Thursday, 28 June 2007

Esoteric Picks #19


Matthew Sweet - In Reverse (1999)

Sweet's great power pop sensibilities and love of Beatles/Byrds/Big Star continues here on what is probably his strongest overall effort - though I must admit it took a few listens to reach that conclusion. There's nothing quite as immediately grabbing as say "Girlfriend" or "Evangeline" (from 1991's Girlfriend), but the melodies really burrow into your brain after several listens. The beautiful ballads in particular seem to be getting the most spins. Having said all that, Sweet's best work may very well have been his collaboration with Ming Tea:

Classic English Language Film

The Train (1964)

John Frankenheimer's 1964 picture set in the waning days of WWII follows the titular train as it carries a load of French paintings the Germans are trying to remove before the liberation of Paris. Paul Scofield brillantly plays the German colonel who runs afoul of Burt Lancaster and then must try to get the paintings safely back to Germany. Though Lancaster doesn't care about the paintings, he has no intention of letting the German colonel make off with them. The sequences on the train are dazzling and ratchet up the tension throughout the film. An interesting note from IMDB states that Lancaster doesn't utter a single word in the last 20 minutes of the film...And he simply doesn't need to.

Recent English Language Film

Adaptation (2002)

A recent re-viewing of Spike Jonze's follow-up to Being John Malkovich proved to be my favourite viewing yet. It has one of my favourite meta-movie concepts - Charlie Kaufman was tasked with adapting the novel "The Orchid Thief" and while having difficulty doing that, he ended up writing a script about a man named Charlie Kaufman who was having trouble adapting the novel "The Orchid Thief" and who ends up writing about a guy called Charlie...But things take a different direction when Charlie's twin brother Donald chimes in with his own more mainstream ideas for plot points. The last half hour of the film is initially jarring in its shift and also becomes less intriguing, but once you understand why the tone shifts and relate it back to previous topics and discussion points earlier in the film, it becomes great fun. Kaufman works in layers of meaning regarding the concept of adapting and the cast all give terrific performances (Chris Cooper won an Oscar for his supporting role).

Foreign Language Film

Winter Sleepers (1997)

Tom Twyker's pre-Run Lola Run feature is almost as stylish and just as captivating. Several unrelated people in a ski resort town become entangled in each other's lives after an incident. We follow the course of their relationships and their various problems (short term amnesia, the loss of a child, fear of commitment, etc.) as Twyker spins his visual flair to create tension and atmosphere. He also uses colour extremely well in the film with each main character sticking to a single colour for their clothes throughout.


Takeshis' (2005)

More meta movie goodness...Takeshi Kitano takes a look at his own stardom and pulls together scenes, characters and ideas from his other films. After some behind the scenes glimpses into Beat Takeshi's life, we see him meet a part time actor with the same last name who is a dead ringer for him. The famous Takeshi goes off for a massage and wonders what life must be like for this unsuccessful actor. From here on out, we're never quite sure who's head or potential dream we may be in. It's quite surreal, funny and oddly touching in spots. Here's the unsubtitled trailer that will give you no clue about the "plot", but hopefully conveys some of the energy of the film:

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Who Will Think Of The Children?

One of the best film blogs around Sergio Leone and the Infeld Fly Rule just had a very humourous post about having his Blog rated NC-17. This was the response he got by typing in his URL at this page:

"This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:
Gun (5x) Dead (4x) Porn (3x) Dyke (1x)"

I checked mine and all I got was a measely PG due to 3 deaths, 2 hells and 1 gun. I'm just not trying hard enough obviously...So I submit the following paragraph:

Dick Van Dyke has a very wholesome reputation for appearing in such porn free films as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (no gun is used for those bangs). Almost a dead genre these days, his films never showed 1) a gun being used for criminal purposes, 2) a gun being photographed in an appealing way like so much gun porn or 3) a gun even being fired in the air in order to wake the dead! I suppose it's a dead giveaway that torture porn is not my favourite genre. That's just dead simple.

I'll update the post once I check my new rating...


After rescanning my Blog, I'm now the proud owner of:

My head hangs in shame due to the occurence of the following:

  • gun (8x)
  • dead (6x)
  • porn (4x)
  • death (3x)
  • hell (2x)
  • shoot (1x)

Well, that was fun...

Friday, 22 June 2007

The Music Of Almost Famous

My contribution to the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon over at Windmills Of My Mind.

