Pina (2011)

Pina (2011) movie poster

director Wim Wenders
viewed: 02/23/2013

What I know about “dance” could probably not fill the average thimble.  So, what I knew about choreographer Pina Bausch before the release of Wim Wenders’ documentary of her work, Pina, was nothing.  About some subjects of documentaries, I have reasonable or good knowledge, about some, I have nothing.  Which is totally fine.  I’m just offering this caveat because Pina is almost all dance, Pina Bausch, and the reflections of her contemporaries.

Wenders (The American Friend (1977), Paris, Texas (1984), Wings of Desire (1987), Until the End of the World (1991), Buena Vista Social Club (1999), among many others) had originally planned this film with Pina Bausch as a collaborator.  But Bausch died rather suddenly during production, and Wenders was urged on to complete the film by Bausch’s other collaborators.

It’s an overview of her major works, staged on stage, or with pieces in and around the city of Wuppertal where her Tanztheater (“dance theater”) was/is situated.  What results is overview, memorial, and tribute, very loosely given to factual background.  If you don’t know anything about Bausch, you won’t learn facts from the film.  You will see her work, hear some voices of people who worked with her, learned from her, done in voice-over of their mute faces.

Certainly, the works are vibrant and impressive.  I was struck by them and how little context I had to understand them outside of their own being.  In one way, I was reminded of silent film acting, how the performers render everything physically, mutely, with all of the body.  Of course, this is but a small thing, since their physicality is so intense, some of their actions so precise, some so dramatic.  Far less straight-forward are these pieces.  This is modern dance (if that term still applies) and in its modernism, it’s hardly simply literal.  Abstract.

The film has a beauty and elegance to it, certainly.  And I could appreciate it, to an extent.  I don’t feel that I utterly get it in the sense that I usually like more context and understanding of things that I wind up writing about.  It isn’t my area of expertise and I don’t know that my thoughts on this film would be all that beneficial or enlightening.

It’s me.  Not Pina.

Beauty Is Embarrassing (2012)

Beauty Is Embarrassing (2012) movie poster

director Neil Berkeley
viewed: 02/23/2013

Know who Wayne White is?  Then you were one more up on me before I first read about Beauty Is Embarrassing, a documentary dedicated to the artist, puppeteer, animator, set designer, and family man.

White is most famous for being one of the key set designers and puppeteers on Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the 1980’s, director of Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” music videos, and now for his “word paintings”.  The word paintings are a series that he’s done where he picks up a thrift store landscape painting and then adds very stylized and humorous words towering across the landscape in a comic, surrealist style.

Hailing originally from Tennessee, the film recounts his childhood, his college years, his move to New York, work on Pee-wee, marriage, children, and eventual life in Los Angeles.  He also performs with his banjo quite nicely in some “old-timey music” tunes.

He’s a really cool guy.  A kind of guy you’d know or would like to know.  Inventive, talented, clever, funny, and utterly down to earth.

I’m glad to be aware of him.  If it sounds interesting, this documentary is worthwhile.  If not, no worries.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) movie poster

director David O. Russell
viewed: 02/23/2013 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Though I wasn’t all that interested in seeing Silver Linings Playbook from trailers, despite reviews, awards, et cetera, I did reach a tipping point with it.  Chalk it up to Oscars hype or what-have-you, when it showed up in the local West Portal cinema, the Empire, I thought to myself, why not?

I liked writer/director David O. Russell quite well through Three Kings (1999).  I then really anticipated I ♥ Huckabees (2004) which I ended up hating.  And like his latest prior effort, The Fighter (2010), I found Silver Linings Playbook of an ilk that didn’t really do anything for me.  Drama/dramedy with some pretty standard story elements.  The Fighter looked like any number of any other boxing movies.  Got good reviews, won Oscars.  I didn’t need to see it.  Silver Linings Playbook, a dramedy about people with bipolar issues, with their family units, with its doubtless happy ending, added with a dance contest?  Oscar and audience pandering that usually doesn’t appeal to me.  I avoid it.

But it’s pretty good.  It is a “feel good” film, sends you through some awkwardness, but ends on its feet with boy and girl happily kissing in Christmasy lushness.  After performing in a dance contest.  It’s a crowd-pleaser.  The actors all get pretty juicy roles.  It notably got nominations in each Oscar acting category.  It is what it is and that’s fine.  It’s pretty good.

Really, though, for me, the movie was all about Jennifer Lawrence.  I’ve liked her in Winter’s Bone (2010) and The Hunger Games (2012).  She’s much different in Silver Linings Playbook.  It’s arguable that her characters in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games are really not terribly different.  Here she’s the young, gorgeous, angry widow of a police officer killed in a car accident.  She sees in Bradley Cooper’s manic train wreck of a guy fighting his way through recovery a kindred spirit, and among other things, gets him to partner with her in a dance contest that turns out to be good therapy for them both.  She’s a combination of angry, vulnerable, and utterly believable.  And totally gorgeous.

