Monday, October 1, 2012

The Net is Vast and Infinite

The Ghost in the Shell series has had tremendous impact in audio-visual storytelling. Depicting man-machine philosophy and ethics, it centers around the characters of the female cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi, as well as two cops from Section 9, Batou and Togusa. Based on a Japanese manga, the two feature film releases were directed by Mamoru Oshii, while an OVA film (direct-to-dvd), entitled Solid State Society, was helmed by Kenji Kamiyama.

All three films make use of both traditional and CG animation, while the former is clearly predominant. As the story goes, the folks behind The Matrix essentially watched Ghost in the Shell and decided to make a live action film out of the first film. Indeed, the similarities are plentiful, yet with the passage of time, the Ghost in the Shell series has undoubtedly remained the true work of art.

Ghost In The Shell, which was later re-released as a 2.0 version, revolves around the hunt of the Puppet Master, a hacker which can get inside cyborg minds. Presenting an engrossing structure, with action and dialogue intermingled with shots of the city with poignant choir music, the most intimate moments depict Major Kusanagi contemplating her cyborg nature along with Batou. The Puppet Master, aka  Project 2501, is an AI which develops a mind of its own, which has distinct consequences for cyborgs such as Kusanagi.

Ghost in The Shell: Innocence is perhaps even more provocative than the original, and more heavily invested in its philosophical aspects. A group of Gynoids, or sex dolls, are on a killing spree, and Batou along with Togusa, are assigned to the case. This time, the case of sentience in cyborgs is perhaps more tangibly conveyed, making it a worthy sequel. Though the film doesn't feature Major Kusanagi at the beginning, she makes a grand appearance in the third act.

Solid State Society, which is the culmination to the small-screen show, Ghost in The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, has connections to the first film, as the Puppet Master is back, as well as the main characters, yet it exists narratively in a separate timeline; both the show and OVA stand essentially as a reboot. In this case, the film lacks good pacing, and places most of the action at the beginning. Yet the influence of Ghost in the Shell in popular media cannot be denied. There is a new film in the series.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land

The military science fiction of Starship Troopers, whose original Hugo-winning novel carries the spirit of the sixties, as it was then published, is chock-full of subtext in place of the "guys shooting guns" genre we are much too used to and has jaded more than a few. Themes like meritocracies and military science are present. The screen versions of the story brought about some changes which leveled the ideological playing field, namely; propaganda, sexuality and changes in the heroes' nationalities.

Shinji Aramaki, of Appleseed fame, returns with Starship Troopers: Invasion, a CG animated film. The rest of the creative team is related to the prior three films, such as actor Casper Van Dien, now executive producer. As an outpost in the Federation is under attack, a team of troopers is sent on a tricky rescue mission. The team demands the presence of mysterious soldier Henry "Hero"  Varro, who has been incarcerated. Carmen Ibañez as well as Carl Jenkins are back on board, voiced by new actors, as well as Johnny Rico's considerable screen time, also depicted by a voice actor.

If anything becomes clear as the story unfolds, is that the style is more cinematic; the framing is now more traditional, the hyper-reality of Aramaki's previous efforts giving way to a more gritty world with less athletic humans, stuck in uncomfortable, yet wonderfully-looking powered suits of armor. If the Alien movies found inspiration in the prose of Starship Troopers, now it all comes full circle and the inverse happens. Following Aramaki's progression is interesting, as his early efforts were cartoony yet now he approaches photo-realism; still no better than Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but respectable nonetheless.

There's a number of female nudity shots which reveal how much CG has progressed, but they are nothing compared to the design of the suits and locations; metal continues to look better than anything else in computer animation. As for the characters themselves, they come across as a bit stereotypical, often defined by a single trait, much like a bad war movie. Case in point is Henry Varro, who merely has some authority issues, and oh yes, a scar; the real "hero" is clearly Trig, the "sexy but lethal" sharpshooter, in line with the director's previous female-centered works.

There are a couple of great set-pieces with zero-gravity at a starship and the action should satisfy aficionados; though at times it reminded me of the game Dino Crisis 3, also set in a spaceship. Plot-wise, the film stands on its own as a good piece of sci-fi, even if the propaganda aspects were dropped, as at least it was seemingly based on a novel. At the end of the day, Aramaki proves himself more than capable of handling foreign material.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Destroy After Reading

"August in Latin America, it is wintertime," announces the opening title card of État de Siège (State of Siege) by Costa-Gavras, with its entrancing early images of oppression. In a fictional South American country during the 1970s, American official P.M. Santore is kidnapped by a group of urban guerrillas. As this is a third world nation, the viewer would assume the entity applying the pressure is local; yet, in the end, the corollary is that it is not.

The slow, yet thriller-like pace of the film, lacking expository dialogue for the entire first act, is nonetheless effective to the degree that Gavras was neither working with a high budget nor did he have at his disposal computers to make compositions more interesting. At a press conference, Santore's involvement with the Intelligence sector is hilariously depicted; it seems they "are interested in agriculture, mining, education, the forest industry" an aide offers.

By now, subsequent committee hearings on the CIA, and various FOIA requests, have revealed that for a large part of the 20th century, Latin America was "America's backyard." Elsewhere in the world today, Hollywood still seduces the mind, while the military forces re-arrange geographical regions to their content, often ignoring the muted words of the United Nations.

Costa-Gavra's Missing is also based on a true story, this time not from Uruguay but from Chile, as told with prominent American actors. It depicts the story of an American journalist, Charles Horman, who disappeared in the midst of the US-backed 1973 Chilean coup, ending the presidency of Salvador Allende. A sense of dread is present, and one of mass hysteria; such as when a group of military police chase down, while shooting, a white horse in the middle of the city streets.

The film was initially removed from the American market, an event which repeated itself when the VHS came out. Featuring music by Vangelis, the scenes of the main protagonists questioning US officials are the stuff of legend. Presenting a more loose narrative, it is nonetheless anchored in the human factor still present in all the chaos.

Costa-Gavras has a particularly effective eye for tantalizing imagery and set-pieces yet for also exposing nations involved in illegal activities, and is not content with showing only America's role, as in his film Amen, the focus is on Nazi Germany, as well as Greece, in his landmark film Z.

In an era when Hollywood depicts its soldiers as flawless heroes, and only in the face of overwhelming evidence, such as Abu Ghraib, do they concede thorny issues, film is missing a counterpoint to respond to what constitutes the precise definition of propaganda; the stars and stripes are paraded before worldwide audiences in most Marvel superhero movies, and the few directors who dare to challenge this potent imagery hail from overseas, as evidenced in the previous trilogy reviewed on this blog.

