Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I’d like to write about the milieu of current American independent cinema. Right now, a growing trend has appeared that many critics have dubbed neo-neo-realism; that is, a new film realism movement that employs many of the same techniques of the Italian neo-realism movement of the 1940’s headed by filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rosselini and screenwriter/theorist Cesare Zavattini, among others. The films of this time and place, like Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D. and Open City were hugely influential.

These films were a reflection of post-World War II Italy. The poverty rate was high. Filmmakers created movies not as escapism, but as a way to reflect the times and the changes that had destroyed the Italian economy.

The first neo-realist movement has never been as influential as it is right now. Filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt are making films today that are basically just the next step for neorealism. Bahrani’s movies like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop (and now Goodbye Solo, which I haven’t seen but look forward to) take advantage of certain aspects of the previous movement. They use nonprofessional actors, a documentary-like visual style and conversational dialogue. Kelly Reichardt’s films, on the other hand, like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, are very naturalistic and political. Every single one of these films has been critically acclaimed, and much discussed on the arthouse circuit. Although Bahrani has only directed three films, Roger Ebert has already declared him one of the most important filmmakers working today.

I wanted to write about this current movement because I feel like we’re in the middle of something big happening right now. The American cinema needs a break from all the high-priced action extravaganzas. The neo-neo-realism movement (and I don’t care for that title, so I’ll dub it American neo-realism) is an answer to the politics and condition of our country. It’s been a while since American cinema has faced a new wave of change this swift. I think it’s just what we need.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Top Twenty : Films of 2008

This is the final Year End Top Ten (Twenty) until the end of '09. I hope you've enjoyed reading these as much as I have making them.


1. Let the Right One In
2. Milk
3. Dear Zachary : A Letter to a Son About His Father
4. Revolutionary Road
5. Slumdog Millionaire
6. Doubt
7. Wall-E
8. Happy-Go-Lucky
9. Synecdoche, New York
10. The Band’s Visit
11. In Bruges
12. Frost / Nixon
13. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
14. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
15. Wanted
16. Shotgun Stories
17. Gran Torino
18. The Visitor
19. Iron Man
20. Man On Wire

Angels & Demons

Ron Howard’s latest flick is an adaptation of the sequel to Dan Brown’s controversial novel The Da Vinci Code. This film, Angels and Demons, introduces us once again to the character of symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). This time, he must uncover the mystery behind the recent resurgence of the Illuminati, an ancient group of Atheist philosophers and intellectuals who were banished and tortured by the Catholic Church many, many years ago. Now they’re back, and they’ve stolen a bomb capable of destroying Vatican City and everyone in it.

I can’t say I was a fan of the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code. It was dull, boring and preposterous, but while Angels and Demons is definitely preposterous, it is anything but dull and boring. Ron Howard has replaced the previous film’s long, monotonous talk sequences with action scenes. When Code needed to run, it stood still. That’s not a problem here. Angels and Demons is loaded with some really nifty special effects. It’s not convoluted like its predecessor, and it’s far from boring.

The whole film, however, is supported by its performances. Ewan McGregor is great as a priest who takes over rule of the Catholic Church after the Pope’s death while they find a new, permanent Pope. Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (who is often considered Israel’s best actress) holds her own against Tom Hanks (who is great here too, and not in enough stuff anymore).

Ron Howard is often considered by cineastes to be a mediocre director, the epitome of a journeyman who always turns in OK work, but never anything great. I’ve always defended his films. While he has had plenty of missteps in the past (like How the Grinch Stole Christmas), he has also directed A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man, all films that I love. Plus, let’s not forget that this is one of the guys behind the greatest TV show of all-time (you read that right) Arrested Development.

But back to the film. If Angels and Demons is any kind of a sign, this is going to be a good summer for movies.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek

I’ve been a bit skeptical of J.J. Abrams as of late. Although Lost is probably my favorite show on television right now, and I loved Cloverfield more than most people, J.J. only produces those things. Sure he co-created Lost, but he doesn’t really do much hands-on stuff with the show anymore, and Matt Reeves is the one who directed Cloverfield.