I have to admit to not being a big film score fan. It's not that I don't appreciate film music and its role. Indeed my emotions can be twisted, turned and toyed with by great music as evidenced by these off the top of my head examples:

- The Fountain's recurring themes.

- The opening music from Miller's Crossing with the hat being blown away in the wind is an image/music combination I can't split apart.

- The slow pace and music of a seduction scene from Barry Lyndon (on a balcony). I still haven't seen the entire film yet, but this one clip had me glued.

- Tony Gatlif's films Swing, Vengo and Transylvania all have music at the root of the lives of their characters. They live and breathe it.

- The orchestral composition running through Juliette Binoche's head throughout Three Colours - Blue.

- Halloween, The Sting, The Jungle Book, Black Orpheus, Singin' In The Rain...

Great moments all...But I'm usually sucked even deeper into a moment when it's attached to a song or piece of music I already know. I often imagine my own scenes and how I would film them as I listen to music with some styles and genres giving me "more to work with" than others. This happens even more often these days as I've been doing a lot of walking with the iPod. Soundtracks, as opposed to film scores, usually connect with me quicker and, in the end, deeper.

And it's hard to beat a soundtrack like the one from Almost Famous. Especially if you felt your early formative years followed a somewhat similar path to that of the film's protagonist (except for that whole becoming a rock critic at fifteen, writing for Rolling Stone, flying in private jets and marrying one of the sisters from Heart). I discovered FM radio and what we now term "classic rock" around the time I was twelve and dammit if Cameron Crowe didn't capture those moments of discovery brillantly. When the young William Miller spins his older sister's records for the first time and the needle drops on The Who's "Sparks" from Tommy, I immediately get the goosebumps - the same ones I probably got the first time I heard the song and the same ones William seems to be getting as we watch his reaction. And then there's the terrific cut to an older William in high school just as Townsend's guitar crashes into the song.

Of course, only a pedantic bore would point out that "Sparks" doesn't actually begin any of the sides of that double album (sides? yes, vinyl records had sides), so let's just keep moving...

Another great and by now famous use of music in the film is Elton John's "Tiny Dancer":

Crowe borders on cheesy here, but I find his mixing of the scenic views outside the bus with the initial head bobbing of the passengers leads perfectly into the final communal singing of the chorus. Puts a smile on my face every single time.

And another short bit from the extended cut with Cat Stevens' "The Wind":

He nails the time period as well as the mood and thoughts of the character. And he doesn't resort to an overly familiar or obvious choice of songs. There's a plethora (I love that word) of moments like these in the film that capture not only the "era", but more importantly the feeling of the scene.

But the film also contains music written especially for it. Not a score per se, but the music of the fictional band Stillwater. What's especially great about this music is that it fits the band to a "T". The music comes across as a poor man's Bad Company - blues rock from a "mid-level band". A couple of the songs are actually quite good and could have been minor radio hits back in the day:

Very much in keeping with what an opening band in the 70s might have played. I also love the sound of the drums at the beginning of "Fever Dog" in the clip above - it's exactly like they sound when watching a band in a big cavernous hockey arena, especially when they are the opening band who obviously had less time for soundcheck.

Their other songs are a bit more forgettable and sound like those filler tracks you might hear deep into side 2. A pretty good example is "Love Comes And Goes":

I'm not sure if Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe intended to make some of those other tracks "less good", but what they've achieved with the music in this movie is a seamless whole. The Stillwater songs, the hits from the 70s, the lesser known tracks, the incidental tunes heard walking past a hotel room...They all just blend into the film and you can't pull them apart.

That's good film music in my mind.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Worldwide Short Film Festival

The winners of this year's Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto were announced this past Monday. Unfortunately I only caught two screenings from this year's festival, but one of those contained an award winner - the rather astonishing Madame Tutli-Putli snagged Best Animated Short (a short trailer follows below).

It's Nightmare Before Christmas meets early Tool videos - and the most amazing eyes you'll ever see. After the screening, one of the filmmakers spent a good 3-4 minutes trying to explain how they created the effect. He lost me, but it didn't matter...There were times during the film that I actually wondered if maybe the woman was an actual woman and not some stop motion creation. Simply because the eyes looked so incredible...

The film itself is a dark tale of a train ride and some unexpected visitors. It's creepy, funny and ends with a beautiful if slightly puzzling image. With this award, the film becomes eligible for next year's Oscars.

