Film 2009 #180 – Ballast

Ballast (2008)
Directed by Lance Hammer
Starring Micheal Smith, Jr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs

It begins with the discovery of a man who killed himself with pills. His body is found in his home during the winter in a Mississippi Delta township and has a life-changing effect on the last three members of his family.

In the hands of a Hollywood studio this film would have felt the need to be over-emotive in its themes. Instead, first time feature director, Lance Hammer shows considerable restraint. Reactions are subdued and brooding, a truer reflection of how people deal with tragedy in their families. The landscape of rural Mississippi during the bitter winter adds to the tone of grief felt by the three main characters of the film. It’s interesting to note that the landscape is so wide open yet the characters all seem to be constrained and locked up in how they interact.

The plot follows Darius (Smith, Jr), Marlee (Riggs), and James (Ross). Darius is the deceased brother who attempts suicide on himself after discovering his brother. After recovering from the attempt, he delivers his brother’s will to the ex-wife and estranged son. Their various problems in life come to the surface and through their tense relationships with one another they come to an understanding.

The film presents an angle of the African-American experience rarely seen on film. Typically, we see only urban black youth in our theaters and Ballast focuses on the rural experience of the culture. The economic struggle appears more desolate and hopeless mainly because of the void-like expanse of nothingness surrounding them. Hammer chose to use local non-professional actors in the film and the choice results in amazing performances. The sadness and anger is so natural and real and truly displays the after effects of a suicide on the people left behind. The most revelatory aspect of the film is its abruptness. Throughout the film, jump cuts are used but most importantly the beginning and conclusion of the film are sudden. There’s a lot about the past we can assume from passing pieces of dialogue. As for the future, there are lot of plot points left unanswered but it fits with the cinéma vérité like tone of the picture. At the end, Ballast exists as a slice of life depiction of people dealing with tragedy across all fronts of their lives.

Film 2009 #177 – The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)
Directed by Ti West
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig

Horror has become ironic, much to its detriment. The slasher films of the 1980s began to peel away at the true horrific atmosphere of horror, with characters such as Jason and Freddy becoming cartoon characters. Wes Craven’s Scream franchise pushed horror further away from the realm of providing actual scares and the torture porn borne out of the Saw series put the nail in the coffin. Young director Ti West makes a push to return to the slow burning tension of pre-ironic horror by composing this retro scare flick.

The film focuses on Samantha (Donahue), a college sophomore just signing a lease for an apartment she can’t afford. The landlady is played by veteran actress Dee Wallace, best known for her roles in ET and the classic horror flicks The Howling and Cujo. Samantha, desperate for money, answers a flier on campus asking for a babysitter. She’s driven to house in the woods on the outskirts of town by her friend (Gerwig) who becomes suspicious when the owner (Noonan) reveals that the babysitting gig was not what it seems. Samantha will be in charge of watching the family’s elderly grandmother while they are out. Samantha agrees to the change in terms and so begins the slow boil of the picture, ending in a macabre satanic denouement.

The most jarring feature of the film is its aesthetics. West purposefully shot the film on 16mm to make it resemble the low budget horror films of his childhood. In addition, the plot capitalizes on the “satanic panic” that many of us 80s babies remember parents developing a paranoiac fear of. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is kept subtle, never going over the top until the final 10 minutes. West is definitely a student of this genre showing his expertise all the way down to the design of the opening and ending credits. A great film that shows its love for the old school horror film without having to drench itself in irony.

Hypothetical Film Festival #1 – Evolution of the Western

From time to time, I come up with ideas for film festivals. The themes can be as varied as a focus on a single director or genre and even antecedent film festivals, which feature films that inform about a certain director’s aesthetic. The parameter I set for myself with these festivals is that they can contain up to only 7 films.

