Archive for June, 2010

After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet)

Thursday, June 24th, 2010—Film

After the Wedding (Denmark/Sweden 2006, Drama), Writer: Anders Thomas Jensen; Director: Susanne Bier

After the Wedding is an incredibly moving, impeccably acted film. It was a 2007 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, although it lost to the deserving German movie The Lives of Others.

I almost rented After the Wedding when it was first released, after noticing its star, Mads Mikkelsen, in Casino Royale (he was Le Chiffre, or the guy who cries blood). I’m not sure why I didn’t follow through a couple years ago, but last night when the film came up in conversation, I couldn’t put it off. So I went out again into the rain to rent it, popped it in the DVD player and promptly stayed up much too late finishing it. I loved it.

The film opens in Mumbai, where Danish aid worker Jacob (Mikkelsen) manages a dilapidated orphanage. The place is gravely run down, so when the director receives an offer of a substantial donation from a Danish corporation, she’s inclined to do whatever the CEO commands. In this case, that includes sending Jacob back to his native Copenhagen to meet with the CEO, Jorgen Hannson (Rolf Lassgård). At first, Jacob refuses. It seems that although he has dedicated his life to the orphanage, his choices haven’t only been about improving the lives of others; he’s also been trying to escape his own.

When the orphanage director makes it clear that he doesn’t have a say in the matter, Jacob reluctantly flies home. Upon meeting with Jorgen, Jacob realizes the transaction won’t be as simple as shaking hands and posing for a photo op. Jorgen invites Jacob to stay for his daughter’s wedding, and only after the ceremony do we begin to explore what Jacob—along with Jorgen and his family—have been running from.

Watching After the Wedding is a bit like watching an Actors Studio showcase. There are so many beautifully performed scenes where the actors bare incredibly raw emotion, but so skillfully and with such restraint that even moments at the height of anguish and heartbreak are never over-the-top.

Adding to this sense of realism is director Susanne Bier’s decision to shoot on video using a handheld camera. The style reminds me of another excellent hyperrealist film, Rachel Getting Married. Both movies are well served by the approach, which creates the sense of immediacy you’d find in a home video. It’s an especially appropriate choice for After the Wedding because it provides a fitting documentary feel during the scenes at the Mumbai orphanage. My only stylistic complaint is Bier’s overuse of extreme close-ups. Some of them work, particularly those that emphasize hands or objects. But she’s a little too in-your-face with the tight shots of eyes and lips.

I can’t say much about the plot without revealing points that should be discovered firsthand. But what I love most about the film—aside from the exquisite performances, without which the movie couldn’t possibly work—is the bittersweet journey the characters go through as they try to find their place in the world, that place where you truly feel at home. As we see in After the Wedding’s final scene, and particularly its final shot, you can’t forge a home where you don’t belong, and you can’t ever really feel at home by trying to outrun the past.

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“Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide/Together we can live with the sadness/I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul/Someday baby I don’t know when we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun/But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run.”

The D.A.D. (Drawing A Day) Project

Thursday, June 10th, 2010—News

My friend Emily Chen and her sister Serena just launched The D.A.D. Project, “an ongoing, online, art-based fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society, the largest national charitable funder of cancer research in Canada.” Dedicated to their father, who has been fighting colon cancer since May 2009, The D.A.D. Project will showcase the Chen sisters’ artwork as they take turns posting a new piece every weekday.

The drawings are available for sale at www.theDADproject.etsy.com, with $10 from every item sold being donated to the Canadian Cancer Society. Please visit www.thedadproject.com to learn more.

Sling Blade

Thursday, June 10th, 2010—Film

Sling Blade (USA 1996, Drama), Writer/Director: Billy Bob Thornton

Sling Blade is easily one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It’s made me completely high on the artfulness of filmmaking, and all the facets it includes—script, score, acting, direction, cinematography, sound and set design… When everything comes together, film has the potential to be completely riveting. And Sling Blade definitely delivers on that promise.

I am in awe of Billy Bob Thornton, who not only starred in and directed the film, but also took home the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Sling Blade is based on his short screenplay, Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade). He brings the elements of filmmaking together in such a distinct and effective way that I’m left utterly inspired and quite speechless. So it’s a good thing for keyboards.

Sling Blade opens as Karl Childers (Thornton) is about to be released from a mental hospital, having spent several decades imprisoned for murdering his mother and her boyfriend at the age of 12. As he explains, in his lurching and raspy way, he killed them with a sling blade (“Some folks call it a kaiser blade; I call it a sling blade.”) because he caught them in the act and thought they were doing wrong. He intended only to kill the man, whom he assumed was assaulting his married mother; when he realized she was willingly committing adultery, he killed her too.

But Karl is no longer deemed a threat to society because, as he says, he sees no reason to kill anyone else. He returns to his rural Arkansas hometown and soon befriends a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black). Frank’s mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) invites Karl to move in with them. And then Karl meets Linda’s abusive boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), and Karl begins to see that there may be a reason to kill someone else after all.

The film’s tagline is: “A simple man. A difficult choice.” But Karl is anything but simple. Sure, when asked what he’s thinking after sitting in what appears to be ponderous thought, he replies that he was wondering whether to bring French fried taters home with him. But he’s also clearly spent a lot of time considering what separates right from wrong. He’s looked to the bible (whose words his parents often distorted to their advantage as they raised him), and to those around him, and he’s weighed his past decisions. In the end, he comes up with some answers of his own.

From the outset, Sling Blade called to mind distinct components of two other excellent films: David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and the Cohen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. In its opening scene, Sling Blade drags out the sound of a chair being pulled across the floor as one of Karl’s inmates approaches him. In letting the camera linger on the two men, and holding the scraping sound far longer than you would expect, Thornton immediately sets the tone for the tension that plays out through most of the film. You wonder what sinister acts the inmate has in mind. If any. But that’s the point—you never know.