The rest of that evening's films were decent to middling affairs and not quite what I expected from a Scene Of The Crime theme for that session. However, Sunday night's set of 8 films met my expectations wonderfully and hit the Sci-Fi: Out There theme spot on. Not a bad one in the bunch:


Dark vision of a future dystopia with washed out colours, strange beasts and a band of "heroes"...It's not an overly original premise, but the animation is sharp and there are some really creative creatures and scenarios developed. Here's the entire 9 minute film:


Live action but wordless tale of a man who is not only tired of his day job (as a test sniffer for deodorants), but also with the fact that humans don't seem affected by gravity anymore. Belts are used at night to prevent waking up on the ceiling and everyone wears heavy metal boots to remain fixed to the ground. He comes to a realization and makes a decision...Odd, funny and very well shot.


Our third wordless film in a row (not a single line of dialog uttered so far) is a simply animated, but very amusing story of a lone astronaut and the strange contraption he finds deep in space. After being sucked into the thing and spat back out, more and more replicants of himself and his spaceship turn up. Closes with a nice final twist.

Isabelle And Stuart

OK, so they weren't all winners...Finally some dialog, but perhaps this should have remained silent as well. The overly stiff acting and line readings remove most of the humour from this 4 minute short of a young man's time machine and the girl who is breaking up with him. Ah well, it was quick.

D.I.M. - Deus In Machina

This centrepiece half hour trip through yet another dystopic vision of the future (with dark streets and muted colours) was equally as good as any major sci-fi picture I've seen in years (well maybe not The Fountain, but it's hard to be that glorious). Superbly rendered special effects and cinematography lend some serious weight to the trouble our hero is in. He's losing his social status due to low social points and has little hope of crawling back up. His only recourse to avoid hell on earth is to risk hell in virtual prison. And if you are a movie lover, the ending is so absolutely perfect...

Wookie At Work

What if Chewbacca was an office temp? That's the premise and storyline of this mostly amusing mix of Star Wars and The Office. Some obvious gags, some subtle and some that miss the mark.


Just awesome looking film showing two snail like android creatures meeting and, um, getting to know each other - at least until an unwanted guest arrives. It put me in mind of a Chris Cunningham video, but even better. The full length 7 minute video below won't do the images justice, but it's really worth a look.

Terror On The 3918

The funniest and probably most original concept of the evening. The spaceship of the future seems to resemble the inside of a run-of-the mill apartment. Hurtling between planets, tea cups are used as control knobs, books on shelves as switches for engines and the ships fuel is milk and toast. Oh, and the big garbage pail is the escape pod. The laughs come from the absurdity of the ship, the very effective use of sound effects to make the everyday objects seem to be controlling things and the actors playing the whole thing straight. A great way to end the evening and my first short film festival...

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Paris Je T'Aime

While watching a movie that's actually an anthology of 18 separate stories (by 18 different directors from around the world), you can't help but try to figure out how to remember each one. So during Paris Je T'Aime I decided to associate a word with each story and see if it would help me remember details of the stories afterwards. As well, it might give an overall insight into a prevalent theme or perhaps some grand statement about Paris. So here's the list I came up with:

Parking, Mosque, Studio, Subway, Baby, Salon, Leukemia, Cowboy, Mime, Father, Drugs, Coffee, Dancer, Vampire, Graveyard, Blind, Divorce, Tourist

OK, uh, so no insight there...No view of Paris. No obvious thematic content. It makes sense though, as the film isn't really about Paris as a city - it's about people searching, finding, losing and simply experiencing love within its confines.

Initially the movie was to have 20 segments, each happening in one of the 20 arrondissements of Paris (or boroughs), but 2 didn't fit into the flow of the film (perhaps extras on an eventual DVD release one hopes?). Now having just said that the movie isn't really about the city, you do get a pretty good feel for Paris as you traverse the city via the different arrondissements. The transitions between the stories show even more of the architecture of the city and provide a continuous flow that helps avoid the danger of an anthology film - a feeling of rebooting at the beginning of each story so that you lose what you've already built up. So even though not all the stories work completely (some feel unfinished and unfocused), each piece felt of a larger whole.

As for the individual tales, the ones that really stand out in my mind are, strangely enough, the ones dealing with loss:

- Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' piece about a young woman who drops her baby off at a Daycare and has to sing it to sleep before going on a very long trip through the city to her job as a nanny. Once there, she sings the same song to the baby of wealthy career people. Catalina Sandino Moreno plays the young woman and her distant gaze at the end as she sings that song to another baby is quite heartbreaking.

