Thursday, July 29, 2010


we are in the process of moving to

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Cherien Dabis’ debut feature film, Amreeka, is a palatable, sweet film about a Palestinian mother and son coming to America. It feels like a pilot episode of a serial TV show, which is really unusual for this kind of subject matter. It’s a strength and a weakness for the story- perhaps if there really were a prime time episodic show that humanized the Palestinian experience and rendered it so familiar there would be a sorely needed and perceptible pressure against the prevailing myth of extremist Arabs and terrorism. On the other hand, the film suffers from a lack of intensity and from an understandable but problematic anti-political stance. The most politicized character in the film is the doctor brother-in-law with a diminishing medical practice in the suburbs of Chicago due to post 9/11 reactionism, and he is shut down by the main character, Muna, the mom (played by the charismatic Nisreen Faour), who insists that the political troubles of Palestine and Israel have little bearing on the reality here in the US. This is a common stance for immigrants of many backgrounds, who hone in on the material struggle for survival in their new country and cannot afford to give much energy or resources to their homeland’s strife. Yet it is also one of the main reasons why immigrant communities become, over generations, minority populations with little political power and or representation. I have often lamented this fact often about the Chinese American communities, and although it is less true amongst the youth, I have found it to be quite true in first generation Palestinian immigrants.

Monday, April 5, 2010

ghost town

I was trying to download Chinese filmmaker Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town, and accidentally ended up with American director's Steven Kroepp's 2008 Ghost Town, starring Ricky Gervais, Téa Leoni and Greg Kinnear. I was skipping through the file (I admit, I mostly bit torrent stuff now, the cultural equivalent to pirating... we can talk about the pros and cons of this somewhere else..) and got SUCKED in. Ricky Gervais, who most know from the British sitcom comedy series The Office, was unrecognizable to me, both because I don't really watch The Office, and also because, according to the avid The Office watcher, James, he looks pretty different in this. It's a smart, laugh-out-loud-funny mainstream Hollywood film. I can't remember the last time I watched one of those... maybe As Good As It Gets? But Ricky Gervais is funnier than Jack Nicholson. Ghost Town features a similar hopelessly misanthropic, obsessive compulsive middle-aged man who is transformed into a begrudging samaritan by an unconventionally charming love interest. There is a spiritual twist here- apparently if any of your survivors have unfinished business with you, your ghost will be condemned to an indefinite permeable existence in the clothes you died in until that business is finished. This system is based on an expiring notion in Hollywood, as sufficiently displayed in Ghost, or Field of Dreams, and sort of in City of Angels. The kind of completely banal see-through existence of the dead is a familiar archetype- I just also thought of Will Self's London neighborhood of the dead in his collection of short stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity. It is somehow comforting and the opposite of the horror genre that when we die, we go on with our everyday purgatory of daily mundane life, only invisible to the living.

The anti-hero, Bertram Pincus, played by Ricky Gervais, is a thoroughly anti-social dentist who dies for seven minutes during a routine colonoscopy, and comes to with the ability to see all the ghosts who inhabit Manhattan. This would be overly hokey if acted by most, but Gervais manages to act out this gimmicky premise with a mixture of deadpan skepticism and dead-on irony. Complementing him is a former couple, Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni, one dead, one alive, who needs Dr Pincus' intervention to move on, he to the sweet thereafter and the other with her life. I do wish that Gwen (Téa Leoni's character), a smart, sexy archaeologist weren't so totally defined by the men in her life, as usual, but this is written by the guy who wrote Mission: Impossible and Spider Man, after all. Taking that into account, this is a nice detour from his usual fare of testosterone driven action film.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