There is an irrefutable fact arguing for the cultural dominance, corresponding with  globalization, of Hollywood film; the widespread availability of vacuous Tinseltown product, in lieu of the sorely needed international release of European, and otherwise, art-house films. Countless are the examples of promising international directors who were absorbed by the Hollywood system and lost their voice. This occurred to Costa-Gavras himself, with the more recent release of Mad City.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Duel of the Dualities

In its short history, America's sturdy foreign policy has rivaled that of older nations. After leading the charge in WWII, aided by nations such as Poland and Russia, to name a few, against the bloodiest empire of them all, it emerged victorious but with consequences; everyone wants the king's throne. Since the advent of film, disaster movies have tried to capture the great destruction of large cities, yet this sense of catastrophe became hyper-real, when televised, in the early part of the 21st century. Enter Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, which offers a formidable ensemble cast, with nearly all-British thespians.

It is then that Ra's al Ghul (the League of Shadows), the behind-the-scenes, yet overpowering presence in Nolan's trilogy, lends itself as a case of art imitating life; of how armed conflicts destroy everything in their wake, regardless of flags. It is not the caped crusader's persona which strings the films together, as one might expect in a Marvel film, but his foes, all of which work for the same organization to one degree or another. The mob, the street thugs, the other apparently deranged people running around in costumes, all answer to the same cry of destruction.

In Batman Begins, the personal favorite of many a cinephile, Bruce Wayne travels to the Himalayas to undergo training. He does so under his future enemy while later battling one of its offspring; Scarecrow, with a hint at intimacy which points to some real-life parallels. Yet Nolan's Batman allows us to see the hero for what he truly is; obsessed, tormented, and rather pathological, the way Watchmen's Rorschach and The Punisher would later echo. Constantly with war in the mind, guerrilla warfare to be precise, there is no rest for men who can't see conflict resolution without weapons, be they lethal or non-lethal.

The Dark Knight places the cards squarely on the table, as the Joker is introduced, seemingly being the other side of Batman's coin; the cop and robber are both bound by a code of violence, and Batman has looked into the abyss and it has stared back with a chilling smile, as the Joker pronounces "you complete me." The Joker then adds new gas to the metropolis which was once to burn like Rome again, giving little importance to the mob and instead pointing out just how flawed Gotham's citizens truly are.  If the movie had not been a Hollywood vehicle, then the Joker's social experiment at the ferries would have ended in a matter of seconds; the hatred of the common citizens for otherness and the disdain of criminals for the well-to-do, being the only needed spark.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the story comes full circle, since as stated, it is shown that men with guns are incapable of producing anything but escalation. The one problem is the dialogue, which is the weakest in the series, not playful but dull and obvious. The villian Bane, who also has ties to the puppet-masters, essentially ups the ante, with more pyrotechnics, more hatred coming deep from being an outcast; his distorted mirror image being Bruce Wayne, born into financial security, born into the American dream. But as The Comedian from Watchmen made patently clear, that dream has a dark side too, and it certainly envelops nearly every frame of Nolan's master trilogy.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Biting the Apple

This essay is not about animation greats like the producers of the Neon Genesis Evangelion or Ghost in the Shell series. Instead, it is an attempt to highlight the craft of Shinji Aramaki, a Japanese director with a long resume, going back to fan-favorite Full Metal Alchemist. Having cut his teeth with anime series, he perfected his art with Appleseed (2004) and Appleseed Saga: Ex Machina (2007) both taking place at the end of a fictional Third World War, and has tackled western properties, such as Starship Troopers: Invasion, much like Fumihiko Sori helmed Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker; both in 2012.

Aramaki, a concept designer, has a special interest in CG graphics, and in each of his works, the audience can find an additional layer of complexity, a personal evolution in his particular brand of computer graphics. Acrobatic mechas are made possible in Aramaki's vision, as he takes his virtual camera and explores the world freely with curiosity and awe. A master at portraying fantasy military scenarios, his works are often centered around a female heroine in a war-torn world, hence the core of his productions is often emotional and heartfelt.

Watching his films, certain things come to mind; such as the eyes of the characters being very much alive, as if team of people had the sole task to make expressions their priority. Choreography plays a key aspect as well, since the second Appleseed was produced by John Woo. The influence of film, animation and videogames all coalesce into a grand vision which is gorgeous and expansive; it can hardly be topped by any action film.

The cel-shaded animation and corny pop music make everything look very upbeat in Appleseed, until anime tropes such as ultra-violence and identity issues enter the picture. Our heroine, Deunan Knute reteams with her robotically enhanced partner Briareos, at Olympus, populated mostly by bioroids, or improved human clones with a short lifespan, which pose more of a dystopia in practice. Talk about Technological Singularity; the chief authority in their world is a computer called Gaia, aided by seven elders. Watching Deunan come to terms with her past via a hologram is something to behold.

The sequel amps up the scope, if that was at all possible, with massive set-pieces and, and as mentioned above, placing more attention to details in the animation. The appearance of a bioroid character resembling Briareos, made from his DNA, once again brings up the topic of identity and disdain for otherness. While everything has a more solid look to it, it's not a stretch of the imagination to think of the PS2 videogame Oni and its heroine Konoko during certain battle scenes. The third act sees the characters evolve, in a final mission whose design is lovingly crafted. Once again, the music is subpar, yet I don't pretend to understand Asian culture's fascination for this type of sound. Now Aramaki is playing with the big guys, if that wasn't clear already, adapting a film property by way of a direct sequel to the critically acclaimed original Starship Troopers film.

Update: There is now a third film, Appleseed Alpha.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

That Soviet Charm

We've all heard of, or seen the works of the Russian masters of film, like Tarkovsky and Eisenstein, but the region still continues to produce marvelous and captivating movies, which clearly have their feet deeply rooted in the dense and priceless literature of Russia.

In the Fog (2012), is a co-production, which centers on Sushenya, a man accused of collaborating with the nazis; in this sense, it deals with a conflict echoed in the similarly-themed August of '44 (2001). But the main character is an unfortunate victim of circumstance, facing a moral dilemma. The visuals are excellent, with gorgeous cinematography, as the camera lingers on the woods, snowy landscapes, and of course, the deep fog.

Elena (2011) pits against two sectors of society and depicts their struggle, with high-powered performances, especially Nadezhda Markina's subdued turn. The story is straightforward but told with much finesse nonetheless. A family drama which contemplates class conflict, as the tv is often playing in the background, acting as acute social observation and commentary.

