Month: February 2014

Daniel Barnes @ the SNR

stalingrad1

Unlike the American-produced propaganda purveyed by Michael Bay, Peter Berg and Roland Emmerich, the Russian 3D IMAX epic Stalingrad smuggles a tender soul into the omnipresent CGI and Gladiator-style fight scenes.

*You can’t spell “menigococcal” without McG.

*Besides my film reviews, I also write about beer, as in this piece about Goathouse Brewing for the Sacramento Beer Week issue.

ESFS In Theaters Exclusive – “7 Boxes”

7-boxes217 Boxes (2014; Dir. Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori)

Grade: B

by Mike Dub

Paraguayan films rarely make the long trip up to the States, which is one of the reasons that 7 Boxes, which opens today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, is such a fun movie to discover.  Directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori, the film seems a logical representative to try to distribute to North America.  While it can be appreciated as a fun, lively chase movie, it also offers a glimpse, however narrow and stylized, into the world of modern Paraguay, in which the filmmakers lament Paraguay’s capitulation to a westernized consumerist and cultural globalization.

Even if its effort is slightly more laudable than its end result, 7 Boxes is a gritty, entertaining chase movie.  The story concerns Victor (Celso Franco), a poor teenager who desperately wants a cellphone with a video camera.  Enraptured by television, he wants to record himself, which is his idea of what it means to be a star.  He has seen enough American movies and Idols to be lured by the promise of fame and fortune.

He doesn’t have enough money to buy a camera phone, so he accepts a small-time gangster’s dubious proposal: if Victor takes care of seven boxes for him (while the police search his business) and return them in tact, he will give Victor one hundred U.S. dollars, more than enough to buy the phone.  He spends the rest of the film running and hiding from an assortment of characters, including a rival and his gang, the police, his fifteen-year-old love interest, and eventually the gangster himself.

With a refreshingly low-tech visual style, cinematographer Richard Careaga brings to life the poor, cluttered maze of an urban marketplace.  There is virtually no CGI affectation to clutter the beauty of his shots or the tension they create.  Careaga creates a clever visual palette that is nearly always interesting to watch, whether it involves placing the camera on a wheelbarrow during a chase or using silhouette to provide rare moments of dreamlike peace inside the nightmare of chaos surrounding the characters.

Energetic as it is, the film never quite breaks through the inevitability of its narrative.  There is a textbook structure to the film that becomes more of a predictable rhythm.  Characters enter and re-enter the story with mathematical precision, as though an egg timer were going off to remind us that they still exist.  Plotlines intersect not through organic development, but because they are required to do so in order to advance the story, which builds to an inexorable, Tarantino-style climactic showdown.  That is not to say the movie is hackneyed, but merely less than what it might have been.

Still, with its striking visual style and low-budget authenticity, 7 Boxes says more about resisting consumerist hegemony by virtue of its existence than it does in its final “message.”  The film is an invigorating reminder that in order to make an effective action movie, you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars or a cast overflowing with Hollywood stars.  More often than not, ambition is worth a hell of a lot more.

NETFLIX INSTANT REVIEW OF THE WEEK – “Price of Gold”

680x478Price of Gold (2014; Dir.: Nanette Burstein)

GRADE: B-

By Mike Dub

Price of Gold is the latest installment of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series of feature-length documentaries that focus on the biggest and most important sports stories of the last thirty years.  To commemorate, so to speak, the twentieth anniversary of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan figure skating scandal, Price of Gold offers a detailed look back at the events surrounding one of the strangest sports events of ESPN’s lifetime.

For those who don’t remember, in the run-up to the 1994 Olympics, American figure skater and sweetheart Nancy Kerrigan was violently attacked during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.  Just days later, Kerrigan’s rival, Tonya Harding, was implicated in the crime, igniting a tabloid sensation.  Harding and Kerrigan still competed against each other in the Olympics, creating a real-life big-game climax for the entire world to behold.  Tellingly, the best way to illustrate the social impact of the event is for the documentary to declare that the Kerrigan/Harding showdown was the “the highest-rated Olympic television programming of all time.”

The centerpiece of the film is an extensive interview with Tonya Harding herself (the film tells us that Kerrigan declined participation), as she describes everything from her abusive childhood, to her unstable marriage, to her experience during the Olympics, to the aftermath when her name became a lasting punch line for lazy comics – even President Obama used it jokingly at a rally not so long ago.

The most interesting moments of her story are the insights she provides about the inner workings of the world of figure skating.  At one point, she recalls designing and sewing her own costume because she couldn’t afford the lavish costumes most of the other girls wore, only to be scolded after the competition by a judge who warned, “If you ever wear anything like that again at a U.S. championship, you will never do another one.”  It is clear that not many young ladies use figure skating as a way to pull themselves out of the gutter.  Indeed, most figure skaters are born closer to the penthouse.

The dichotomy between Harding and the rest of the figure skating community was exploited by journalists and network marketers at the time.  If Harding’s skating style was aggressive, flashy, almost blue-collar in spirit, then Kerrigan’s was graceful, mannered, sound in technique and craft.  Harding was rough around the edges, while Kerrigan was classically beautiful.  Harding could have hocked engine oil, while Kerrigan’s face was plastered on Wheaties boxes.