in the realms of the unreal

Jessica Yu's outstanding documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal, of outsider artist Henry Darger's lifelong work reminded me of my aspirations for documentary making. The film is permeated with a deep reverence and love for Henry Darger's art- which is difficult to access and perhaps easy to dismiss given its uneasy location outside of any recognizable artist status. Jessica Yu takes creative license and, with the aid of an animation team, animates Darger's beautiful and wholly original paintings, giving them a kind of final resolution that I believe Darger would have hoped for. As a recluse, Darger held menial labor jobs his whole life, while secretly working on his 15,000 page "novel" in his every spare minute. His work was only found posthumously, and has since been met with critical acclaim, establishing Darger as one of the most famous figures of outsider art. This film reminded me of another outsider artist- Thornton Dial of Mr. Dial Has Something To Say. Both Darger and Dial led hard lives of manual labor, and neither would have called what they did in their spare time Art. Their impulse to make art and this notion of "self-taught" artist calls into question the institution of art, access to it as well as a fundamental deconstruction of what art is. Jessica Yu uses a young girl's voice (10yr old Dakota Fanning) for the narrator, which evokes the voices of the Vivian girls, the heroines of Darger's epic. This tactic, combined with a seamlessly interwoven mix of third person biographical narrative and self described sentiments from Darger's own memoir flow in and out of excerpts from his manuscript, The Story of the Vivian Girls, merging together into a deeply considered and crafted representation of Darger's mysterious and rich inner world. I kept marvelling at Darger's exceptional mastery of language and visual imagery with so little exposure to precedents and formal education. In the end, the film made me wonder how, in total solitude, Darger could fantasize in such detail, breadth and vivacity a world of loving colorful people.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Illustrator and animator Run Wrake's 2005 short film Rabbit (available to watch online) is included in the Cinema 16 World Short Films dvd collection. I found it captivating and a little disturbing. Based on illustations by Enid Blyton illustrator Geoffrey Higham, Wrake creates an original paper cut-out feel to tell a fable-esque story of two greedy children who pay a big price for their avarice. They are violent hunters, and discover a magical idol inside a rabbit that they cut open. The idol turns flies into jewels, so they trick him with the jam that he loves, and kill a lot of other animals to attract flies and maggots to annoy him. They are single-minded in their destruction in order to be wealthy, and in the end, learn that all the transformations are mere illusions, thus leading to their demise by the thousands of flies captured in their room. Without any dialogue, Wrake conveys a natural justice sensibility that is both edgy and classic. I'm debating if I should show it to Micah- it might be too scary, and yet perhaps it'd be medicine for his 5 yr old selfishness?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Grizzly Man

It took me a long time to get around to seeing Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. I watched it in two sittings- the first half during which I was disappointed, and the second half I enjoyed. I had expected the documentary to be more sophisticated, less didactic, perhaps more experimental. Once my expectations were put aside I was able to appreciate the curiosity and nuances of Timothy Treadwell, the infamous bear protector and protagonist. It makes sense that Herzog would be interested in this story about a self-documenting manic animal activist who rages against man-made society for our failure to adequately love the bears. However, I didn't appreciate Herzog's moralizing two-liners throughout the film, the omniscient faceless voice-over that frames the entire tale. Nonetheless, Timothy Treadwell is a fascinating persona, and his intense religousness about a benevolent Nature and her creatures is one that I can both relate to, and am afraid of. There is the sparkle of madness in his eyes whenever he talks to his imagined audience, and his devotion to his chosen semi-illegal cause of camping directly in the middle of wild grizzly territory for 13 summers smacks of zealotry and abandon. The characters surrounding him, including his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend/secretary, the coroner, all connote a similar kind of idiosyncrasy; in other words, they all seem a bit cooky. This makes them potent exploits for a documentarian, and Herzog certainly does use them as such, albeit with a kind of gentleness and sincerity that comes through. I was moved to tears in the moment that Herzog listens through headphones to the audio of Treadwell's mortal encounter with the grizzly that killed him and his girlfriend, and I relished the disappointment I felt that the actual audio track was not included in the film. The kind of unbridled total and complete graphic disclosure that we are accustomed to now in media was highlighted when I realized that it would not have added anything to the film had we actually sat through the actual recording of their deaths. It reminds me of why books are almost always better than their film adaptations, and why the mind's eye is often more powerful than any image a filmmaker can provide.

Sunset Boulevard

Since I'm in LA for a bit, I've been inspired to check out some films set in LA that I should have seen long ago, like Billy Wilder's 1950 Sunset Boulevard. Wonderful wonderful!

It's funny that we tend to think that any respectable roles for women must be some modern invention, when in fact current roles might actually be a lot less meaty and decent than roles have been historically. This definitely came to mind watching Nancy Olson's smart aspiring writer, Betty Schaefer in Sunset Boulevard. And, frankly, Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond was a pretty great female character too, not that maintaining a kept-man is a top aspiration. But it was a great role and she was certainly in her power, despite her insanity.

I have to say, it was a hoot watching Schaefer, in her 70's at the time extras interviews were shot, talking about the making of the film. (Wisco represent!) It's stuff like this that reminds me how young film is, and how far it's come.