But my doubts have all but vanished with Star Trek, J.J. Abrams second foray into actual director mode. With the film, Abrams proves himself to be a man full of more than just ideas. Star Trek is a bravura piece of blockbuster filmmaking, a phaser blast to the gut of the science fiction genre. Every action scene (and there are plenty) is thrilling, every shot bright and inventive and every line of dialogue delivered with the perfect blend of Shatner-era nostalgia and modern sarcastic wit.

The film looks flashy and bright. Vivid streams of light cross each scene. The special effects are among the best I’ve seen. The Enterprise looks at once sleek and modern, yet instantly recognizable (a great metaphor the film itself). The film is ingeniously cast. Zachary Quinto is especially notable for his performance as Spock. He’s as brash and confident as you could imagine a young Spock would be.

When the Romulan Nero, who killed Kirk’s father, confronts the Enterprise and takes its captain hostage, Kirk, Spock and everyone else go on a mission to rescue him. The film, a prequel to the original series, concerns the assemblage of the crew we all know and love. It describes the manner of how they all became a part of the Enterprise. It’s a very human story. Everyone’s motives are made clear; Kirk wants to avenge his father’s death and Spock wants to prove that a half-Vulcan, half-human like himself is capable of accomplishing all that a full-blooded Vulcan can.

As you’ve probably heard, Star Trek has something to appeal to Trekkies (Trekkers?) and casual fans alike. Don’t miss out on this one.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Top Twenty : Films of 2007

2007 was a particularly great year for films, so I decided to start making top twenties instead of just top tens from this year forward.

1. No Country for Old Men
2. Once
3. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
4. I’m Not There
5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
6. Michael Clayton
7. No End In Sight
8. Into the Wild
9. Zodiac
10. Starting Out in the Evening
11. There Will Be Blood
12. Ratatouille
13. The Savages
14. Paprika
15. Inland Empire
16. Sicko
17. Away From Her
18. Control
19. Black Book
20. Atonement

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Jean-Claude Van Damme may be the LAST person in the world you’d expect to be a superlative model of postmodernity, but in JCVD he goes all John Malkovich with a swift kick to his critics and a respectful nod to his fans.

Van Damme plays himself, or at least a bitterer version of himself. He stars in mindless action movies just for the paycheck, acknowledging how bad they are while still depending on the roles for the money. While visiting his hometown of Brussels, Van Damme stumbles into the middle of a bank heist. Confused police officers outside the bank mistake him as one of the robbers and insist he release his hostages. Onlookers outside the bank who still consider Van Damme a hometown hero, however, cheer him on.

Inside the bank, Van Damme appeases the robbers by to showing them roundhouse kicks and signing autographs for them while his fellow hostages expect him to be more like the action star he is in all his movies; a brave martial arts master who can easily dismantle the thieves and save the day. Van Damme is more like them, though. He’s afraid of what the thieves may do to him. They force Van Damme to make phone calls as the real robber to the police with their demands.

Van Damme, however, remains generally calm throughout the robbery. In fact, he doesn’t seem to mind the scenario all that much. With a broken marriage, a downtrodden career, a nasty custody battle and an American reputation overshadowed by Steven Seagal, what does he really have waiting for him outside the bank? At least here the people view him as a hero, and the people outside seem to be on his team. All this is topped off by a self-loathing, self-aware monologue he delivers straight to the camera that makes Charlie Kaufman look like Alain Badiou.

While this final speech seems a bit contrived, the film is overall funny, heartfelt and surprisingly touching, and I don’t think Steven Seagal has ever made anything like that.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Three Monkeys

Three Monkeys is Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest effort. It has already won numerous awards, including Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and made the shortlist at last year’s Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. I was lucky enough to view the film on (The Auteurs) shortly before its American theatrical release.

When wealthy businessman Servet accidentally hits someone with his car, he enlists his driver Eyup to take the blame and go to prison in his place. Eyup accepts with the promise of money to take care of his wife, Hacer, and son, Ismail. While he’s away, Hacer has an affair with Servet and ends up falling in love with him, much to the chagrin of Ismail.