In Ostrov (2006), Pyotr Mamonov's "Father Anatoli" is the most accomplished movie character I've seen in years. Focusing on a monk with a difficult past looking for redemption,  the acting is very theatre-like, very naturalistic, and is an absolute triumph, as is the cinematography by Andrei Zhegalov and the quietly glorious score by Vladimir Martynov.

The Barber of Siberia (1998) is a film which made me fall in love with the Siberian woods, and it's no wonder, as Russia accounts for nearly a third of the world's forests. Directed by the eminence Nikita Mikhalkov, it's a lovely experimental dramedy which tries to bridge the great gap of mentalities between America and the Ex Soviet States. Grandiose cinematography and good autochthonous performances.

Musulmanin (1995) stars well-respected Russian actor Evgeniy Mironov, who plays a soldier who has spent a decade in Afghanistan, and upon his return to his local town, finds that his moral beliefs clash with those of his former friends and family. He has converted to Islam, and has become a pacifist, which creates much tension in his village. This return of a soldier is not triumphant; but it makes for a remarkable movie.

Little Angel, Make Me Happy (1993), is a film from Turkmenistan, presenting talents from a wider region, told through the eyes of children, who remain pure against the end of childhood, presented in the clever intro, wherein children are outside playing with a turtle. Directed by Usman Saparov, the story, told with a magnificently deft hand, follows the adult deportation of a population to Siberia, in this cultural observation. The main boy, Georg, firmly believes in the Little Angel from a childhood song for whom he makes a nest, and for a moment, it seems his prayers are answered. The poverty forces the children to drink a woman's mother milk, in this harsh reality. This world of children is presented with crafty cinematography.

Tomorrow was the War (1987) is a film based on Boris Vasilyev's writings, about the troubled times before WWII, and surrounding art in the pre-war. Some of the Soviet poets, such as the then-banned Esenin, as well as Mayakovksi are mentioned, as is the role of art in society. Notable performances by the young cast of schoolgirls. The movie also has an interesting use of color; some scenes are in sepia, while others in regular color, perhaps marking joyous moments.

Kuryer (1986) is a film of interest, set during the Perestroika years, with subtle family conflict, and a somewhat minimalistic focus, after all movies need a strong conflict; yet here it works with the end of the Soviet days and how it impacts people of different ages. It portrays some events which took place in the life of Karen Shakhnazarov, the director.

The Diamond Arm (1969), is a hilarious comedy starring famed actors Andrey Mironov and Yuri Nikulin, who together create a magnificent comedy duo. It's a story of mistaken identity, and it works from the first minute to the last. Seymon carries by mistake an arm cast, with diamonds, while his friend Gennady goes along for the ride, and both smugglers and police give chase. An accomplishment in comedy.

Unbeknownst to many, the region has a deep cinematic history; in 1893 Joseph Timchenko, the main mechanic at Odessa Novorossiysk University, now Ukraine, designed the prototype of the modern movie camera for film projection. Then he made the first-ever film; he shot horsemen and spear-throwers. Just a reminder, please don't mistakenly rent Michael Bay's The Island when you ask for Ostrov.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lingering Poison

Ingmar Bergman was a nazi sympathizer as a youngster, according to several interviews in which he openly spoke about the subject; Sweden was after all, pro-nazi during his youth. Yet he was a director who understood psychological pain, so much so, he is often compared to a horror filmmaker.

But his position had been strongly reversed by the time he got around to Das Schlangenei (The Serpent's Egg), his only English-language film, which opens with black and white imagery of a crowd walking in slow motion, intercut with main titles that are accompanied by jazz music, in a fashion similar to a classic Woody Allen opening.

The Serpent's Egg takes place in 1920's financially-troubled Berlin, after WWI, and follows a stranded Jewish American named Abel. There is a fact worth noting, even though Abel is American; his parents come from "Riga in Latvia," in other words, what, with much socio-political troubles, would soon be part of the Soviet Union, which would become an ally in the new war that was brewing.

In spite of Bergman's cold lens, the palpable danger of living in the dangerous Berlin streets, commencing in the second act, still touches the viewer, presenting a nightmare scenario which in reality was probably much worse. And the film takes a page from real-life when Abel is employed at a clinic, in which experiments in human pain are carried out, foreshadowing what was right around the corner. He is shown a black and white film by one of the scientists, which stands out the way the brainwashing video did in The Parallax View.

The geographical mention two paragraphs above is not incidental, as Turkish and Russian immigrants have often been targets of attacks in modern Germany. Even though the papers chronicle a rise of neo-nazi violence, the modern German government faces a new problem with the "autonomous nationalists," no longer following a strict dress code, but instead melding into the crowds.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Colors of Existence

Back when Miramax was king, it released Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy, Trois Couleurs, in certain parts of the world.

Bleu, whose opening reminds me of a certain segment of part of Michael Haneke's Glaciation Trilogy, starts off the triad on an excellent note. Leave it to the above-mentioned director's favorite actress to portray the pain of grief like no other. Julie (Juliette Binoche) attempts everything to forget the death of her family in a car accident. Binoche is the kind of actress, like many contemporaries from Europe, which you can stare at for hours even though she may, at first glance, appear quite discreet.

The color blue is, of course, ever-present; in Julie's lost daughter's lollypop, in a glass lamp, in a pool in which she swims. As she moves on her own, she begins to re-discover the world, no longer being the wealthy wife of a composer who left an unfinished work commissioned for the EU, which plays a key part. Her new neighborhood is kind of rough and, due to her trauma, she seems to experience it with the mind of a child, as though for the first time. Music, however, remains part of her life and plays at the moments in which she seems most alive. "Nothing is important" she utters, as she is given, momentarily, a belonging of her dead husband.

The "rat family" dilemma introduces a brilliant move in the film, as does the persona of a mysterious flute-player. "Now I have one thing left to do; nothing," she tells her couch-potato mother. In Binoche's world that is, in fact, a lot.

Blanc starts with the simple yet remarkable surprise of Julie briefly entering a courtroom in which divorce proceedings are taking place, linking both films together. Dominique (Julie Delphy), French, and Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), Polish, are breaking up, apparently due to his sexual dysfunction. Dominique wants all of the couple's assets though she claims to care about him. Unfortunately, Karol is left homeless.

Karol befriends a countryman, Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos), who employs him as a hitman to carry out the killing of an unknown person in the near future. He returns to Poland inside his large suitcase, which appears at the beginning of the film. We see the color white in Dominique's weeding dress as well as in the snowy Poland.

