4/19/04:

I got out of work slightly early today and took a brisk walk down to the Prince Music Theater to check out my first movie. There was only a modest crowd for it. I enjoyed sitting in my usual seat, listening to the fine music they were piping into the theater--Aimee Mann, among others. Eventually, Travis did his intro, and revealed that the rookie director of the film, Vladimir Vitkin, was there for the screening. Vladimir didn't have much to say, however, so soon enough the movie started rolling.

Films I saw today: Do Not Disturb, X, Y, Reconstruction, and Cops

Do Not Disturb

This is a short film that played in front of X, Y. I can't say I was particularly impressed with it. In fact, it's kind of dumb. It goes like this: a guy has just finished taking a shower in his hotel room, when he hears what sounds like a really violent argument going on next door. He begins listening intently through the wall, even going so far as to put a glass up against it in the hopes that he will hear better. He tries calling the hotel staff and telling them about the fight, but they're too busy to check it out. He stands in his room, not sure of what to do. Suddenly, it's completely silent next door. Certain that something serious has happened, the man sneaks into the neighboring room. But things aren't quite as he expected. He finds that he's trespassed on a woman alone, who demands that he get out. Then a man shows up (presumably the woman's partner) and is unsurprisingly a little alarmed at finding a strange man in his hotel room. Our hero doesn't handle things very well, and soon enough a serious fight has broken out.

I guess the moral of the story is, don't get involved in something you don't know anything about? Kind of trite. I guess we're supposed to sympathize with the listening guy, but actually he acts like kind of a prick at the end of the story. Pretty much this movie didn't work very well for me. If we'd have been rating this one, I'd have given it a Fair, or maybe even a Poor.

X, Y

Here's a seriously disturbing film about gender, identity, pain, and sex. The premise is that one night, the minds/personalities of a man and the stripper/dancer that he's watching switch bodies. Or at least, that's what seems to happen. Another explanation is that the stripper has developed severe mental problems, or that she has some kind of really strange form of amnesia. But even assuming we know what happened, how it happens is also unclear, although strangely enough the movie suggests that sound may be the culprit. The film begins with some text splashed up on the screen about how the brain can be affected by loud noises, and then it goes to some pains to demonstrate how loud the city is where this is taking place. And when the moment comes, a loud, piercing sound assaults our characters, and they collapse to the ground holding their ears.

Now, if a Hollywood film had a premise like this, it would probably end up being a raunchy romantic comedy. Much wackiness and embarrassment would ensue, and it would finish up with the two characters getting their minds switched back somehow, and each would have learned a lot about the opposite sex and how difficult it was for them, and so forth, and so on.

But this is not a Hollywood film. When the body of the stripper, Frankie, wakes up, and the mind inside realizes that it no longer has a man's body, Frankie completely freaks out. She certainly doesn't recognize Frankie's boyfriend, Terry. She goes to the strip club to try to find out what happened. The bouncer isn't very forthcoming, although he does provide drugs. Unfortunately, he then demands that she go on stage and do her job--strip. This scene, though it might have been light and fun in a Hollywood film, is deeply disturbing and provocative here.

Finally, Frankie manages to get out and track down the man that collapsed at the strip joint the night before. At this point you might be thinking, "Ah ha! Now they'll talk to each other, realize what's happened, and start to formulate a plan about how to switch back!" But you'd be wrong. When Frankie finds the guy, he's comatose in the hospital, and before she gets a chance to even talk to him, he dies.

Feeling trapped and lost, Frankie returns to the only place she remembers--the apartment where she woke up that morning. Frankie tries to tell Terry what's going on, but he doesn't believe her. He thinks she's just trying to hurt him or avoid him somehow. He gets angry and drunk and finally rapes her.

Are you feeling sick and creeped out yet? Well, it gets a lot worse. For a while, Frankie stays with her mother to avoid Terry and to recover from what has happened. But Terry keeps calling, desperate to have her back, and to make up. And Frankie isn't changing back. So she starts dressing like a woman. And finally she decides to go back to Terry, but on new terms. She has become strong, in control. She demands that he take another job to make extra money and provide for her. On his day off, she makes him clean the apartment. When her mother checks in with her to make sure she's okay, she says, "It's all right. I'm learning. It's an adventure." And then the adventure really begins. Soon their relationship spirals downward into slavery and mutilation and torture. Eventually Frankie falters, becomes ashamed, but they've gone too far by then; Terry has come to thrive on this treatment, and demands more. "Don't stop what you've started," he pleads. "When we hit bottom," Frankie says, "remember what you've just said."