I had to wonder if it was my red-blooded male heterosexuality blurring my objectivity in her qualities.  Though there is that, I am far from alone on the opinion that she is both a very good actress and a very attractive young lady.  For me, she made the movie work.  Everyone is good in it, but she just makes it.  My opinion.

And then she got the Oscar, too.  So, I guess I’m not alone.

Side by Side (2012)

Side by Side (2012) movie poster

director Christopher Kenneally
viewed: 02/22/2013

Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Qu’est-ce que le film?

Film, at least, can be reduced to the literal.  It has been the stuff onto which images have been captured, developed, and then displayed.  As in “the movies”, it’s the stuff that runs through the projector, light shining through it, whose mechanized process has created an illusion of movement.  The photo-chemical process of capturing images in light onto the emulsion, the exposures that record the capture, the creation of the negative.  It’s a tactile, real thing, stored in reels, not in the least impervious to the elements.

And “film” as well is synonymous with cinema, a much broader concept, perhaps.

But the conundrum of the definition has been a key point of interest in the digital age.  Though it’s been decades in process, the digital technology has usurped “film” in its costs, ease, and abilities.  Director Christopher Kenneally and producer/interviewer Keanu Reeves pull together an impressive array of important Hollywood directors and cinematographers and put the questions to them about the death of celluloid, the industry changes, technical innovations, and the future of “film”.

We’ve got George Lucas, James Cameron, David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, Martin Scorsese, Robert Rodriguez, and Christopher Nolan to name a few.  There are those among them who have been pushing digital’s envelope for decades, developing the technologies that shifted the market, visionaries who have shaped the present day reality and in part the discourse.  And it’s very interesting hearing from cinematographers, editors, effects people, whose relationship with the photographic image, the alchemy of traditional film, is the most directly impacted.

While the film Side by Side itself is not a great piece of cinema, it does have a few key aspects of serious merit.  They do speak to a good group of film-makers.  They also lay out a pretty easy-to-follow if not beautifully-rendered explanation of the technology, how it works and how it differs, which is no doubt a decent primer for many.  And thirdly, and perhaps the most underdeveloped and yet potentially interesting, is the history of implementation and adoption of digital techniques in major motion pictures.

From the digitizing of film that was first shot traditionally, to manipulate in computer later before returning to celluloid, it’s interesting to uncover digital’s “invisible” evolution.  While digital effects have become the modern norm, the steps to developing new cameras that record everything digitally from the get-go, is very telling.  It’s interesting how many film-makers reference Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film, The Celebration as such a liberating, influential film.  Because the technology is only getting better, in many cases cheaper and more accessible.

Keanu, bless him, shows his interest to be deep and significant.  It is very hard to hear that voice and take it one tenth as serious as one might take another actor.

What is cinema?  What is film?  The questions will continue to resound as a very technological medium becomes ever more varied and technologically profound.  And the photochemical images, shot today, in the 20th century, Daguerreotypes…  some aesthetics will never go away, they’ll just have to make room for other new ones.

With apologies to André Bazin.


Escape from Planet Earth (2013)

Escape from Planet Earth (2013) movie poster

director Cal Brunker
viewed: 02/19/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

When I look back on my life, I hope that I don’t find myself wondering why I wound up taking my kids to the cinema to see such obvious dreck as Escape from Planet Earth.  As much as I try to steer us to the better experiences of cinema, I’ve led us to a moderate amount of these bad digital animation films that I could tell from the trailers that it was not going to be good.  And it’s me that has led us.  While the kids might express interest in certain films during pre-movie trailers, it’s quite rare if there is a film that they are actually clamoring to see.  I guess they know that I’ll take them to most of the movies out there so clamor is not needed.  While I’ve certainly tried to skip the blatantly worst of the worst, and occasionally have missed a couple of decent ones that the kids saw with someone else, I iterate again that I hope that these are not the moments that I look back on in assessing my life.

Escape from Planet Earth is not the worst of the worst.  It’s not even necessarily deplorable.  Clara enjoyed it.  Felix thought it was okay.  I thought it was, for being a polished-looking piece of design, a most incredibly uninspired, unfunny, ham-fisted tale of flick I’ve seen in a while.

One thing that kills me about bad children’s movies or television is the blaring pandering that goes with it.  Morals are literalized in the words of the characters.  And the morals are always of the most cliche variety anyways.

