Screaming Masterpieces

Sigur Ros live
I’ve been thinking that Iceland is “the next big thing” for music for quite a few years now. After Sigur Ros proved that Bjork wasn’t the only musical genius hailing from the island country, it seemed pretty obvious that something was going on with the music scene in Iceland.

Screaming Masterpieces (or is it “Masterpiece” singular — SIFF seems to have the name wrong?) starts with the same premise. It’s somewhat of a “Who’s Who” of the Icelandic music scene. Bjork is definitely covered (and interviewed) pretty extensively — which makes sense, since she is probably the most famous musician to come from Iceland.

The documentary also gives us some insight into other Icelandic bands such as Johann Johannsson, Mum, Bang Gang, Apparat Organ Quartet, Slowblow, The Sugarcubes, Ghostigital, Mugison, Amina, Minus, and a few others. (I found that list of artists from the Screaming Masterpiece soundtrack web page. After hearing some of these bands perform in the film, I am definitely going to find out more about Bang Gang, Apparat Organ Quartet, Ghostigital, and Amina. As for Mum, it’s kinda funny that they were in the film since I’ve been looking for their remix of Goldfrapp’s “You Never Know” from one of the “Fly Me Away” singles.

One thing the film definitely confirmed for me about Icelandic music is that it’s very majestic, intense, and ethereal. Even the heavy metal and punk bands created beautiful noise (at least, more so than their American and European counterparts). A bunch of the musicians also commented on the role that the landscape plays in their music. Granted, I haven’t been to Iceland, but pictures of it are pretty amazing, and I can totally understand how the mountains, the ocean, the sky, the northern lights, etc. would encourage one to make such beautiful sounds.

Although Screaming Masterpieces managed to cover a pretty wide variety of musical styles, I was surprised that the electronic group Gus Gus wasn’t included in the film. Their song “Ladyshave” was pretty popular and they’ve released three albums, so I’m fairly sure they are not some totally obscure group. Also, one of the members of one of the bands in the film noted that a sense of family and collaboration was one of the main defining characteristics of Icelandic music. Gus Gus, from what I understand, is something of an artists troupe, so it seems to me that they exemplify this perfectly. Oh well.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the main reason music from Iceland is so interesting and unique is the fact that the population is fairly small. Not even 300,000 live in the country. As one guy explained, if you are a small band you might hope to sell 200 albums or so. You can’t make much money from 200 albums, so rather than trying to make something marketable and whatnot, you just go ahead and make whatever sounds good to you. And for whatever reason, “whatever sounds good to you” in Iceland is better than anywhere in the world?

(As a final side note, I also learned that most of the people who live in Iceland don’t consider it to be part of Scandinavia. I’m debated whether I should edit the Scandinavian playlist on my iPod by removing Bjork, Gus Gus, etc. For now, I’m going to keep it there…)

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

I’m glad to say that I’ve started SIFF off on a good note. And very apropos, my first film this year was a film about films: This Film Is Not Yet Rated by Kirby Dick.

Basically, This Film is a documentary about the MPAA and it’s often-criticized ratings system. Toward the end, the film delved into a meta-film state where Dick went through the process of having the film rated by the MPAA then go through the appeals process.

Like any good documentary, This Film contained lots of funny stuff (clips from overly sexual movies, witty comments, lesbian private investigators in Los Angeles), commentary from famous people — both intellects (Lawrence Lessig, various academics) and film types (John Waters, Mary Harron, Maria Bello, etc.), and some really probing questions about the subject matter (Why are the members of the ratings board kept anonymous? What is an “average” American parent? Why is violence allowed more often than sex?, etc.)

The film started with the basic question: Why does nobody know who is on the board of people who gives films rating for the MPAA and what qualifications do they have when it comes to rating movies? It turns out that the eight members are kept anonymous so that they are not influenced by the studios (despite the fact that, according to the film, they often consult for a movie after viewing it).

The filmmaker ends up interviewing various private investigators in an attempt to discover who is on the board. He ultimately chooses a lesbian couple who claim that they will do whatever it takes to get the information needed. “Whatever it takes” turned out to be sitting outside the MPAA, finding out who goes to lunch when, tracking down some license plate numbers, making vague but information collecting phone calls to the MPAA office, and tracking down people at restaurants. With the PIs help, Dick is able to give us the MPAA Ratings Board Class of 2005. It turns out that many of them have children well over the age of 20, which begs the question: Why should they be the ones rating films?

