Archive for the 'Film' Category Page 2 of 4

Colma: Slacker Awesome in Deadsville, USA

Ever heard of Colma? Population 1.5 million; only 1,191 alive. With stats like that, Colma is literally Deadsville, USA. And that’s the backdrop for… a musical? Indeed — one that I didn’t want to end. And I hate musicals.

Rich Wong’s Colma: The Musical sometimes feels like a student film. But that’s precisely what makes it awesome. Shot on a shoestring, it opens with a lo-fi number featuring cheesy keyboards and the not-so-steady cam. Minutes in, though, you can’t help but submit to its slacker charm. The characters (Billy, Rodel, Maribel) don’t feel so much written as playing themselves. There’s something about the understated charm of characters who fall so far outside Hollywood stereotype that they feel like someone you know. And their post high-school doldrums are immediately relatable. It might be a little angsty, but it also feels real.

It’s the kind of film that’ll set a musical number to the obnoxious pulsing of a car alarm (“car alarm karaoke”) and in the next instant features some truly thoughtful discussion of what it means to have graduated high school fully expecting the rest of your life to be spelled out only to discover you are more lost than ever, in a dead-end suburb — able to see the skyscrapers of San Francisco, but feeling so far away from anywhere. It’s at once cynical and giddy. And poetic when you least expect it.

While most of the songs will stick in your head for weeks (H.P. Mendoza rocks!), a couple fall flat. And not every subplot quite flies, either. But it’s just that imperfection that makes Colma work. The filmmakers seem, in some ways, to be in the same quandary as the characters: showing flashes of brilliance, falling down, finding their way back, singing their lungs out. And their songs hit home more than most because they clearly come from someplace genuine. How many movie musicals can say that?

Colma comes out of nowhere and will have you smiling for weeks. It’s clear that Mendoza and Wong are at just the beginning of very promising careers. L.A. Renigen (Maribel) is quite a find as well. As much as the movie is about leaving Colma, I didn’t want to.

[Watch the Trailer] For more, visit Colma: The Musical and Colma, CA

Three Gorges: Love and China’s New Ruins

China’s Three Gorges Dam will displace over 1.2 million people and put a massive swath of land underwater. But it won’t happen all at once. And in the in-between, there’s a strange kind of limbo for those who live there — between places not quite lost but soon-to-be and an uncertain future bearing down as sure as the water rises.

It’s this dramatic backdrop that Jia Zhang Ke chooses for his understated, gorgeously shot film Still Life (Sanxia Haoren). We watch the loosely intertwined stories of Sanming and Tao as they search for the past (a daughter, a husband) before the water washes away all trace. The metaphor works and it’s used to heartbreaking effect in a scene where Sanming arrives at the last known address for his family only to find it long submerged. You feel the quiet rumble of history in every frame — waterline marks written on buildings as if to say: next week, everything you remember will be underwater. But there are light moments, too. An elderly innkeeper entertainingly chastises a government worker for “rudely” marking his hotel “OK for Demolition” and a certain character’s fixation on Chow Yun Fat never gets old.

When I sailed through the Three Gorges last year, I saw lovely old villages being torn down brick by brick and shining modern cities built just across the river, the new cities perched in places that seem unreasonably high, but will soon be at river’s edge. The stunning scale of the project was driven home over and over. But what I missed was the human story: what this kind of change does to the people that live there, their families, and their dreams. Still Life is that story. It captures people at a singular moment in history in a place that, once lost, can never be regained. We see the lives of poor demolition workers and the camaraderie they develop in the ruins, we see the lives of the rich construction contractors and the impressive engineering feats of the New China, we see luminous celluloid jam packed with gorgeously lit conversation and culture. I felt like I was back in China, this time as an insider, a local.

But as close as you feel to the place and the characters, you slowly realize you aren’t just watching a beautifully composed film set against a dramatic backdrop but a historical document of a time that will not come again. After all, most of the locations shot in the film are now underwater. And the film quietly wonders if things aren’t better left that way.

Still Life is showing at the Tribeca Film Festival this Friday and Saturday. It won tops in Venice. Find more at Memento Films and grab the presskit.

We last wrote about China’s tomorrow in Future Found.

Bamako: The Trial That Wasn’t

Melé sings

Bamako is not what it seems. Abderrahmane Sissako’s lyrical, angry film puts the IMF and World Bank on trial for crimes against Africa, quite literally. And that trail happens in lead character Melé’s back yard in Mali. If that sounds strange, it is. But you’ll forgive it because the testimony is so compelling, and that testimony is often matched with camera moves through a beautifully colorful Malian village with women washing clothes, children crying and laughing, men having afternoon tea. It brought back strong warm memories from my time in Africa.

But the key to Bamako really is in the disconnect between the fully formal court proceedings and a backyard setting that’s anything but. Midway through the film, a wedding winds its way down the court’s middle isle and interrupts the proceedings full-bore. It’s a joyous, singing celebration and the way it’s presented is so rich, but so out of place amidst stilted court formalities that it seems almost like a dream. And that was the hint that finally brought the film into focus.

