East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Monday, May 23, 2005

Another deeply held principle of mine gets thrown out.

Yes, I did see Star Wars.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Opening this weekend

**Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
**Mad Hot Ballroom
*Layer Cake
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist

Sorted! And it's only May!

Mild favorite for album of the year: Sleater-Kinney (yeah again,) The Woods - even though it's probably only their third best LP, it's getting to me more immediately than anything since The Love Below. Keith Harris's Voice review almost finds the right word in "unsprung" - I'd prefer "unspringing."

Warm favorite for single of the year: Amerie, "1 Thing" - Put away your tablas and koras, R&B's stripping down almost to just drums and vocals, and rarely have compudrums sounded so live and real vocals been swished around so many ways. The pushes via guitar keep the thing on track like a bumper bowling lane, and even the fake strings aren't too bad. At least as good as the Chingified remix of Mya's "Fallen," which was my fave track of last year.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Me and You and Everyone We Know: Back and forth, forever [SFIFF '05 movie note]

Christine (Miranda July) stalks the recently separated Richard (John Hawkes), who would try anything to impress his kids, and gets third degree burns for his trouble. His elder son, Peter (Miles Thompson) longs for deeper connections than blowjobs, while the younger Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) gets all the funniest lines, mostly copied and pasted from cybersex chats.

Me and You is about the act of pretending and about performance as life, but first of all it's about extremely likeable characters played by likeable actors, foremost among them director July, whose Carole Lombard-meets-Laurie Anderson deep ditz may be a complex stack of masks upon masks, but is more likely just the way she is. The movie is notable for what isn't in it - both malice and pain are almost absent: July's world is one in which a kid can safely walk alone through some seedy parts of Los Angeles. Removing malice is unfashionable, brave and, given the gentle tone of the piece, necessary. The absence of pain, however, isn't intentional: July would like us to feel the loneliness of the characters. But their isolation is more a trait of their personalities than a source of suffering. In this respect, the movie is perhaps too glossy for its own good.

The scene that everyone picks out is the walk to Tyrone Street. Richard and Christine decide the walk to the intersection will stand in for the relationship they're not having: first the unrelieved joy of being together, then the getting bored with each other, then the fighting and the split. Only they keep chatting flirtily, about whether the walk represents a year and a half or twenty, until they get to the corner, and then we wonder how they can possibly go their separate ways. Although this is as great as anything in the first 75 minutes of Before Sunset, its emphasis is much more on romantic comedy than the rest of the movie. There are more typical scenes that approach this quality: a goldfish on the roof of a car; a child running his fingers through a woman's hair; a picture of a bird in a tree, in a tree; and the ending, where it seems human actions are motivating the sunrise.

The scene I consider the finest is a quiet one: Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), a tween spending her childhood preparing for life as a homemaker, gets a gift from Peter: a plush bird. ("It's for your daughter.") It would be unusual merely for depicting a platonic friendship between kids of different genders and different ages. But it's remarkable for crystallizing what it seems every filmmaker is trying to say these days: there's something to be gained from thinking like a child. Through July's lens, it doesn't seem like a regression: no redundant literalization of fantasy is necessary. The achievement of Me and You and Everyone We Know is to show how the mundane moments of our lives can be mundanely transformed by imagination.

Best movie of the festival.

The Intruder: Is that a bloody organ in the snow or are you just unhappy to see me? [SFIFF '05 movie note]

A heart transplant recipient searches internationally for his son. From anyone else a movie that looks (credit Agnes Godard) and sounds (credit Jean-Louis Ughetto) this good would be revelatory, but by Claire Denis's standards it's disappointing - her predilection for isolation (and heavy-handed symbolism) means her ideas about community are stunted.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson: A different kind of dog [book note]

"How lucky were they?" the opening sentence asks, and we know that things can only go downhill for the Land family. The daughters of Victor, a probabilist, and Rosemary, a former nurse, live in what seems to be a idyll of grass and sunshine. Only it isn't so perfect - the delusions and frequent accidents of the girls are just the tip of a rapidly approaching iceberg. Kate Atkinson's potboiler then takes the conventions of the detective novel and inserts characters more typical of literary fiction. It becomes the story of private investigator Jackson, and of Amelia and Theo and Caroline, not all of who are clients of his.

