Monday, December 27, 2010

Animal Kingdom

One of the regrets I had earlier this year was that I missed Animal Kingdom at the theater.

Animal Kingdom starring Ben Mendelsohn, James Frecheville and Guy Pearce; directed by David Michôd; (2010) - Official Website

Animal Kingdom, an Australian film, won a Grand Jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It made the rounds earlier this year at the Kabuki and Red Vic, I believe. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it was playing at the Landmark Opera Plaza beginning on December 24.

The story begins with quiet and stoic Josh sitting next to his mother watching television. It turns out she is dead (overdosed on heroin) but that does little to stop Josh from concentrating on his show. This typically traumatic event starts an astonishing and horrific journey for Josh (although the nonchalance he exhibits after his mother dies next to him gives an indication of Josh's capabilities).

Josh goes to live with his grandmother, "Smurf" Cody. As we discover from Josh's narration, Smurf is matriarch to a low-level criminal family consisting of Josh's maternal uncles - Pope, Craig and Darren and family friend Baz. The four of them engage in armed robberies and Craig is a low level drug dealer. Pope is the most dangerous of the bunch. Cruel and likely psychotic (his "meds" are mentioned), Pope draws Josh into his sphere of influence with disastrous results for everyone involved.

The film distinguishes itself by the way it portrays the outlaws. Rather than brassy and full of false bravado, Pope is laconic and has feral eyes as if he is always stalking his prey. His prey soon become Josh. The title refers to Guy Pearce's description of the criminal underworld. Pearce plays a cop that is trying to throw Josh a lifeline. He tells Josh that there are hunters and the hunted and Josh is one of the hunted. However, Josh is more resilient than anyone can imagine.

The film is marked by strong performances by the entire cast but Ben Mendelsohn as Pope, Joel Edgerton (also in The Square) as the level-headed Baz and James Frecheville as the frightened but determined Josh merit special recognition.

Animal Kingdom kept me on the edge of my seat. A scene involving Pope and Josh's girlfriend was very unsettling. The ending was quite a surprise too which doesn't happen to me very much anymore. Animal Kingdom is one of my favorite films from 2010.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Go To Hell For the Holidays

The YBCA had a horror series programmed in December. I was able to watch three films in the series.

Feast of the Assumption: BTK and The Otero Family Murders; documentary; (2008) - Official Website
Wolf Creek starring John Jarratt; directed by Greg Mclean; (2005) - Official Website
Meat Grinder; Thai with subtitles; (2009)


The series wasn't strictly "horror." Feast of the Assumption: BTK and The Otero Family Murders was a documentary about a man whose family was a victim of the BTK serial murderer in Kansas. BTK stands for Bind, Torture, Kill which was the modus operandi of the killer. Over 17 years, BTK killed 10 people including his first victims - 4 members of the Otero family. On January 15, 1974, Joseph and Julie Otero and their children Joseph Jr. (age 9) and Josephine (age 11)) were murdered in their Wichita house. There were three other Otero children who were not at home that day.

Feast of the Assumption follows Charlie Otero, one of the surviving kids. Charlie was 15 when the murders took place. The film starts in the mid-2000s with 50something year old Charlie locked up in a New Mexico prison. I'm not sure what director Marc Levitz saw in Otero that made him think a he was worth a documentary. Otero had been in scrapes with the law since the murders which is not surprising. Over the years, Otero learned that his family had been the first known victims of BTK who was still at large.

When filming of Feast of the Assumption started, I think the intent was to follow Otero around as he deals with his emotional baggage. Despite his scrapes with the law, Otero turns out to be rather well adjusted for a man who family was murdered. He certainly doesn't appear to have the inner rage that I would think a man in his position would have. As I recall, he did not drink or do drugs and was not prone to violence. In short, he didn't seem to make a compelling subject for a documentary.

Then amazing things began to happen. BTK was caught. In 2005, Dennis Rader, an animal control officer and active in his Lutheran church, was arrested in Wichita. Otero followed the trial. I can't recall if he testified but he definitely read a statement during sentencing. Rader was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms or a minimum of 175 years in prison.

On the day before Otero spoke at Rader's sentencing, he learned his son whom he was largely estranged from, had suffered an accident and likely suffered permanent brain damage. This was the only time Otero showed any anger or rage towards his circumstances and most of his anger was directed to Truman Capote whose work In Cold Blood motivated BTK or at least, Otero believes that.

I've written much so far about a film that I didn't really like too much. BTK's life would have been fascinating because he turned out to be a monster. However, Charlie Otero's life was frankly boring. The most that can be said about Otero is that he has lousy taste in women if the film is any indication. Other than that, he seems too nice and otherwise bland to have a documentary devoted to him. I'm sorry for what happened to him and his family but I didn't really feel this documentary needed to be made. That sums my impression of the film. I kept waiting for an emotional gut punch or Charlie's triumph but the film never delivered.


