Saturday, August 22, 2009
"Departures," is the winner of 10 Japan Academy Prize Awards and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in a very competitive year.
In Departures, Diago's fate seems set as he spends all his family's money on a professional cello after he gets a job in the only orchestra in Tokyo. But at the end of his first performance, the orchestra is shut down. When Diago is forced to sell his cello, he is totally lost.
He and his wife move back into his childhood home while he gains his bearings and a some kind of employment. As fate would have it, Diago gets the first job he applies for - "helping with departures." Diago thinks he is going to work at a travel agency. The job turns out to be preparing the recently departed for the coffin with the traditional Japanese cleansing rituals of Nokanshi.
There are some humorous moments (reminiscent of Sunshine Cleaning) as Diago learns to handle dead bodies and hides his new occupation from his wife and neighbors. But the money is good and his boss has become a sort of father figure for him. Living in his childhood home has brought back painful memories of his own father forcing him to practice his cello and then leaving him without a goodbye.
Diago undergoes a symbolic (and funny) death when he must play dead as his boss performs a demo of the cleansing ritual on him. But after facing death, he is reborn. He gains a sense of purpose when he sees how the cleaning rituals help the family of the deceased cope with their grief and gain closure. His senses are awakened to the world around him. And for the first time he is really alive. He plays his cello for the sheer joy of it.
Unfortunately, the journey on our true path never runs smoothly. The neighbors shun him because he is "making money off the dead." When he wife discovers what he does, she calls him "unclean" and gives him an ultimatum - the marriage or his job.
A great movie has the power to help us make sense of the trials we go through in life. In Departures, the cleansing rituals help the families make sense of a loved one's death and honor their life. We learn that death is a part of life's journey, but the journey is living.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
By Guest Reviewer Josh Valentine
Tired of the same old love story? That clichéd boy meets girl, they hate each other then learn to love each other, garbage that, while sometimes can be saved by smart filmmakers (Nora Ephron is one of the genre’s saving graces), is just too often filled with “we’ve seen it a million times” junk? Filmmakers like John Hughes, Mike Nichols, Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen and most recently Michel Gondry are the few who took the romantic film and created the anti-love story. Instead of overly romanticizing, they showed love for what it really is – painful, happy and everything in between and most importantly were able to present love as something real and not in that perfect little box that we wish it could be.
The debut independent feature by music video director Marc Webb, “(500) Days of Summer,” is both an homage to these great directors, but also a refreshing new film that presents, as its narrator explains, “a story of boy meets girl … not a love story.” An honest film, with an incredible script – this is one of the best films of the year.
“(500) Days of Summer” tells the story of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a twentysomething who works for a greeting card company, is obsessed with the music of The Smiths and is hopelessly in love with romantic love. Over the course of, well 500 days, Tom falls for his adorable coworker Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a nihilist pixie with a love for Ringo Starr and a knack for origami. As their romance begins to bloom (over a connection to a Smiths song), the infatuated yet terribly naïve Tom must give in to Summer’s attitude toward love (she doesn’t believe in it) and, of course as their relationship ends – it takes an incredible toll on Tom and not on Summer.
The story sounds somewhat played, but through the pens of scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and through Webb’s lens, Tom and Summer’s story is removed from cliché. The film is very much a modern take on Allen’s “Annie Hall,” in that it doesn’t present love as something tangible and that it shows how the screenplay doesn’t have to be concrete. Like “Annie Hall,” “(500) Days of Summer” is a story about love, yet since the plot is non-linear – we are able to see how the relationship works or worked and what caused the inevitable decline.
Instead of using worn-out flashbacks, the film uses repeated shots – such as a shopping trip to a record shop where Tom tries to show Summer a Ringo record for both his and her approval. As the film progresses, we see the shot repeated and extended to see the reaction shots of both Tom and Summer. It shows the pains of wanting the one you love to share something, and how you know sometimes that it just won’t connect.
It’s not only the honesty of the film or its refreshing storytelling style that makes it so strong – it also features strong performances by its leading up-and-coming stars. Deschanel is already a fairly big star, having proven her range in comedies like “Elf” and the underrated “Eulogy.” She’s perfectly cast, not just for her looks but proves a talent she’s never offered before. Deschanel is quickly becoming America’s new sweetheart. She uses microgestures, small yet endearing smiles that invoke the same lump in one’s throat as would some of Chaplin’s greatest women. If this doesn’t make Deschanel A-list, then there’s something seriously wrong with American audiences.