Atkinson teases us with hints of minor twists, so just when we're congratulating ourselves for seeing through these, she pulls out the big revelations. Admittedly this is a cheap tactic, and the plot is ultimately less interesting than the characters. Lecturer Amelia appears unprepossessing; inside, she's all teen girl-angst. Ex-lawyer Theo is morbidly obese and fixated on past tragedy. Caroline, on the other hand, is doing better at least outwardly, yet she too longs to shift lives.

These sufferers would seem draggingly self-pitying in real life, but Atkinson engages our empathy by giving us their reasons, which may not be what we first suspect. In any case, Jackson does a terrific job of spacing out the whininess - he's by far the sanest character, even though he has the most shit to deal with in the present, what with a dragon of an ex, and attempts on his life. His foil is Amelia's sister Julia, just about to reach that age where acting kittenish is embarrassing (though Amelia has found it embarrassing for a long time.)

Laura Miller, Salon's best books of 2004: "...all three case histories are heartbreaking, and sometimes Atkinson's novel is, too. Then, a few pages later, some very funny observation about contemporary life or an expertly drawn (and entirely believable) minor character will make you laugh. Atkinson writes such fluid, sparkling prose that an ingenious plot almost seems too much to ask, but we get it anyway. If Lorrie Moore decided to write a genre-busting detective novel it might resemble "Case Histories," a book in which people take precedence over puzzles and there's no greater mystery than the resurrection of hope."

Colin Greenland, The Independent (don't read the whole review, it's spoiler city): "Atkinson is always perceptive and engaging, and this time perhaps a degree less antic in her postmodern playfulness. Literary references - to Conan Doyle, Edith Wharton or Jilly Cooper - are still plentiful... But as the book goes on, there seem to be fewer of these fidgety parentheses, and a new and welcome sense of calm and assurance that it's tempting, if presumptuous, to identify with maturity."

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The new NSFC website! !!!

Regular posting will resume in a few days after I've done my term project, but in the meantime OMG THIS IS THE GREATEST THING IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD!!!111 We once more get to know what Amy Taubin (The Holy Girl 93, Palindromes 30) and Charles Taylor (Tropical Malady 100, Tarnation 0) think on a regular basis! We learn David Edelstein loves The Incredibles (90) almost as much as The Band Wagon (93)! That Jonathan Rosenbaum dislikes Sideways (20) more than House of Wax (35)! Et cetera.

Will this be a supplement to Metacritic or an usurper? We'll see.

EDIT: Supplement, definitely.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Opening this weekend

*Kingdom of Heaven
House of Wax

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Cinévardaphoto, or, Worth 139 words [SFIFF '05 movie note]

Three shorts by Agnès Varda, the best being the new one, Ydessa, the Bears and Etc..., an exploration of the asymmetric curator Ydessa Hendeles's exhibition of teddy bear snapshots. Elevating the display's provocation into art, Varda milks the pics for every drop of melancholy. Yet she's playful, inventing narratives to connect them. Studying one photo, she follows the criss-crossed gazes of its subjects, working out who's looking at who.

Ulysse is the boy in a photo taken by Varda in 1954 (the short was made in 1982.) He's forgotten the photo, which also features a naked man and a dead goat, but he remembers the painting he made of the scene. Varda remembers all, reminiscing about the era.

Only the third short, Salut les Cubains, fails: this hagiography of a nation could be a tourist brochure by Castro.

10th District Court: Moments of Trials: If Judge Judy were human [SFIFF '05 movie note]

Raymond Depardon's courtroom doc features a higher proportion of nonwhites than any French film I recall. This is simply because African and Middle Eastern immigrants were most willing to appear on camera, as if appearing in a movie would ensure their right to stay in the country - even if that were the opposite of what their sentences pronounced. Depardon is a friend of the presiding judge, the chatty, humane, firm Michèle Bernard-Requin. But though he draws a couple of laughs at the defendants' expense, mostly he's on their side, so that even when we see Bernard-Requin is legally justified, the law still seems harsh. What's most shocking is how inept the defense attorneys seem to be, leaving doubt over whether justice has been done.


