Monday, October 23, 2006

You Can't Go Back

Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island


Once you've opened the Dino-Pirate door and peeked inside, there's just no turning back. So I have learned, and I pass my tragic lesson on to the rest of you as a public service -- do NOT bite off the Dino-Pirate mouthful unless you're prepared to spend some time there, because it won't bloody let you go.

I am well-invested in running an Iron Kingdoms game. I've bought numerous (incredibly gorgeous) hardcover books detailing the world. Rules. Monsters. Spectacular illustrations. The COOLEST commercially available setting I've ever seen -- the only one cool enough to make me buy it.

But I can't. Steph started me thinking about it, and she's right. Damn her.

So instead of that substantial investment paying off in nights of gaming joy, I find myself compelled to run a Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island campaign. I can't get it out of my head.

It was never supposed to be a full-fledged campaign, damnit. It was supposed to be a goofy one-off, good for a night's gaming. And now it lurches into life, moaning and chuckling to itself. And I can't let go of my own Frankenstein monster. I hope the good, incredibly talented folks at Privateer Press aren't offended.

I blame you, JPL. I blame you very much indeed.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Flying Babies!

Today, a blast from the past: a scene from The Wrong Apartment, a film we did eight years ago (can it really have been that long?).

First, the notion: we wanted to do a "reimagining" of the "Odessa Steps" sequence from The Untouchables, only with an elevator instead of a staircase (mainly because the staircases in the building were not suitable for that sort of thing). The thinking and crazy idea-making that came up around that idea led to what you see here:



Obviously we're limited by not having guns or squibs, but we did have a lot of fun. Note that the scene more or less follows the three-act structure John Rogers has noted as required for an action scene: the opening that establishes the problem, introduction of complicating element (baby carriage), and then resolves itself through that element (flying baby).

Honestly, if we'd had squibs and blanks, I wouldn't change much about this sequence.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Film Fest 2006: Post 5

Okay, the final round:

Milarepa


It's pretty cool that monks in friggin' Bhutan can make movies with modern digital effects. Apparently Bhutanese sorcerers are pretty bad-ass -- in this film we see an entire village consumed in lightning and earthquakes. Nasty. Milarepa, our erstwhile hero, is sent by his grieving mother on a mission of revenge, and you just know that's not going to end well. No sir.

Great performances and jaw-dropping scenery make for a good time; this film manages to be both exotic and universal in its tone. Old women bewailing the uncaring world and young men discovering that sometimes violence hurts -- anyone gets that sort of thing. But the monasteries perched on top of windswept peaks (no digital effects here), mysterious rituals and strange powers, this is right out of The Man Who Would Be King. Only cooler.

By the director of The Cup, so this is a likely DVD release. Watch for it.

Garpastum


Steph and I are suckers for turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg. Alexei Balabanov's Of Freaks and Men was really just the beginning. This film, Garpastum, follows the fates of two young lads determined to build a soccer stadium. The film kind of floats along, dreamy and almost directionless, but you can sense the forthcoming horror right from the get got. It helps that, the film being situated in 1914, you know that history at least has no shortage of horrors in store.

The climax is startling, horrifying and thorough.

The Russians, like the Japanese, never seem to stop turning out little masterpieces of cinema like this. Of all the films at the festival, I think this one has stayed with me the most. Worth seeing, worth thinking about.

When The Road Bends


You know, when you're making a film about amazing musicians, I'd think you turn on the camera, let them play, and at some point, roll credits. What more needs to be done? But both this and the far superior The Sound of the Soul fail to do that. They'll start on a song, and then we have to cut to this, or to that, or whatever.

Well, the Rom musicians in When The Road Bends are pretty awesome, so you forgive the film its foibles. I guess the very-charming director (who when we got up to leave seemed to think we were spontaneously leaping to our feet to congratulate her, and I hope she wasn't too offended when we just smiled and said "Thanks" and kept on going right out the door) just couldn't keep from inserting her "directorial voice" into the picture.

It isn't really that bad. The Indians are so hilarious and the Macedonian woman blows out every hall they play in, the old Romanian guy mists you right up with his attitude ("I'm going to build a pool just like Johnny Depp"), and it's over before you know it. If you like music, you'll like this. Will probably get a DVD release.