And they do indeed hit bottom. Around the time that Frankie pierces Terry's lip, people in the audience started to walk out. (By the way, I'd skip this next bit if you don't want to know how things turn out.) Ultimately Frankie has Terry crouching on the floor naked, afraid of his own reflection. "I'm your nightmare," she says. She makes him dance for her, and then brings in an outsider to show him off, and we seem to have completed some kind of circle. All this time, she has been trying to destroy him, to turn him against her, but he's only come back for more. When she gives him a knife, he doesn't attack her, but himself. Standing over his bed in the hospital, looking stunned and sad, Frankie can say only, "I haven't been myself lately."

X, Y is full of degradation and horror and violence of various kinds. It makes some pretty harsh comments about how we as a society view and treat women. It takes certain stereotypes to their brutal, literal conclusions. Perhaps it overstates its points a bit. Perhaps some of the acting could be better. Perhaps most of the people who came to the movie would have preferred that Hollywood comedy I was describing. But X, Y makes us uncomfortable, and it makes us think, and only the very best movies do that.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

Intermission

On my way out of the movie I saw my friend Alex in line for the next show and said hello. Then I walked across town to the Ritz. Today I was smart enough to pack a few extra sandwiches for dinner instead of relying on fast food, so when I got into the theater I ate and watched the people filter in. I've started recognizing a lot of folks now. One guy I remember from the last couple of festivals--a large man who always sits near the front and brings a laptop with him. He opens it up before the movie starts and plays with it for a while. I'm not sure what he's doing; maybe taking notes like I am.

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Reconstruction

Here's a strange, cerebral, surreal, postmodern love story in the form of a Danish film about stories and memory and love and film. "This is not the beginning," the narrator tells us as the film begins, "but we begin here." And a little later, "It's all a film, a construction. But even so, it hurts."

We are introduced to two of the story's main characters--Alex and Aimee. We see them interact in a bar. It's not clear whether they're meeting for the first time, and Alex is trying to pick her up, or whether they're already together and are just play-acting a first meeting. The narrator doesn't explain; he just asks questions, or offers us possibilities. He suggests that this is a timeless meeting, that it has happened before, that it always happens this way.

Then the movie pulls out and rewinds and we meet the film's four main characters: August, a cold and seemingly passionless man who writes successful novels about love; his wife Aimee, who feels alone and abandoned by her busy husband; Alex, a young man; and Simone, his girlfriend. Using overhead shots of the city reminiscent of satellite photos, the movie points out the locations of our characters as if indicating places of interest on a map.

On one particular street corner, while they are both watching a magic trick, Alex and Aimee see each other, perhaps for the first time? But he is meeting his girlfriend here. The three of them happen to board the same train. Simone tries to show affection to Alex, but he is distracted by Aimee. So distracted, that when Aimee gets off the train, Alex follows her, leaving Simone with little explanation. Soon enough, Alex and Aimee are in bed together.

Is this actually all just August's latest novel that we're seeing? Are parts of it real and parts of it the fiction he's creating?

The next morning, Alex leaves Aimee's hotel room only moments before her husband arrives. By chance, they meet in the hallway and August asks him for a light for his cigarette. Alex reaches for his lighter only to realize that he's left it with Aimee. He considers going back, but does not. When August gets home, he quickly discerns what has happened from the condition of the room, but says nothing.

The movie, even though it is in many ways quite cold and cerebral, is full of sequences, like the "close call" described above, that are full of tension and passion. It is a calculating, scientific examination of love that manages to not leave out the drama and confusion and pain that love illicits.

And now the movie takes an even more odd and surreal turn. (I'll warn you here that the next two paragraphs are loaded with spoilers.) Alex arrives back at his flat to discover that he can't get into his room, and that his landlady doesn't remember him. In fact, no one seems to remember him. Each time he meets someone he used to know, there's a moment, sometimes even minutes, of doubt, for him, and for us. Does this person remember him? It seems like maybe... But then, no. Not even Simone remembers him; not even his father remembers him. Will Aimee at least remember him? It seems at first that she does. She even has his lighter, which he left with her last night by mistake. The narrator talks about this scene as if it is a scene; he suggests different possibilities, just as he had at the beginning of the film.

Alex manages a reconnection of a kind with Aimee--they arrange a meeting for that night. But that night, Alex randomly runs into Simone again, and finds himself trying to reconnect with her, as well. Torn between both women, he ultimately loses both. The film--a construction, a magic trick--ends.