In this story, the nerd alien brother who runs mission control for his popular hero brother in space missions finds himself on a rescue mission to Earth where the hero brother has been captured.  It turns out that the government has been keeping every alien that ever landed here prisoner and force them to churn out all of the technology we use today.  The sequence that explains this caricature-wise name drops all the biggies in tech, apparently trying to cast jokes at supposed peers.  The worst name-drop joke mentions Simon Cowell.  So much for timelessness.

I honestly did not enjoy this film at all.  It’s not by any means among the worst I’ve seen, but it’s something that I would gladly store in the less accessible parts of my memory in hopes that I don’t have to consider it again.  Ever.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) movie poster

director Raoul Walsh
viewed: 02/16/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The opportunity to see a newly restored print of Douglas Fairbanks/Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad was an opportunity not to be missed at this year’s Silent Film Festival Winter Event.  Frankly, I’d gladly sit through it all, but I dragged the kids through Snow White (1916), a collection of Buster Keaton shorts, and this epic epic of nearly 3 hours in itself, I felt we’d done pretty darn well.

We had watched The Thief of Bagdad (1924) once before on DVD when the kids were much younger and I was just exposing them to silent film.  Felix and another girl his age loved it and remembered it as awesome for years afterward.  Much later and not terribly long ago, we watched the British Technicolor remake The Thief of Bagdad (1940), which was brilliant as well in its own way.  But now, the kids are older, much more experienced in watching silent films (no longer necessarily needing me to read the inter-titles anymore.)

Frankly, I enjoyed it more than they did this time around.  My own memory of the film proved pretty concrete.  The first half of the film is a joyous, lush, fantastic and comical tale of the titular hero, a happy-go-lucky thief (the marvelous Fairbanks) who “takes what he wants” and lives as he pleases.  Only when he goes to steal from the Caliph’s palace, he falls in love with the princess, and realizes his bon-vivant life needs redemption, which he can achieve under the guidance of religion and the successful accomplishment of a great quest.

The quest is the second part of the film.  The princess’s suitors are sent to the ends of the earth to find the rarest of treasures, with each one trying to outdo the other.  Fairbanks goes the farthest, battles a number of creatures, achieves the ultimate goals, of course, and then has to come back to Bagdad to save the princess and the who city from the conniving Asian villain.

The sets are big and lush, the action is big and wonderful.  In a lot of ways, it’s not at all unlike the kind of popcorn movies that Hollywood has been churning out most summers ever since.  Action and adventure and what would have been some top special effects of the day.  Certainly a few of the creatures bear the silly weakness of their technical limitations, but the flying carpet is done in a marvelous stunt and has all the magic that cinema can offer.

In the introduction to the film, it was suggested that Fairbanks “danced” his role, perhaps with a nod to Vaslav Nijinsky, and it was interesting taking that notion in through the film because Fairbanks’ performance is very physical.  Even with the full-body emotive acting style of the silents, his movements are outsized and broad.  But considering the intention, the fluidity and musicality of his movements, the performance is much easier to fully appreciate.  He has an action that he does with his hands to indicate that he’s “wanting” something and while its all far from subtle, it certainly has a vivid energy and sense of “lust for life” that truly embody the character.

Certainly, you can see this film on DVD and hopefully then on a screen of good size, but it cannot be beat to see it on the big screen with live orchestration.  Top notch film-going experience.

Snow White (1916)

Snow White (1916) movie poster

director J. Searle Dawley
viewed: 02/16/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival started their winter program with a 1916 version of Snow White.  Presented in part with the Disney Family Museum, the showing tied together with a show at the museum about Disney’s version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).  This is because this Snow White inspired Walt Disney’s notion to make his first feature film.  And accordingly, the notes and introduction suggested a handful of key elements that one could see connections to in the Disney version.

Interestingly, to me at least, was how this silent Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark as the little heroine, resembled the far more recent adaptation Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), featuring more of the more elaborated version of the backstory, of Snow White’s mother, pricking her finger and dripping blood on the snow, and of the eventual usurping of power by the evil queen, who imprisoned (or in this case forced labor upon) the little would-be princess.

But there are many elements one can see in the Disney version, from the cute humor of the dwarfs, to the inspired connection that Snow White has with animals, and even on through the crystal coffin in which she is lain when the evil witch/queen has poisoned her.

The film’s staging features a fair amount of theatricality, with the witch and her make-up and her human-sized cat.  But it also features some interesting location shooting (according to the introduction, it was filmed in Georgia) and the resultant woods are coated in Spanish moss, perhaps quite unlike Germany.

