Bandidas

February 5, 2007

Bandidas

This movie was horrible. Not Soul plane horrible or even My super ex-girlfriend horrible, but I had to pause for a second to come up with those two examples. Unbelievable that Salma Hayek actually appears with a straight face in a small special in the DVD explaining how Penélope Cruz and herself wanted for so long to collaborate, to make this movie together. How insulting! Avoid it like the plague.


World War Z

February 5, 2007

World War Z

Subtitled An oral history of the zombie war, this book was certainly a gratifying surprise. Never having been particularly interested in zombies or horror, I am not sure why I took a look at this book in the first place. What immediately caught my attention, the reason why I decided to give it a try, was the style in which the story is being told. The framework is a series of transcripts of interviews being conducted around the world by a United Nations representative (presumably somebody named Max Brooks) about a decade after the end of the war. It should immediately remind the reader of Studs Terkel’s “The good war”.

I really enjoyed the book, although talking of enjoyment feels incorrect. It is a stark story, with many depressing passages. It is not a horror novel, and there is not more gore here than what you would expect to find in war fiction. What you have instead is snapshots of how people cope with the events being related. Apparently a virus is responsible for the first few cases; although this is not stated explicitly, it seems clear that it is the product of the Chinese chemical warfare industry. The Chinese government tries to keep the first few incidents quiet by removing victims and witnesses, and as a result many people in early stages of infection try to illegally emigrate. There is some description of the pathology of the virus, of which not much is known, but it kills the victim in the traditional sense, while keeping the brain somehow running. The infected “reanimate” and attack and only by destroying the brain can they be stopped. Of course, nobody pays much attention to the first few cases, and by the time concerned voices go public (and are finally believed) it is too late. The book describes effectively how standard war tactics and artillery are of no use, and how people try to escape in huge herds, producing the largest exodus in history (and casualties in the millions). Rather than what I was fearing when I began to read—namely, countless descriptions of zombies overrunning poor families trapped in dark allies—a big part of the gloom of the story comes from how governments and individuals react, of the many terrible things they do to survive or of how meanness and greed are ever-present.

If I had to classify the book as anything, I would say it is a good example of what now is called mundane science-fiction (or is it mundane-science fiction?). There are many neat examples throughout the book of how the events described affect the world, its climate, ecology, economics, politics, language. We see examples of several genuinely new psychiatric disorders and a few unexplained events (the ultimate fate of North Korea is perhaps the most haunting). It is not a comedy by any means (although a few passages are witty and humorous) but apparently is presented in some libraries in the humor section, something I do not understand at all. Quite well researched, Brooks also uses the formal framework to his advantage, so we do not see many technical descriptions or statistics and a few important events are left out of the picture. Something worth mentioning is how many details are told by omission, how we understand some of the events precisely because they are not described. Some of the passages where this device is used are the most effective of the book. The framework Brooks chooses to tell his story presents serious storytelling difficulties: With many voices to present, there is the risk of different voices becoming indistinguishable, but this actually does not happen. And I kept expecting first-person problems, which is how I describe the series of narrative shortcomings almost always present in first person narratives; the most serious of these is to have people say too much, to compensate for the lack of omniscient descriptions. I was glad to find my fears unfounded. 

As surprising as I find typing this, I recommend this book without reservations. 


Letters from Iwo Jima

February 5, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our fathers constitute the only example I know of two movies relating the same event from different points of view. It is more significant since both have the same director, Clint Eastwood; both are very good on their own; and neither one succumbs to facile rhetoric or caricature. These two movies tell the story of the Allied assault on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during the Pacific war; Letters is the story from the Japanese point of view. We see a group of scared men who have been drawn into a war they do not fully understand. We also see how modern military tactics and old traditions of honor do not always merge seamlessly. And we see men who know are being left to die and decide to fight anyway, knowing they cannot win, simply hoping to keep the invaders as long as they can from conquering the island and thus gaining an important assault point on mainland Japan.

