October 29, 2008

Flow: For Love of Water

** out of ****

While not “Hustle and Flow,” the new film, “Flow: For Love of Water,” still demands that viewers “hustle” to activism against the global water crisis. The humanistic aspect with which the film concerns itself persists through cultural references that bind together many kinds of people all over the world, showing how this crisis affects everyone. Though this documentary’s cinematic qualities are not noteworthy, its message is certainly striking, interesting, and worthwhile.

The quote, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” precedes the film and presents a dichotomy between love and water, though it is soon rectified because the rest of the film focuses on the “love of water,” as denoted by the title, apparently an acronym. The film works in two parts. It begins by presenting a series of statistics about the world’s vanishing clean water supply and interweaving a series of featured experts who relentlessly warn of the injustices being perpetrated on all of mankind. After the intensely pessimistic tone exhibited at the beginning of the film, it becomes more humanistic by showing people in other countries who directly suffer from a lack of clean water, or worse, from worldwide corporations’ self-serving “privatization” of clean water.

Continuing on “the love of water,” the beauty and power of water are represented frequently in “Flow.” One striking shot is from underwater with a light penetrating from above, suggesting a heavenly atmosphere. Besides the film’s unmistakable adulation of H2O, one of the more colorful interviews features a scientist who compares the flow of water over land to blood in veins and arteries. This comparison equates two fluids essential to life, intrinsically making them inseparable and invaluable. Although the quote presented at the outset seems to demonstrate that water is more essential than love, the idea of love drives the recognition of water’s indispensability, and the film presents an urgent case for its free generation for all of mankind.

On the other hand, corporations who stand in the way of clean water—a free right for all—are intensely scrutinized and judged in the film through demonization. The film has a distinct good and evil, and the director’s passion to solve the global water crisis leads to this demonization of anyone who stands in the way in order to make a profit. The film makes hypocrites of these corporations’ representatives, especially one for Vivendi, whose smug grin in describing his company’s actions certainly contributes to his demonization. Essentially, the film is a sort of propaganda, but one that promotes the plight of “the little guy” against the selfishness of his bigger counterpart. In addition, the film is not afraid to point out these perpetrators, including Vivendi, Sven, and a surprisingly-fingered Nestle, which is severely depleting water in Michigan for free and turning out millions of dollars in revenue each year.

Overall, the film is a radical statement, but it is a great film for open-minded people who enjoy listening to the bold statements of others. On the other hand, for lovers of documentary filmmaking, this film is nothing new and not terribly exciting, so it will appear run-of-the-mill to viewers such as yourselves. However, as one interviewee frankly presented it, the global water crisis facing the world today is “not a Republican problem and not a Democratic problem—it’s a people problem.” The added concern with disappearing water’s effect on climate change also helps provide the film with another note of relevance, especially in a world growing more and more concerned with that issue.

In sum, though the filmmaking is amateur, director Irena Salina’s message is strong and impassioned.

“Flow: For Love of Water” is playing now at the Belcourt Theatre.


October 27, 2008

Random Musing: Breathless

While the "cinéma à papa" (i.e. classical Hollywood cinema) had been the nourishment of filmgoers for so long, Godard's "Breathless (À bout de souffle)," somewhat unlike fellow New Waver Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," truly throws it all out the window in favor of something new, fresh, and watershed, becoming the epitome of the French New Wave, especially in terms of its stylistic elements. The reason I mention the film is because I simply want to muse on one quotation in it that I feel, as simple, throwaway, and forgetful as it may seem, defines the film's ideology.

Cinema itself is certainly important to the film, just as it also was to Truffaut's "400 Blows." Another "Cahiers du Cinéma" critic, Godard's passion for film influences several scenes in the film, including Michel's incessant thumb movement over his lips in the style of his idol, Humphrey Bogart. (Though I cannot recall him ever making such a motion in any film in which I have seen him, I would say he is probably the one who inspired this gesture for the character of Michel.) Anyway, besides his idolization of Bogart, his similarities to François, the protagonist of the 1939 French film "Daybreak (Le Jour Se Lève)," could certainly inform his status as a representative of older cinema.