This particular film festival programming was inspired by watching a Mad Max marathon on AMC and realizing that the plots were all archetypal western plots. The Road Warrior in particular felt like a post-apocalyptic Shane or one of Eastwood’s Man With No Name films. Without further ado, the list:

1) Shane (1953)
Directed by George Stevens
Starring Alan Ladd, Jack Palance

This film contains the most recurring Western plot of a mysterious stranger arriving to come to the aid of citizens being terrorized. Not much to add, other than the 1960s Batman series featured a cowboy villain named Shane that was a directed reference to this film.

2) The Searchers (1956)
Directed by John Ford
Starring John Wayne, Natalie Wood

Not Ford or Wayne’s first Western but arguably their greatest. The film has all the wonderful scenery of Monument Valley on display but also present Wayne in an atypical light. While, he is the hero of the picture, Wayne’s character is also a staunch racist and ends up alienated from his family because of this.

3) Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda

Leone was a student of the American Western, John Ford’s work in particular. To make this “ultimate” western, Leone and co-writer Dario Argento watched dozens and dozens of Westerns. They were able to film on location in Monument Valley as well and Leone’s awe is apparent in the film. Not to be stuck making a dull, predictable film it was decided to cast Henry Fonda as the villain. This was such a controversial move that when the film was aired on American television the introduction of Fonda’s Frank killing a child was edited out.

4)Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan

The rise of the anti-hero archetype in the 1970s brought about Westerns with much bleaker protagonists than previously seen. These were men who traditionally had been the black hats in bygone eras. In the same way that Bonnie & Clyde turned the murderous gangsters into heroic figures so did Peckinpah with this portrayal of Billy the Kid. The film is also notable for having a soundtrack written and performed by Bob Dylan, a true sign of the change in this genre.

5) The Road Warrior (1981)

Directed by George Miller
Starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence

While at first glance, this film appears to be a punk-aesthetic sci-fi pic it is in actuality a remix of the Shane plot. The mysterious stranger (Gibson) shows up just in time to help a struggling group of survivors combat the maniacal barbarians outside their gates. In this reinvention, the Shane figure is a mercenary, only out for his own self-interest. He is broken eventually, in particular by the admiration of a feral child. A very refreshing take on a worn out plot.

6) Unforgiven (1990)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman

This film is the tombstone (no pun intended) of the traditional Western. Eastwood was trained by the best when it came to the genre, Sergio Leone. As a result, he respects the tropes but also makes sure to emphasize that this film marks an ending of sorts. The protagonist, William Munny (Eastwood) is an old, broken gunslinger who is now living with the psychological fallout of his past exploits. The film also incorporates the anti-hero device with the villain being a corrupt sheriff (Hackman) allowing his men to terrorize his town’s populace. A bleak conclusion is apparent from the beginning and Eastwood delivers what some critics have referred to as “the eulogy of the Western”.

7) The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hilcoat
Starring Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson

Around the same time the West was being explored in the United States, Australia was undergoing a similar period of lawlessness and expansion. In this film, Charlie Burns (Pearce) is made a deal by the local law (Winstone) to bring in his older, more sociopathic brother (Huston) in exchange for the life of his younger brother. Hilcoat, who just recently opened The Road, presents a Western tone poem. The film moves between harsh brutality and transcendental contemplative nature. The terrain of Australia is given a deeply mystic atmosphere by the aboriginal influence and haunting score by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay).

Film 2009 #109 – In The Loop

In The Loop (2009)
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Starring James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi

“War is unforeseeable.”

With this statement from an interview Simon Foster, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development starts a hellstorm of media attention. He’s met with the ire of the Prime Minister enforcer, Malcolm Tucker and told he has to work damage control. Foster and his aide Toby journey to the United States and attempt to play the political game.

Armando Iannucci came to fame in the U.K. through his work writing and producing comedic series, in particular Knowing Me Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge, both semi-improvised shows starring Steve Coogan. He was also the mind behind The Thick of It, a satirical look at the goings on in the Prime Minister’s office and what would become the foundation of In the Loop.

While American filmmakers feel a need to make their political films hard-hitting or iconic idolatry, Iannucci opts for the stance of pointing out the epic buffoonery that goes on behind the scenes of the most powerful in the world. The relationships in the film are all a series of adolescent one-upmanship. The methodology of going to war for many of the characters is simply to prove a rival wrong or usurp their position.

Iannucci and his actors are extremely comfortable with language and the dialogue is strengthened by that confidence. There are moments that feel like the dialogic equivalent of a blockbuster film’s shoot out and explosion sequences. This is also an incredibly subversive film that works to show incompetence at every level and a disconnect between those in power and the people at the bottom. One particular sequence involves Steve Coogan playing a character whose mother lives next door to a government building and is calling Simon Foster to complain that the wall between the properties is slowly crushing his mother’s greenhouse. Foster, at the U.N. and rushing to save face for a series of flubs constantly shrugs the man off.

If you are looking for some strong counter-programming to the thoughtless films of the summer, In the Loop provides an alternative that is equal parts entertaining and incredibly intelligent.

Tentative Xmas Vacation Film Festival

Putting together a mini-film festival for the girlfriend and me when I go to visit. Here’s the line up so far. I always try to have an eclectic mix of movies.

Planes, Trains, & Automobiles
John Carpenter’s The Thing
The King of Kong
King of Comedy
The Talented Mr. Ripley


Film 2009 #121 – Tetro

Tetro (2009)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdu, Klaus Maria Brandauer

The Family has always been an important element in Coppola’s work. In The Godfather he examined the literal family and the symbolic family of the Italian mafia. The Outsiders and Rumble Fish took a close look at the divide between brothers by blood and brothers in gangs. Outside of his films, Coppola’s family has had an integral role: music in his early films was typical composed by his father Carmine, sister Talia and daughter Sophia employed their acting skills. And many of his family members have become involved in the industry, albeit changing their names for various reasons.

This element of family and changing names is a core part of Coppola’s newest film, Tetro. The film centers on Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenage boy living aboard a cruise ship who take advantage of a stop in Bueno Aires to visit his estranged brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Angelo has taken to calling himself Tetro (a variation on the family surname) and lives with a beautiful psychiatrist named Miranda (Maribel Verdu). Bennie finds Tetro is incredibly reticent to talk about their childhood and Bennie has been left in the dark about the family’s affairs his entire life. Their father, Carlo, a world famous composer is a dark shadow that hangs over them. As Bennie pries despite Angelo’s protestations he uncovers the dark truth about their family and finds his perceptions of life forever changed.

The film makes direct reference to Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the tale of a ballerina driven to destruction by her mentor’s obsessions and Tales of Hoffman, a film adaptation of the opera about a poet struggling to find the middle ground between his literary passions and the passions of his heart. These inform us of the internal workings of Tetro, who presents himself to Bennie as a closed book. Bennie’s curiosity leads him to a suitcase full of Tetro’s writings which have dramatized their family’s history but also lack a concise ending.

Coppola employs an interesting technique with the present reality being a stark black & white while memories and fantasies are filmed in digitally faded Technicolor, resembling paintings almost. These color sequences are either memories from the direct POV of Tetro, meaning the camera is his eye, characters speak directly to him and us the audience, or they are ballet sequences composed of pas de deux between a male and female dancer. The music alternates between melodramatic opera and ethereal voices to symbolize Tetro’s strange reaction when staring into the heart of a lightbulb.

This film and 2007’s Youth Without Youth symbolize Coppola’s new direction. In the 1980s, the prestige he had garnered in the 70s frittered away and he began to focus more on producing and funding burgeoning filmmakers. The death of his son, Gian-Carlo also drove his own works to lessen or fail to love up to his promise. In interviews he calls this return his period of “student films”. These are the movies he wants to make and he has gathered enough wealth in his life that he can drop a few million of his own dollars into a film and not worry about whether it makes back its budget. This sort of artistic freedom is seldom seen in Hollywood anymore. Here’s to Coppola continuing this new artistic journey for years to come.

Film 2009 #20 – Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Directed by Ari Folman

In 1982 Israel invaded Southern Lebanon, citing an assassination attempt on their U.K. ambassador as the impetus. The conflict brought them up against the PLO, Muslim Lebanese forces, and Syrians. Working with the Israelis were the Lebanese Phalangists. The Phalangists claimed secularism but are mainly supported by Maronite Christians, a sect of the Catholic Church founded in Syria in the 7th century. This mad cluster of forces came together for a bloody war that increased in intensity with the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. The Phalangists, incredibly loyal to Bashir, culminated the war with the Sabra and Shatila massacres, where Palestinians families were bombed and those that survived the bombing where then lined up against walls and executed by firing squad.

This is the waking nightmare Ari Folman finds himself sinking into. The film begins with a meeting in 2006 between Ari and a friend. The friend has begun having horrific dreams about his participation in the 1982 First Lebanon War. This pushes repressed memories of Ari’s participation into the fore of his consciousness and the movie unfolds from there. Ari learns through interviews with friends he served with about what happened during their tour and how they were complicit in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Ari has a recurring vision of three naked young men emerging from the water at night and walking towards the shore where an urban landscape is lit by flares, falling like stars from the sky. Once in the city they find themselves overcome by screaming grieving Palestinian women. In the climax of the film Ari has finally sorted these memories out and we see what really happened and why he is haunted by these images.

What sets Waltz With Bashir apart from a standard documentary or war film is that it is made from a combination of standard cel animation, 3D computer animation, flash animation, and rotoscoping (animating over live action film). This allows director Folman a freedom that his small budget would not have allowed for a live action film. Complex battle scenes are recreated with ease but also without losing their weight and depth. The animation also aids in creating the nightmarish tone Folman wants to wash over us. If the roots of this war don’t come across in the film, that is intentional. We’re seeing the events from the eyes of a 19 year old boy who doesn’t understand what is happening other than it is his legal duty as a citizen of Israel to serve in the military. The film is a definite descendant of Apocalypse Now, even paying homage to that masterwork with a scene of lounging soldiers on the beach including one surfing as bombs fall.

There are so many scenes that create a sense of the bizarre and senseless. One soldier recounts becoming sick to his stomach over the side of a boat the night before the invasion. After the young man blacks out, he dreams of a giant naked woman swimming to the boat, cradling him in her arms and swimming away with him as his unit is bombed. In another scene, a soldier recounts the slaughter house the Phalangists created from the Palestinians they slew. The camera is low to the ground as we float across dead earth littered with rotting gnarled trees, corpses, and eyes and ears floating in formaldehyde jars.

Waltz With Bashir is a very timely film during this current incarnation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It reminds us that it’s not the men on the ground on either side for us to blame, but the men at the top who give the orders and expect mindless allegiance whose hands are drenched in blood. It was reported that this film received a 20 minute standing ovation at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Ari Folman won a 2008 Golden Globe for this film and in his acceptance speech mentioned that over the course of making it eight babies were born. He said he had a particular hope for those eight children: “I hope that one day when they grow up that they watch this film together and they see the war that takes place in the film like an ancient video game that has nothing to do with their lives whatsoever.”

Film 2009 #173 – Homicide

Homicide (1991)
Directed by David Mamet
Starring Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Rebbecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, Ving Rhames

The film starts out regular enough. A group of police officers and their higher ups discuss how they will bring in Robert Randolph, a drug dealer and cop killer who is somewhere in the city. Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), one of the homicide detectives speaks up and garners the ire of one of the officials who refers to him as a “kike”. Gold shrugs it off despite his partner’s (William H. Macy) anger. This event sets up who Bobby Gold is and how he views his ethnic heritage.