This Film also delves into the obviously biased method in which films are rated. Of note: gay and lesbian films get NC-17 ratings for things that easily make it into R-rated straight films (e.g. But I’m a Cheerleader vs. American Pie), violence is not as much of a problem as sex (e.g. dismemberment in Sin City vs. a Maria Bello’s pubic hair in The Cooler), if a film has violence no blood must be shown (e.g. bloodless PG-13 Tomorrow Never Dies vs. bloody R-rated Saving Private Ryan), and military the military should be shown in a positive manner (e.g. realistic Gunner Palace vs. Top Gun).

The audience for this film was great. The Egyptian was totally packed (I forgot that you often have to wait in line for SIFF films, and this line was wrapping way around over toward QFC) and the crowd was totally into it. I’m one of those people who hates it when people clap and cheer during movies, but This Film and the audience had me clapping and laughing and cheering more than any movie I’ve ever seen. The energy of the film is great and really keeps people engaged with what could potentially be dry material.

Following the film we were lucky enough to have Kirby Dick take some questions and give some answers, but I didn’t realize he would be there and didn’t plan accordingly by bringing a notebook to jot things down. The jist of a lot of the questions, though, were along the lines of “What next?” and “What does this all mean?” It seemed pretty obvious that leading up to the film’s theatrical release in September there is probably going to be some sort of grassroots anti-MPAA/ratings movement. We’ll see what pans out.

I gave this movie an “enthusiastic” 5 and I don’t think it’s just because it’s my first SIFF film this year and I was excited. This was a truly great movie and I highly recommend it.

Play Along

2006 SIFF program cover
Just the other night Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) 2006 had its kick-off gala. The opening film was The Illusionist. I didn’t go.

But I did end up buying a bunch of tickets for other films. Here is my list, join me if you can!

I will admit, despite the fact that I am seeing more movies this year, I’m not as excited about the lineup as I was last year. I chalk some of this up to the fact that last year was my first SIFF so this year it’s not as new and exciting, but at the same time, there aren’t movies by directors that I absolutely love (like 2046 or Mysterious Skin). But who knows, I’m hoping that I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Watch my blog for reviews (I’ll try to get them up as soon as I can after each film) and feel free to join me and/or comment on all the reviews.

Fun Stuff I’ll Be Doing Soon

I’ve been trying to come up with some sort of an events calendar/database for stuff like upcoming concerts, talks, CD/DVD releases, etc. that are of particular interest to me. So far I haven’t found a solution I like (so I may just write something on my own), so in the meantime I’ll just do a normal post. (That is why, as you may have noticed, there is an “Events” header on the right with nothing under it.)

I guess I share this stuff since I figure it’s probably of interest to a few more people than just me, plus if it’s something like a concert or whatever maybe more people can join in the fun, yeah?

Month Day Exciting Thing
April 19-23 In the Mood for Love at Central Cinema
April 25 Final Fantasy VII – Advent Children DVD release (sort of a “part two” to the FF7 video game — one of my all-time favorites)
April 26 Ladytron in concert at Neumos (buy tickets)
April 28-29 Coachella in California (I’ll blog about this more as it approaches and after the show)
May 9 Just Like the Fambly Cat by Grandaddy (their last album… sadness…)
May 9 Queer as Folk season 5 (the final season)
May 9 The West Wing season 6
May 11 SIFF 2006 lineup announced
May 11 Goldfrapp at The Showbox (buy tickets)

Also, as for things that have happened recently that are worth looking into: Knots Landing season 1 on DVD, Placebo’s latest album Meds, Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale (believe the hype about this one — it’s the best hip-hop I’ve heard since Kanye West’s first album), Gorillaz’s Demon Days Live in Manchester DVD, and the high school noir (done in a totally serious way) Brick.

SIFF Stats

My SIFF Tickets
Well, SIFF is over. It’s sad. My movie-watching will now return back to Netflix. I realized that I really do like watching in the privacy of my own home (without tall people’s heads infront of me, the stink of popcorn, uncomfortable temperatures, etc.). Nonetheless, I’m totally glad I did SIFF and I intend to continue seeing SIFF movies as long as I live in Seattle.

