Thursday, June 29, 2006

Banlieue 13 (2004)

English Title: District 13
Dir: Pierre Morel
IMDBCurrently playing at Starz Film Center

The year is 2010 and the Parisian government has given up on District B13. They have decided to build a wall around the crime ridden neighborhood and isolate it from the rest of the city. Inside the walls crime and violence rule supreme and one of the crime lords has a new weapon that could kill millions and a prisoner that needs to be freed. Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) and Leïto (David Belle) have to team up to rescue both the weapon and the woman.

This is a perfect meld of the Hollywood and French traditions. The fighting sequences are done in a Ong Bak trend of action movies and involve the two main actors jumping off of buildings and using all things around them to maneuver through the landscape. David Belle founded a new type of sport that involves martial arts and running over, under, on the side of and next to anything that stands in the way. Both actors are highly trained athletes and their physical abilities get them out of sticky situations.

The film follows a different structure than many American audiences are familiar with. There are really only three sequences in the entire film (a run time of 90 minutes) where the first two really set up the characters and the third deals mostly with the actual story at hand. The two protagonists of the film only interact for the last third of the film and it almost feels like three films woven into one. As a whole, the film is a great experience and will likely appeal to an audience that would not typically sit for French cinema.

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Dir: Alexadre Aja
Available on DVD

A family is traveling to California and decides to take the advice of the creepy gas station owner and take a shortcut that could cut “a couple of hours” off their trip. As they travel along the dirt road, they are stopped by a group of hill people that have been genetically warped by the nuclear testing in the area that terrorize the family.

It is not often that I take the time to write about a film that I did not like but, I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity. I found the story to be incredibly predictable and unfulfilling. The inspiration obviously came from the horror films of the 50s but it fell short of even the worst of them. There were times when they tried to make a point but, like many films it doesn’t quite manage to find a good way to communicate it without pounding it over your head.

What is even more surprising is that the director made what is possibly one of the greatest contemporary French thrillers Haute Tension (High Tension, 2003) and has not signed on to do the sequel The Hills Have Eyes II (2007). I don’t know for certain but it wouldn’t surprise me if Alexandre (who also wrote the script) tried to make a different film but got caught up in the Hollywood studio system and ended up with something that just didn’t work. I am excited to see his future work to see if it is more in line with High Tension or The Hills Have Eyes.

Transamerica (2005)

Dir: Duncan Tucker
Available on DVD

Bree Osborne (Felicity Huffman) is a pre-operative transsexual a week away from her final transformation. She has but one obstacle to overcome, a son she didn’t know existed. After receiving a call from Toby (Kevin Zegers) she travels to New York to bail him out of jail and satisfy her therapist. What she finds is a young man who supports himself by hustling and lives in a drug infested apartment with several other people. Though, as he points out to Bree he does have goals and ambition. Fearing he would not accept her, Bree poses as a missionary sent to straighten him up. Ultimately, she ends up taking a cross country trip with her son and in the process she learns a lot about who she really is and about the son she didn’t know she had.

The beauty of the film is not in what is, but what it isn’t. This film does have a transsexual character but it is not just a transsexual film. The journey that Bree takes is a journey that we all at some point find ourselves traveling. She is on a quest to find herself and the person she truly is. It isn’t about the exterior physical identity, but the character of the person inside. The film never falls into the trap of artificial drama that could easily come with a film of this type. Not to mention the wonderful performances by Zegers and Huffman.

Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000)

English Title: The Gleaners and I
Dir: Agnès Varda
Available on DVD

When Agnès Varda set out to make a film about gleaners, she had no idea how far the idea would ultimately take her. In her quest to capture the stories and lives of those who live off the fruit of the land that most of us have discarded as trash, she extrapolated the idea to other types of gleaners including herself as a gleaner of images. This film is an often very personal look at the filmmaker and her subjects. While she still maintains some distance and impartiality there are moments of deep intimacy. During her journeys between shooting locations, she captures images of her own hands and while many of her tangents seem unrelated, you soon realize that they all connect together for a higher meaning.

The Gleaners and I is a good example of how video can really work for a filmmaker. Angès is able to leave behind the large crews required for film shooting and get more personal with her subjects. There is a courage and tenacity found in Agnès’ work that few other filmmakers today posses. Varda is one of the most influential female filmmakers of all time (generally thought of as one of the top three) and this film is just another reason why she deserves all the attention she has.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Nuit et Brouillard (1955)

Dir: Alain Resnais

I don’t think anything I can write can do justice to this film. It is one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen and it has stuck with me more than any other film of the Holocaust. It is a relentless account of the events that took place during the Second World War and should be seen by everyone. Not only does Resnais remind us of the horrors that took place, he asks the most important questions of all: “Who is responsible and, who will keep it from ever happening again?” The film is only a half of an hour long, but it is the most important thirty minutes of cinema that most of us will ever witness.

Gimmie Shelter (1970)

Dir: Albert and David Maysles

The Rolling Stones had decided to try and recreate Woodstock by giving a free concert in December of 1969. With the help of the infamous Melvin Belli (attorney) the Stones were finally able to secure a location and put together a force of hundreds to get the venue setup with only hours to spare. They had anticipated a large crowd but like their east coast predecessor, the crowd soon grew larger than they had ever dreamed. When the concert started, over 300,000 had gathered to hear the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and the Flying Burrito Brothers play in what would become the most infamous concert of the decade.

The Maysles brothers were working on a new type of documentary film without narration and with as little manipulation as possible. Instead, they placed the camera, several actually, in various places about the concert and let you decide the meaning behind the images that they captured. They were able to film the Stones before the concert and had unlimited access during the show, as a result they were able to capture the events with great accuracy. What they captured was not only a momentous rock concert but the death of a decade. Even though the concert was only a few months after Woodstock, the end result was totally opposite.

At some point it was decided that the Hells Angels would provide security for the event, a decision that would prove to be deadly. Over the course of the afternoon the feel of the concert slowly degraded into utter chaos where a Hells Angel, right in front of the stage and camera, stabbed one man to death. The film goes beyond the simplicity of a concert film in a structure that stacks several layers of meaning between concert footage. If there is one film that sums up the end of the 1960s in America Gimmie Shelter is definitely it.

Apt Pupil (1998)

Dir: Bryan Singer
Available on DVD

Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) a high school senior discovers that one of the people living in his town is Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen) a wanted Nazi war criminal. When Todd confronts Kurt, they strike a deal where Kurt will tell him all the gruesome details of his time as a Nazi and Todd will continue to keep his secret. What follows is an often complicated twisting of youth and the monsters we usually meet in our darkest nightmares. The film is based on Stephen King’s novella of the same title.

This film is an interesting look at the power and draw of true evil. The draw is created not by a monster from some other form of reality but the monstrous nature of man. Kurt Dussander was personally responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people and he shows little remorse for his past. His character embodies the power that was held by those he fought for in the war and his draw to the young Todd is almost that of a mentor and apprentice. The performances of Renfro and McKellen are outstanding and they bring a certain verité to the characters, though the film as a whole does fall a little short. Director Bryan Singer does manage to capture the evil of the Holocaust but in the end doesn’t push the edge quite as far as he could have. Still, it is a powerful film and a frightening insight into madness.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Triumph des Willens (1935)

Dir: Leni Riefenstahl

This is perhaps one of the most widely contested and yet respected non-fiction films of all time. While Riefenstahl had over twenty films to her credit (either acting or directing) this is the film she is most known for, and with good reason. The film chronicles the 1934 gathering of the National Socialist German Workers Party in Nuremburg Germany and firmly solidifies not only the propaganda of the Nazi Party but much of it s visual stylistics as well. As a director, Riefenstahl had total control over the event and was able to choreograph all the marches and speeches to fit the needs of her camera, resulting in a film that feels more like a Busby Berkeley musical than the heavy handed propaganda of the Third Reich.

It is not easy to separate the art from the message and that is the greatest power of the film. Perhaps more than any other work of art, Triumph des Willens challenges us to decide if we can appreciate her stunning visuals without being caught up in what she is actually filming. Make no mistake, the film clearly glorifies and even deifies Adolph Hitler in an attempt to further his image and support. The film is loaded with men, women and children waving the symbol of the Nazi party and saluting him with the frightening “sieg heil.” However, the way in which Riefenstahl captures the images, edits them together does manage to make for a beautiful film.

This film is a little long and is often very difficult to watch. I would recommend turning the sound off occasionally and just watch the images as they go by and realize that the emotional manipulation you are feeling is entirely intentional. It is difficult (read almost impossible) to not get caught up in the emotional response that we have to the images of the Nazi rallies that we have developed since the end of the war, and that often clouds the viewers ability to appreciate the filmmaking. This film is definitely not for every one.

If you just can’t bring yourself to watch this film, and I understand if you can’t, then I would recommend watching her Olipiad films (there are two films and I have only seen the second, which I understand is the better of the two). These films were shot during the 1938 Olympic games held in Germany and while the Nazi influence is shown through the games, the main focuses is the athletes and allows you to see her filming technique (which is truly beautiful) and not have to wade through Nazi propaganda to do so. Another interesting film to check out is Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl (“The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl”, Ray Müller, 1993) a documentary on Leni Riefenstahl, which provides an fascinating look at the woman behind the camera.