Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Recent Film Favorites 3-31-09

Here are some of the best films I've seen recently: Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) - German comedy about the fall of the wall and the GDR, German reunification, becomes a poignant tale of a son's love for his socialist mom, who is in a coma when the big events occur so her kids try to hide the news from her when she awakens! Ballad of a Soldier (1959) - one of the first Russian films to reach the U.S. is a beautiful black and white travel film, of a train ride home for a teenage Russian soldier to visit his mother on their prairie farm on a special 'hero's furlough' The Emperor and the Assassin (1998) - another monster-sized Chinese historical epic, about the king of Qin in 220 B.C., almost Shakespearean tale involving three kingdoms and wars of unification, and an inside assassination plot Gadjo Dilo (1997) - passionate Romanian film about a young French man with gypsy ancestors in Romania who's made a journey there to find a singer of a song his father loved; Rona Hartner is dazzling as a singer-dancer and won two int'l awards for her role Ashes of Time Redux (2007) - terrific Chinese (Hong Kong) director Wong Kar-Wai remade his 1994 samurai film; it's a cinematic treat, painterly, poetic, hallucinogenic. Wong is a master and uses film like paint Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy, Working in Time (2003) - amazing documentary by Thomas Riedelscheimer follows Scottish artist, sculptor, and environmental artist as he creates pieces in nature with natural found materials UPDATE: I just saw Slumdog Millionaire on dvd, and reviewed it. Terrific film, a bit brutal in places, definitely not for younger viewers. Great directing, style, story, music - and Freida Pinto is dazzling.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The River, a Portrait of Indian Culture

[Note: I don't usually review individual films here but at "1000 DVDs" and "1000 Great Films", but this blog is always seeking more films about or from India, so I'm also posting this here, as we have many fans from India] The French master Jean Renoir discovered Ms. Rumer Godden's novel about living in India, The River, but couldn't find anyone to back the film as the story lacked the usual action elements of most western films about Asia. Eventually Kenneth McEldowney, a florist tycoon, who also loved the book, backed the film but they didn't have enough capital to hire big Hollywood actors (Renoir wanted Brando as the lead, but ended up with a non-actor war veteran who had actually lost a leg). The cast is actually part professional, part amateur. The book and film are really not about a strong plot (it centers on a young teenage girl's awkward coming of age), but are more like a documentary film on life along the Ganges, the river culture and lives along its banks; that and colonialist Britons trying to co-exist while basically occupying a foreign nation. This was Renoir's first film in English, and first color film, released in 1951. As the son of the famous French impressionist painter, Auguste, he really laid on some beautiful, rich early Technicolor. Martin Scorsese was moved by this film at age 9 in the theater, and led the restoration effort, completed in 2004. The Criterion dvd edition is gorgeous. This is really the film's star, the glorious cinematography of a beautiful and colorful slice of Hindu culture. There are things westerners may learn about Indian culture from this film, such as the beautiful Festival of Lights. Renoir's own son Claude was director of cinematography, and though some of the techniques look a little dated, and the acting a little forced at times, this was the first color film shot in India, and as such, the movie takes on a more important societal role than mere entertainment. For me the highlight of the Criterion dvd is the documentary done by the BBC, An Indian Affair, in which they returned to India with an 88 year old Rumer Godden to visit the locales where she grew up and that she hadn't seen in over half a century. Her own story is an amazing one, and she understood India better than any other western author. She apparently had an influence on Indian author Ruth Prawar Jhabvala as well, as it appears that a variation of Godden's own story was written by Jvabvala into her prize-winning novel Heat and Dust. This documentary is as well filmed as the Renoir movie, and the dvd also features interfiews with Scorsese, Renoir, and producer McEldowney. Part travelogue, part novel of a British girl's growing pains in a foreign land, The River remains an important early western look at the beauty and culture of India.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dengue Fever: Sleepwalking Through the Mekong

John Pirozzi, 2009 (8.6*)
Mostly in English, with some subtitles.
Available this April.
[note: this review came out pre-release of the dvd]

There’s a very unique L.A. band called Dengue (‘din-gay’) Fever, whom you might have heard on NPR. They play a unique sixties-based 'L.A. filtered' Cambodian rock, which they say was derived from surf music, but you couldn’t tell from what Dengue Fever puts out, it sounds closer to psychedelic rock to me, with some almost Garcia-like guitar.

The Holtzman brothers who formed the band hired a strong-voiced Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, who was famous there before immigrating to the U.S. Their music is actually covers of famous Cambodian rock singers, who, due to the massacres committed by the Kymer Rouge regime, sadly did not survive that turbulent era. Along with Nimol, they are keeping this music alive in the world, and in this film, they take the music back to its people.

Director Pirozzi has filmed an engrossing documentary of Dengue Fever as they travel to Cambodia for the first time to perform what is essentially that culture’s modern music, and for singer Nimol, it’s a homecoming after five years absence. Pirozzi often shows the band’s performances from a close and wide-angle view (see photo), making the viewer feel that they are seeing the music live themselves, sometimes from onstage, sometimes as part of the crowd.

Rather than concentrate on just the band, Pirozzi also shows many wonderful images of Cambodia and its people, successfully using a montage effect at times, like traveling is shown in old b&w classic films. Since the entire country seems to travel on motor scooters, a hand-held camera is often used from a scooter in the middle of the traffic so we get a feeling of how chaotic the streets are there, yet everyone seems safe enough that no one wears helmets, not even entire families of 4-5 people on one scooter.

The band was lucky enough to be there during the Water Festival, celebrating the end of monsoon season when the Mekong River actually changes direction, so we get to see what looks like their Mardi Gras, as thousands pour into Phnom Penh from the countryside for a festival of fireworks, music, water sports, and food. Pirozzi includes encounters with local Cambodian music masters, and we see some of the effort being made with young people to keep this culture alive, which barely survived the war years and in some cases has a lone surviving instrumentalist.

The Cambodian people appear very outgoing and friendly, a friend of mine who lived in Thailand said as much. Director Pirozzi has created a wonderful film of cross-cultural meetings that created immediate friendships and lasting impressions. My only complaint with this film is that at 65 minutes, it’s about half an hour too short, so it feels 'tv length'. Thankfully, Pirozzi added about another 45 minutes of short films to the dvd so viewers won’t be disappointed. In fact, one song, “1000 Tears of a Tarantula”, is a wonderful jazz excursion that blends the best of both American and Cambodian music into one ethereal musical journey – this is the best music on the dvd, and should have been included in the film.

If you like the music, there’s an excellent soundtrack to the film on CD released as part of the dvd package. We need more music films this rare, stories that show good music, a joyous cultural exchange, and a window into a society that’s been overlooked far too long by the rest of the world.

Here’s the website for the film: Sleepwalking Through the Mekong

For artwork: Dengue Fever Promo Art