As for the Secret Festival, I’m not sure whether I’ll do it again next year. I only liked one of the four movies. I think the philosophy behind choosing the movies wasn’t quite what I expected. Maybe that varies year-to-year — I can’t say. We’ll see what I impulsively decide next year.

Throughout the festival I kept some “statistics” on random things. To conclude my SIFF coverage for the year, I share:

  • Total money spent on tickets:
    $137
  • Total time spent standing in line:
    155 minutes = 2 hours 35 minutes
  • Total movies seen:
    15
  • Languages:
    Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, English, Swedish, French
  • Movies with subtitles:
    7
  • Movies canceled:
    1
  • Movies about movies:
    3
  • Times the director was in the audience:
    4
  • Total voting points given:
    43
  • Average points given:
    3.9
  • Times the woman with orange/red hair stood behind me:
    2
  • Times people left the audience in disgust:
    2
  • Movies with Maggie Cheung in the cast:
    2
  • Movies with Don McKellar in the cast:
    2
  • My favorite movie:
    2046
  • My favorite movie that wasn’t a Wong Kar-Wai movie:
    Mysterious Skin
  • My favorite movie that stood a chance against a WKW movie (i.e. 2046) and a movie by one of my favorite directors with one of my favorite actors (i.e. Mysterious Skin):
    Clean
  • My favorite movie that didn’t stand a chance against the aforementioned movies because it was a comedy (and I’m not a big fan of comedy, but this movie was awesome anyway):
    Ellie Parker
  • Fat people who blocked my view:
    2
  • Movies seen at the Egyptian Theatre:
    7
  • Movies seen at the Neptune Theatre:
    5
  • Movies seen at the Harvard Exit Theatre:
    3
  • My favorite theatre:
    The Egyptian
  • Movies I went to see alone:
    8

Review: Frozen

Frozen was a bit of a disappointment, so I’ll keep this short and sweet.

I think this movie may be better the second or third time around because it’s one of those movies where, at the end, everything comes together and you have somewhat of an “ah-ha” moment. In those types of movies, however, there has to be more than the “ah-ha” moment to keep things interesting. In Frozen there was nothing. I actually considered leaving the movie a few times it was so boring. There was little or no music to keep me engaged nor where the characters all that interesting nor were there any interesting camera tricks or beautiful shots to keep me wanting to find out what happened.

In a nutshell, the movie is about a woman, Kath, whose sister disappeared two years ago. She’s been trying to deal with the loss of her sister ever since. She has a boring job as a fish filleter (or something) with not-so-interesting coworkers — though she did sleep with one of the men at some point and when he wants to get wtih her again she bites him. Her “therapist” is a pastor or something at a church with an invalid wife. Her and the pastor sort of fall in love.

She talks to the police and ends up getting her hands on some of the evidence tied to the case — most notably, a security tape from an alleyway where her sister was last seen. At one point she finds a “magnetic disturbance” (I forget the exact explanation) in the tape that gets her all excited. She also experiences daydreams that, along with the strange tape, lead us to believe (or lead me, at least, to believe) that there is something supernatural going on maybe?

There is a bit of a payoff at the end, but, like I said, the rest of the movie doesn’t make it worthwhile. I think the voting was over, or I didn’t get a ballot, but I would give this movie 2/5 if I could.

Review: Ellie Parker

Naomi Watts in Ellie Parker
“It’s no secret” that Naomi Watts is my favorite actress — and that is what made Ellie Parker such a great film for me. This movie had her doing a range of acting and also gave her a chance to, I would image, have a lot of fun.

The director, Scott Coffey, was in the audience and spoke after, so I learned that the movie was filmed over the course of five years. Watts and Coffey apparently became friends when they were both acting in Tank Girl. Around the time Mulholland Drive was finishing (another movie they were both in — Coffey playing a very minor part, Watts, of course, being one of the main characters) they started working on Ellie Parker. The film started out as a short film that they were going to use as an “audition piece” (not sure about the correct terminology here?) in order to get money for a totally different film. It turns out, however, that they were so pleased with how the short turned out, that they decided to expand it into a full-length feature.