Back in Poland, Karol reunites with his brother and begins to work. While listening to a French lesson on tape, he kisses a bust, hinting at the cold-hearted Dominique. In Warsaw, where he is to execute the mystery man, he realizes it was in fact Mikolaj. In a turn of events, Karol does not kill him on second thought. While scheming over land against some mobsters and amassing cash, he then plots to exact revenge on Dominique, who's humiliated him in more ways than one.

Though Rouge predates it, the film begins with a tracking Matrix-esque shot of a telephone line during a call. From this very shot onwards, we begin to see the color red in various objects, including at an apartment belonging to model Valentine (Irène Jacob). Maybe my mind is being selective, but this appears to be the clearest case of color alluding to the title being used in the production design of the trilogy.

Valentine hits a dog, Rita, with her Fiat and decides to take it to its owner, judge Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who does not want it back. Over the phone, her boyfriend seems jealous as this is how the two met. The dog runs away and returns to Kern's. There, Valentine discovers Kern listens in on his neighbors' conversations. Just as the case was presented at the start of Blanc, we see the phone is also presented at the beginning of Rouge.

A series of conversations and events relating to the phone-tapping begin to occur between Valentine and Kern, which develop into friendship, that may remind you of the more recent Das Leben der Anderen. Once again, an ending occurring in a ferry accident ties all three films together in a surprising, emotional way.

While each story speaks of the human condition in remarkable ways, much has been made of the themes of each film; the historic Liberté, égalité, fraternité. However, that people of different walks of life may see themselves reflected in Trois Couleurs is its true triumph.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rise of the Outcasts

There's something unequivocally appealing about people who have been wronged and seeing them up in arms to exact revenge. Such is the case of Sweden's The Millenium Trilogy.

Written by the late Stieg Larsson after work hours, and as the now famous account goes, inspired by him seeing the torture and rape of a girl when he was 16, the series was meant to be not one but perhaps three trilogies. Comprised by Män som hatar kvinnor (ineptly translated as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Flickan som lekte med elden (The Girl Who Played with Fire) and Luftslottet som sprängdes (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest), the trilogy centers on savvy hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist, two outcasts in their own right.

If you take into account the Swedish film Insomnia and its cop-out of a Western remake, plus other prestige Swedish films such as Lat Den Ratte Komma In, which was also remade, they pinpoint an arguably well-known yet fundamental flaw with mainstream Western; read, Hollywood, thrillers and action films; while technically proficient, there are no real human beings at the center of most of them. For another example, try Russia's Timur Bekmambetov's Nightwatch and Daywatch.

When I first watched Män som hatar kvinnor, Lisbeth (the mesmerizing Noomi Rapace) struck me as a Joan Jett type. But she is very much her own self, with dreams that hint of a turbulent past that is never revealed in the first film. She teams up with Blomkvist (the world-weary Michael Nyqvist) to investigate a series of cold-case anti-semitic murders surrounding a wealthy family, which seemingly catch her attention for personal reasons. The twosome eventually crack the case and develop a relationship.

Flickan som lekte med elden, the sequel, also lasts two hours, something likely to annoy us westerners with short attention spans, yet it continues with its theme of "men who hate women." Here, Lisbeth is publicly accused of a triple murder and is drawn to the investigation of a prostitution ring by Blomkvist, who has been trying to reach her for months. We learn that Zalachenko, Lisbeth's abusive father, and her German half-brother, may be responsible for the murders. Also presented are details of part of her adolescence spent at a mental institution. It is the weakest of the chapters.

Luftslottet som sprängdes (which would actually translate as The Aircastle that Blew Up) is the final episode, which opens with Blomkvist preparing to go public with the story of the now badly wounded Lisbeth on his magazine. Zalachenko is still alive, for a while anyway, and his other son on the loose; Niedermann, the german character with "congenital analgesia," a fact which could be read as having a nazi undertone. A vast conspiracy involving secret police soon begins to emerge, as the trial against Lisbeth looms closer while Blomkvist wants to aid her defense by any means necessary. It marks the return to form of the series, after the second chapter, though both comprise a tonal shift.

Consider this; if The Millenium Trilogy had been conceived as a set of American movies from its inception; remake notwithstanding, Lisbeth probably would have been the antagonist.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sleek Zombie Nation

After watching Resident Evil 3D, which to my mind is likely the worst film released in 2010, I wanted to devote a few lines to the trilogy of B-movies which came before it which, if anything, provided top-notch entertainment value.

I have to confess I've actually watched the first two films with the DVD's Director's Commentary on, if only because I do so whenever I run into a disc that contains one. Director/Producer Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon, Death Race) actually comes off as quite passionate and meticulous in said audio tracks.

Resident Evil drew very little from the actual game series, yet it managed to excel in the areas of production design and cinematography, and found in Ukrainian Milla Jovovich an action star to be reckoned with. The Hive below Raccoon City is a beautifully realized concoction and the "Alice in Wonderland" story structure in the film helped create excellent atmosphere backed up by a strong supporting cast. It boasted memorable set-pieces, one-liners and was, against all odds, a step in the right direction.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse was a bit more of a homage to the fans, as it introduced characters such as the scantily-clad Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and took off from the first film's cliffhanger, which paid a nice homage to the games set in the streets of Raccoon City, namely RE:2. It was certainly a step in the wrong direction, but as B-movies go, it packed a healthy dose of fun plus scenes lifted straight out of the game RE: Code Veronica.

Resident Evil: Extinction, easily the weakest link in the series, gave the fans the cinematic Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) in quite possibly the worst role in her career. That is not to say the film lacked its moments, but it became clear that the formula did not function well in open spaces. The introduction of nemesis Albert Wesker (Jason O'Mara) made sure the film nearly spiraled completely out of control. It is notable that this was the most "downloaded" film of 2007.

All in all, the trilogy certainly deserves a viewing, if only in the various repeats on cable. The fourth film may have done a great service to the 3D gimmick, namely help destroying it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Grand Geek

As of late, Nicolas Cage’s films seemingly have let down many people who are used to his more serious endeavors. I will argue, however, that his accurate portrayal of the “american geek” fulfils a place in the cinema of the country which sorely needs such an archetype and, as a consequence, directors are lucky to have Cage at their disposal.

From The Rock to National Treasure, Adaptation, Next, Knowing and Kick-Ass, Cage has shown dexterity in portraying the thinking man like few other a-listers, while showing self-deprecating humor in cameos such as Fu Manchu in Grindhouse.

Roger Ebert began one of his thoughtful articles thusly: “Either I'm wrong or most of the movie critics in America are mistaken. I persist in the conviction that Alex Proyas's "Knowing" is a splendid thriller and surprisingly thought-provoking.” Regarding Cage himself, he states: “I find him an intriguing actor because he takes chances. He's an actor without speed limits” and “He is also a superb actor.”

