Saturday, February 21, 2004

Wild Style (1982)

Director: Charlie Ahearn
Starring: Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, Cold Crush Brothers, Busy Bee

If you are a fan of hiphop music and/or culture, then this movie is a must-see. It’s a real classic, full of breakthrough graffiti, rap, and breakdancing scenes filmed at the very birth of the movement. Doug Pray’s excellent 2001 documentary, Scratch, devoted an entire section to the praising of this film; it inspired a generation of musicians, dancers, and artists, and those who were actually a part of the early hiphop scene claim that Wild Style portrays a truly accurate picture of what it was like at the time.

The plot, what there is of one, is merely an excuse to show the many hiphop interludes; something to fill in the gaps between the music, dancing, and graffiti. The main character is an unknown, but very talented, young graffiti artist. A well-established art collector takes him under his wing and he is eventually chosen to paint the backdrop for a giant breakdancing/hiphop contest. But the big payoff—his finished graffiti product—is totally lame. It doesn’t matter anyway, like I said there’s very little of this plot in there at all. Along the way we are treated to many club and party scenes, freestylin showdowns, and even Grandmaster Flash cutting up the turntable in his kitchen. Very hot.

If the prospect of all those great raw early hiphop scenes are not enough of an incentive, consider the satisfaction of recognizing the source of some of your favorite samples, like the classic line sampled by Beastie Boys in “Professor Bootie” (man, I don’t hang out with those guys, I ain’t got nothin to do with those dudes…yeah I saw your female with them too, what’s up with her? I been hearin that she’s been givin that stuff to all them graffiti guys…).

It’s also pretty interesting to witness the obvious sense of hopefulness and excitement that hung over the hiphop scene back then. It was just starting to be recognized as something that could be profitable in the mainstream, but hadn’t yet started to be co-opted and exploited as an artform. This film will definitely make you want to bust out all your old school tapes. Then again, if you don’t dig hiphop culture and you just want an interesting movie with a good plot and good acting, this ain’t the one for you.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Blue (1993)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Benoit Regent

This French film by a Polish director is the first in a trilogy of movies named for the three colors of the French flag. The thematics of Blue purportedly center on the concept of liberty, but the plot seems more closely concerned with love, loss, disillusionment, rebuilding, withdrawing, and general confusion. The film is painful, frustrating, depressing, and incredibly beautiful.

Juliette Binoche plays Julie, a woman whose daughter and husband, a famous composer, are killed in a car crash in the first scenes of the film. For the rest of the movie Julie does her best to get over the staggering loss in her own way, which means completely withdrawing from herself and everything she knows. Her husband left behind an important unfinished composition, and this music plagues her by remaining unresolved. There's also a friend of her husband’s with whom she has a dubious sexual relationship that she’d rather not deal with, and her husband's posthumously-revealed mistress. In the midst of all this, she must regain some strength and individuality, but in the end there are many questions left unanswered.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like it, but the plot is actually extremely sparse. There are a few other characters and storylines that don’t really go anywhere. Mostly it’s just about this incredibly lonely, depressed, independent woman whom we never truly get to know. In fact what’s frustrating about the movie is the same thing that makes it so incredibly beautiful: we are only allowed mere glimpses of the character and plot points. The entire film is viewed in fragments.

If the plot is fragmentary, then Kieslowski’s cinematography provides the perfect complement, for it too focuses on fragments of images. We see a disembodied feather fluttering in the respirator stream of a hospital patient, a screen-filling eye within which is reflected a piece of the world staring in, a spoon resting on a coffee cup in a stream of sunlight. Beautifully unique camera angles and framings add to the indulgence of the viewing. The motif of the color blue is ubiquitous, showing up in reflections, light, and various objects. There’s so much left unsaid in the film, so many silences that speak volumes. Even though it frustrates and saddens you, the watching of Blue is still a wonderful experience. I can’t wait to see the next one.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Triplets of Belleville (In theaters now)

Director: Sylvain Chomet

The most basic of descriptors- that this is a (nearly) wordless French cartoon –cannot begin to describe this film. It is a slow and delicate journey across continents, through a strange, shadowy, and understated world. It is a fantasy, and full of fantastical images.

The story tells of Champion, a quiet withdrawn young boy who lives with his Grandmother, Madame Souza, on the outskirts of Paris. Madame Souza, who wants only to please her lonely grandson, discovers his love of bicycles and buys him his own. Twenty or so years later we find Champion undergoing rigorous training for the Tour de France under his grandmother’s watchful eye. But Champion is kidnapped from the race by a pack of mysterious gangsters, and along with two other bikers is taken over the ocean to an Americanish place called “Belleville” to take part in a bizarre scheme. Madame Souza, in her quiet way, follows them (I won’t tell you how) and finds herself alone in a strange megalopolis.

It is here that Madame Souza encounters the legendary “Triplets of Belleville,” a trio of strange old ladies who, in their youth, were stars of the music-hall. After learning of her strange predicament, the triplets agree to help Madame Souza recover her grandson, and invite her to stay with them. The rescue and every step along the way is filled with wonderful little moments and strangenesses.

The best part of Triplets is definitely the first five minutes, which shows the Triplets’ original act- SO good! And the music! Part swing, part French old-timey jazz, it’s wonderful and I had the tunes in my head for days (in a good way). But really I was completely enchanted by the whole thing. The animated characters are so physically exaggerated and lively, and yet so perfectly understated personality-wise. The story itself is so far-fetched, and yet parts of it seem so right on. The fact that the entire story is told, and well, without words is really impressive too. You stop noticing the lack of words because you’re too taken with the images.

(Search this film out at your local indy movie theater. In Seattle it's playing at the Egyptian and the Harvard Exit. I also hear that the cartoon short before the film, which we missed because my roommates and I just happened to have opening night passes, is excellent as well. )

Friday, February 06, 2004

Hard Eight (1997)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson

This little-known gem of a movie was recommended to me by a film buff in his own right and self-described P.T. Anderson aficionado (thanks Jym!). In this, Anderson’s first film (later films include Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love), I was struck by the beauty and simplicity already apparent in his vision and execution. The characters and script are unique, spare, and characteristically strangely disturbing. The lighting and mise-en-scene are muted, dark, simple, and very beautiful. I found my eye drawn to the shadows- a gentle darkness which matches the mood of the film- which is especially impressive in light of the fact that most of Hard Eight takes place in the casinos of Reno, one of the more colorful and garish of locales.

Philip Baker Hall plays Sydney (also the original title of the film), a mysterious hard-nosed gambler with a soft spot for helping people down on their luck. When he finds John (John C. Reilly) alone and broke outside a coffeeshop, he takes him under his wing and brings him to Reno to teach him the ropes of professional gambling. In Reno they meet Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), an embittered casino barmaid and prostitute on the side. She is more suspicious of the aid offered by Sydney, but eventually does become involved with both him and John. As their relationships develop, Sydney’s ugly past resurfaces when a sleazy gangster (Samuel L. Jackson) threatens to reveal his most guarded secret.

All the actors- most of which were virtual unknowns at the time –turn in stellar performances. Paltrow’s character is memorably fucked-up and Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in his small role. The relationship between Sydney and John is truly touching and very unique. Hard Eight originated as a short film (entitled Cigarettes and Coffee), which may explain its tremendous success in keeping things simple and in using so little to say so much. While I find some of Anderson’s later films can be kind of overwhelming, Hard Eight struck a perfect balance in giving the viewer the credit to see beneath the surface.

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