The scene reminded me of the long and eerily calm opening shot in A History of Violence, which very effectively establishes a feeling of calm before the storm. Except with Sling Blade, that feeling is maintained throughout the entire film. We don’t even have to see the violence. Thornton is confident to have the camera nestle in and let us visualize the violence to come without ever showing it. There’s a scene when Doyle outdoes himself, tearing into Frank and Linda in a drunken rage. The entire episode plays out in one long take, with Doyle and the others in the background, while Karl sits in the foreground listening as Doyle digs himself in deeper and deeper. The viewer is left to fill in what other directors might have addressed through fancy camera work or narration.

Sling Blade features many tableaux like that, where the characters are given space to interact without the interruption of cuts and close-ups. This isn’t just a default approach for Thornton; he knows to mix it up by varying the pace of the direction, editing and music (provided by the legendary Daniel Lanois) when it suits the story. It’s simply a way of letting the characters talk and the story unfold in a highly captivating manner. It works because the script is insightful and layered, and the actors are perfectly cast. Even Karl’s creepy inmate from the opening scene tells his tales in such a compelling way that his words become tangible, and all Thornton had to do was let his actor talk.

What reminded me of No Country for Old Men is the matter of fact way in which Karl seems to process death. The killer in No Country for Old Men (played by Javier Bardem) seems to represent the hand of fate, and there is an element of that in Sling Blade. Although with Karl, it seems more that he’s the hand of god. Yes, he’s a murderer. But it’s not clear that he’s in the wrong. He never acts out of a need for violence; he simply carries out the acts he believes to be right, whether because it’s what he was taught as a child, or what he came to decide on his own as an adult. (“Some folks call it murder …”)

Throughout Sling Blade, I found myself marveling at both the compelling and often daring stylistic choices, and the unabashed exploration of right versus wrong. Thornton’s approach to both is to lay it all on the line and let it play out before us, never rushing it, never forcing anything. The end result is a brilliant film that continues to roll in your mind long after the last frame.

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MR, I dedicate this post to you. Thank you for recommending Sling Blade (I’ll have to get to the others on your list), and thank you for letting me know you’re out there reading all my posts. I’ll never stop writing now.

Splice

Friday, June 4th, 2010—Film

Splice (Canada/France/USA 2010, Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller), Writers: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor; Director: Vincenzo Natali

Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) are just your typical 30-something couple. They’ve been living together for a few years, and Clive is thinking children but Elsa isn’t quite there yet. So they create a pseudo-child by splicing human DNA with the DNA of other, unspecified animals (though you can be sure there’s something amphibious in the mix).

I’m still shaky from having seen Splice. That must be a testament to its power and poignancy. I’ll try to be coherent here, but the second-last scene really disturbed me, even though it was foreshadowed in a scene between Elsa and her hybrid creation, Dren (Nerd spelled backwards).

Clive and Elsa are overachieving biochemists who have been successfully splicing the DNA of different non-human species for many years. Under the threat of having their operation shut down, they rashly move forward with splicing human and non-human DNA in secret. The results, of course, are bound to be disastrous, as we’ve learned from all previous creature features of this sort (and in case there was any doubt, the sinister music in the very cool opening titles confirms this). But first, Elsa and Clive bond with Dren, each in their own way. Despite Elsa’s protests that she isn’t ready for motherhood, she ends up stepping eagerly into that role once Dren emerges from her synthetic womb. Even Dren’s arrival parallels a birthing scene, with Elsa—her mother—moaning in pain over a wound inflicted by her “child.”

As Dren grows up (at a highly accelerated pace due to some indeterminate factor in her genetic make-up), Clive and Elsa experience the growing pains that typically accompany parenthood, including having trouble making time for work or each other. But as Dren’s mind and body grow increasingly sophisticated, her parents’ problems become anything but typical, and they soon realize the depth of their error and arrogance.

What’s alarming is how quickly Elsa turns punitive, shaming and maiming Dren, who is her child in all respects—Elsa gave her life, and raised her from infancy. We learn that Elsa’s own mother was something of a nightmare, keeping Elsa in small, dirty room with little more than a mattress as furnishing. As Clive tells it, Elsa didn’t want to have children because she was afraid of losing control, so she opted for engineering her offspring in a lab. It’s no coincidence that when her “carefully controlled” experiment goes awry, Elsa brings Dren to no other place than the home where she herself was raised (in the middle of the woods, no less); a place Elsa ran from to escape her “crazy” mother.

Splice has an obvious point to make about the dangers that creep up when ego and corporate agendas mix with science. But more than that, the film paints a terrifying picture of what happens when we try to control nature (no matter how good the intentions), and how lasting the effects of parenting can be. Watching Dren grow up at warp speed presents an exaggerated study in just how badly children can be damaged by the “wrong” parenting choices. Whenever Elsa thinks she knows best, it quickly becomes clear that Mother Nature knows better.

Elsa and Clive’s mistake is in tampering with something they don’t truly understand. The more they try to control Dren, the more their problems escalate, until both Elsa and Clive cross the line in hideous ways. It’s hard not to wonder if things would have gone so wrong had Dren been given the respect and freedom she asked for, rather than being confined and demeaned. There is no doubt that creating Dren was a mistake. But the mistakes her parents make after her birth point to something far more disturbing than the creatures they engineer—the human capacity for corruption.

I recommend Splice, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that I’m still reeling from it. It’s well paced, and has slick editing, particularly at the beginning. Its script is as intelligent as it is dark and disturbing. Definitely worth seeing, and then considering for awhile afterward.