Thursday, November 29, 2007


Forget Disney. Forget Pixar. Forget Sailor Moon or other pre-conceptions you may or may not have about Anime. Japanese maestro Satoshi Kon has over the course of four feature films set out to redefine the boundaries of what an animated film can do. If Hayao Miyazaki is the Steven Spielberg of the anime world, then Satoshi Kon is Stanley Kubrick. All of Kon's features are aimed squarely at adults and aim for characters and story over moralizing and action. Paprika is a celebration of life, passion, and ultimately the joy of going to the movies. A celebration taken so far the that joy actually becomes something terrifying in its own way. Take for instance, one of the key images of the film, that of a parade consisting of a hodgepodge of, well, everything (from frogs playing musical instruments to the Statue of Liberty to walking street signs). The way the images dominate the screen and march inexorably and happily onward is one of the most gorgeous things done with the animated medium, but it's also pretty intimidating and scary. The film jumps off the screen with these images, as well as a host of different film genres all contained within a sociological and science-fiction framework. It's a lot to take in on one viewing, but your brain will sizzle and pop merrily along the way.

The story involves a small team of psychiatrists and electrical engineers who have designed a machine which they call the D.C. Mini. It's a handy little device that lets one person enter into the dreams of another and interact with the dreamer. The idea is that the doctor can better understand the problems of the patient if they can operate in the virtual reality of the patient's subconscious. The lead character, a cold and frigid psychologist is allowed to exist in alter-ego as free spirit in others dreams. A hardboiled detective is having trouble sleeping and plagued by guilt, but gets to be Tarzan swinging on vines in an endless jungles. Of course the wrong people get their hands on this little device and threaten to commit crime or make a run for power. But forget the story (and struggle through some of the early exposition in the film) and let the images seep into your being, it speaks to the core.

If the collective dream of humanity has been science (a landmark being a man landing on the moon) and technology, and the first artform born of science is the motion picture. What better film to reaffirm the joys of simply going to the movies.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

KBT Presents: THE VANISHING (Spoorloos)

The device of having a loved one (or a person you are counting on for one reason or another) disappear mysteriously is a device that has been used in many films over the years; most recently with both the classy Spanish horror film The Orphanage and stylish French melodrama A Very Long Engagement. In the 1980s there was Roman Polanski's Frantic (an underrated Harrison Ford film if there ever was one) and the 1970s Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock is a personal favorite (and a previous KBT screening). If you go back the 1940s there is Carol Reed's The Third Man. And one of the earliest and best examples is all the way back to 1938 with Alfred Hitchcock's classic The Lady Vanishes. The conceit works time and again because disappointment and loss are two things that we as human beings try to avoid at all costs (while knowing deep down that it is inevitable). If this happens suddenly and (here is the dramatic kicker) without any sort of explanation, well, you generally get peoples attention. We just like closure.

When considering the examples given above, I don't know of any filmmaker who spun this particular concept every which way (until finally pulling it through itself) quite like the 1988 French-Belgian thriller The Vanishing. The film is set in mundane and unromantic French locales, such as highway rest stops and urban cafes and takes place almost entirely during the day. When Rex and Saskia, a young normal couple, are stop at a gas station along the highway en route to a vacation destination, Saskia disappears. Nobody saw anything. No signs or clues are anywhere. Did Saskia leave the relationship impulsively? Was she kidnapped? These questions (and other possible scenarios) haunt Rex for a long time after. There is nothing or nowhere to investigate. There is no sign of closure. Time passes, but Rex cannot move on. He will do anything for an explanation of just what happened. And because this is a film, the opportunity arises. It's not what you think.

George Sluizer's boundary busting thriller turned a lot of heads (for such a tiny film) for its very non-standard thriller structure. It's bright and sunny and mundane and deliberately paced. Little happens because there is little to happen. Nonetheless it has a very effective way of getting under the skin as any difficult mystery (especially when there are high emotional stakes, such as the loss of a loved one) niggles deep into the brain preventing a return to normalcy and sabotaging any attempt to move on with life. This is great cinema.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


“Why is God in Heaven and The Devil underneath the ground?” is a question posed by A Little Trip to Heaven, a small scale, noirish mix of drama and thriller set in early 1980s Minnesota. “Because it is easier to just to lay down than to it is to fly” is the answer.

The film opens with three unusually staged vehicular crashes, which couldn’t be further from Michael Bay styled mayhem. These accidents are filmed with stark beauty and the weight of crunching metal and glass. Arriving on the scene of one of these accidents, involving a city bus, is insurance investigator Holt (Forest Whitaker). He gives a speech to the passengers, some of whom may have climbed on after the accident looking to get in on a possible lawsuit against the city. With the speech Holt plays both good cop and bad cop, sounding more like a David Mamet style grift, than an insurance adjustor's dry duty. Nearly all the passengers shuffle off the bus because of it. His boss (Peter Coyote) quickly drops an assignment to investigate the death of a petty scam-artist in remote and crumbling North Hastings, Minnesota. It seems that Kelvin Anderson died after ramming his tan coloured Malibu into a tunnel wall and his body was burned to a crisp . The local police are convinced it is an open and shut case, as Kevin’s drivers license is found, the plates on the car match, and on the other side of the tunnel lives his sister Isold.

Holt is of course immediately suspicious because the charred body is conveniently unidentifiable and Isold (Julia Stiles), the beneficiary of the $1 Million dollar policy, is skittish, nervous and wasn’t even suspecting her brothers visit. Then there is Isold’s husband Fred who is ominously cheerful and nearly all of his body-language is vaguely threatening. This guy has wife-beater written all over him. Holt’s investigation digs up a number of dirty little secrets, as he attempts to get to the bottom of the things. At the same time, he begins to sympathize with the plight of crushing poverty, which defines the lives of Isold, Fred and her 6 year-old son.

Icelandic Director Baltasar Kormákur gives us a Minnesota that is much, much different than say the similarly set neo-noir, Fargo. A Little Trip to Heaven is stylized, decaying, alienating, and lacking almost completely in that down home cheery warmth that characterized the Coen Brother’s masterpiece. The look of the film is all driving rain, wet, slushy snow, barren landscapes of rusty power-lines, spongy permafrost and broken down buildings. It is filmed mainly at night or in grey, desaturated daylight. There is a delightfully odd, twangy soundtrack, which plays counterpoint to the otherworldly feel of the rest of the film.

The film wants to re-define the modern noir structure, and it is partly successful at that. It jettisons the femme fatale, and recasts the role as a vulnerable, damaged, perpetually on-edge woman who is never in control. Our hard boiled investigator is anything but that. Forest Whitaker essays a stand-offish and awkward man who is sharp and competent but is beginning to get a distaste for the nature of his work. He is crying out for scarred Isold and her lot in life, but still has his job to do.

Ambiguous morality weighs heavily on every character in A Little Trip to Heaven. Holt is not above lying, impersonating police, or breaking and entering to do his investigation but he is a generally likable guy. Insurance adjusting is cast in a viscously negative light, perfectly tuned to the Regan-era setting. The Quality Life Insurance Company runs banal, fear driven commercials are laced with a paternal sense of comfort if you come into their fold. The company is several times compared to a casino, where the house always wins. This is captured no better than Peter Coyote’s false sympathy towards a policy holder whom he convinces to sign on the dotted line for a only a paltry fraction of their rightfully allowed amount. Halfway through his canned explanation to the widow, he is passing her the Kleenex. Surely this is just as evil as a man willing to commit arson or murder for money? Lives are wrecked in both cases.