The interesting scene that I have cited already shows a young girl with a copy of "Cahiers" as she approaches Michel. She asks, "Monsieur, do you support youth?" If memory serves, Michel tells her, "No, I prefer the old." It is quite amusing because younger film critic contemporaries were the reason why French cinema (and all cinema, for that matter) was, or would be, undergoing a groundbreaking change. Perhaps Michel's preference for the style of "old" (meaning older cinema) is the reason why he dies in the film... It could be like the old saying - "Out with the old, in with the new." Godard, as some sources suggest, may have been immodest about the fact that his film was going to break new ground and become a legend, but perhaps Michel had to die in order to fulfill the new rite of passage in cinema that would be the French New Wave. Of course the theme of death does play a greater role in the film and in Michel's death at the end than could be suggested by this one quote interpretation, but I think this one quote, in the context of the film and of its time, reveals the film's logic. (Furthermore, the fact that the film's narration is also defined by newspaper headlines might also point out the fact that journalists at the time [think "Cahiers"] were also "narrating" the change that would become cinema at the time.)


October 26, 2008

Random Musing: High School Movies

Because I am preparing to do my next high school project (just another criteria for my "America on Film" class) on high school representation, lately I have been considering the way people judge some high school movies compared to others. Critics are always quick to examine a high school movie's authenticity in its portrayal, and I noticed it again when reading Sam B. Girgus' America on Film the other day. In his chapter on John Sayles' "Lone Star," he says, "The scene provides a rare moment in film in portraying the ambience and attitudes of a high school classroom with realism and authenticity" (p. 52). I thought about his quote a bit - a rare moment of authenticity? On what grounds can he state that this scene is authentic and not something like "Mean Girls" or "The Breakfast Club"? Then I realized - high school movies, unlike many other genres of film, are more easily and quickly judged because everyone has gone through it!

Consider "Blackboard Jungle" (You must watch this trailer before reading further - it is unlike anything you have ever seen before):
Did you find yourself laughing at it? That is because you judged it based on your own experience in high school. "Teenage terror in the schools?" Pshaw. Just like you (and I) judged it, that is how critics discover that they can judge other high school movies as well: "The Breakfast Club," "Heathers," "Angus," "Mean Girls"... The list goes on and on. Apparently few of these films actually depict high school classroom settings accurately, though (except "Blackboard Jungle," of course!).

So why do high school movies get hated on the most, though? Again, it is because we have all been there. We all have an idea, based on our own experience, of what high school should be like, so when we see it on film, a high school movie becomes a great film when we recognize its similarities to our own experiences. It is in this way that other genre films - war films for example - can never be so quickly judged. Only veterans can offer support to the authenticity of a war film because they were the only ones who were there and can prove it. We other viewers can only sit back and accept the film as a historical document, capturing a time and place we know little about. On the other hand, a high school movie is a time and place we know everything about. I challenge you: The next time you watch a high school movie, see if you do not comment on its authenticity in your head, but then think about why.


October 25, 2008

Quote of the Day: Rosemary's Baby

*Just for my McGill peeps*

"What have you done to it!? What have you done to its eyes!?" ~ a horrified Mia Farrow fighting against an evil far greater than her in "Rosemary's Baby"

*look for it around the 2:08 mark*


October 21, 2008

Random Musing: Madonna on Film

One of the most heckled popular entertainers to grace the silver screen is pop superstar Madonna. Ok, so before you laugh, know this: although she may have had her share of (huge) flops, she does well enough in the right role. You might argue that anyone is capable of achievement in the right film role, which certainly applies to Madonna, but she has made several roles her own. Eva Perón? Mae Mordabito? Breathless Mahoney?

Roger Ebert, an idol of mine, has taken the opportunity to trash Madonna on a number of occasions. I am using his thoughts to provide a basis that represents the general popular consensus of her work.

In his 1990 review of "Dick Tracy," though overwhelmingly acclaiming, he said of Madonna: "Her mistake in 'Dick Tracy,' I think, is that she frankly reaches back to Marilyn Monroe and tries to make Breathless into a Monroe clone, right down to the lighting and costuming in some numbers, which seems inspired by Monroe in 'Some Like It Hot.' It doesn't work. She's not Monroe and she's not Madonna, either."

In his 2000 review of "The Next Best Thing," he again criticizes the pop music icon, saying she "never emerges as a plausible human being in the movie."

