Archive for April 2015

Speed Sisters

April 26, 2015

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The leadfooted drivers in Furious Seven might genuflect to the far braver and more challenged racers in Amber Fares’ documentary Speed Sisters. The young women in the movie are Palestinian, and they’re bucking their very culture — and some family members — by competing behind the wheel in the first place. As if resistance from their own people weren’t hard enough, there’s also the thousand-pound gorilla of Israel, whose government won’t allow some of the Speed Sisters to race outside of Palestine. During a practice run in a parking lot near an Israeli prison, some Israeli soldiers get bored and shoot off tear gas at the women. A canister hits one of them in the back; the big ugly bruise persists for weeks, and the incident almost scares her out of the sport.

Despite the realities of living in occupied Palestine, much of Speed Sisters is upbeat. Breathlessly paced, it follows four of the racers as they compete with men and with each other. The Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares focuses on the Sisters’ growing popularity in and outside Palestine (a couple of the racers have permits to leave the country and race in places like Jordan). The Sisters aren’t just representing themselves, and aren’t just representing women; they’re representing Palestine. Not too much pressure! The star of the Sisters is clearly Betty Saadeh, the racer who was hit with the tear gas; blonde, with rounded features and a keen sense of fashion, Betty is a cover girl, and she is aware of herself as “a brand.”

It’s an irony of sorts: we can’t get away from self-actualization as self-marketing even in Palestine. But that’s part of the movie’s point. As I said, it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities, but neither does it portray the country as some Escape from New York hellhole. People live there and drive there and compete in sports there. If the Speed Sisters have been given the burden of taking their fellow Palestinians’ minds off their troubles, they seem more than able to shoulder it.

You may have seen the Sisters before, on the Israel/Palestine episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown (Bourdain is shown in footage from that episode for about two seconds, without much explanation for those who don’t know who he is). One of the points of the episode was that the Sisters, and anyone else who wants to race there, have to make do in relatively small spaces, hemmed in by military checkpoints every few minutes. Given the geographical limitations, you’d think it wouldn’t occur to any Palestinian to race cars, but there they are, doing it. The Sisters mostly mind their language, making the film suitable for inspiration for like-minded young girls anywhere.

The message, unstressed and un-preachy, is that these women can’t be stopped from doing what they want — well, yes, past a certain point they can, by heavily armed soldiers, but they do everything they can do within their doubly oppressive culture. They jump into their cars (many of the vehicles are stripped back down to workaday cars after each racing event) and roar around, beating men and women and occasionally even Israeli racers, and bringing attention to Palestine as something other than the Middle East’s punching bag. If Vin Diesel is looking to up the ante for the next Furious entry, he might start by looking at the Speed Sisters.

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Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World

April 19, 2015

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Some artists seem to have popped in from another dimension to show us what life looks like over there. They don’t appear to have any readily identifiable influences; one looks at their work and wonders where the hell it came from, how someone could start with a blank space and come up with … that. Picasso is one such artist; so is Jack Kirby, in the realm of comics; and then there’s H.R. Giger. A Swiss maestro of airbrushed surrealism, Giger etched his name in film history when he designed the creature in Alien. Suddenly, the relatively unknown artist’s name was synonymous with “biomechanical” and “psychosexual dread.” Giger’s bizarro-erotic nightmares won him a legion of fans and inspired a slew of artists, musicians, and tattoo artists. Some people have Giger’s work tattooed onto their skin; some have his autograph tattooed onto them; some have his face tattooed onto them.

Belinda Sallin’s documentary Dark Star, which finished shooting not long before Giger’s death last year at age 74, is a bit unconventional in that it doesn’t walk you through an A&E Biography-style synopsis of the man’s life. We don’t see photos of little Hans Ruedi Giger scampering around his back yard. We don’t know how he got started as an artist, or how his style developed, if indeed it did develop and didn’t just come out that way naturally. The movie comes across as a last visit with Giger, whose gait has been slowed and speech thickened by time but whose eyes still twinkle with mischievous spirit. We meet various people in his sphere, including an ex-wife and an assistant. They all help him deal with his paperwork and his massive collection of art and books — he’s a bit of a hoarder. A couple of the rooms in his mazelike Zurich house look like the rooms cluttered with chicken remains and human bones in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, except here the remains are just art.