As my fellow audience members stood up to exit the theater, I heard them saying things like, "I'm confused," and "That was bizarre." And indeed, Reconstruction is a rather bizarre and confusing film. Like X, Y, it is no Hollywood romantic comedy; it will force you to think about things. I can't say I understand completely what it's trying to say. I can say that it is written, directed, edited, filmed, and acted all with the utmost skill and style. And what it's about should be obvious to anyone. The emotions it depicts and evokes are universal--feelings of loss, of being forgotten and abandoned; feelings of desire and confusion; betrayal and being betrayed. Love, in other words. Reconstruction is a story about love. It happens to also be a postmodern allegory. But it is still only about love, that most complex and simple and human of emotions.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

I was really impressed by Reconstruction, and a little frustrated with my fellow movie-goers for being so dense about it. But I shook off my annoyance and jumped the El across town to the Bridge for my final film of the night--a much lighter one that required a lot less thinking.

Before the film, I met a guy named Bob that I'd seen at a lot of other movies during the festival. He's a really interesting, really nice guy. He's a big fan of Asian films--the more action/gore, the better. He recommended one or two films to me, and we talked about a lot of other films. It was a pleasure to meet him and speak to him. I gave him my email address and I hope to get to know him better.

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Cops

Cops (2003, directed by Josef Fares) is a Swedish film that is at once a parody of, and an homage to, American comedies and action films. It's premise certainly sounds like that of an American slapstick comedy--a police station in a small town, which employs a bunch of lovable local characters, is going to be shut down in three months by the National Bureau of Police. The reason? There are so few crimes committed in the town, it's not worth the expense of keeping the place open. But the cops at the station love their jobs, and don't know what else they'd do if they lost them. So they concoct a crazy scheme--they'll start creating their own crimes so that the town seems more dangerous and the police station appears needed again. As you might expect, wacky hijinks of all sort ensue. But what you might not expect is that the hijinks are actually funny.

A large part of the humor of the film comes from the fact that each of the cops is a well-developed and likable character with his or her own amusing eccentricities and preoccupations. The main character, Jacob, is a nice young guy, perhaps a little funny-looking, who's desperate for love. He also, for some reason, can't get out of a car without honking the horn by head-butting it. He goes on blind date after blind date, looking for the right woman. So far, things haven't worked out so well. The film opens with his latest date. He's sitting in a restaurant with a woman. She decides to establish right away whether they should continue getting to know each other by asking him a series of questions. After he's answered a few of them, she decides it's not going to work out, and leaves before they've even ordered dinner.

Another of the cops is a tough guy in sunglasses named Benny. Benny is constantly having hilarious American action movie fantasies in which he is the buff, nigh super-human hero. He also knits and loves his cat. Two of the other cops are an older couple who are alwasy bickering.

One night, Jacob heads to the bar for his latest blind date. He meets a beautiful woman named Jessica and they start talking and they're having a great time--until Jacob's actual date shows up. But he plans to meet Jessica again some time. And the next morning, he does meet her. She's the woman the National Bureau of Police has sent to shut down their station. (This reminded me of a similar sequence of events in Top Gun, and considering all the references to American action and comedy films in this movie--including the Rambo movies, Back to the Future, and The Matrix--I'm betting the similarity is no coincidence.)

To be fair, the Bureau has a good point. These guys don't do anything. They sit around playing cards with old ladies, and get cheated by them. They argue about what names should be given to their two cop cars. They go to the local food stand and eat waffle hot dogs. They play street hockey. Every once in a while, they get called to help capture a stray cow that's wandered into town.

But when their jobs are threatened, they leap clumsily into action. They start paying bums to steal from convenience stores. They kick over trash cans and cover walls with graffiti. Then they move on to arson, gun fights, and hostage situations. By then, of course, things have gotten out of control, and their plans fall spectacularly apart. Luckily, this is a comedy, so everything works out all right in the end.

I realize this movie may not sound very good from my description. And frankly, I was surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. But it is really very funny, and extremely entertaining. My jaw hurt from smiling and laughing by the time it was over. Every scene has at least one laugh-out-loud joke in it. The story is involving, Benny's dream/parody sequences are completely hilarious, and there is plenty of fine comedic acting. What makes the movie work, as I suggested above, is that it is well written, and is about real people that we as an audience actually care about. This is an essential element that is often forgotten in Hollywood films. Instead of annoying stereotypes stumbling through a string of disconnected but predictable events involving embarrassment, gross-outs, and empty slapstick, Cops gives us a totally involving story about lovable characters who all mean well, and for whom everything comes out well in the end, though not necessarily in the way anyone expects. These people are so real and entertaining, you will be sad to say goodbye to them when the film ends. But you will also be very glad to have known them, and you will rejoice in their ultimate success.

No doubt an American remake of Cops is already in the works, but I suggest making the effort to find and see the original Swedish version. You won't regret it.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Epilogue

A fine day of movie watching today, with a wonderful and uplifting end to it in the form of Cops. I can only hope tomorrow will be as good.

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Jim Genzano





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