In the synopsis of the film, YBCA claimed Wolf Creek as "possibly the best horror film of the decade." The Australian film was directed by Greg Mclean whose most recent work is the disappointing Red Hill which I saw at the Mill Valley Film Festival. I see a trend developing. In both films, Mclean sets the action in the Australian Outback and in both cases, the locals come off looking like inbred psychopaths. Wolf Creek seemed like the bastard child of Deliverance and Crocodile Dundee.

Wolf Creek is about three young people driving across Australia. They stop to sight-see at a meteor crater and return to find their car is disabled. Fortunately, a rugged bushman (John Jarratt) comes along to give them a tow. However, once back at his compound, he drugs their water and tortures them. I won't spoil the ending but what the YBCA trumpets as "possibly the best horror film of the decade" stuck me as derivative and nothing special.

After the screening, the YBCA staff invited the audience to discuss the film. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks was in the audience and praised the film which he saw in Montana on Xmas day. One of the YBCA programmers mentioned he was tired of the misogyny in horror films. That's like someone saying they are tired of the gratuitous sex in porn.

During the discussion, it became clear to me that I cannot "get into" horror films. Unlike some other genres, I cannot suspend disbelief when watching horror films. As a result, the violence and degradation depicted in the films become passé to me. All I can really do is enjoy the film for it mechanics. Is the director able to startle me or skillfully interject dark humor? Does the film build the suspense level even when you know what is about to happen? A horror film become more of a litmus test of a director's skills. Any horror film content is ignored by me as being res ipsa loquitur. That is, horror films are ridiculous by definition so why apply real-world analysis or thought to the films?


That leaves Meat Grinder which was far from engaging but the best of the three I saw. This film follow a woman who runs a noodle shop. She has a "secret ingredient" and let's just call it soylent green. Apparently, to make the best noodle soup, she needs fresh meat so she keeps her captives alive for several days after beginning the butchering process. This plot premise has been done many times; most famously in Sweeney Todd.

Meat Grinder delves into the psyche of the woman who commits these heinous and sadistic acts. Much is made of her speaking to her past and future selves at the bottom of a jar of water. I felt the scenes were contrived and less than effective. Set in the 1970s, some scenes of social unrest were mixed in to better effect but they were quickly discarded. Ultimately, I had little empathy for the woman and wanted the film to end so my suffering could too. However, Meat Grinder attempted to be something more than a slasher film; its reach mostly exceeded its grasp.


The series was unsatisfying for me but at least it represented a nice try by YBCA to program something different within the horror genre.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc

In November 2008, I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc. I recall the event well. The theater was near sellout. I had to sit in the front of the theater. I was one row behind the choral singers. There was an orchestra and a hundred or so choral singers. They took up the the first three or four rows of the theater. They performed Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light which was specifically composed to accompany The Passion of Joan of Arc. I cannot recall which organization the singers were from.

They had a program handout which was very informative. The front page gave some background on Einhorn and his composition. The other side talked about the history of the film. The Passion of Joan of Arc was thought to be a lost film. The original version was thought lost when a fire destroyed the master negative. Director Carl Theodore Dreyer reassembled the film from outtakes. This was the only extant version until the early 1980s when a copy of the original version was found in a Danish mental assylum.

At the time, I was very impressed with the film and score even though I didn't write about it. That has more to do with time constraints than enthusiasm.

On December 2, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival partnered with the PFA to present The Passion of Joan of Arc at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. The live accompaniment was conducted by Mark Sumner, performed by the women of UC Berkeley’s Perfect Fifth as the voice of Joan of Arc, tenor soloist Daniel Ebbers, baritone Martin Bell, the University of California Alumni Chorus, UC Men’s and Women’s Chorales, and a twenty-two piece orchestra.

The Passion of Joan of Arc starring Maria Falconetti; directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; silent with intertitles; with live accompaniment; (1928)

Let me start by saying that I think the Paramount is the most elegant theater I've been in. Built in 1931, the Paramount was designed by Timothy Pflueger who also designed the Castro Theater in San Francisco (built in 1922). Whereas the Castro has a Spanish Baroque theme, the Paramount is Art Deco which is more to my personal taste. The Paramount also has a larger seating capacity than the Castro so the interior is more imposing. The Paramount was completely rennovated in early 1970s so the interior is more modern than the Castro which has been in continuous use since its opening. The Paramount doesn't have daily events so it gets a lot less wear and tear than the Castro.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential films of all time. The plot condenses the trial of Joan of Arc into a 90 minute film. The film looks unique today but must have been particularly revolutionary in 1928. The first thing I noticed were the extreme close-ups. Dreyer had the actors who played Joan inquistors not wear make-up so you see the flaws in the complexion and craggy faces. Sergio Leone would use the same technique to great effect in his Spaghetti Westerns. I remember reading that Oliver Stone used the same trick when shooting JFK. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, the close-ups and lack of make-up give the actors a grotesque and ominous appearance to match their actions.