The movie talks a little about Giger’s first wife, who killed herself in 1975, and whose fate is still a raw wound for Giger. Perhaps understandably, Sallin doesn’t engage with the long-standing rumor that Giger had his late wife’s skeleton stripped by carpet beetles and installed in his home. Then again, the tragedy is about the only whisper of darkness in Dark Star. Giger is surrounded by people who love and admire him. He’s turned his home into every creative person’s dream, including a sort of ghost train in his garden, which tracks through a variety of Giger-esque visions of birth. He even has the prerequisite standoffish cat (“Muggi III”) who has the run of the place. The movie is an appreciation but not really an investigation into Giger’s life or work or the connection between the two.

Sometimes a more conventional documentary can answer questions. I was curious to what extent, if any, Giger’s dark biomechanical sensibility was forged by growing up in Europe during wartime (Switzerland was famously neutral in WWII, but was bombed multiple times anyway by the Allies due to its closeness to Axis countries). I’m still curious. If you always wanted to watch Giger sign autographs or sit in meetings, Dark Star will be your jam. You do get to see some vintage footage of him at work with his airbrush, or on the set of Alien, though you’d think that was the only movie he ever worked on. (His alien from Species is referred to obliquely, but there’s no mention of, say, Poltergeist II or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s infamously aborted Dune.)

In brief, Dark Star is an object for Giger fans, not an argument for why he has fans. It’s made to be shelved alongside his Necronomicon and the Alien box set; it doesn’t bother cozying up to the uninitiated. Which is its right, I guess, but as a casual admirer of his work, I didn’t learn much, nor did the sight and sound of an obviously pained Giger make me feel especially good about gaining access to his “world.” At times, the camera seems intrusive, tracking him as he makes his halting way between shelves that groan under the weight of art books, or recording his slurred speech (stroke? mouth cancer?) as he speaks about his late wife. The film gets close when we don’t want it to, and vice versa.

1915

April 12, 2015

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If you look for narrative films made by Armenian filmmakers about the Armenian genocide of 1915, you will come up short. There are a few, but two of the most recent major films on the subject were directed by a Turkish-German and a pair of Italian brothers. On the other hand, movies like Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002) and now Gavin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian’s 1915 seem to need to hold the Turkish massacres of the Armenians at a distance, through layers of representation. Egoyan’s film dealt with Armenians trying to make a movie about the genocide, and 1915 is about Armenians trying to put on a play about it. Are the repugnant events themselves too painful still for Armenians to look at them and depict them straight on?

Simon (Simon Abkarian) has written a play called 1915, which has set off a firestorm of controversy even before anyone has seen it performed. Why? Because its plot deals with an Armenian woman who chooses to go off with a Turkish soldier who offers her — and himself — freedom. A great many Armenians are outraged by this — it’s as though a Jewish woman at Auschwitz accepted help from a kindly camp guard. The protesters are having too literal a reaction, though, as protesters often do. Simon has written a play about forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. The play, it turns out, is therapy for his wife Angela (Angela Sarafyan), who plays the Armenian woman in the play. Angela hasn’t acted in seven years, since her and Simon’s infant son died.

The climax of the play, which Simon won’t let his cast rehearse, hinges upon whether Angela, in character, can accept the Turkish soldier’s hand and forgive herself for leaving her husband and son behind. I’m not sure whether this is as urgent a subject as the actual Armenian genocide, which the movie doesn’t seem to want to look at directly, as if it were a solar eclipse, a black hole sun swallowing reason and happiness. Most of 1915 deals with backstage frustrations, and it suffers from the malady afflicting most movies about putting on a play: the play itself looks like dinner-theater dramaturgy. This may have been intentional in a metafiction like Birdman, but here we’re clearly meant to respect Simon’s play as an attempt to dig down to the truth.