I find no need to go into his award-winning roles as these are certainly various and varied, yet a quick round up of his portrayals of “the common man,” in the nerdy variation, could be of use, if at least academic.

The Rock introduced Cage to action films in a movie which is now considered to have a certain cult status, much like 8mm does. He was the perfect counterpoint to macho Sean Connery. National Treasure is an extremely derivative film series, yet once again Cage brings a cool flavor to geekdom with his portrayal.

Adaptation brings us a double dose of Cage, one on the winning and another on the losing end of the equation. Next presents us with, once again, a cool geek, with powers, no less, who can see the future two minutes in advance. Knowing, as remarked, is of special interest, as it is a film which seemingly worked on every level and Cage’s intellectual performance lived up to it. Pretty much the same can be said for Kick-Ass.

Cage is a fearless actor who isn’t afraid to put much of himself in his roles, a kind of uncool George Clooney, who is arguably this generation’s greatest star. Maybe Cage isn’t that far behind. Stay tuned for the upcoming The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I know I will.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

This Town is an All-right Town

I find that certain leading men are no longer believable these days. James Bond, Jason Bourne, Batman, Ethan Hunt, even Indiana Jones, are involved in such death-defying antics and often have such a simplistic personality that it’s hard to imagine people like that in real life. A special ops soldier may take out several enemies, but will never have the Swiss-watch precision of a Jason Bourne.

Danny Ocean is, I believe, the exception to the rule. This may have to do with the fact that actor and character are almost indistinguishable; Clooney has rightly been described as one of the few proper, classic-like movie stars working today. The man is cool on and off the screen. Adding more star power to the franchise are Brad Pitt as Rusty, the second in command, and Matt Damon as Linus, a young pickpocket bent on gaining his father’s acceptance.

Ocean’s Eleven, the most bankable in the series, unofficially picks up where Clooney’s character from Out of Sight left of, coming out of jail. He is an absolutely believable thief with a code; a conman who makes mistakes, puts personal matters first and only swindles those who deserve it. The film depicts, of course, the first gathering of the bunch to steal the vault from three casinos in Las Vegas and it works like clockwork, something which can be said for Soderbergh’s entire trilogy.

Ocean’s Twelve, while adored by many, was the low point, if you can describe a highly entertaining movie that way. It was based on a script that had other characters and was adapted to fit the Ocean universe. Yet it succeeded and is the one in which women; Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones, play a larger part in the all boy’s club. The antagonist from the first film, Terry Benedict, played again by Andy Garcia, tracks down the gang and forces them to exile to Europe. The Amsterdam title card struck me as one of the simplest yet cleverest bits of editing in recent memory.

Ocean’s Thirteen was the return to form of the series, so breezy by now it rivaled Scorsese’s Casino. There are so many characters that the main stars appear for mere minutes, yet the screen time issue by no mean detracts from the non-stop action. This time the villain is not Terry Benedict but Mr. Bank, played by Al Pacino, who double crosses father figure Reuben, played by Elliott Gould, and the gang then decides to give him a “Billy Martin,” or a warning, before they try and con him. All three films are well known for using lingo to refer to people or schemes. Also, Linus finally gets his father’s seal of approval.

There’s no doubt that these swindles are abundant, but, while watching an episode of American Greed, it became fairly obvious to me that cons almost always end up with the perps in prison.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

It’s Devolution, Stupid

Factoid of the day: Luke Wilson has made more movies than his brother Owen, as of this writing. Many consider his older sibling to be more talented and certainly a more powerful force in Hollywood. However, I’m among those who happen to like Luke’s low key perfomances and when I saw Idiocracy, this feeling was confirmed.

You’d think the creator of Beavis & Butt-Head, Mike Judge, wouldn’t precisely be the best choice to pull off a satire on the modern world.

However, this film which, as the story goes, was buried by Fox for unclear reasons; some thought people would find it offensive and that was even after being re-cut, still manages to attain what the best sociology can do, only it does so with fart jokes.

From a sociological standpoint, the best way to study a society is to see it as though for the first time. This is what happens to the main characters from the film, Joe (Luke Wilson) and Rita (Maya Rudolph), who, due to a military experiment gone wrong, are transported 500 years into the future, in which humanity has devolved and the average IQ is minuscule. Joe is found to be the smartest man alive, given a position in government and shenanigans ensue.

In fact, the aftertaste Idiocracy leaves on your mouth is that of making us see the world anew; suddenly the bright colors of billboards, fuzzy media logic, the appeal to our base instincts, becomes easier to pin point. Idiocracy is, strange as it may seem, an absolute masterpiece.

Judge is no stranger to cult films, a pantheon in which this film should occupy a place of certain importance; he was the creator of Office Space, another film which did not perform well at the box office but had strong DVD sales.

If you want to see the world a bit more clearly, lift the veil from your eyes if only for a few minutes, then I suggest you rent, nay, purchase this film. Because fart jokes may help save your brain from rotting.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Guilty Pleasures

We all have them; films that were panned by the critics, ignored or insulted by friends, yet we hold them near and dear to our hearts. Here’s a few of my recommendations, if you can call them that.

The Secret of Moonacre. Those of us who had an emotional attachment to Pullman's His Dark Materials literary trilogy, found ourselves a bit disheartened to hear a sequel to The Golden Compass was a less than solid possibility. But The Secret of Moonacre reunites us with Lyra, I mean Maria, and is worth watching despite its not so stellar production values.

Mutant Chronicles. Picture this; Thomas Jane playing Sarge from Quake III: Arena, Ron Perlman; no stranger to comic book adaptations either, playing a monk, and “sexy but deadly” Devon Aoki. Rounding up the cast is John Malkovich in an uninspired cameo. The film, which boasts effects which go from astounding to just plain mediocre, can be downloaded digitally from several sources, including Xbox Live.

The Invasion. Every single one of the remakes, along with the original, are more poignant and better made than Kidman’s vehicle. To add insult to injury, this one even had two directors. But there’s something about John Ottman’s score, the blueish images and Jeffrey Wright that somehow makes it worthwhile. Story-wise, it just had to inherit something, anything, from its predecessors and at least this is somehow palpable.

The Chronicles of Riddick. Say what you will about Vin Diesel, but the man loves comic books. Seriously, he really loves them. From founding Tigon Studios to create some truly great videogames, to the sheer love he brings to portraying Richard B. Riddick. While nowhere near as well crafted as Pitch Black, Riddick’s second outing is sure to entertain, if only for the title character.