Filmed entirely in Japanese, the movie tries to capture accurately Japanese traditions and their mindset. Shot in mute tones, almost black and white emphasizing the arid terrain, there are almost no bright colors except for explosions and blood, the result being quite effective. The acting is impeccable, with Ken Watanabe as Lt. General Kuribayashi, the man in charge of the defense of the island, and whose real letters to his family form the basis of the film. These two movies are a good statement of what war really is about for most of its participants, independently of politics or economics. Highly recommended.

Steven Spielberg is one of the producers of both films. I remember there was some talk after the excellent series Band of Brothers aired to do a similar project based on the Pacific war. I suppose this is the end result of that idea, and one of the best movies of last year.

Update: The project mentioned at the end is The Pacific, also recommended.


The cabinet of Doctor Caligari

February 5, 2007

The cabinet of Doctor Caligari

The cabinet of Doctor Caligari is a 1920 German expressionist film. It is in fact one of the earliest examples of expressionism in films, and the imagery is an important part of the story. Told in a long flashback, within which another flashback occurs, The cabinet tells of a young man whose friend is murdered and his life is completely turned upside down by the mysterious Doctor Caligari and his assistant the somnambulist Cesare.

I must say I figured the ending of the story from the very beginning, so I am not sure how much of a plot twist it was intended to be, although according to the film commentary, the original script was different precisely because it did not have this end, which was added by the director. I think it is the end what makes the film work as a narrative and not just as an artistic experiment.

The score that accompanies the DVD version I saw was composed for the DVD. Apparently, early silent movies were to be shown with a score playing on the background, but it was the responsability of the theatre showing the film to provide this music. It certainly was a nice addition to the mood of the story and I must say that recent exposure to early films has made me realize how important and carefully planned music used to be while in most mainstream movies nowadays it is loud and distracting.  

Part of what I enjoy looking at in old films is the way storytelling conventions have evolved, the way scenes are framed, how they fade, or how attention is drawn to particular areas or characters. Due to the highly artificial scenery in this story, most sets seem to only work from one position, so there are some curious technical difficulties the director has to overcome here. There are also a few other peculiarities, like how areas of the set where an important action occurs are “illuminated,” or the excessive use of make-up by some of the characters, which gives the whole story an odd and somewhat dreamlike quality. Very nice.


La Jetée

February 5, 2007

La Jetée

La Jetée is the short film (shy of half an hour) from 1962 upon which 12 monkeys is based; click on the image above to see the film on Google video. For some reason I hadn’t seen this before, which is odd since I like 12 monkeys very much, so it was good to remedy that deficiency.

It is a nice experimental piece, most of it a photomontage with a short shot (it is introduced as a photo-roman). There is a voice-over narration that tells us of a war and of the experiments of the survivors with time travel (the way time travel is used is significantly different from how it is in 12 monkeys). The winners of the war are German, and there are short bits of dialogue in German, doctors dealing with their test subjects.

It was nice to see that the reference to Vertigo is already present here. Other than that, the plot of 12 monkeys is actually significantly different even if there are obviously recognizable benchmarks; La Jetée is concerned with memory and identity, and thus with subjectivity. I am glad I finally got the chance to experience it.


When the levees broke

February 5, 2007

When the levees broke

Subtitled A requiem in four acts, this excellent Spike Lee documentary chronicles the tragedy of New Orleans after being hit by hurricane Katrina. Lee shows you what happened during the storm and afterwards, how it took some time for the federal government to respond, and how people are still finding their way back, not everybody wanting to return, and some not having the means to do so. The images of complete destruction are haunting, and on a much larger scale than what most news channels showed. Many of the survivors who went back to the city now live in not very sturdy trailers, for which they had to wait several months even though the trailers were parked and waiting. The reconstruction efforts are very slow, some people got back to their houses to find nothing but rubble or even bodies—even though the houses had supposedly been inspected and found `clean.’ It is clear that nobody was prepared for a disaster of this magnitude, but it is incredible that so little was done to avoid the appalling aftermath.

You see a few courageous heroes who stayed to help or even went to the city and helped save lives when the streets were flooded and people were drowning. You also get to see police officers blocking bridges so people cannot get out. Insurance companies trying to avoid payments. People still suffering and waiting for help. At the end, you see those who have returned and how they are working to save the spirit of the city.

Moving and sad, this is a great example of what documentaries should be like.