Ceylan proves himself to be a master of his craft following his equally stunning films Distant and Climates. Although the plot is a tangled web of regret, hate and betrayal, Ceylan keeps a steady eye on the events at play and things never feel convoluted.

The film is also one of the most visually lush in recent memory. Credit should go to cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, who lets the camera breath when it needs to, but keeps the film’s blood flowing all the time.

Three Monkeys is visually beautiful, emotionally challenging and vastly haunting(all in the vain of Ceylan’s previous films), and certainly not a film to be missed.


Top Ten : Films of 2006


1. Children of Men
2. Babel
3. Pan’s Labyrinth
4. Little Miss Sunshine
5. Half Nelson
6. Little Children
7. Stranger Than Fiction
8. The Painted Veil & The Good Shepard (tie)
9. The Queen & Marie Antoinette (tie)
10. Apocalypto

Wednesday, May 6, 2009



Watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari, I was reminded not only of the obviously similar Kurosawa films of the same decade, specifically Rashomon, or of the analogous themes of Onibaba, but of films that came later, like the wonderful Werckmeister Harmonies. I remembered that glorious, artistic four minute shot when Janos, the protagonist, walked through the dark streets of his small town when he knew everything was slowly falling apart within himself and his town. I compared it to the opening of Ugetsu, with Mizoguchi’s signature “scroll” shot revealing the houses and buldings and shops, almost dilapidated from the weather and wear. I remembered Sven Nykvist’s cinematography from Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice when the philosophical writer Alexander burns his and his family’s own home in order to save the world. The house burns majestically over the course of about seven minutes.

Ugetsu’s influence is as far reaching as most of Akira Kurosawa’s most influential work.It is among the most important films ever made, its influence felt through cinema across the globe. I consider it one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen; the images in this film linger in my mind even while I write this. The stark black and white cinematography is soft, haunting, and ghost-like.

It is about two poor couples; Genjuro and Miyagi, and Tobei and Ohama. Genjuro and Tobei, the husbands, travel to the city of Omizo to sell the pots Genjuro crafts to make a living. They become successful as it is a time of war and the army needs the pots to carry supplies. Tobei dreams of becoming a samurai but is refused from the army as he doesn’t have armor or a spear.

Once they return home, Miyagi begs them not to travel anymore during wartime, but they decide to go anyway, this time with their families to Nagama. Before they leave, however, their home village of Nakanogo is raided. They decide to escape into the forest, but Tobei decides to stay behind to try and steal some of the soldiers’ armor. Genjuro returns to try and find him, and Miyagi follows. They are able to salvage some pottery, which they try and sell at a town across the river. They meet up with Tobei, who has failed to retrieve any weapons or armor. Miyagi is left behind at the shore with her and Genjuro’s child.

Eventually, however, they escape into the woods, only to be encountered by two hungry soldiers. In an attempt to salvage her food for the child, Miyagi is killed by one of them.

At the town across the lake, Genjuro’s pottery sells very well. Tobei uses his share of the fortune to purchase a suit of samurai armor, which he uses to sneak into a samurai clan. Genjuro, meanwhile, is approached by a noblewoman who tells him to take some of his pottery to Wakasa Manor. There, he is seduced by Lady Wakasa who, along with her servant, is the only survivor in the manor after it was attacked by soldiers. The two are then married.

Ohama, now alienated and traveling by herself, is raped by soldiers who leave her tattered and broken. She curses them and her husband. Tobei, meanwhile, kills a high-ranking enemy officer to show his head to a commander who, although suspicious, gives Tobei the armaments he seeks. Ohama becomes a prostitute and works in a rough brothel. Tobei later learns this and, distraught by the fact, gives up his life as a soldier to return home with his wife.

Genjuro, now afraid after learning the noblewoman who approached him earlier was a ghost and that Wakasa Manor is haunted, asks Lady Wakasa to let him return to his family. She refuses at first, but then admits that she and her servant are spirits, and she only returned to Earth to experience love. Genjuro leaves the manor and sees it as it truly is; destroyed by fire. Genjuro, exhausted and weary, returns home to find his son and, unaware she is deceased, his wife’s spirit. He is woken up the next morning by his neighbor, who reveals to him what happened to his wife.