Resident Evil. What’s not to like about Paul Anderson’s zombie film? It has several things going for it; the lush futuristic sets, a more serious approach than its sequels and, according to the DVD commentary, a story structure that closely resembles Alice in Wonderland; character names and traits.

Night Watch. This Russian film was quite a hit in its homeland, yet critics favor its sequel, Day Watch, a more over the top and operatic, though glorious film. In addition to the cool vampires, solid special effects you get a group of endearing characters with developed traits in this great film. Director Timur Bekmambetov went on to direct the tamer but entertaining Wanted.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Austria’s Agent Provocateur

In Funny Games U.S., George (Tim Roth) asks his kidnappers: “Why are you doing this?” The response he gets is “What would you like to hear?” Director Michael Haneke knows exactly why he is making films and knows exactly what people would like to see and hear in a movie theatre. And he thinks we are wrong.

The professor/filmmaker who inspired a blog-a-thon after Code Inconuu, has a singular vision and is intent on sharing it with his audience. Whether it is the above mentioned film, Funny Games; either version, or Caché, he is onto something.

Why is this so? Because he focuses on the primary, most pervasive, and ever-present problem modern civilized society has; psychological violence. Witness the use of utmost politeness by the two boys from Funny Games; it’s merely an attempt to hide their sarcasm, cruelty. Like we do every day.

There’s a dead give-away when the couple from Funny Games are listening to classical music and trying to guess which composer it is. This comes off as rather pedantic; Haneke does not want us to empathize with them, he wants us to know we are the bad guys.

Notice the wonder that is Code Inconuu’s notorious first continuous moving shot, wherein the main protagonists and their interconnectedness are presented. The economy and elegance is equal to none. Our cosmopolitan society is laid bare in minutes. Babel and Crash pale in comparison; they stand as cheap knock-offs of a carefully crafted painting.

Caché presents us, in one scene, with a similar vignette of racial tension in Paris as seen, more than once, in Code Inconuu; who does he wants us to root for? Why, the white people of course; he knows us all too well.

On this film, the director makes the audience acknowledge something else about themselves; we are all peeping toms, whether we like it or not. Haneke knows his sociology; Pierre Bourdieu would be proud. Once again, Binoche's perfomance adds some humanity to Haneke's otherwise cold films.

Haneke is willing to forsake music scores, quick cuts, and suspension of disbelief, all for the purpose of educating. Much like Todd Haynes, his films are more theses on subjects than films. This is precisely why his work is so important; he believes in the power of film other than mere, sometimes lightly enlightening, entertainment. His ambition is not merely to deconstruct film.

Haneke, often referred to as the "conscience" of European cinema, is finally getting the unequivocal recognition he deserves. He was awarded the Palme d'Or for best film at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for The White Ribbon.

A special shout-out to an actress whose work I began to detest after her promising breakthrough in Mulholland Drive; Naomi Watts. To my mind, she should get a free pass after having produced Funny Games U.S.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Hero Lies in You

It took me a while to come to appreciate Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. The turning point, for me, was watching Spider-Man 2, an experience which amounted to nothing less than an epiphany at the movie theatre. Peter’s “human” life was something I could relate to a lot; in some ways I found myself thinking “How do these guys know so much about my life?”

As we all know, the third one was a disappointment, with a bad case of studio heads seeing “action figures dancing in their heads” a la Batman & Robin. That film did, however, showcase some of the most astounding special effects involving computer generated humans I’ve seen; making the first Spider-Man seem laughable in comparison.

So why did I dislike the first one? Well, for one, I thought it was a wee bit overrated. All those glowing reviews for a film that wasted Willem Dafoe in a Power Rangers suit and fx that did not convince. Yet it laid a solid foundation and Maguire was clearly born to play the part. Most importantly, it showcased on screen arguably the most relatable super-hero of all (perhaps along with The Batman).

In fact, you could just call him a hero, period. In the article “Unmasking the Spirituality of Spider-Man,” from Cinema Spirit, several key points are raised, such as the fact that “No other films have so evocatively explored the downside of being a superhero. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the reluctant everyman messiah, must constantly choose between self-interest and self-sacrifice, choose between his own needs and those of others, choose between his own social life and social obligation, and make all these choices while being misunderstood and unappreciated.”

In a sense, it is Peter Parker himself who is the hero, and not Spider-Man: “when a little girl is trapped in a burning apartment building, he can stand it no longer and rushes in. As Peter Parker, he tries to save the girl, but he fails to successfully leap across a gaping hole in the floor—a hole that Spider-Man could easily have crossed. Peter dangles on the brink, and the girl helps to rescue him.”

Aunt May finally sums it all up perfectly in the second film: “I believe there is a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

There’s even the Ordinary People Change the World campaign, which promises you to “Donate $1 and Start Changing the World,” in an effort to restore the house where Superman was created. This may sound hokey, yet it supports the argument that the Spider-Man franchise, along with similar others, hinted at something very special indeed.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Short Films by Hollis Frampton

Hollis Frampton (1936-1984) was an avant-garde filmmaker, photographer and a pioneer of digital art. He is best known for Critical Mass and (nostalgia) which is said to have been an influence on such works as The Conversation and Blow Out.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Decay of the Empire

Elliot is a hardcore, encyclopaedic Star Wars fan. He is also a fellow filmmaker. When I began to think of how to write a review for the saga, I consulted him and the conversation turned into the review itself.