The plot diverges from our expectations when, on the way to apprehending Randolph, Gold is stopped by an officer who has responded to the murder of an elderly candy story owner. Gold learns very quickly that the old woman was a Jew and an immigrant decades earlier from Israel. Now, torn between two cases, Gold is stretched thinner and thinner. His main duty, bringing in Randolph fades, as he becomes more and more convinced that the candy store murder was anti-Semitic and that there is a conspiracy behind it.

Writer/director Mamet is still feeling himself out in the film medium with this third picture. His primary work is connected to the stage and it shows in the way he films Homicide. There are a few drawn out scenes that make use of set design and his dialogue displays his trademark sense of artifice. Paranoia is interwoven more heavily as the film progresses, and Mamet presents a riff on his con game plot by causing the audience to question if there is even a conspiracy occurring at all. I also began to note that Mamet’s dialogue and paranoiac tendencies cause his films to develop an almost fantastical sheen over their surfaces. The city is never named adding to that other worldliness and Gold induction into a secret city underworld mimics that of the archetypal adventurer becoming aware of the existence of the Other-world.

Despite all of the Mamet-ness, this stands as one of his more accessible works. The language is restrained from some of his more frenetic (see Oleanna). The film works as an engaging surface level examination of the conflict cultural heritage and duty to the society as a whole can cause.

Current 10 Favorite Films Seen This Year…So Far

1.Waltz With Bashir
2.Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
3.Synecdoche, New York
4.Harlan County, USA
6.Inglourious Basterds
7.World’s Greatest Dad
10.In the Loop

There are quite a few films I haven’t gotten to see yet this year, but probably will by January. Thus, this list will surely shift and change by then. In the meantime, I was digging through The Archives and here’s my top 10 favorite films watched from 2005 to the present:

1. Paris, Texas (1984, dir. Wim Wenders)
2. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, dir. Sergio Leone)
3. The Long Goodbye (1973, dir. Robert Altman)
4. 21 Grams (2003, dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
5. Buffalo ’66 (1998, dir. Vincent Gallo)
6. Lenny (1974, dir. Bob Fosse)
7. Elephant (2003, dir. Gus Van Sant)
8. The Sweet Hereafter (1997, dir. Atom Egoyan)
9. The Saddest Music in the World (2003, dir. Guy Maddin)
10. The Ruling Class (1972, dir. Peter Medak)

1. Days of Heaven (1979, dir. Terence Malick)
2. Don’t Look Now (1973, dir. Nicholas Roeg)
3. Barry Lyndon (1975, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
4. Seconds (1966, dir. John Frankenheimer)
5. Sexy Beast (2000, dir. Jonathan Glazer)
6. Yojimbo (1961, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
7. Brick (2005, dir. Rian Johnson)
8. The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976. dir. Nicholas Roeg)
9. sex, lies, and videotape (1989, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
10. Amores Perros (2000, dir. Alejandro Innaritu)

1. No Country For Old Men (2007, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
2. Sweeney Todd (2007, dir. Tim Burton)
3. All About My Mother (1996, dir. Pedro Almodovar
4. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro)
5. Lawrence of Arabia (1963, dir. David Lean)
6. The Third Man (1949, dir. Carol Reed)
7. The King of Comedy (1983, dir. Martin Scorsese)
8. Seconds (1966, dir. John Frankenheimer)
9. I’m Not There (2007, dir. Todd Haynes)
10. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007, dir. Sidney Lumet)

1. There Will Be Blood (2007, dir. PT Anderson)
2. The Wrestler (2008, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
3. Children of Men (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
4. Funny Games (2008, dir. Michael Haenke)
5. The Dark Knight (2008, dir Christopher Nolan)
6. Blindness (2008, dir. Fernando Meirelles)
7. Timecrimes (2007, dir. Nacho Vilagando)
8. Let The Right One In (2008, dir. Tomas Alfredson)
9. The Fall (2006, Tarsem Singh)
10. Milk (2008, dir. Gus van Sant)