Ugetsu is a fable about the cost of greed. It is about what one must sacrifice to get what they want, and if personal happiness is truly matters as opposed to love and family.

Another film I was reminded of while watching Ugetsu was Ghost with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. The infamous pottery scene in that film was certainly inspired by the closing scene in Ugetsu in which Miyagi’s spirit spins her beau’s pottery wheel for him while he works. “I am always with you,” she says.


This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Matthias Galvin at Framed (

Monday, May 4, 2009

Cannes '09

By common consensus, the Cannes Film Festival is the granddaddy of all film festivals. It’s where everyone who is anyone in the film industry gathers to celebrate the best in the year’s upcoming films.

This year’s festival features some of the most celebrated filmmakers in the business today, not the least of whom is Quentin Tarantino, whose entry this year, the WWII epic Inglorious Basterds, looks more like Kill Bill than Saving Private Ryan. Brad Pitt stars as Aldo Raine, a redneck American soldier who brings together a team of eight Jewish Americans to hunt down and kill Nazis. Their story intersects with that of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish girl on the run from the Nazis. The supporting cast includes Eli Roth, The Office’s B.J. Novak, Samuel L. Jackson and Mike Myers. If Tarantino’s past filmography is any indication, Inglorious Basterds will be an over-the-top, rough and tumble delight for film geeks and mainstream audiences alike.

Ken Loach is no stranger to Cannes. In 2006, his The Wind That Shakes the Barley was awarded the festival’s most prestigious prize, the Palme d’Or. He’s looking to nab the award again this year with Looking For Eric, the tale of a troubled soccer fan who receives some life help from his idle, the famed French soccer player Eric Cantona. Although the plot sounds a bit high-concept, director Loach is known for his realism and natural characters. If anyone can ground the film in reality, it’s him.

One filmmaker who never shies away from controversy is the Danish auteur Lars Von Trier, and controversy is just what he seems to be intent on stirring up with Antichrist, a psychological horror film about a couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat into a cabin in the woods, only to find it is possessed by Satan. The sexually explicit film is, like all of Von Trier’s earlier efforts, not for the weak of heart, but with a mystifying trailer and two great actors in the lead roles, it’s assured to be a rewarding experience.

Speaking of challenging directors, Michael Haneke’s new film The White Ribbon, about the influence of fascism on the school system and the other way around in 1913 Germany, is sure to cause some gasps. Haneke’s filmography reads like a list of films that would be banned from the local theater: Funny Games, The Piano Teacher and Benny’s Video, just to name a few. Haneke’s films are, however, very rewarding in the long run. The White Ribbon doesn’t look any different.

It isn’t all sex and Nazis at Cannes however; Pixar’s latest effort Up, about an old codger who ties balloons to his home and floats off into a world of adventure, is sure to be an audience favorite. The film, Pixar’s first in 3-D, opens the festival on May 13th , proving there’s a little something for everyone at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Top Ten : Films of 2005


1. Old Boy

2. Crash

3. Cache

4. The Squid and the Whale

5. Capote & Walk the Line (tie)

6. King Kong

7. The Constant Gardner

8. Good Night, and Good Luck

9. The Aristocrats

10. North Country & The Weather Man (tie)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Top Ten : Films of 2004


1. The Aviator
2. Spider-Man 2
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4. The Incredibles
5. Ray
6. Shaun of the Dead
7. Sideways
8. Collateral
9. The Sea Inside
10. Million Dollar Baby

Top Ten : Films of 2003


1. The Lord of the Rings : The Return of the King
2. American Splendor & City of God (tie)
3. Kill Bill Vol. 1
4. Finding Nemo
5. Lost In Translation & Mystic River (tie)
6. The Barbarian Invasions
7. The Return
8. The Best of Youth
9. 28 Days Later
10. School of Rock