The reason the trial happens in a place that’s deeply interwoven with all aspects of Malian community is that the trial is the dream, not the wedding, not the washer women, not Melé’s backyard. It’s the collective dream of everyone in the community, from Melé’s sick daughter to the elder griot who chomps at the bit to say his piece — each understanding the dream on a different level and in their own way. A collective wish of a village, a country, a continent.

When I looked at Bamako through that lens, it made sense. The beautiful kind of sense that puts a smile on your face when your mind’s eye presents a dream so fully realized. And the crushing kind of sense that knows it’s a dream that will never come to pass.

Bamako has been held over at Film Forum and it seems to keep selling out. Let’s hope that’s a good sign for wider distribution.

Drugged Up in Tokyo

[Minor spoilers ahead.] Iñárritu’s luminous film Babel should be commended for many things, but one bit seems to have missed mention. Here goes: I commend Babel for being the first movie I can remember that features an insecure, impressionable young someone doing drugs and getting drunk for the first time with a gang of folks she only just met and NOTHING BAD HAPPENS. She goes dancing, she goes home.

Think about it for a second. How many other movies can say that? From Tell Your Children to Traffic, it seems there’s almost always some awful consequence for getting caught up with the wrong crowd or doing drugs. But both together? Man, call the coroner.

We’re so used to movie drug clichés that it’s positively shocking when the carefree first-timer doesn’t end up overdosed, pregnant, or worse. Now, of course you increase the chances of something bad happening by doing stupid things, but come on — films that teach a blatantly valuable lesson do tend to nauseate, don’t they? So, yet another reason why Babel is special. Add it to the pile.

Pixar Models Ratatouille

Wandering through Design Life Now, I was shocked to see these Ratatouille maquettes (another angle) set in a wall alongside an army of better known Pixar properties. Most of the rest had been seen at MoMA’s Pixar exhibit back in 2005 (Cars was the mystery project then) but I believe these models of rat and culinary pals appear for the first time at the Cooper-Hewitt.

The pompous overstuffed chef, the skittish undersized chef, and R?my laughing all the way to the cheese chest. There were a couple others (including a giddily menacing chef) but the guards threatened bodily harm before I could grab those shots. Truly lovely stuff. Can’t wait to see Brad Bird (Incredibles, Iron Giant) back in the director’s seat!

Find more on the mouse at Wikipedia


If The Science of Sleep proves one thing, it’s that Michel Gondry is second only to Terry Gilliam in producing manic dreamlike imagery. From the cardboard cutout city to a swim through the night sky to an unruly electric razor, the film does an intensely clever job of confusing real and fantasy. It does it so well, in fact, that one is left wondering if Gondry doesn’t suffer from that exact condition.

As with most Gilliam movies, the plot doesn’t always quite follow. But who cares? The often hysterical situations, fabulously lo-fi production design, and lovably off-kilter characters (Stéphane and Stéphanie!) make it real hard not to adore the world Gondry creates.

And with a flick that remakes Back to the Future, The Lion King, and Robocop (among others) next in line, it’s clear that he’s got a whole lot more off-kilter where that came from. For more on that one, see The Hollywood Reporter.

Update: Just found out about the Gondry show at Deitch last month. Man, am I bummed I missed that. :-(

A for Adaptation

To say a film isn’t as good as the book is to echo what’s been said so many times before about film adaptations. Try as they might, the movie almost never feels as engaging or deep as its source…except, well, if you see the movie first? In a recent Harper’s roundtable, Tom de Zengotita put it this way:

If you read a book and then see a movie based on it, there’s always dissonance. The characters in the movie are never the people who occupied your mind when you were reading the book, that you constructed yourself out of stuff of your own life experience. On the other hand, if you go to a movie and then read the book, it feels seamless. […] You submit completely to the movie. You see Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett. You just let that happen.     (“Grand Theft Education” in Harper’s September 2006)

We recently did a highly scientific experiment to see if this is true for graphic novels. I read V for Vendetta and watched the movie; Q did the opposite. Even though the movie was reasonably well reviewed, we both found that what Wachowskis filled in was better in the head — from the political context to V and Evey’s relationship to the coda. The novel has a subtlety the film struggles to match. For V, then, order didn’t effect opinion. Well, excepting that Q now wishes she’d read the book first. Seems she’d like to forget what the Wachowskis overexplained.

It’s funny, then, to see the distance between V’s co-authors Alan Moore and David Lloyd on the adaptation. Writer Moore hates it, illustrator Lloyd loves it. Maybe their different roles yielded different levels of dissonance on seeing the movie: visual and textual. One could argue, for instance, that Lloyd’s visual ideas are more reasonably reinterpreted by the film than Moore’s story. Considering the Wachowskis’ penchant for putting spectacle before substance, it only makes sense.