The truth of what, though? The movie handles the difficult subject only tangentially, symbolically, glancingly. I’m sorry to say that the actress on whom much of the play’s and film’s pathos rests is rather inexpressive. And there’s a method actor (Nikolai Kinski, Klaus’ lookalike son) involved in the movie’s goofiest twist concerning a hostile interviewer. If not for Leigh Lisbão Underwood’s handsome cinematography, I’d peg 1915 as fairly amateurish, not to mention pretentious. The great modern film made by Armenians about their greatest catastrophe remains to be made, I guess. And here we have this inconsequential film being released in time for the genocide’s 100th anniversary. A shame, that. Maybe there’ll be a better one for the 150th.

Furious Seven

April 5, 2015

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Everything we know about the making of Furious Seven — especially the tragedy of star Paul Walker’s death during production — informs our experience of the movie. It takes on an inadvertent subtext of fragility in the face of the world’s chaos, and that’s a pretty loud and dissonant ghost to be haunting the attic of such a goofily over-the-top blockbuster. Every action scene, every daredevil set piece involving Paul Walker, especially as the film moves past the hour mark, takes us out of the narrative as we ask ourselves, Is this it? Is this how they kill off Walker’s character? There’s a moment when his onscreen avatar, Brian O’Conner, seems to sacrifice himself so that someone else can live; the moment doesn’t last long, and it may, for all I know, have been part of the script even before Walker died, but it still resonates in a way that throws the movie’s high-flying escapist tone out of whack.

The plot is idiotic even by the standards of the Fast and Furious franchise. It has to do with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the vengeful brother of the previous film’s villain. His motive is simply to kill everyone responsible for putting his bro in the hospital, including Brian, Dom (Vin Diesel), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). That makes six, and a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) fills out the furious seven (which is how the title appears onscreen, contradicting the marketing, which calls the film Furious 7). Ramsey has a surveillance thing called God’s Eye that can track down Shaw. A government bigwig calling himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) tells Dom he can borrow God’s Eye if he rescues Ramsey from a cadre of terrorists. Also, Iggy Azalea shows up. I laughed at that bit, figuring that in twenty years or so, a random viewer of Furious Seven will wonder who the blond woman is who talks to Michelle Rodriguez.

Otherwise, the movie’s appeal is sort of timeless, relying on outlandish stunts as well as prolonged fight scenes that would realistically put both parties in the hospital after thirty seconds. The skydiving-cars sequence has already attained action-flick legend status, though comparing the ensuing car chase to the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as at least one critic has done, is just silliness. The presence of Kurt Russell reminded me unhelpfully of the dazzling climactic chase in Quentin Tarantino’s otherwise dull Death Proof, a chase done without computer enhancement of any kind. Here, so much trickery is used, including the digital recreation of Paul Walker in scenes he didn’t live to film, there aren’t any physical stakes. The increasing gigantism of this series has made it more 007-like, and changed it in a significant way from what it started out as — a B-movie in-name-only remake of a ’50s Roger Corman production — but has drained the action of credibility.

Jason Statham gets into fights with Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel; Paul Walker dukes it out with Tony Jaa; Michelle Rodriguez and Ronda Rousey, each wearing fabulous dresses, wreck the dresses and each other. These bouts, though also physically dubious, pack more entertainment value than the overamped car vrooming and explosions and drones firing missiles all over L.A. Maybe it’s because we know two actual people — maybe two actual stunt people in most cases, but so what? — did actual training and actual rehearsals to perform the fights in actual space. It’s the sort of thing a filmmaker can stage anywhere, and doesn’t need to jet off to Abu Dhabi and destroy three skyscrapers and spend, in total, in the neighborhood of $250 million. I will say, though, that the franchise’s way of bidding adieu to Paul Walker is tastefully, even touchingly achieved. Well done. A simple overhead shot of two cars counts for more than half a dozen cars (mostly real, I learn, but who can tell?) plummeting out of an airplane. It’s what fans of the series will remember from this film, as they should.