On his 2002 comments on the remake of Guy Ritchie's "Swept Away," starring Madonna, he never really mentions anything about Madonna elsewhere in his review besides her character being unbelievable, so I will assume this can be inferred for her acting, too.

However, in his 1996 review of "Evita," he praises, "Madonna, who took voice lessons to extend her range, easily masters the musical material. As importantly, she is convincing as Evita - from the painful early scene where, as an unacknowledged child, she tries to force entry into her father's funeral, to later scenes where the poor rural girl converts herself into a nightclub singer, radio star, desirable mistress, and political leader."

He also lauds Madonna's debut in 1985's "Desperately Seeking Susan" by asserting the film "has its moments, and many of them involve the different kinds of special appeal that [Rosanna] Arquette and Madonna are able to generate. They are very particular individuals, and in a dizzying plot they somehow succeed in creating specific, interesting characters."

While Ebert fortunately missed such films as "Shanghai Surprise" and "Who's That Girl" in his long film-reviewing career, it stands to show that he praises her relatively infrequently compared to his wallops on her acting talent.

I, on the other hand, would like to praise her talent. Although, yes, she has made her share of flops, I think she really shines in those moments that she does shine. While "Susan" is a good example for the beginning of her filmography, I did, contrary to Ebert, enjoy Madonna in "Dick Tracy." Her style was a bit Monroe (who would not use this icon as the example of sexuality?), but I thought she captured her own sensuality and sexuality exceptionally well. She was certainly believable, at least. When she told Tracy (Warren Beatty), "I sweat a lot better in the dark," I was panting just as much!

I remember when I first saw "A League of Their Own" as a child, and I have admired Madonna ever since. She certainly proves herself as Mae Mordabito, as she continues to sustain the sexuality synonymous with her name while generating an admirable human element to her character. She fits among the film's ensemble cast so well and especially forges a hilarious repartée with cast member Rosie O'Donnell as Doris Murphy.

Ultimately, I suppose the problem facing Madonna the actress is that some people might question her ability to separate herself from Madonna the singer. Madonna the singer has a dominant, controversial personality, so some people might fail to recognize her ability to be a conceivable actress. I think her role in "Evita" might dispel all of those critics who continue to question, though. How could this spectacular, unabashed pop music entertainer have played the human, beloved Argentenian icon otherwise?

Therefore, I will contend that Madonna is a good actress, given the right film role. She certainly has the "Globe" to prove it.


October 20, 2008

Random Musing: Writing on Film

Let me preface this "random musing" by initially informing you, my readers, that I am currently taking a course at Vanderbilt University called "America on Film," taught by Professor Sam B. Girgus. For this course, we have been required to purchase and read the textbook, "American Cinema/American Culture," by Professor John Belton of Rutgers University. On October 13, or last Monday, Professor Belton was invited to come speak to our class, so his guest lecture centered on a new chapter to be included in the third edition of his textbook - a chapter to be called "What It Means To Be Human: The Horror and Science Fiction Films." While all of this information seems dispensible, I can assure you it is important to know as I propose what I intend to do one day when I write on film.

While, yes, I do hope to one day become a regular film reviewer in a film magazine (or even for a newspaper), I also have some ambitions of writing books about film. This semester has offered me a great deal of insight into authoring such books, as Professor Girgus has written at least seven, two of which - "America on Film" and "Hollywood Renaissance" - I am currently taking turns reading. Also currently enjoying Belton's "American Cinema" book (which I would highly recommend for its insight and its being well-written), I have thus come to this decision of writing myself. Since purchasing "2001: A Space Odyssey" by Arthur C. Clarke this summer, I have decided I would like to write a book analyzing the film version while drawing on its connection to the novel. I suppose this would then become a comprehensive version analyzing this mysterious and beautiful film. In addition, I have also considered writing a book about queer theory. While some of you might have read my first blogs on my studies this summer, I basically bemoaned its virtual nonexistence in film courses, especially those at Vanderbilt, today. After enjoying the first few chapters of Boze Hadleigh's "The Lavender Screen" earlier this summer, to which I promise I will return eventually, I have decided that following my studies, I would eventually like to pen my own book scrutinizing everything there is to know about queer theory.