Gordon-Levitt is superb in the role as Tom. Like Nichols’ Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” Gordon-Levitt is not your average leading man – he’s skinny, has tousled hair and doesn’t have traditionally good looks … but it all works. Tom is something of a classic loser, a late bloomer who seems to always fall for the wrong girl. When he finds happiness, however, the audience can’t help but root for him. It’s exciting to see the kid from “Angels in the Outfield” has grown up to achieve something more than expected.
Following the recent, unexpected death of John Hughes, the film is quite similar to his style in its presentation of love in it’s sometimes more painful ways. In one scene, Tom tries to get Summer’s attention by playing The Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” to no avail. The scene is very Hughes-ian, using both a song used in Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink,” and in its depiction of the Tom’s painful search for attention.
Luckily, these homages and references never steer toward the realm of knock-off, but show how a filmmaker can be influenced by another or others, and create their own visual representation of the anti-love story. The script is possibly one of the strongest and most inspiring written in the past few years as it is both commercial and independent at the same time.
A very exciting film, “(500) Days of Summer” seems as though it could pull off the impossible. It features an intellectual script, fantastical animated sequences and an honest depiction of the struggle between love vs. the relationship. “(500) Days of Summer” is basically a Woody Allen film for those who hate Woody Allen. A standout film, possibly the best of the summer, you’ll be wishing you could fall in love with “Summer” over and over again.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Business has been bustling lately at the Loft Cinema (http://www.loftcinema.com/) with so many great movies to see such as "Food Inc.," "Moon," "Unmistaken Child," and "The Lemon Tree." I recommend all of these movies highly. I'm sorry I have been too busy organizing a directing workshop to write them up.
Reflecting back on, "Moon." This mostly two set, two actor production (by director Duncan Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker) was one of the best indie films of the year. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is completing his job of extracting helium-3 from the moon's soil. He has been stationed at the mostly automated lunar base for three years with his robotic assistant Gerty (Kevin Spacey). His only human contact are recorded transmissions from his wife and young daughter back on earth. With just weeks left of his assignment, Sam has started to hallucinate about other people on board and their motives.
"Moon," illuminates what it is to be human: the necessity of having hope and our need to connect with other people.
"Tulpan" was just so special that I was inspired to write the following review. (See below.) Enjoy!
Long shot of the desolate, dusty Kazakhstan terrain with a scraggly herd of sheep, two donkeys, a honking camel, and a round sheep skin yurt.
Snug in the yurt is a family. A lovely young mother enjoys her three playful children. The kids get on their tired father's nerves. Uncle Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov) has just arrived home after a stint in the navy.
It feels like the filmmaker just happened onto this little nomad family and captured a glimpse of their lives on film. There is a naturalism and ease you won't find in documentaries. The conflict is subtle - like the tension when the baby climbs out of a trap door near a herd of scampering sheep. The father demands that the mother not spoil the child by calling him back inside. The father (Ondasyn Besikbasov) is intent on toughening up his young ones to be herdsmen.
But the mother (Samal Yeslyamova) is intent on keeping her loved ones close and safe. She cherishes her family as her source of happiness in this isolated, harsh land.
At first their lives seem bleak by modern standards. Their only connection with the outside world is the scratchy news broadcast on the older boy's portable radio and occasional visits from Asa's friend to deliver water. Even this little bit of civilization seems to encroach on their way of life. The portable radio distracts the boy from his chores and the irrelevant news reports compete with traditional folk songs his sister sings for entertainment. The water carrier with his truck decorated in nudie pictures, beckons Asa to leave the family cocoon to find a wife or a job in the city.
But Asa longs for a family of his own and a herd - of camels. This guy has big dreams. Unfortunately the only eligible girl in the regain, Tulpan, isn't interested in marrying Asa because he has big ears. And Asa has yet to gain his brother-in-laws respect as a herdsman.
"Tulpan," is full of cinematic miracles. Cinematographer Jola Dylewska uses long shots to catch actual acts of nature (often in a single take) such as the dust devil that threatens the herd. This is all integrated beautifully into the story. Director Sergy Dvortsevoy shepherds a herd of scruffy animals, non-actors and young children into unbelievably real performances with quirky humor and touching moments in this meaningful story.