In addition, Dreyer frequently filmed Joan of Arc (played by Maria Falconetti) from a down camera angle to convey to the audience the submissive position she was in. Dreyer would force Falconetti to kneel for hours on hard stone floors until her knees ached and she was exhausted. Through this "proto-method" acting device, Falconetti physical anguish and fatigue showed in her portrayal of Joan.

The film had a noticeable dearth of establishing shots and long shots. Combined with the sparse sets, the effect was to give the film an austere look which focused the audience's attention on the actor's faces. The ordeal of Joan's scourging was made more personal that way. The title not only refers to Joan's inner passions to serve God and defeat the British but also call to mind the Passion plays depicting Christ's final days.

Everyone raves about Falconetti's performance and rightly so. Her eyes convey fear and confusion as well as anything I recall seeing on celluloid. However, Falconetti needed someone to play against. This was the true inspiration on Dreyer's part. The actors cast as Joan's judges and prison guards were outstanding in conveying their malevolence and contempt. There weren't any scenes to establish the character's names so I cannot single out any of the credited actors. That's just as well since all their performances were worthy of praise.

In 2008, I was most impressed by Einhorn's score. It had sufficient gravitas for the trial of Joan of Arc. Slightly evocative of Carmina Burana, Voices of Light was less robust than the Gregorian chants. It perfectly conveyed the inner turmoil of Joan. At the Paramount performance, Voices of Light was still effective but not quite as impressive as before. Perhaps it was due to having heard the performance before.

I'm glad to report that The Passion of Joan of Arc stood up well to a second screening. I wonder how the film would fare with an alternate score.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Kings of Pastry

I went to the Balboa to see Kings of Pastry.

King of Pastry; documentary; directed by Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker; (2009) - Official Website

Kings of Pastry was preceded by a short film called Western Spaghetti.

Western Spaghetti; directed by PES - Official Website

Western Spaghetti was stop-action, claymation short about making spaghetti using pencils as spaghetti strands and candy corn as flames on a gas stovetop.

Kings of Pastry was directed by the duo who made The War Room (1993), a fascinating look into Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign. Kings of Pastry is about Un des Meilleurs Ouvrier de France (MOF), a quadrennial competition hed in France. It attracts the top pastry chefs in France to compete for the coveted Meilleurs Ouvrier de France, an award which entitles its recipients to wear a blue, white and red collar on their chef's smocks. According to one recipient, if a person wears the tri-color collar without having been awarded the MOF, he can be arrested. I don't know if that is fact or hyperbole.

The film mainly concentrated on Jacquy Pfeiffer, a native of France who now lives & work in the Chicago area as the founder and instructor of a pastry school. Seeing one of his colleagues receive the MOF, Pfeiffer embarks on the arduous process to win the award. If I recall correctly, he began preparing 18 months before the competition and took a leave of absence from his school six weeks prior to the competition. During that final period, he prepared at a bakery in Alsace which belonged to a childhood friend.

The key component of the MOF competition is a sugar sculpture event. The chefs make amazing works of art from crystallized sugar. As is show repeated these sculptures are very fragile. I gasped and groaned more than once when a sculpture came tumbling down.

Kings of Pastry follows a few other competitors but most of the screentime is devoted to Jacquy and his coterie of supporters which include his girlfriend, her children (one of the girls may have been his daughter), his assistand and fellow chefs and MOF winner who serve as his coaches. Indeed, the competition is more akin to a sporting event than cooking. Unlike the brassy Iron Chef television program or the combative Gordon Ramsay, the MOF and Jacquy are reserved and genteel. Jacquy never raises his voice or expresses his frustrations. He continually prepares for the competition although I don't recall seeing any of his practice pieces or confections in the actual competition.

The time constraints and unknowns require the participants to adapt to rules and judges (as well as mishaps). There were sixteen competitors in the MOF. It wasn't clear if those 16 had to qualify somehow for the event. Some of the competitor had failed previous MOFs. The 16 are not competing against each other but against the judges' subjective standards. It was possible but unlikely that all 16 would have received the MOF. I can't recall how many of the competitors received the award. Four to six, I believe. I won't say if Jacquy won so as not spoil the suspense.

The film was nice, just like Jacquy and all the competitors. An asshole in the group would have improved the film as it would lead some conflict and given the audience someone to root against. As it was, all the competitors and judges seemed like good guys which is a little surprising given how many there were and that they were French after all. Kings of Pastry had the look and feel of well-made PBS documentary which is where it will likely end up.