In the last few days, religiously watching "Sex and the City" and seeing Carrie's collection of columns make their way into book form further solidifies this desire to become published one day. I would also like to see some of my film reviews meet the publishing light-of-day one day, but for now, I am content to continue publishing through "Versus" and through this site. I suppose all of these plans lie in that "one day" realm, but they will happen, I assure you.


October 8, 2008

Battle in Seattle

** ½ out of ****

At the turn of the century, a battle was being fought on the streets of Seattle, Washington—one that would pit protestors hoping for a better world against the inhumane crimes committed by the World Trade Organization. The film is a dynamic, volatile, and intensely powerful documentary on the riots that would occur between the protestors and the police because of this conflict.

The narrative itself, while based on true events, creates a fictitious account with which to relate them, centering on a group of anarchist activists, led by Jay (Martin Henderson), who have some sort of political or personal motivation in gathering in Seattle, Washington at the end of 1999 to protest the summit meeting of the World Trade Organization. What begins as peaceful protests that block off the roads around the WTO’s meeting place suddenly becomes violent warfare on the streets when a State of Emergency is declared, calling on the police to begin to attack the protestors. Mayor Tobin (Ray Liotta) is horrified at this turn of events, as the attacks lead to the physical harm and imprisonment of many innocent protestors. Even some innocent bystanders are assailed, such as Ella (Charlize Theron), the pregnant wife of officer Dale (Woody Harrelson). With all of the odds stacked against the protestors, these fateful days bring together the people of the city in an intense, edge-of-your-seat sequence of events that leads up to the provocative ending.

Boasting a relatively well-known cast, including Oscar-nominee Woody Harrelson, Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, Ray Liotta, Michelle Rodriguez, Channing Tatum, and Joshua Jackson, the film unfortunately suffers from weak character development. However, this does not prevent some respectable performances from shining through. The best performance easily comes from Harrelson, whose simple character ultimately possesses the most dynamic range of emotions. In one memorable shot before the police begin their second assault on the peaceful protestors, Harrelson is emotionally devastated because of the attack on his wife the day before, and a simple medium-close up shot on his face conveys its emptiness but also its intense emotional anguish. Another noteworthy performance is from Rade Serbedzija as Doctor Maric, a member of Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) whose impassioned plea to members of the WTO who continue to ignore his appeals for medicine for young, dying children in third-world countries actually made me tear up just a bit. The realities of these two performances lie in stark contrast with the disappointing one of Ray Liotta as the Mayor—his frustrations and excited speech come off more as trying too hard.

Concerning the film’s narrative, the first half is relatively weak, suggesting no clear reason for the insertion of a fictitious set of character accounts to dramatize the Seattle riots. In fact, the occasional insertion of the original documentary footage made me initially consider the film as a potentially better documentary. However, the turning point of the narrative comes with the assault on Ella in the first day of police retaliation, and I realized then that the narrative is actually in place to emphasize a humanistic aspect of the events portrayed within. Furthermore, the narrative offers a discontent with establishment, alluded to through the corruption of the WTO and the savage brutality of the police.

The greatest theme of the film recalls the driving theme behind Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In the film, Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith is driven by the idea that “lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.” The same ideology holds true for the protestors of this film, whose “lost cause” drives them to reject the inhumanities perpetrated by the WTO. It is the character of Django (André Benjamin) who evokes the idea of the “lost cause” to re-inspire discouraged Jay.

Furthermore, a powerful symbol in the film is the balance of justice, established by the statue on the desk of the Mayor. In every scene in which it appears, its placement or use predicts or defines the successes of the protestor protagonists.

All in all, “Battle in Seattle” marks a strong directorial debut for actor Stuart Townsend (a.k.a. Mr. Charlize Theron). His vision behind the camera instructs the realism he appropriates through the film’s messages. Meanwhile, cinematography and editing are also greatly important to the film and directly contribute to its senses of frustration, dynamism, and volatility.

As a word of warning, this film is intense in all senses of the word’s meaning, even until one of the most viscerally wrenching scenes I have ever witnessed on film occurs. The long shot of a police officer slamming pregnant Ella square in the stomach with his stick is anguishing and might require a tissue for your tears or a bag with which to relieve sudden nausea.

“Battle in Seattle” is playing now at the Belcourt Theatre.