Twenty years later, Price of Gold fails to move beyond the simple contrasts between the two skaters.  Just as the journalists of the time reveled in the readymade clash of brute versus beauty, this film never bothers to explore a more nuanced approach to their relationship.  In a peculiar moment, reporter Ann Schatz reminds us that Kerrigan was not actually from a wealthy family, but grew up closer to lower-middle class.  Disregarding that information, the film continues to indulge interview subjects who lean on simple, diametric readings of the two skaters.

The film succeeds as a detailed, journalistic retelling of the events surrounding the infamous attack.  However, lost in that journalistic objectivity is a nuanced perspective.  Price of Gold could have been a more interesting personal profile, or even an expose on the ingrained corruption of the figure skating world (it is touched on, but only for a moment).  Instead, it walks us down a rather banal path toward an obvious finale in which every participant is asked, “Do you think she did it?”  A more interesting question might have been: after twenty years, does it really matter?

February First Love Films (Dub’s Pick)

215px-To_die_for_impTo Die For (1995; Dir.: Gus Van Sant)

GRADE: A-

By Mike Dub 

Director Gus Van Sant has always been sympathetic to the anguish of teenagers.  With varying quality (anything from My Own Private Idaho to Finding Forrester) his films express the troubles of American youth with great sensitivity.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that in To Die For, based on the true story of an aspiring journalist who coerced a teenage lover into killing her husband, Van Sant’s compassion lies with the boy, and his inability to navigate the waters of his first love.

The fictionalized version of the boy is Jimmy Emmett, played by Joaquin Phoenix in his breakout role (can it be almost twenty years already?), a not-so-lovable loser who falls victim to the manipulations of sexy femme fatale Suzanne Maretto (Nicole Kidman).  Jimmy is even less able to deal with his first love than most kids.  Raised in squalor, he is the product of neglectful parents who would rather spend their time watching evangelists on cable television than engage with their son.  Even more problematic, his intellect seems to hover right around the line of mental disability, Van Sant’s exaggeration of the impaired teenage brain, but only a slight one.

When he meets Suzanne for the first time, it is first love at first sight.  She is married, but her true passion is television journalism.  Trying to use her position as a barely watched local weatherperson as a launching pad to success, she has convinced her station manager to let her film a documentary on the lives of teenagers, which brings her together with Jimmy.  When her husband (Matt Dillon) has ideas of settling down and having kids, she decides that killing him is her only way out, and she seduces Jimmy into helping her.


In films about love, especially teen love, characters are often placed in a hierarchy according to the purity of their feelings.  At the bottom of the chain are those incapable of greater feelings than animalistic lust.  At the top are characters whose attraction is loftier, more poetic.  While his friend Russ (Casey Affleck) only thinks of Suzanne in terms of sex, Jimmy sees in her something more exotic than her sex appeal: “She’s clean.”

The film works as a whole largely because of Nicole Kidman’s excellent performance as a vapid, delusional egotist whose only ambition in life is to succeed on television.  However, the power of Suzanne’s relationship with Jimmy rests largely on the shoulders of young Phoenix, who gives a brilliant, discomforting performance as an unintelligent teenager who is laughably strange, yet sadly sympathetic.  Under the spell of an older, more experienced woman, Jimmy never had a chance.

Many films treat first love as a wistful, sentimental rite of passage that pushes one toward emotional maturity.  Fittingly, To Die For satirizes those tender, nostalgic First Love films.  For Jimmy, love becomes an all-consuming obsession.


However, Jimmy’s love is no less profound for the outcome.  Even long after they have separated, Jimmy still loves Suzanne.  He tells us with great warmth, even reverence, that he dreams about her every night.

The film’s expression of teenage love as a twisted cacophony of raging hormones and emotions is summarized by Jimmy in his opening lines.  Directly addressing the camera in the present day, long after the events of the film have concluded, Jimmy conveys his love for Suzanne in a hauntingly strange elegy.  “I never really gave a rat’s ass about the weather, [but] now… if it rains, or there’s lightning or thunder, or if it snows, I have to jack off.”

In To Die For, first love is not a quaint rite of passage.  It is a dark concoction of confusion, obsession, powerlessness, and sexual manipulation.  However, like so many characters from more nostalgic looks at first love, despite the pain he endures, Jimmy wouldn’t have traded his love for the world.  Of course, that may just be because he’s not smart enough to make the deal.

Dan and Dub’s Duelling Reviews – “Il Grido”

220px-Il_Grido_Poster*Originally published on the Movie City USA blog on September 6, 2007.

IL GRIDO (1957; Dir.: Michelangelo Antonioni)

DUB’S TAKE:

“In my collection I have a copy of Il Grido, and damn what a boring movie it is…. You know, Antonioni never really learned the trade. He concentrated on single images, never realizing that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement. Sure, there are brilliant moments in his films. But I don’t feel anything…” – Ingmar Bergman, 2002

So, you’re a disaffected, alienated, isolated middle-aged man and you want to make a film about it. The problem: you’re disaffected, alienated, and isolated. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1957 Italian neo-realist drama Il Grido is a film that presents an assortment of beautiful images and even a few brilliant moments. But like its hero, Il Grido ultimately suffers from its own alienation and emotional distance.