Depardon on why there's so much direct conversation between Bernard-Requin and the defendants: "She loves to talk."

Monday, May 02, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle: A Chinese gross story [movie note]

Stephen Chow is king of comedy, action and sentimentality; the order in which he prioritizes these varies. In Shaolin Soccer, sentiment ruled, and it absolutely became him, allowing him to gloss over the cheesiness of his CG. This time it's been scaled back: his variation on Chaplin's blind flowergirl is heartrending but extraneous. The postscript to the final fight would be Spielberg-beautiful - if it had ended E.T. and not a bloodfest, no matter how stylized. The nonseq comedy is sparse, with even the best effort (Sing gets stabbed! Repeatedly!) a regression from From Beijing with Love's backfiring pistol.

This one's mostly a kung-fu movie. The fights escalate to higher levels of martial goodness, building from crisp, standard Yuen Wo-ping body flinging to creepy assassinations-by-zither to vulgar battery to megapowered chi-wars. If only it had stretched out into Dragonball epicness. It's excellent, but it's an end - Chow has taken action comedy as far as it can go. He's more likely to make a City Lights, or else a Duck Soup, than anyone working today; his current success is the greatest obstacle to this - why fix what ain't broke?

Further reading: Jean Lukitsh's profile of the awesome Yuen Wah and Yuen Qiu and their history in Chinese opera, at Kung Fu Cinema.

Turtles Can Fly: Life and nothing but [movie note]

Turtles Can Fly is set in a tent village of children in Kurdistan, just inside the Iraqi border. There's a permanent settlement of adults up the hill, but for the most part they're content to let the kids be. For their part, the youngsters are satisfied with this arrangement - it leaves them the freedom that's the small compensation for their losses. Their leader is 13-year-old Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), who's achieved his position of power through his ruthless entrepeneurial spirit and his strategic deployment of Yankee slang. He dispatches his followers to various landowners, whose lands they'll clear of mines. They'll resell the mines to earn their keep. A mysterious group arrives, sister and brother Agrin (Avaz Latif), about Satellite's age, and Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), slightly older, and the toddler Riga (Abdol Rahman Karim). Hengov has lost his arms, but Agrin is the one who seems impossibly sad.

Bahman Ghobadi's previous film, Marooned in Iraq, was a terrific mix of road comedy and national tragedy. It was set just after the 1991 war, whereas Turtles is set just before the 2003 edition. While Ghobadi's can certainly construct a shot - one that stands out is of the children streaming up a hill, anticipating the beginning of hostilities - his strength is his writing; his characters are magnetic whether they burst with life or they draw you in with their internal struggles, and he gets the performances to inflate them from young and old alike.

The movie centres on the rivalry between Satellite and Hengov. Satellite is a opportunistic capitalist and master bullshitter. After he installs a dish for the local elders, they realize they need someone to translate Fox News for them. Satellite doesn't have any idea what's going either, so he tells them that Bush's pronoucement is a prediction of rain tomorrow. Hengov, meanwhile, is a seer - twice in the past he saw the future, and both times the tragic courses came to pass. His only long-term goal is to keep his family together; Satellite's love for Agrin doesn't appear to be a threat to this, as Agrin seems completely disinterested. When Hengov foresees a truck explosion, he only tells his family to leave the area; Satellite must take responsibility for removing everyone else.

Agrin's mindset is different. At first seeming like an ice queen, the only time she's expressive is when demonstrating her resentment of Riga. Her blankness is justified - better to be numb than to be devastated. But she can't stay numb forever. She doesn't represent any particular set of sufferers - she's a symbol of suffering.

Turtles Can Fly is funnier than you'd think possible, but it's in its final plunge into tragedy that it becomes a classic. Neither the worldly pragmatist nor the spiritual visionary has the power to prevent disaster. The Americans arrive, the Americans leave, life goes on. Satellite, damaged physically, is shattered on the inside; his ideals have been shown to be futile. And of the main characters, he gets off the easiest. Day-to-day life may be a struggle, but most of the oppressed can take some joy from it. But when even this is taken, the tragedy is incomparable. Few movies have ever taken us this low.