How does a fan regard the prequels in relation to the original trilogy?
It’s complicated. I think the greatest sin of the prequels is that they could have been much better with some re-editing. As “movies” I mean. As a film, the best is probably The Empire Strikes Back, the most solid in every sense, probably followed by A New Hope and Episode III.
My brother, also a fan, would agree with that statement and he is in his mid 30’s. I remember him being pretty excited about Episode III too.
Episode III is pretty solid. In Episode II, the problem lies in the Anakin/Padmé relationship, which seems forced. It’s too bad Lucas left out a scene where they visit her family, because it added some background.
I hadn’t heard of that.
Other than that, Episode II is a unique film. The atmosphere is quite cool. It’s greyish…
I heard that Spielberg shot the main Darth Maul fight in Episode I?
Not that I know of. What I do know is that in Episode III, there are a series of close-ups, which probably were influenced by Spielberg.
In Episode I, there’s a fundamental sin and it’s called Jar Jar. Episode I is the worst of all but it’s a shame because, beneath, there’s a good film wanting to come out. I wish Lucas would re-cut the prequels.
Also the child actor thing seems like an issue.
I don’t know, in my opinion the kid isn’t bad, the problem are certain lines which are given to him. Like “Yippie!” And you can’t, you just can’t…
Regarding the action sequences involving Mace Windu and others, did it fulfil your expectations regarding “the era of the Jedis”?
We are talking about a different axis of analysis. On the one hand, speaking of the prequels as “movies” onto themselves, I do believe the order would clearly be Episode III, Episode II, Episode I. And what I mentioned; issues of editing, annoying characters, bad scriptwriting at times, especially in Episode I. Well, on the other hand, there’s the question of the “Star Wars Universe,” there’s much to talk about there.
Was it not respected?
Yeah, it was because it was Lucas himself; what he does is canon.
What about the midichlorians?
I was about to move on to that. If we look at the subject from the axis of “movies,” the basic error is that they talk first about midichlorians, even before the force itself. I mean, if you had to watch the entire saga in order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; only in IV would you have a more or less precise explanation of the force, which Obi-Wan provides for Luke. Because he asks what the hell the force is and Obi-Wan says it’s an energy field that surrounds us, penetrates us and keeps the galaxy together; something like that. It’s a simpler approach but more understandable.
Perhaps the new generation didn’t understand the basic concept.
If it’s called Episode I, there are things you have to introduce from scratch. Anakin doesn’t even ask what the force is or anything like that. What is more, in the beginning, Qui-Gon tells Obi-Wan, on board the Neimodian ship: “Be mindful of the living Force, my young padawan.” What the hell is the living force? These matters aside, and moving on to the “Star Wars Universe,” I find the whole thing with the midichlorians interesting. Because the reading I make is that we are in a stage when the Jedi order has become a dogmatic, cold institution, it has lost its axis. And the focus on the force is perhaps more technical. And you can see that Qui-Gon is precisely a rebel in that regard, and not for nothing; his master was Dooku, who leaves the Jedi order because he disagrees with it.
He is from a group of Jedi which are demanding changes. Dooku perhaps went too far, granted. But you can see that even Palpatine has very valid justifications, shown in Episode III during dialogues with Anakin. He tells him “If you want to be a wise leader…” you can’t hold on to the narrow, dogmatic view of the Jedi. You need to know all aspects of the force. Messed up, but how true. That’s why I consider Luke to be the new breed of Jedi; the Order has died, but so have the Sith, only he remains along with Leia. And he is, to me, a kind of grey Jedi.
In what regard?
He is from the “light side,” yes, but not stubbornly so, he is not a monk at the temple, so to speak. He dresses in black, fires blasters, chokes guards and isn’t really trained to respect a code or anything like that. He doesn’t even know what midichlorians are. He is trained in this swamp by Yoda and by fighting against Vader. Hardened doesn’t quite do it justice… for a farmboy. To sum up; the “Star Wars Universe” axis, I thought it was interestingly developed; the prequels showed a republic of splendor which was nevertheless becoming corrupted inside; it was already ancient, needed changes and, of course, the Sith had just what it took. In the prequels, everything is clean, especially in Episode I, but things begin to become dirty gradually. And afterwards, you have the decayed universe from the original trilogy; worn out ships, the Galactic Civil War and so on. The transition from Jedi Order; midichlorians to Yoda in the swamp; the force as a field of energy, seems logical. And it draws a parallel with what occurs with most religions; they end up submerged in dogma and lose their essence. As “films” there are several problems; Jar Jar, too much politics (and not very coherent at that), taking for granted several things, lazy scriptwriting here and there. All three prequels could have turned out much better had they been re-cut.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Short Films by Wes Anderson

The oft-imitated Wes Anderson is quite prolific when it comes to making short films. Here's a few of my faves.

Hotel Chevalier Pt1 Pt2

When Worlds Collide

When the credits rolled, most people who saw The Matrix Reloaded were hoping things would pick up on the third instalment. By the time The Matrix Revolutions came out, talk that this trilogy would surpass even the original Star Wars films became a joke.

After all, it was George Lucas and not the Wachowskis, who drew heavily from Buddhism, Catholicism and whose movies where chock-full of religious symbolism. Right. Right?

But the two filmmaker brothers from Chicago had, in fact, seemingly made the “films with depth” the audience had asked for. Apparently, we just didn’t realize. A couple of daring writers have come forward to explain to us all just why we may have gotten it all wrong.

Brian Takle begins his first essay with the subject of the Architect: “This is the Creator God, the Father God. Brahma is a good parallel. Brahma creates the world but does not rule it. Brahma essentially just sits on his lotus flower. He is like the cosmic Clock-maker of the Deists who winds up the springs and then only watches things happen. But in addition to this Brahma-like quality, the Genesis God and the Architect both have this forbiddance against knowledge.”

While discussing rebellion he makes the following point: “It's often overlooked that the serpent was created by God and put into the Garden. I mean, who else would have created him? It is a mistake to read Genesis with the assumption that the serpent is evil. He's not any more evil than dish soap is evil for breaking up the grease on your plate. One (I think good) translation of the adjectives applied to the serpent is "crafty." As in, he has knowledge of crafts. This is really Loki, who is also branded as a deceiver or a trickster, and that's part of his nature, but Loki also brings new technology: he is crafty, an innovator. He is the quintessential hacker.”

“Recall that the Architect scene happens in utterly clean, utterly white perfection. The Biblical reference is clear enough. Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, and the rest of Zion have rejected God's Garden of Eden where all their needs are taken care of in favor of a hard, scrabbling existence where at least they have free will.” As for Neo and Trinity making love during the rave scene, he offers: “In addition they appear under a dome, which is the Dome of Heaven, so this is a Blessed Union.”

A programmer called Juha Nieminen, has the following to say on the subject of Morpheus stating that machines need humans for energy to survive, as though they were “batteries”: “The energy pipes transporting some type of energy from the humans to the machine city are not for survival, but for other purposes. This is probably somehow related to the desire of the machines to evolve their consciousness, an ability they do not possess on their own. It's also the reason why they use humans and not cows.”

This leads one to wonder why agents aren’t simply perfect “superhuman” entities. Nieminen, with his programming knowledge, goes on to state that: “Making an actual jump launches the proper physics subroutine in the Matrix program code to simulate a normal jump. From there it's enough to tamper it just slightly to get a boosted jump. This slight "nudge" is much easier to do than a teleportation would be. Teleporting oneself from one building to another without first triggering any physics subroutine would require a much heavier tampering of the system, which they simply are not able to do.”

Back to Takle: “I was gratified at the wu hsing quality of the trilogy. The wu hsing are the five Chinese elements, in constant motion, and these elements generate each other. That's the universe of the Matrix. Humans caused the deification of machines, which cause the deification of humans, which cause the deification of machines. What I especially like about wu hsing is its complexity. Nothing is clear-cut black-and-white. That feels like the philosophy of elders, and I find that very comforting.”