It’s a lovely fantasy, a magical, evocative vision at times a bit reminiscent of Georges Méliès.  The kids enjoyed it, and I thought it quite nice that we had managed to see both the Disney film and the museum show in January, making this little addition a nice circuit in regards to Disney’s first feature film.  That said, they were not too wow’ed by it, the first of three shows that we sat through for the Silent Film Festival on a rather sunny Saturday.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

director Lotte Reiniger
viewed: 02/15/2013

The word “unique” is used probably too freely.  By definition, uniqueness is not a quality that has degrees, but represents true singularity, and I’ve certainly heard more than one individual express frustration at the misusage of the word.  For me, I actually think it’s not utterly inapt to consider the possibility of degrees of uniqueness and that this usage is actually expanding the term, perhaps in a natural way of language evolution.  So, I’m not a stickler on that point, especially in a world where true uniqueness is increasingly hard to classify or clarify.  Perhaps it is merely an aspect of our time in cultural evolution where eclecticism is natural, all knowledge, styles, ideas are readily available and as I’ve often noted, “Nothing ever goes away.”

I say all that because I would posit that Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is truly unique, perhaps in the more traditional meaning of the word.  That there is anything remotely like it, I doubt sincerely, unless one considers Reiniger’s other films, none of which wound up being feature-length.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving feature-length animated film.  What are animated in the film is most unusual in itself, ornate shadow puppets, cut from cardboard and lead, moved frame-by-frame, appearing in beautifully lush silhouette.  There is an elegance and grace to the figures, the movements, the detail, unlike anything else that I have seen, unique in its time (1926) as it is today.  It is “animation”, most literally, but unlike anything most people would think of when hearing the word.

I had last watched the movie as part of the Silent Film Festival several years ago and I’ve been revisiting movies that I watched with the kids that long ago because I don’t know if they remember them or in Clara’s case, had even seen them.  And I have to say that I think this is one of the greatest films ever made.  It’s gorgeous, vivid, and magical.  There is indeed nothing like it.


The Invisible War (2012)

The Invisible War (2012) movie poster

director Kirby Dick
viewed: 02/13/2013

Rape is a horrible crime, anywhere and in any context.  According to the statistics cited in the film The Invisible War, derived from government reports, the ratio of rapes in the military are something like 2 to 3 times more common than in civilian life.  Victims are not just women, but one out of three women will be victimized, statistically, according to their data.

While all that is bad enough, the military’s disciplinary structure is such that criminals are rarely punished.  A soldier at any level is to report problems to their superior officer, and in some, perhaps many cases, that person is the offender or is complicit in the offense.  A crime that would in civilian life have clearer pathways to justice can be utterly ignored.  And the treatment of the victims is something of the dark ages of our times (though those dark ages are true today as well).

The stories told in the film are awful.  People are physically disabled and suffer from severe PTSD and many other psychological traumas.

The military’s attitude toward this issue is not unlike the Catholic church’s attitude toward sex abuse by priests.  The culture is totally enabling to the problem and doesn’t want anyone to know about it.

Military culture is an extreme of male-dominated rigor and rule.  It doesn’t shock me to hear that rape is such a huge issue there, nor that it is treated so cavalierly.  I respect those who serve or have served, very much so.  It’s a tough and dangerous world for military men and women.  It’s a sacrifice.  The sacrifice should not be at the hands of ones own fellow soldiers.

The film tells a pretty horrible tale.  As a film, it’s not as compelling or profound as other contemporary documentaries have been about crimes, horrors, misdeeds, atrocities.  These are facts that should be known, things that should be changed.

Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (2002)

Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (2002) movie poster

director Helen Stickler
viewed: 02/ 10/2013

I’ve been running into an odd problem of late in which I’ve found a very good article about a subject much, much better than an eventual, if acclaimed documentary.  In this case, the story of Mark “Gator” Rogowski, skateboard star of the earliest age of skateboarding, who ended up raping and murdering a woman…after finding God.  The article I read was from the Village Voice from 1992, and quite frankly, is a much more compelling narrative.  Stoked does add that element that only film/video can, the actual person speaking, showing his skating, seeing the faces and hearing the voices of interviewees.  That said, I’ve become quite a fan of “long form journalism” of late.  And I recommend the article.

The film does focus on the rise of “Gator” and the rise of professional skateboarding, which adds some context that would have been difficult when the article was written in 1992.  It’s been the subject of other films, too, most notably for me Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) which was made by Stacy Peralta and has stuck with me many years since.  Professional skating was hardly a thing until the mid 1980’s when suddenly a bunch of non-conformist dudes who spent their days hunting for empty pools to skate or ramps to fly high on were given lots of money, fans, and ultimately girls.  Rock stars minus guitars, when nothing like that before could have been imagined.

It’s not surprising that some of them fell flat.  Fame and fortune have had horrible effects on people before, especially those not ready to deal with it.

Gator’s story is pretty compelling.  I’d recommend reading the article and if you’re interested enough to know more, the film is worth seeing.