Originally published in the October 8 issue of Versus Magazine: Entertainment & Culture


October 6, 2008

Quote of the Day: Rebecca

"Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again..." ~ a reflective Joan Fontaine's first lines as the second Mrs. De Winter in "Rebecca"

*look for it around the 1:39 mark*


October 1, 2008

La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game)

**** out of ****

"La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game)" was hardly what I expected—I was already aware that it was held in high regard by filmmakers and critics across the world, usually a close second to Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane in polls (Sight & Sound), but I had a different expectation for what the film would be like. My experience would have led me to anticipate "La Règle" as a self-important and cinematically brilliant, but unfortunately boring and distant film, but a pleasant surprise welcomed me when I watched the film for the first time. The film itself is actually arresting, engaging, playful, and poetic. Director Renoir truly crafts a masterpiece with this stunning film.

In "La Règle du Jeu," the aviator André Jurieu (Roland Toutain) lands in France, having made a transatlantic flight in the name of the woman he loves. He is dismayed when he learns that she, Christine (Nora Grégor), has skipped out on the historic event, and he tries to commit suicide later while driving in the countryside with his unwitting friend, Octave (Renoir himself), also in the car. To please his depressed friend, Octave convinces Christine and her husband, Le Marquis (Marcel Dalio), to invite them to a hunting party at their home so André can see her again. The party at the exquisite home that day continues to sour with the revelation of the interconnected series of affairs occurring between the people in attendance at the party, and the upper class level of refinement descends to violence, which leads all the way up to the film’s tragic, troubling, and surprising ending.

When Renoir’s opening title card attempted to convince me that the film was no kind of social criticism, I was immediately suspicious. Any kind of book or film that tries to emphasize such a notion (L. Frank Baum’s "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," for example) can easily be lying to the reader/viewer, and according to Jean Renoir himself, he is doing just that. He once explained in his biography, "Ma Vie et Mes Films (My Life and My Films)":

"At the beginning, I didn't want to present the public with an avant-garde work, just a good, normal film. People came to the movies thinking they were going to be able to leave their worries behind. Instead I plunged them into their own problems."
Therefore, one of the first titles that proclaims the film’s innocence in storytelling was actually as false as I had presumed. In the course of the film’s narrative, this becomes easy to recognize, as cinematic elements demand the interpretation of the faults of French high society on the brink of World War II.

Clearly, France’s high society plays by a strict code of “rules of the game,” and it becomes important to the film's characters in the way they chase each other in encounters of love and lust. Almost every character is married or connected to another character, but the thrust of the story lies in the way those same characters are after a different character, culminating in a huge web of interconnecting relationships. Renoir clearly underlines the hypocrisy of the elite when Robert points out the shame of cheating on a significant other to Schumacher, who is quite likely one of the film’s least deplorable characters.

A visiting film professor a few years ago referenced this film in her lecture and noted the importance of watching what occurs in the background of any given scene. I took heed of her advice and carefully scanned each scene for clues and was thus rewarded for my observations. Mirrors appear infrequently, but when they do, they are crucial to a scene. For example, in one scene, a mirror portrays the easily associable concept of vanity, but in another, the “Danse macabre” scene, a subtle mirror in the background reflects “death” upon the entirety of the people in the room—the entirety of high society.

Another example of the traits of high society can be interpreted through the comparison of old versus new. Early in the film, radios and airplanes contribute to the film’s modernism. On the other hand, Robert’s collection of antique musical dolls signals something older and outdated. In this way, Robert, a representative of the elite, whose collection’s mechanical meaning can be extrapolated to himself and his culture, is also becoming outdated. In fact, the final words of the film predict this change, as someone insightfully points out, “His race is dying out,” speaking of The Marquis. As the party reenters the castle, the camera is in a long shot, showing only the shadows of the guests on the far castle wall as they “march” off-screen. These shadows can be tied back to the “Danse macabre” and the death symbolized through it—on the eve of World War II, the French high society is going to its (metaphorical) death.

Therefore, Renoir anticipates the coming of a new social order. In this way, "La Règle" was certainly before its time (as was "Kane") and will securely maintain its position as one of the best films of all-time. Going back to my initial conception of the film, I was wrong in every way—this film presents a fluid, riveting narrative while also being on the cinematic cutting edge. What an achievement for its time.