On the Mobil station: “Mobil is Limbo. The theme of the entire film is described by that name. Limbo, the limbus patrum, is the place where purified souls go to await the ascension of Christ into heaven. I ask you to please go back and re-read that last sentence again. Think about what they are waiting for.” Furthermore: “The other confusing aspect of Mobil is what the program family is actually doing. I'll clear that up before I dig into the heart of this scene. Mobil is a place between the machine city and the Matrix.”


Monday, June 8, 2009

Bourne Identical

Was there ever a point in being a spy flick aficionado if you happened to be born after the seventies? Well, unless you count Ronin, not much; until Jason Bourne was translated to the big screen, that is. Bond promptly followed suit and suddenly the genre was brimming with new life.



MOTION -- flat out -- it's us -- we're running – stumbling

We are JASON BOURNE and we're running down an alley...

That’s how the first lines of the script from The Bourne Ultimatum, by scribe Tony Gilroy et al read. If we are to judge by box office numbers and reviews, the script, which was followed almost verbatim, certainly worked to create an action film which became a bona fide international smash hit.

However, while listening to The Bourne Identity's director commentary on DVD, Doug Liman, director of the first film of the franchise and producer of the sequels, offers, among many insights, how he brought Bourne to life in a way in which seemingly only he could. For one thing, his father worked for the intelligence community and would tell him stories as a child. He set a rule with actor Matt Damon that only every few minutes could Bourne show hints of emotion; he is, after all, what the CIA rightly calls a “hard man;” someone with the training to survive in hostile territory.

He also talks about the degree to which John Powell's music ended up affecting the film's tone. The long-time indie filmmaker knew the music had to become a character onto itself and this was reflected in the fact that the themes, from both film and soundtrack, were repeated in the two sequels; they laid the groundwork.

Franka Potente was cast as love interest Marie and her role extended to the second film, The Bourne Supremacy, now helmed by Paul Greengrass. Granted, the introduction of his shaky cam was a great addition, yet many of the trademarks had already been set in stone by Liman. Consider the Waterloo station scene in Ultimatum, arguably the highlight of the film, and you may come to realise that Liman had gone out with a camera with only Damon and shoot with bystanders long ago.

Yet you can hardly blame Greengrass; he has proven to be most worthy of taking over. The Echelon network (sounds like a phone company) was gratefully treated with a straight face and, while you certainly can’t copy a sim card in ten seconds flat, as shown in Supremacy, the director of United 93, a film I’m sorry to report, does not resonate as much outside the US, did co-author a book with the former assistant director of MI5.

Yet the point remains that Universal must have panicked when the capable Liman, who has proven he can direct action with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, allegedly “left the project.” Greengrass was the right pick, but will I be able to forgive him for those extreme car and bike stunts in Ultimatum? I guess the $95 Million in DVDs sold should prove me wrong.

Fictional America

What better way to start a film blog than with a trilogy by a polemic auteur. Even if you don’t subscribe to auteur theory, there is such a thing, existing separate from others, called a Lars Von Trier film. And if there’s anyone who can churn out controversial trilogies, and plenty of them, is that particular Danish film director, the man behind the Dogme 95 movement.

USA - Land of Opportunities, comprising Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and the as yet unproduced Wasington; see, I’m cheating already, is Trier’s latest trilogy to date.

I first saw Dogville on DVD because “everyone” was talking about it. I discovered certain things about this film; for starters, Nicole Kidman can actually act when pushed far enough. I say this because she is known, along with fellow Australian Naomi Watts, to make use of her “poker face,” denoting depth. Well, I have news for you; Marie Josée Croze or Sarah Polley, both Canadians and hotties in their own right, run laps around the two aussies when employing this technique. They have an inner life which is seldom seen.

But, not to get sidetracked, Kidman has it here and it’s a good thing because she has to carry a 177 minute film on her shoulders. Not that this isn’t an ensemble piece; it is very much so. Tom (Paul Bettany) who plays a philosopher trying to decipher “the human problem,” believes to find it in a runaway, almost messianic figure, Grace (Nicole Kidman) and use her as an illustration for the residents of Dogville. She is running away from her father, a mobster played by James Cann. Bettany makes it hard for the thinking man and woman not to empathize with him and by the time the film comes to a closure, the emotional investment you may have put in him may come back to bite you. He finally tells Grace: “Bingo. I have to tell you, your illustration beat the hell out of mine.” What an illustration that is.

Much has been made of the purported anti-americanism of the film, a view which holds no water as it is an extremely universal story. The film has also been used to depict “general equilibrium” in economy. H. Harmgart and S. Huck argue that “Lars von Trier’s movie Dogville can be viewed as an illustration of a simple economy where one agent has only her body as initial endowment” and go on to state that “what would it mean for them to depend solely on their endowments and nothing else–no rights, no protection, no regulation, no law?” Clearly, the film offers much food for thought.

The film was praised by Mick LaSalle, of the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote: “In all my years of moviegoing, I've never had a picture lose me so completely and then win me back so thoroughly as this one. After a half hour, I was tired of it. After nearly an hour, I was struggling to stay awake. And then the movie took a slight turn, and I revived, then became interested, then involved, then caught up emotionally and then, finally, awestruck. This is a seriously important film and a huge achievement.”

Dogville was a though act to follow, and even though Kidman expressed initial interest, her role was ultimately recast with Bryce Dallas Howard and Cann’s with Willem Dafoe. Danny Glover provides a strong performance, with his quiet strong man, also used for good effect in Blindness.

Cole Smithey; related to Alan Smithee perhaps, holds that the film is “an ambitious and thought-provoking allegory about the ways in which "slavery" in America was never truly abolished, but rather converted to a different condition of capitalist hegemony.”

I can’t help but thinking about The Wire and David Simon’s contention that people from the ghettos are really not a part of capitalism, not actually needed by the system, and as such are forced to accept the only possible form of capitalism available; narcotics.

The film presents an intriguing scenario; in the Manderlay cotton plantation, the slaves don’t actually want to stop being slaves; they know of no other way of life. But Grace wants to change the appalling situation, though things don’t go quite as planned. Some have pointed out this is an example of the short-sightedness of progressivism as a naïve enterprise. It’s a good point, and as a progressive myself, it is duly noted.

A vast sound-stage is used once again, yet the film is, like its predecessor, beautifully shot. John Hurt once again provides a delightful narration. Grace herself seems to have grown into something else, for better or for worse. She has lost her innocence, rest assured of that.