Given Watts’ raising popularity and commitments to other films, they had to work on the film in short pieces (something the director said he would never suggest doing to aspiring film makers). She didn’t get paid to be in the film (the whole thing cost only $500 to make, Coffey said) and as the years went by the “Naomi Watts circus” (i.e. her “people”) were rather perplexed in regard to her dedication to Ellie Parker and not quite sure why she’d spend time on a film that she didn’t get paid for when she had other projects to focus on.

So based on the way Coffey explained it, this sounded like one of those films that Hollywood-types get together and make for fun (not for profit) and have a great time making. Based on my viewing of the film, this seems pretty accurate.

The first half-hour or so features Watts going to two auditions. In the first one she is trying for the part of a southern belle. After her first attempt — subtle and heartfelt — the director informs her “this is going to be filmed on digital, so it has to be raw.” Her next attempt is over the top emotional — and hilarious. In between the first and second auditions we see Watts driving along some Los Angeles highway. The second audition is for some junkie prostitute-type role, so she has to totally change her image — put on different clothes, apply tacky lipstick, mess up her hair, etc. She does all of this while driving — and while listening to great songs such as “Safari” by the Breeders (which I’ve always thought is one of the best Breeders’ songs), “Heart of Glass” by Blondie, and some techno song I cannot remember the name of (to which Watts sorta dances in her car). The whole thing is great, and she actually did do all of that stuff while driving (while Coffey kneeled down in the passenger seat to tape it). The second audition is, awkwardly, done in front of a video camera since the director is in Vancouver. Watts uses a Brooklyn accent and, again, the whole thing is totally funny.

The rest of the movie is basic Hollywood insider stuff. Her boyfriend is a stoner musician who cheats on her. Her friend makes abstract art that she couldn’t understand. She falls for the guy who rear-ends her. She eats blue ice cream and vomits it up later. She attends a very bizarre “acting class” where she learns to channel her life experiences into roles. She goes to a Dogstar concert (Keanu Reeves‘ band). She informs us that therapist = the rapist (if you just add a space). She “retires” from acting. She destroys her tapes. She retires from retirement. She goes to the most insane audition ever.

The movie is great. It is totally hilarious and demonstrates the range of roles Watts can play — though in a very self-conscious and self-aware, in a funny way, way. I found myself laughing at this movie so much, and I can only imagine that if I lived in Los Angeles or worked “in the industry” the movie would be even funnier.

I gave this movie 5/5 because it was so damn funny and so damn postmodern and so damn Naomi Watts-centric. The movie is going to be released to theatres around the same time that King Kong comes out. Coffey noted that Watts would simultaneously be in the most expensive movie ever made and the cheapest movie ever made.

Review: Clean

Maggie Cheung in Clean
Of all the movies so far that have stood a chance of being called “The Best SIFF Movie So Far” (I don’t think that 2046 or Mysterious Skin should be up for that title since they are sort of in a league of their own — being objects of my obsession and all…), Clean would easily win hands-down. This movie was excellent: great acting, great music, great cameos, great story.

To briefly summarize the movie: Maggie Cheung plays Emily. At the beginning of the movie, Emily is with her boyfriend Lee. They are rockers. Lee is an aging rocker, but they are rockers nonetheless. They are also heroin addicts. After a fight, Emily leaves a motel room they are staying in to shoot up alone. When she returns the next morning, she finds the police at the motel because Lee has died of an overdose. She spends six months in rehab and then tries to deal with entering the real world sober. It also turns out that Emily and Lee have a son, Jay, who has been left in the care of Lee’s parents (Lee’s father, Albrecht, is played by Nick Nolte), who live in Vancouver. Albrecht meets with Emily and tells her that until she gets her life back together, he doesn’t think she should see Jay — the kid needs stability, etc. in his life. So once out of jail, Emily spends most of the movie trying to get her life back in order so she can be back with her son. Things go pretty well (she first has a job as a waitress, which doesn’t work out, but she does ultimately end up working at a department store, apparently) and she convinces Albrecht to see Jay. Their meeting, which has a rough start, ends up pretty okay. At the end of the movie, Albrecht agrees to let Emily take care of Jay and Emily goes off to record an album with a woman she met while in prison.