Still, it should be said that V for Vendetta is worth the time in most any form and certainly bears revisiting considering the current stateside political climate. It’s testimony to the strength of the original V that its message remains just as relevant today as it was when the first episode appeared over 20 years ago.

More on Moore and Lloyd’s night and day opinions of the film can be found on wikipedia. And for some clever comparisons between Soviet propaganda and V movie promo posters, see

Anti After School Special

Half Nelson is one of those movies you go into certain you’ve seen it all before. Just from the promo image up top, it seems we’ve stumbled into yet another inspirational story of that ever-so-rare teacher who transforms an inner city classroom (against all odds, no less). On finding out the teacher is a basehead, it becomes clear that we’ll watch as he finds new strength in a streetwise student (mature beyond her years). Either way, we’re all going to learn a valuable lesson, right?

Not so much. If Half Nelson does one thing, it’s play against expectation and stereotype. In fact, it often seems to turn them in on themselves — and believably so. The script shows remarkable restraint, trying its best not to take the easy way out. That, along with truly fine acting and lovely direction, is what makes the movie so unusual. (And all the more impressive because it’s writer/director Ryan Fleck’s feature debut.) This doesn’t mean Half Nelson is flawless, but but it does mean you should go see it right away.

Slacker Science

A week after watching A Scanner Darkly, you still wonder if you missed something. It’s not that the story doesn’t ultimately come together (it really does) but that it just feels so different from other sci-fi movies. Where many have losers of one sort or another, we’re never left to dwell in it, what for all the high tech gagetry and underground hipster discos. Here, we really are asked to put down on a bongwater drenched couch with a bunch of semi-delusional future slackers and soak it up.

What’s interesting, though, is the way that Linklater uses the much discussed rotoscoping to add a future surreal feeling to this barrel bottom world. The technique takes a back seat to story here (unlike Waking Life) but it does keep things just off-kilter enough to leave you feeling part of a dream and asking yourself if you just saw what you think you saw. It’s…interesting.

And that’s what really seems to divide folks on the movie. Do you call bullshit and at the sight of cell shaded losers sitting in a crappy diner spewing freaked out conspiracy theories or do you go with it? Do you get angry when the unkempt state of a character’s mind is reflected in slight jitters in the stock of a wine shop? Does it piss you off when the surreal and mundane mix as if part of some science experiment gone ever so slightly wrong?

It’s the sort of movie where you spend half the time wondering if the director has any clue what his point is and the other half thinking he’s brilliant. But that’s Linklater for you. And, as Randy Shulman puts it, “A Scanner Darkly finds Linklater in experimental mode, which is a far, far better place for him to be than in a little league dugout.” Amen. Can’t wait for the next beautifully flawed dose.

The North Will Rise Again

Walking out of the generally excellent Slavery in New York exhibit, one thing sticks out as strange: in the exit hallway, Abraham Lincoln is once again painted as the great and just emancipator. But we all (or at least should) know that it wasn’t nearly that simple. While no exhibit can cover the full breadth and depth of slavery’s impact, this particular coda still didn’t stomach well.

That’s why it was so satisfying to see Kevin Wilmott’s irreverent yet immensely thoughtful Confederate States of America (CSA) pick up right where Slavery in New York left off, with Lincoln and the Civil War. There’s just one twist: the South wins (and that’s a lot more plausible than some might think). We see Lincoln (in exile) regret not truly freeing the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation (the real proclamation didn’t, either — it merely put some wheels in motion). From there, the film takes a revisionist ride through the last 140 years of American history with slavery fully intact.

What’s fascinating about CSA is that it provides a way for us to think through slavery by placing it in a more modern context and pointing out that humans can convince themselves that even most awful acts are normal and reasoned if it serves them. (Want an example?) One way it does this is by cleverly mixing fact with fiction throughout. We see historical events we remember weaved into into a slavery context (including an inventive edit of a JFK speech). Some of it, though, is saved for a later punctuation mark. I won’t ruin it, but I will say the film bears repeated viewings. Wilmott also mixes difficult material with humor by interleaving serious documentary narrative with “funny” commercials in a way that strikes a tough balance: making the serious material easier to watch and the humorous more difficult.

It’s the best science fiction that saves us the laser duels, spaceships, and feathered hair, instead using a slightly removed context to allow us to better examine ourselves, today. And that’s just how CSA sneaks up on you.

In a recent interview, Wilmott mentioned that we now get more of our history from movies than from books. This is precisely why films like CSA are so important. Spike presents CSA and, while hasn’t taken on such topics since 2000’s abortive Bamboozled, it is nice to see him in the trenches with those to whom he might pass the torch.

For more, see the CSA website, listen through OTM’s interview with Kevin, and have a look at the Confederate Geographic Timeline (spoilers). Also, don’t miss Robert A. Pruitt’s fearless reminders.

image grabbed from csathemovie

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