions closer to a stereotype that tends to come from the south. That's right, Alabama, we've got 'em, too. This wasn't an annoying aspect of the film. The people in this really are lovable losers. The only other lovable loser we get to know really well is Mark's buddy Mike who in the film's credit is simply known as "friend/musician."  I like to look at him as Mark's sidekick who is along for the ride. I though Mark was pretty dumb but Mike brings it to a whole new level. Mark will be going on and on about a scene or concept, he'll turn to Mike and say "You know what I mean?" to which Mike responds with "No" while ignorantly laughing like an idiot. It's really hilarious to see his reactions like this. He's delightfully unaware of so many things. I like a particular moment when they're ready to shoot a scene and he's taking the extra time to make sure the soda he brought with him isn't in the snow so it isn't frozen when they're finished shooting.

As would be expected this documentary follows scene by scene shooting the short film. There are a couple scene shoots in particular that seem to stick in my mind with the few viewings I've had with this film. The first is a scene that's pretty action packed. It involves shoving a man's head through a cupboard door. Apparently this is a scene that was shot previously so this is a re-shoot to make it better. The lucky actor who gets his head pummeled is dreading the re-shoot. The scene is also really intense, and since Mark is playing the part he is especially passionate. So when the shoot finally happens he is slamming his head pretty hard and despite having a slit in the wood to help it break it just isn't budging. So what does Mark do? Slams again and again like a maniac. It looks incredibly painful! After modifying it even further it still takes a couple slams before getting through. Here's the problem, the impact busts open the actors head! Bang, bang, slam, and blood everywhere. All over his face. He is laying there in pain as they continue to film. I'm pretty sure they even use actual footage from the accident in the overall film. It at least looks like it when there are finished scenes from Coven at the end of the film. He's hardcore and does what he needs to do to get the job done. There are far better methods of course. It's entirely by happenstance that it turned out that way it did. He's lucky? In a way it reminds me of the methods William Friedkin used during the filming of The Exorcist, although the major difference there was that it was intentional. I don't think Mark ever intended to split his actor's head open... I hope so.
The other scene that comes to mind is an audio recording to dub over a scene early in the film. Mark and Mike take Mark's uncle out to his car and record his lines. Early in the film (Coven, not the doc) Mark's character is running down the road and a car drives by with an old man (his uncle) and says, "It's all right, it's okay. You have something to live for. Jesus told me so." A line filled with so much DEEP MEANING and PURPOSE that it makes me want to PUKE! But I digress. The scene is set where Mark's uncle is sitting in the passenger seat of his car while Mark holds the mic and Mike assists in the recording. The recording is pretty funny to laugh at. Keep in mind how old his uncle is. He can barely talk as is in most scenes. So what makes this scene so funny is that his uncle can never remember his line, or say it all at once without saying uh between words. It starts out funny... but then it goes on for a couple of minutes in the doc with the takes ranking as high as the 30s-40s. It gets to be pretty painful by the end of the scene.

If this film was far more serious and only talked about the movie he was trying to make it wouldn't necessarily be bad, it would have just been driven by the wayside, lost in time. What makes this stand out is the humor in the quotes. Here's some examples that made me laugh without giving away too much:
-Mark: "Your AT&T Universal Card has arrived"? Oh God, Kick-fucking-ass, I got a Master Card. I don't believe it, man. Life is kinda cool sometimes.
--Mark: Do you think this is a little bit cathartic for you?
Mike: Uh, very cathartic, Mark.
Mark: Do you know what cathartic means?
Mike: No.
---Mark: I was called to the bathroom at the cemetery to take care of something. I walked in the bathroom, and in the middle toilet right there... somebody didn't shit in the toilet, somebody shat on the toilet. They shat on the wall, they shat on the floor. I had to clean it up, man, but before than, for about 10 to 15 seconds mn, I just stared at somebody's shit, man. To be totally honest with you, man, it was a really, really profound moment. Cuz I was thinkin', "I'm 30 years old, and in about 10 seconds I gotta start cleaning up somebody's shit, man."
----Uncle Bill: Do they smoke and have cigarettes in heaven? I don't think so... I don't think so.

If you're gonna see this for anything make it the dialogue and the characters. Given the right mindset and the love for indie film it can make you laugh.