Okay, so that synopsis doesn’t get to the emotional value of the movie, but trust me: it’s great.

I have seen some interviews where Cheung mentions that this role was a difficult (from her acceptance speech at Cannes 04 (where she won best actress for the role): “It was difficult to play but not the most difficult, technically speaking. It was difficult because it was painful”) role for her, and she pulled it off tremendously. No surprise here that she won best actress. I also saw somewhere that is somewhat of a “break-through” role for her in the West, since prior to Clean she had been cast in non-Asian movies as a stereotypically beautiful, quiet Asian woman, and this role really gave her a chance to break from the mold.

As for Nolte, I have to say: he impresses me. I’ve really only seem him previously in Lorenzo’s Oil, U-Turn, and Affliction. Affliction is definitely one of the movies that has stayed with me ever since I saw it, and although I don’t think about it often, I would easily say is one of my favorite movies. He has an uncanny ability to play that raw, emotional, weak-but-gruff character and he does a great job as Albrecht — reluctant to trust Emily, but at the same time all-too-aware that her son is all she has left and that the two of them need each other.

Music is, obviously, a central theme of this movie since Emily was a rocker. A lot of the songs were very shoegazer and ambient -like… and that would make since because David Roback of Mazzy Star was involved with the movie (see the cameos below). The cloudy, atmospheric music definitely helped shape the mood of the film. It’s all-too-easy to include lots of pop-type songs in a drug movie soundtrack (see: Trainspotting, Casino, etc.), but I think the subtly of the music in Clean made it all the more powerful.

One scene, in particular, that I loved was when Emily was playing pool with a friend. She had recorded a demo tape while in prison and wanted her friend to check it out. The friend put on a pair of headphones and listened to the song while playing pool. While she was listening, the soundtrack for the song was turned way up, but you could still sort of hear the background noise — much like really listening to music on headphones.

The film also had some great cameo appearances. I am always delighted to see Tricky in movies. I’ve previously seen him in The Fifth Element, though that was a “character” role. In Clean he played himself — and he apparently talked to Albrecht often and was friends with Lee. Emily tried getting him to talk to Albrecht about seeing her son at one point, but Tricky was being somewhat of an asshole and wouldn’t help her. It was great. The other cameo appearance was David Roback (as mentioned above). He was one of the pivotal members of Mazzy Star, and probably did more than anyone to establish their wall-of-guitar sound. In Clean he plays himself as a record producer who works with Emily at the end of the film. The song the two of them create (which Cheung performs) at the end, “Down in the Light,” was hauntingly wonderful, and made me wish that the two would collaborate on an entire album. We can wish, at least.

Two more things of note:

First, the film made great use of oners (long, continuous shots). I specifically remember one that must have lasted about two or three minutes (which is considered long in film — especially nowadays when shots are so quick) when Emily was working in the restaurant. The camera followed her from a table down some stairs to the bathroom to outside where she smoked and back into the restaurant. It was lovely.

Second, when Jay tells Emily that he hates her because she killed her father and that people who use drugs are bad, weak, etc. Emily responds with something to the effect of: your father was in a lot of pain, drugs helped him, he was brilliant, drugs are fun sometimes, your father and I had lots of fun with drugs, but we paid the price, what they tell you about drugs (they are bad, for weak people, etc.) doesn’t address how complicated they are. It was probably one of the best realistic, anti-drug speeches I’ve heard.

In case my introduction didn’t make it apparent, I gave this movie 5/5. I hope it gets a wider U.S. release, as I really think it deserves wider exposure.

Review: L’Amant

So far I’ve been mostly happy with the film I’ve seen as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. Not all of them have been 5s, but I’m still glad I spent my money seeing them.

That changed last night when I saw L’Amant, a Japanese film about a girl who is purchased by three men (two infertile, one impotent) to be thier personal sex slave for a year.

I had hoped that the movie might be edgy or controversial in the same vein of Lies or Audition or even A Hole in My Heart (from the night before). Not so, with L’Amant.

