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2009

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Fast & Furious (2009)
Written by Chris Morgan
Directed by Justin Lin

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Five years have passed since The Fast & The Furious, and Dominic Toretto has set up shop in the Dominican Republic. His girlfriend Letty and partners, including Han from Tokyo Drift, are hijacking fuel tankers for money. The heat has increased too much, so the crew disbands and Dominic decides he will leave Letty to draw the heat off of her. Months later, while working Panama City, he learns that Letty has been killed and returns to Los Angeles to attend her funeral in secret. At the same time, Brian O’Connor has inexplicably been allowed to become an FBI Agent despite a continued pattern of lawbreaking. He is pursuing an arms dealer named Braga who wouldn’t you know it, is connected to Letty’s death. Plus, Brian and Mia rekindle their relationship from the first film, because he super serious didn’t mean to betray them all and really loves her.

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I Killed My Mother (2009, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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If you look up the many articles and interviews about Xavier Dolan, you will likely get a picture of an arrogant young artist. These would not be wrong, but I would challenge that this portrayal is negative particularly in cinema. Dolan represents a strong, re-interpretive Millennial energy that was inevitable in film. In the same way, the French New Wave and the iconoclastic American 1970s filmmakers made their mark in the form; Dolan is doing that same type of work. Does he indulge? Damn straight he does. But I challenge anyone to find a single auteur who doesn’t indulge constantly.

Dolan’s first feature, I Killed My Mother is the story of Hubert Minel (played by Dolan), a 16-year-old gay man, still closeted to his mother and who engages in the most vicious arguments and conflicts with this central caretaker. Dad stepped out when Hubert was seven and left Chantale, the mother (Anne Dorval) to raise the boy on her own. Hubert is two months into a relationship with a classmate and looking towards a career in the arts, encouraged by a supportive teacher (Suzanne Clément).

Dolan is a filmmaker influenced by the medium. No moment in I Killed My Mother is simply a moment; they are accented by flourishes of style from Goddard-like framing (off center and with both conversants in the frame), slow motion almost from a perfume ad, black and white confessional close-ups, and myriad of other touches that add emotion to a relatively typical story of parent-child conflict. He also knows the importance of establishing character through setting, as seen in the very opening close-ups of his mother’s tchotchke-filled home. We also learn volumes about her through her hairstyle, clothing, even the manner in which she eats breakfast. And all this if before she even has a modicum of dialogue.

While Dolan is the composer and conductor, Anne Dorval as Chantale is the star player. It would have been very easy for Chantale to slip in caricature, but Dorval does gritty work to keep the character faceted and obscured. In moments of high tension, she will begin to follow the same type of script I imagine all of us remember from our adolescence, which is underscored by Hubert calling her out on this same repetition. She shuts him down in the same manner that frustrated us all and drove many teenagers to those primal, guttural ARGHs! There is a moment near the end of the film where her role as a single mother is blamed as the reason why Hubert is struggling academically and exhibits such rebellious behavior. This is the moment where Dorval lets Chantale crack through the thickly layered makeup and sequined floral outfits. Chantale’s love for her son is beyond the question of outsiders, and she makes that known.

Dolan made I Killed My Mother at the age of 20 and has not tried to hide the fact that it is heavily biographical. He has stated that this is a film he couldn’t have waited decades to make, that it needed the raw emotion of being only steps away from adolescence. And he is completely right. A forty-something making the film in deep retrospect would have let nostalgia slip in between the cracks. There is no wistful memory manifesting falsified beauty here. Through the ugliness of this relationship, we see Beauty and Love. We don’t fight and scream with this level of fervor at people we hate, the type of anger glimpsed in the film born out of intense love and need. It is the attempt to communicate love but failing to do so because the language does not possess the vocabulary to do so.

Hubert states in one of his bathroom confessionals on camera that he doesn’t love his mother like a mother, but he loves her nonetheless. During a late night conversation, Hubert fueled by ecstasy and barging home full of elation to speak to Chantale; he states, “I love you. I am telling you this so that you won’t forget.” This is the moment where the nature of the relationship changes, not profoundly, but both characters redefine the bond. Hubert is no longer the dependent glimpsed in the Super 8 home movies at the old house by the lake. He is an individual coming into his own, intellect, a sexual being, a partner in a relationship, developing complex ideas and emotions. Chantale is reticent to accept that, but by the end of the film, they come to an unspoken understanding. Their relationship will never be what they both remember and wish it could be, something new will form and in that they will find a place for their love.

I Am Love (2009, dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Starring Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini

I Am Love is attempting to tread the same territory of Italian cinema in the late 1950s and 60s, in particular I was reminded of Visconti’s The Leopard. They were films about the aristocracy and the secrets that lied beneath the clean and constructed surface. I Am Love brings modern elements into its plot, but still manages to evoke a sense of the classical. Swinton is perfectly cast as a Russian-turned-Italian via marriage. And the cast around her does an excellent job in their roles. The plot is fairly straightforward, there are only a few twists, but its the cinematography and music that really raise the picture above the rest.