- Isabel Coixet's short that uses voice over to take us through a man's attempt at splitting up with his wife until he realizes she has terminal cancer. He decides to do the right thing and stick with her. As he goes through the process he recounts how he changes from being a man acting like he is in love (in order to help her) to a man who falls back into love.

- Oliver Schmitz tells the tale of a young African man who is stabbed and then helped by the young woman he has previously serenaded in a parking garage. Effectively told with some quick flashbacks to tell the young man's story, it builds up some well earned emotion in its short run time.

The humourous ones also struck a chord:

- The Coen Brothers piece on Steve Buscemi's experience with his tour guide book in the Parisian subway.

- Christopher Doyle's whacked out tale of an Asian woman's hair salon.

- Sylvain Chomet's story of a young boy's mime parents and how they met and fell in love. It's quite amusing and very sweet. If you can get me to sit still when a mime is on the screen, you've done a helluva job.

The crowning touch though is Alexander Payne's final story about an American postal worker on a trip of a lifetime to Paris. Her narration of the story is done in heavily accented French as a report back to her French class in the States. At first she is rather comical due to the accent, but she becomes increasingly endearing to the audience. As played by Margo Martindale, it's a tremendous performance (both on screen and the off screen narration) and it's a shame it won't get recognized via any awards. She's really that good:

Her final words combined with her final crying/happy expression really kind of tie up the film nicely: "It was the moment that I fell in love with Paris and the moment I felt Paris fell in love with me".

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Esoteric Picks #18


Wim Mertens - A Man Of No Fortune And With A Name To Come (1986)

I'm not usually a fan of solo acoustic recordings or shows...I like my rhythm sections and full sounding backing bands. But this 1986 live recording by Belgian composer Wim Mertens is certainly an exception to this not overly strict rule. It's the only music I've heard by him, but after revisiting this album for the first time in years I'm gonna dig into more by him. His lovely simple and sad melodies (including his very high pitched vocals) combined with the minimalist style of repetitive piano lines makes for truly engrossing music. The opening track "Casting No Shadow" is the closest thing I've heard in some time that could be described (without feeling silly for having said it) as being "achingly beautiful".

Classic English Language Film

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Writer/director Preston Sturges is known for developing very clever, witty dialog for his characters while having them be exposed to quite farcical situations. Probably never better than in "The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek", but I have a soft spot for this later 1948 film. It's the story of an orchestra conductor who believes his wife is cheating on him and fantasizes on 3 possible revenge scenarios (while he conducts 3 different pieces). His later attempts to make good on those fantasies break down into trademark slapstick routines that are just as clever as the back and forth banter throughout the film.

Recent English Language Film

The Fountain (2006)

I should write volumes about this gloriously beautiful film, but I could never do it justice. Just the visuals alone are remarkable and make me wish I had seen it on the big screen. The story is really about a man trying to cope with his wife's terminal illness and accept that death is a natural course of events. This theme is rendered via three separate stories that take place in the past, present and what appears to be the long distant future. The overlapping story elements and parallels are indicators that perhaps not everything should be taken at face value, but even if the pieces don't quite fall in place (I watched it twice in a row and still need to tie up some "loose ends" in my mind), it's a brillantly made movie that will certainly get you thinking.

Foreign Language Film

Azumi (2003)

Reading through the posts to the Action Heroine Blog-a-thon (hosted by The Film Experience), made me think of this fun action film based on the manga of a young girl raised (with other orphans) to be an expert assassin. As they reach young adulthood, they are assigned to kill three warlords who are threatening to tear apart the country. She and her friends face a number of different obstacles and challenges, but it's Azumi who emerges as the leader and one of the greatest warriors the land has seen. There's some silliness and effects that aren't quite perfect (and buckets of really red blood), but since the young Japanese pop star Aya Ueto plays Azumi with such confidence and charm it actually adds to the fun of the adventure - as do the myriad of over the top characters she encounters.


Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)

Revenge. That's all the beautiful Matsushima has her sights set on once she has been double crossed by her detective boyfriend, raped and sent to prison. And though she still has to endure a great deal more within the women's prison, nothing will stop or break her as she simmers away. Indeed there are some fairly brutal things that happen to her and some way over the top acting by other prisoners and the guards, but Meiko Kaji's central performance as prisoner 701 has you with her all the way hoping that she will get a taste of that revenge in the end.