The film is just about how these three older men oogle over their sex slave. Along the way, a girl befriends her because she is jealous of her hickey. Then that girl’s younger brother seems to fall for her. Then the girl is raped by some other (younger) guy and she gets pregnant, so the other girl’s younger brother tries to help her… but her “owners” are upset she had sex with somene else (and we never really finds out — can she perform an abortion by “touching her womb”??). In the end, of course, the girl ends up loving the three men who bought her (or something like love — she doesn’t hate them, that’s for sure). Like I said, pretty lame.

I gave the film 2/5 stars.

Review: A Hole in My Heart

Tess in A Hole in My Heart
What is it about a “film” that can distinguish it from “pornography”? What is the difference between acting and exploiting? After seeing A Hole in My Heart, I’ve been doing some serious thinking about these ideas.

When he introduced the film, the SIFF guy made a comment like, “It’s always nice to see an audience challenged.” This movie certainly challenged its audience. I wonder what it is about filmgoers that makes us want to be challenged in such ways. There is no complex way of putting this: A Hole in My Heart was gross and disturbing… but I liked it.

The movie sort of reminded me of Lies. The most basic explanation of the movie is, like Lies, people become consumed with their sexuality and feel the need to push the limits in order to achieve more interesting pleasure.

A Hole in My Heart follows four people: Rickard, Eric, Tess, and Geko. Rickard creates/films porno films staring Tess and Geko (sometimes he participates). Eric is Rickard’s shut-in, gothic son who basically spends the entire movie in his room.

There isn’t too much of a plot with this film. It’s more like a series of episodic moments. For example, I thought the climax of the movie might have been when Geko complains about the smell of Tess’ pussy (behind her back — which is what pisses her off) and Tess packs her things and storms off. I figure Rickard and Geko will be forced to come to terms with their behavior and somehow change. Nope. Instead, Rickard and Geko turn their abuse to Eric (forcing him to shoot airguns — at the tits and pussy of a poster of a naked woman). Tess returns shortly thereafter (with food!!) and the insanity continues.

The movie is extremely claustrophobic. Basically everything happens within the confines of the apartment. The two or three scenes that don’t happen in the apartment feel really strange.

The camerawork is very experimental/artistic. Many of the scenes (especially those taped during the taping of a porno) are very shaky and handheld. Digital perhaps? The decision makes sense, of course, since it captures the really raw aspect of what happens. There are also some scenes shot with a night vision camera (green skin, beady eyes a la Paris Hilton included!) that feel like some sort of confession. Another interesting camera technique to note is the selective blurring. Like a reality show, brand names and whatnot are often blurred… but there are also a few scenes when the peoples faces (both strangers and the main characters) are blurred as well. This is very unsettling and it seems rather profound, so I wanted to mention it.

The best (technically) aspect of the film is the sound design. The movie, obviously, is pretty uncomfortable. The sound really reinforces this with loud screeching noises a la David Lynch’s Lost Highway. There is also lots of feedback and distortion -type noises throughout the film. It also seems that the “music” Eric listens to is nothing but abstract, noisy soundscapes. More than a few times I could’ve sworn that the noises were sampled from Primal Scream’s XTRMTR album, in fact.

As for the taboos this film addresses, there are plenty: pubic hair shaving, overweight and hairy men having sex, vomit, piss, threesomes, rape scenes/gangbangs, latent homosexuality, incest, body odors, and on and on. There is also some underlying theme dealing with bodily modification and there are quite a few cut-ins of random surgeries that are really interesting — they look so visceral and gross. It’s weird.

A final aspect I need to mention is the anti-misogyny of the film. Rickard and Geko are obviously misogynist and treat Tess horribly. There is a “pseudo”-rape scene that is brutal to watch. Basically Rickard and Geko decide to “rape” Tess without letting her know. It’s the most difficult part of the film, I think, and it’s obvious that the filmmaker is trying to show the evilness of men. Likewise, there is a particularly memorable scene where Eric makes a statement to the effect of:

What do the sickest people, rapists, and people who start wars all have in common? They are all men.

I have to say, I agree, and I wonder if that is maybe one of the larger themes of the film?

Overall, I gave this movie 3/5. I wanted to give it a 4, but in the end it felt more like a shocking-for-shocks-sake art film. I wasn’t quite sure what the director was trying to say. If he just wanted me to think things over, then I guess he succeeded, but I’m guessing there was more going on — it was just too oblique for me to know.