Il Grido stars dubbed American B-movie actor Steve Cochran, who is okay when he doesn’t need to be good, but terrible when he needs to be great. He plays Aldo, a rural refinery worker who has been in a relationship with a married woman (Alida Valli) for seven years. When she finds out her migrant worker husband has been killed, she breaks it off with Aldo, who is left heartbroken and angry. He grabs their daughter (succinctly played by Mirna Girardi) and journeys around the Italian countryside, hoping to rid himself of his love for her.

The movie becomes a series of short stories, as Aldo visits a succession of women who he becomes romantically, though not emotionally, involved with. The women are vaguely interesting, each providing strong performances (with a special nod to Betsy Blair as Elvia, a pitiable spinster who has been in love with Aldo for years – her compelling performance outshines everyone), but there is never any real emotional power from them. Antonioni creates a much more effective character out of the barren landscapes and dead, leafless trees than out of any of the people in the movie. Don’t get me wrong, the locations are absolutely beautiful and presented with wonderfully haunting effect, but the film lacks the intensity of a more honest drama because we’re always kept at arm’s length. It’s okay if the women can’t get close to Aldo, but if we can’t… well, see the Bergman quote above.

Il Grido is not a bad movie, it just gets bogged down in its own aloofness. It’s still generally considered an early work by Antonioni, despite his being 45 years old when it was released, and it feels like an early work by a promising director: some amazing images, some ambitious themes, but lacking in narrative and emotional intimacy.  Ultimately, as Bergman stated, I just don’t feel anything.

GRADE: B-

DAN’S TAKE:

First, a confession – Il Grido is only the second Antonioni film I’ve seen (Blow-Up is the other), so I won’t pretend to be an expert on the man and his work. However, I will say that Il Grido is one of the most mysterious, downbeat, and ultimately entrancing films about the tangled desires and emotional degradation of lovesickness I’ve ever seen.

Antonioni undercuts your expectations from the beginning – in the first scene, a small-town mother learns that her overseas-laborer husband has died. Irma (Alida Valli) seems desperate, but not because her marriage is over (for all intents and purposes, that had ended years ago); rather, her husband’s death means she can finally end her long-term, live-in relationship and take up with her other lover, a younger man. Irma dumps the bewildered Aldo (American Steve Cochran, utterly believable), the simple refinery worker who helped raise her daughter, Rosina, and goes to live with Luigi – her husband’s death kills two relationships.

We start to think the story will center around Irma, the proud, damaged woman caught between two lovers. Instead, Il Grido shadows the heartbroken Aldo as he takes to the road with Rosina, dragging her through a series of murky waterfront villages like a token of his lost love. As the impoverished Aldo and Rosina wander from town to town looking for work, Il Grido acquires the street-level intimacy of The Bicycle Thief, only sullen and provincial where De Sica’s film was urban and emotional.

Aldo and Rosina wander for months like itinerant zombies (“I quit my hometown”, says Aldo) – he visits an old girlfriend, then instinctively squashes the spark; he shacks up with a strong-willed gas station owner and her drunk father but eventually ditches her; he meets a sick prostitute who hates his moodiness. The brilliance comes in the richness of the details and the subversion of expectations. An example – late in the film, Aldo gets hired on an old farm. One night over drinks, he listens to his new boss boast of his youthful adventures working in Chile and Argentina. Aldo is captivated, and decides to travel to South America to find work. He acquires the proper paperwork, leaves the employment office, and calmly tears the form up – his misery is inescapable.

Antonioni shot the film in stark seaside locations on the countryside (“Cities are too expensive,” Aldo tells Rosina), and accompanies the images with a spare, haunting piano theme. It has the outward qualities of Neo-Realism but the inward qualities of spiritual vacuousness and narrative frustration that made Antonioni’s reputation. Il Grido is determinedly slow and just as moody and unfocused as its hero, but I was consistently compelled by its sly surprises and nihilistic romanticism.

GRADE: A-

CLIPS – “L’ECLISSE”

leclisse99

Scorsese talks about Antonioni, placing him within the context of the era’s European “arthouse” cinema.  He also calls L’Eclisse the “boldest” of the three films, “less like a story and more like a poem.”  Naturally, Scorsese makes me ashamed for not liking the movie more.

The opening credits of the film, just the first of many inscrutable incongruities throughout L’Eclisse.  After opening with a peppy 60’s pop tune called “L’Eclisse Twist”, the music fades into blaring horns and haunting piano thumps.

The mostly wordless 11-minute opening sequence, as Vitti tells her fiancee she has stopped loving him for reasons she doesn’t know.  My favorite moment – the oscillating fan blowing her hair in a very consciously cinematic closeup.

The tribal dance sequence, definitely the most discomforting for modern audiences, no matter Antonioni’s intentions:

The shattering final 7 minutes of L’Eclisse, a rush of images that show the emptiness of a society where people can’t connect: