Category Archives: Movie Reviews & Musings

Room [USA, 2005]

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Think about any films about mental illness and toss them out of your mind.  They don’t even begin to get inside that experience.  One of my favorite films, “Woman Under the Influence” is an excellent film about what the experience of living and loving someone who is mentally ill is like, and it does help us understand the feeling of vulnerability in knowing that you can’t possibly explain what is going on inside your head to anyone.  But this film takes us completely inside the experience.  It is unpleasant, it is frightening, it is frustrating, and it makes no sense.  It is a waking nightmare that no horror film you’ve ever seen can compare to because it isn’t about tangible fears like pain and death.  

The main character in this film is a working class mom who lives in the real world, meaning she is affected by what is going on in the world even if it is beyond her understanding.  Corporatism, materialism, terrorism alerts, the war in Iraq… these are all realities that we either filter out, or embrace in a way that we can idealize so that we can conform to the status quo. We’re supposed to consume the information the media spins for us, but we’re not supposed to really think about it.  The woman in this film doesn’t think about how much what is happening in the world affects her, but it does affect her nonetheless.  The insanity of the world doesn’t merely seep into her brain, it appears almost like cracks.  It’s as if the world she has always known is beginning to look like stage scenery and she has sudden jarring fits of seeing cracks in the canvas.  I can’t think of any other film out there that really illustrates this in such a subtle yet powerful way.  But the insanity of the world isn’t an illness.  It is a symptom of our denial of it.  Our denial of how the world affects us is the real illness.

Most people seem to really hate this film.  It’s slow, there’s little dialogue, little character development, very little of it makes sense, and there is no formula payoff to give us satisfaction at the end.  It is fully ambiguous.  Surely its appeal will be limited to people who do not require plots or dialogue that’s supposed to tell you what the character is thinking.  But even those folks may struggle with a film that confronts us with the emotional and mental effect of being lost in the static of a world that insists that we go along for the ride and not ever really stop and look and think.  This is a film about insanity to be sure, and probably will only be recognizable to people who have either found themselves out of control in their life many times, or people who have never ‘fit in’, or people who are afraid of what is unknown but cannot avoid seeking it out even if there are no answers to be found.  Perhaps the more deeply in denial we are in life, the more brutal the awakening will be. It’s like looking at Medusa and being turned to stone.  It’s something we all fear intrinsically.  It is why we look away from the crazy homeless person huddled on the pavement before us.  No one starts out in life that way.  How many steps are we really, from that person?  What happens when the face you see in the mirror no longer seems recognizable to you?  What if the forms of entertainment we’re supposed to like, the products that promise esteem and happiness, the religion that promises salvation, even our own families don’t provide us with the solace that we need in life?  Where then do we search? 

Considering how entrenched society is in enjoying the comfort of denial, and how much indifference most people have to those who are suffering in the world, I’m surprised this film ever even got released, let alone making it to Cannes.  I’m happy to see that there are at least a few others who chose not to look away in disgust or anger at something they don’t understand.  This movie is not by any means an enjoyable experience, but is does serve as an echo for those who have strayed from the comfort of denial and are always searching for a truth that’s recognizable.  Perhaps the room (i.e. the answer) we are searching for isn’t a place or a thing after all.  Those whose minds are open will see that this film is fervently about opening our minds.  It is a search for the Holy Grail in post-9/11 America.  Dare to journey into the dark side if you can.

My grade: 8

Old Joy [USA, 2006]

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To say this film is minimalist is an exaggeration. The plot is simple: two male friends who have sort of drifted apart over the years get together for an overnight camping trip. They hike, they visit a hot-spring site, and then they drive home. That’s it.

The film will drive away people in hoards if they ever actually see the movie (there were three other people in the theater besides us). The film is slowwww, and the amount of dialogue would maybe fill two pages. But the silences speak in volumes. Every silence is a statement that each character is unable to make, either out of fear of facing what has been lost between them, or out of pure lack of articulation for feelings that are too deep to be draped in words.

So there’s no plot, very little dialogue and an ambiguous ending; the antithesis of every movie out there, either Hollywood or independent. People who think that filmmakers like David Lynch or David Croenberg are cutting edge haven’t got a clue. Style cannot take an audience deep into themselves. Films like “Old Joy” would drive most audiences crazy because how many people want to stop – and I mean really stop – and reflect on who they are? How many people can meditate? It’s the most difficult thing in the world to do. The majority of people who try usually give up within days or weeks. Most people prefer analysis or drugs, but analysis isn’t reflection; it’s… analysis, and drugs only reflect surfaces. They only reveal the threads of the great tapestry that is all of what we don’t know about ourselves, and will never know about others.

Most of what little dialogue there is in this film is in one scene, about an hour into it (the film is only 76 minutes long!). I won’t give anything away other than to say that is a gift, from one friend to another. It’s one man’s Zen-like story with a subtly transcendental humanity to it that softly penetrates the other man’s brittle wall of nerves. It is also a human touch, which to most men in particular, is something ordinarily to be guarded from, but here… simply means surrender. It is after all, the only way that enlightenment can reach us.

Only a handful of people will like this film, but I’m one of them. I’ll admit that I also was won over because I never see the kinds of people like these two guys in movies (with the possible exceptions of “The Return of the Secaucus Seven” and “Stone Reader”). These kinds of people I’m talking about are the sort of working class, literate, salt-of-the-earth, Buddhist-minded, grassroots liberal-activist types living non-glamorous yet quietly joyous and fulfilling lives. You know; the kind of people who live in Oregon. As much as I adore movies, I’m fully aware that over 99% of the people I usually see on the screen live lives completely different from my own. I know I’m a minority, so it is especially exciting to see people like myself and my friends, living the same kind of life that we do even down to the same kind of liberal talk radio (although I hate Air America. I prefer the more grounded and intelligent Pacifica Radio/NPR). The movie embraces me in two ways; from its gentle gift of ‘satori’ to its gift of connecting me to like-minded others in a beautifully cinematic way.

I should also state that the Oregon mountain scenery is beautiful, it’s rustic and somber yet pastoral (no spacious skies, dreamy sunsets, or dazzling steadicam shots of spectacular scenery). In fact, the whole film is shot from the eye-view level of the characters (or in a few cases of the dog that accompanies them, whom I might add steals many a scene!). The men never seem to look above the trees or gaze at the stars. They can only see what is right in front of them [“…we meet it and do not see its front, we follow it and do not see its back” ~Lao-tze]. My only comparison for what this film feels like is the documentary on Andy Goldsworthy, “Rivers and Tides”.

All of this sounds very cliche-ridden and disjointed, but whether audiences like it or not, I’m sure at the very least that they’ve never seen any film like this. It’s quite possible that if they prefer life in the slow, detailed, savoury lane; they just might like this very, very small, extremely independent film.
My grade: 9
 

The L.A. Riot Spectacular [USA, 2005]

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I don’t know why, but it seems to me the best films about race are always comedies. “CSA: Confederate States of America”, “A Day in Black and White”, “A Day Without a Mexican” and now this extremely edgy comedy, all tell the truth. Not a surface truth like glossy crap such as “Crash” that makes it look like every member of the cast (no matter what their ethnic background) lunches at Pinot regularly. There’s an intrinsic truth here that looks at racism for what it is, which is madness and power, whether it’s cops or gangs or any fearful citizen trying to balance that power with a gun. When it comes to stuff like that, there’s really no better way than to reveal it than with humor. It’s like taking Rambo and revealing the fact that his true soul is a tiny monomaniacal ‘Mini Me’ jumping up and down to get attention. The tough guy must be revealed! We all know all bigotry stems from insecurity, so what better way than to reveal it through humor? If we try to reveal it with sober deliberation or maudlin sentimentality, people just get cynical. If the cynicism is already there though, we have no choice but to laugh at ourselves. We are ridiculous; all of us.


I lived through the riots and it was not – in any way – funny. Three years earlier I’d lived at a Buddhist center in Koreatown and I watched in horror that night on April 30, 1992 while the entire block next to it went up in flames. I knew those people; I visited their shops and ate in their restaurants. When I say ‘those people’ I mean around 45% Hispanic, 40% Korean, 8% Thai, 5% black and 2% White. We had all always lived in perfect harmony. But that night I sat and watched the workers at the Korean supermarket two blocks away lying behind sandbags on the roof of their store armed to the teeth. They were taking pot shots at black kids who tried to run beyond the orange cones that they had set up in their parking lot in order to stop looters and arsonists. I saw the produce guy I used to talk to all the time taking pot shots at black kids! I saw my friends at the Buddhist Center in the back yards of each house helping the firemen hose down the fire that was creeping toward their fence. There was an enormous gong in the backyard of that center that had survived 500 years of wars in Vietnam, but because of the fires that had raged just a few yards away, it became permanently charred on one side.

The effects of the riots were not funny, and the film doesn’t laugh at that. But it does laugh at our human nature, which is always dispensable, and at the one target that can never be lampooned enough; the media. One of my favorite lines in the film: 

TV Announcer (as arson fires are breaking out all over the city): Mayor Bradley praises gang members for offering free heating to the homeless.

It’s that kind of humor. If the Abrahms/Zucker team that made “Airplane” had an edge, this would be the film they would make. The film was shot in DV, but that was a wise choice because it makes it actually difficult at times to separate their footage from the real news footage. The film sports a surprisingly big-name cast; Snoop Dog, Emilio Estevez, Ronny Cox, Charles Dutton, Christopher McDonald, TK Carter, Ted Levine, Ron Jeremy (!), and the guy with possibly the funniest lines in the film; George Hamilton. The fact that the film never saw a wide release and practically went straight to DVD I think is a sign of a fearsome political incorrectness that has the Hollywood community writhing in discomfort. Their films like “Crash” perpetuate all the stereotypes and myths that those ‘limosine liberals’ who live in the hills want to believe are true. This film shows the reality, and the reality is insane. I forget who said it but a quote that gets a lot of mileage is: “if we don’t laugh we go insane”. I’m all for a lot more movies like this! My grade: 9

Shortbus- musings

John Cameron Mitchell’s long-awaited “Shortbus” has just been released.  I might make an exception and see it in the theater instead of waiting for the DVD.  The hoopla over the film is that it integrates real sex within the storyline, which means – GASP! – it’s just like life.  You work, you hang out with your friends, you take in some local entertainment, you eat, and you fuck.  I still can’t get why that last thing is such a big deal to people.  If I replaced it with “…and you slit the throat of your girlfriend”, it would hardly raise an eyebrow for most moviegoers. 
My only reservation for seeing the film is that it’s supposed to be about the “ultra-cool” people of NYC.  I really don’t want to spend two hours with people who even consider being cool. 

Calvaire [Belgium. USA theatrical release-2006]

Calvaire

One has to like reeeeeeally depraved horror movies to ‘appreciate’ this one.  I like ’em but my age-old complaint is that 99.9% of them are terribly misogynistic.  Enter “Calvaire,” a Belgian production that delivers us with a male victim who must endure all the torment, humiliation, torture, fear, degradation, and pain that women have been enduring since the age of horror began.  Laurent Lucas plays a singer who finds himself in the conventional trap of having his van break down in an isolated forest, where he will ultimately come upon a dark old inn with a very strange innkeeper.   We’re talking really strange.

The director, Fabrice Du Welz has decided to make his first big movie a Grand Guignol horror-thriller with homages to everything from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Deliverance” to “Psycho” to “Don’t Look Now”.  Our poor protagonist finds himself in the company of some very sick heterosexual males who have not had any female sex for a long time. I enjoyed scanning the message board at IMDb where everyone was reading all sorts of symbolism into the movie.  I don’t personally know Monsieur Du Welz’s id, but I could tell even before I watched his interview on the DVD that he was just having fun with his first big feature and decided to throw in every horror cliché in the Grand Guignol genre.  Ironically, if a female had written and directed this, I’m sure countless people would consider the film ‘man-hating’.  But it’s just an honest portrayal of a particular bunch of sick men who will fuck any orifice if the more ‘conventional’ one isn’t available. 
My grade:

Edmond [USA, 2006]

Edmond

This film is adapted from a play that David Mamet wrote twenty years ago so I won’t actually accuse him of plagiarizing such films as “Falling Down” and “The Company of Men”.  This film is in fact, totally Mamet, with all of his usual stagey dialogue and his depiction of a world that is absolute and complete in its demented version of reality.  In “Alice in Wonderland” I buy that, but here Mamet is trying to depict the real world and a character whom we are led to assume has been soaking up its grime like a sponge for years and years.  That is, until one night when out of the blue the hand of fate proverbially squeezes him and purges ‘bad Edmond’ out from what we must assume was up until then ‘good Edmond’.  Maybe this worked on the stage.  The stage does create contained and absolute worlds like that.  But watching Bill Macy walking around the city as if he really was following Mamet’s invisible carrot-on-a-stick does not work.  The real world has all sorts of people, but in Mamet’s world, they all behave the way Mamet wants them to. 

The thing that Mamet’s film has in common with those films in listed above is that the ‘protagonist’ Edmond is full of hate, and he wears his racism and misogyny on his sleeve.  But there’s something unsettling in Mamet’s film that is different from those other unsettling movies.  In Mamet’s film, indeed every black man is going to rob you and beat you up or threaten to kill you.  The black men in this film have to; otherwise Edmond cannot go down to the depths that Mamet needs him to go to.  Same for the female characters who all feign their interest in Edmond so they can get what they want (money, ‘obviously’).  The one woman who apparently seems to like Edmond, turns out to be what we can only guess is just like his wife; she doesn’t ‘listen to him’ or understand him.  The film’s biggest mess is this female character because given that Bill Macy is no George Clooney, there’s absolutely no way that this very attractive young woman would bring home a crazy-talking stranger, much less have sex with him.   Her character also conveniently has a dark side and a naiveté that is dumb enough to argue with him while he’s waving a knife in the air that looks like a prop from “Friday the 13th”.   But in Mamet’s world, such silly women exist. 

The sad thing is; there are kernels of truth in this flick that in the hands of a good screenwriter might have made the whole thing work.  The film’s theme “each man loves what he fears” is an intriguing one, but the film shies away from ever really nailing that fear, instead going for video game techniques (antagonists seem to pop up everywhere), or black humor.  In a film like this, humor is yet another obstacle for creating a divide between Edmund and us in the audience.  All of us have rage and prejudice at times, but Mamet lets the audience off the hook by pushing Edmond to an extreme that we know in all actuality we will never reach. 

At the end of the day, this film is just a character study, which isn’t too bad since Macy does his usual excellent job. It’s good as ‘entertainment’; the ending is tied up nice and neat so we don’t have to endure any emotional stress or self-reflection when it’s over.  But personally, if a film professes to be challenging, I prefer that it doesn’t demand that we leave our intelligence aside or bother awakening our souls. 
My grade:  5