Emma Recchi (Swinton) is the matriarch of an Italian family who has made its fortune in textiles, even during the time of Mussolini, an element that plays a bit part sub-textually in the film. Her husband and son have inherited the business from the elderly father and a tension exists, as Emma’s husband believed he would be the sole inheritor. Emma has recently met her son’s friend, Antonio, an aspiring chef. Emma’s son is helping fund Antonio’s first venture into the restaurant business and so she and the young man become more acquainted, eventually starting an affair.

You will be an awe of the camera work in this film. It is some of the most lush and gorgeous work I have ever seen on film. Director Guadagnino is able to pull the warmth right out of his bright spring scenes and bone chilling cold from the winter ones. This is a very sensual film, constantly focused on sex and food, and to get those themes across you need powerful cinematography just like this. In addition, the choice to use musical pieces by John Adams was brilliant. Adams’ contemporary orchestral music helps to create momentum and then a sense of urgency, especially in the film’s surprisingly frantic finale. A great overlooked picture that every fan of good foreign cinema should check out.



A Town Called Panic (2009, dir. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar)

This is a singularly unique French language animated feature that highlights something I have always loved in French animated movies. They are able to construct an elaborate and rich universe in a little over an hour. A Town Called Panic is a surreal and bizarre picture that is using a style of stop motion animation that is hard to describe. The characters are designed to look like toy figurines of cowboys, Indians, farmers, and other people. There are no moving mouths and no facial animations, simply very frenetic body movement and voice acting that nails the weirdness of this world.

The appropriately named Town Called Panic is a place where crisis is an everyday occurrence. In one large house lives Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. Horse is the level headed of the trio and in love with a fellow equine who teaches music as the conservatory in town. Its Horse’s birthday, so Cowboy and Indian order 500 bricks to build a barbecue, however, a typing error makes that 5 million. The result is that their house is crushed by bricks. Every day they rebuild, but every night the entire house disappears. They stakeout one night and discover the weird truth behind things.

These are all hyperactive and manic characters, save Horse who keeps a level head. Part of the humor are Cowboy and Indian’s sudden leaps from passivity to complete and utter chaos. They scramble about trying to cover their errors but inevitably make things worse. There’s also a lot of humor from moments where you would expect characters to panic, that Cowboy and Indian are surprisingly unphased. Its comedy that doesn’t have any profound message or point, its akin to early Looney Toons where stories were given over to chaos and insanity.

The jokes never become vulgar or profane, so its a suitable substitute for typical maudlin family fare. In many ways I saw similarities to The Triplets of Belleville, both films created very specific characters that are richly detailed while using broad strokes. It’s also a statement against the current domination of CG animated features. At the end of the day, its not the bells and whistles an animated film can lay claim too but the creativity and inventiveness working behind the scenes.



Art and Copy (2009, dir. Doug Pray)

It’s everywhere. You experience it almost every hour of the day, and it is usually while you are in a passive state. It persists and nags at your brain without you ever realizing it, but when you see it done exceptionally well you sit up and make note. Advertising is a modern psychological virus. The majority of it is terrible, which makes sense when you think about how much of it there is. As the film states, we experience 5,000 advertisements a day in multiple mediums. When it is done well, we slip out of passivity, sit up, and make note. What’s interesting is the best advertising either sets an atmosphere without every directly referencing the product, or is completely direct about the product and the emotion that goes along with it. This documentary interviews the pioneers of modern advertising from the mid-1960s to the 1980s.

The documentary is structured in a very clean way. Each section of the film is divided with a scene without dialogue and statistics on advertising placed over scenes of urban meditation. The first section of the film talks about the environment the featured advertisers came into. We’ve all seen ads from the 1950s which have an air of a false stereotypical salesman’s pitch. With the young turks that took over in the 1960s, they began to create provocative ads that didn’t necessarily give the viewer information on the product, but evoked curiosity and emotion in them. The Volkswagen Beetle ads of the late 60s were a major breakthrough in American advertising, where the quirkiness of the product was acknowledged. Very straightforward taglines were used instead of just making the logo swallow up the space.

It was the firm Doyle Dane Bernach that brought us the Beetle ads, and the shockingly harsh (for its time) American Tourister luggage ad, as well as the hyper arty Braniff airline campaign and finally the I (Heart) NY image. Mary Wells, the Peggy of her time, was an incredibly inventive and creative copy editor who took her background in theatrics and applied it to advertising. The sense of drama in commercials is something that sticks with us today (think Budweiser frogs, Taster’s Choice soap opera). At the time these ideas were presented, the good old boy network in charge were confounded and even the clients were often times frightened at the possibility of risking their brand on such ideas.

The documentary focuses a lot on the divide between the business side and the creative side, particularly how in the old paradigm, the accounts people were over creative. In the 1960s, this was subverted with the creative types either becoming more aggressive or striking out on their own. The East Coast was also the mecca of advertising so no one was noticing when the West Coast firms began rolling out revolutionary campaigns. It was one of these firms that got the Apple Computers contract and brought up the “1984” Superbowl ad, introducing the Mac to us through a Ridley Scott directed ad. You never see the Mac once. This firm still holds the Apple account and came up with “Think Different” in the 1990s and the current silhouette iPod campaign.

The final segment of the film deals with the ethical responsibilities of the advertiser, in specifics how it ties to politics. They feature the Morning in America Regan ads from 1984 that are unlike anything out today, and epitomize the way an incumbent can run and win again. Some of the interviewees agree that the ads works, but from an ethical perspective they find it misleading because of the facts it ignored. Hal Riney, the man behind the Morning in America ad confesses that his habit of going purely emotional in his ads goes back to a childhood where affection was held back from him. In the majority of his work images of the Rockwell America is evoked in a cleverly deceptive way. If you are at all interested in media and the way humanity’s decisions can be shifted by the creative this would be a very insightful film to digest.

Afterschool (2009, dir. Antonio Campos)
Starring Ezra Miller, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeremy Allen White, Addison Timlin

Stanley Kubrick, probably my favorite director of all-time, once said, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” The kind of films Kubrick made the most closely followed this philosophy, 2001 comes to mind immediately, were not films that met the aesthetic of pleasurable cinema. They were meant to provoke a reaction, positive or negative, and I suspect the negative would have interested Kubrick more. This is not to say director Antonio Campos is working at the same level of Kubrick, but is definitely more interested in cinematic language than plot or characters or dialogue. This sort of film is never going to appeal to a mass audience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly well made and through provoking.

Rob is a sophomore at Bryton, a fictional East Coast prep school where is a quiet, reclusive young man, preferring to spend his time watching viral videos and porn on his desktop computer. His interest in video leads him to joining the A/V Club after school pressures to participate in after-school activities. Amy, the girl he has a slight attraction to, is partnered with him to film B-roll exterior shots of the school for a collective club project. Amy can’t make it to one session, so Rob goes it alone and happens to witness twin seniors stumbling into frame, bleeding profusely from their noses and mouths. Rob silently walks over to where they collapsed and that is where the teachers and other students find him. It turns out the girls died of drugs that had been tainted with rat poison. Add to the mix that Rob’s roommate Dave is the known supplier in the dorms, and Rob must contemplate what he should do.

Don’t for a second think this is going to be some sort of taut thriller. This is a incredibly meditative and slow paced film, that isn’t about the death of the girls, rather it is about this young man and his personal psychosis. Rob is of a generation who filters reality through the pixelated grain of buffered video. We see portions of the film told through the lens of the digital video cameras handed out in class and through cell phone video. When Rob finally has a moment alone with Amy and they begin to get amorous, he mimics the actions he has seen on an incredibly misogynistic internet porn site. Amy is obviously shocked, but surprisingly not phased, as we can infer she has seen the same being from the same generation. Rob is an incredibly neutral protagonist, which has an odd effect on the viewer. While he does nothing to appear noble or heroic, I found myself rooting for him because of how I have been trained to view movies. Campos seems to be working to make us aware of this fact, that we have no reason to be on Rob’s side.

Michael Stuhlbarg, who made an incredible turn as the lead in the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man, plays Bryton’s headmaster and is a darkly phony figure. Afterschool definitely draws parallels to the archetypal teen stories like A Catcher in the Rye and Heathers, where the maudlin sentiment of the adults is seen through the stark, cold eyes of adolescents. Stuhlbarg expresses false sympathy for Rob’s condition after witnessing the deaths of the twins, and it is obvious every decision the dean makes is about saving face for the school, and making sure those parents who have influence are  not offended. He reveals his true colors to Rob when the young man produces a video that does reflect the false regret and sympathy the dean wishes. The guise of a compassionate and sensitive educator melts away and he chastises Rob in an incredibly cruel manner.

Once again, I emphasize that this is not a film that will appeal to everyone. I suspect the audience that will “enjoy” the film will be quite small. It forces the audience to question their relationship between the tangible and the virtual, and beyond that how our view of the tangible can be distorted and effect the way we interact with the world around us. The ending of the film is incredibly chilling and unnerving and would do the great Kubrick proud, as it shrugs off the plausible and chooses to focus more on creating an honest tone. For those who are fans of Michael Haenke, I suspect parallels will be drawn between this and his contemporary classic, Cache.