Le Petit Lieutenant


This year, the festival seemed to save the best for last. This film is damn near perfect. While Jalil Lespert's young title character draws you into the film's early stretches, it's Nathalie Baye's Vaudieu who ends up driving the film. One of those rare films where halfway in you realise you have no idea how this is all going to play out. No histrionics, no sentimentality, just a straightforward cop movie that leaves you feeling satisfied but vaguely unsettled. The closing shot, and its echo of Truffaut's The 400 Blows invites all manner of contemplation on growing and growing old.

A spectacular film, sure to be transformed into English as soon as someone in Hollywood figures out how to switch the seasoned Vaudieu for some anorexic nineteen-year-old. You'll want to see this one first.


And THAT is the festival for this year. We saw a lot of films, but had to pass over so many. Certainly hope to see many of these films on DVD releases, and some of them theatrically, in months to come.

Film Fest 2006: Post 4

More, more, still more

The Lost Hum


The creative brains behind last year's The Soup One Morning return with this nasty little tale, brilliantly conceived and executed. One of those shot-on-video productions that is BETTER for its limitations; shooting this on film would only reduce the impact. I don't think it's too much to say that Hirosue and Takahashi are inventing a new kind of cinema. Their understanding of what they are doing, their fearless approach to low-budget storytelling and their unflinching eye give their films an entirely original feel. It's almost anti-cinema: the lack of spectacle and narrative energy becomes absorbing in itself. You watch, compelled as it were by the ABSENCE of what you expect in film.

I don't quite know what to make of this film, to tell you the truth, other than that I loved it and will never forget it. Very highly recommended.

The Lives of Others


Inexplicably, this film won for Most Popular Film at the festival this year. Make no mistake: it's tripe. Sentimental and demeaning to its subject matter, this film is a poorly-veiled apology for state oppression.

Where The Page Turner used Hitchcockian means to original and thrilling purpose, this film plods along in its sententious fashion, invoking one cliche after another, milking its trivial little moments for far more than they're worth, and ultimately building up to a sappy ending that does nothing to dispel the unsavoury nature of the film's subject matter (State Security in East Germany).

Don't listen to the masses in this case. The Lives of Others isn't worth your time.

The Riddle


There is clearly insufficient Bollywood in my life, but bless the organizers of this year's festival that they sought to correct that gap with this puff pastry of a film.

Is there such a thing as too many gorgeous Indian women dancing to bubbly rhythms? I can't imagine, and The Riddle certainly does take a stab at overloading one. This is one damn cheerful film. You could have sawed off my right arm and I'd still be tapping my toes and drumming my fingers (at least, on my left hand). Serious cheer.

People who aren't happy when they walk out of this film are DEAD.

Sure, there's a plot and stuff. Things happen. Shah Rukh Khan is charming. Rani Mukherjee is gorgeous and everyone sings and dances. Usually with ginormous grins on their faces the whole time.

Just THINKING about this movie is making me smile.

Heaven's Doors


Interesting noir from Morocco. Young kids run afoul of necessity, and mothers and sons all suffer. It's too long, and the unfortunate actress playing the French art professor started to grate with the ceaseless whining the script demanded of her, but the ending is solid and the construction of the film lends itself to contemplations of all sorts.

It's really a triptych, but one in which certain figures appear again and again, each time in a different context -- as a rival, a relative, a burden. Washed-out images and blurry camerawork reveal rather than confuse, and two powerful performances from Rabie Kati and Hakim Noury anchor the beginning and the ending of the film. Put it all together and you get a portrait of three men, or one man in three stages of his life, and a weighty demonstration of how those choices keep erupting within our efforts to do what's right.

Worth seeing, should it come available on DVD (which I wouldn't give odds on but hope to see).

A Letter of Fire


If you're going to make a movie about kids, it's important that the kids in your movie can act. Even a little bit.

We walked out after 45 minutes. No acting, a shrill and plodding script and listless direction. Pass.

Cabiria


Three hours of silent Italian goodness in beautiful black and white. Cabiria is an epic film from 1914 that tells the story of its title character, a young girl kidnapped by pirates from her Roman parents, and subjected to rescue attempts, wars, imperious princess mistresses and other thrills.

Lots of thrills. This is some great film-making here. Any movie that features a daring rescue in the midst of a dark and fire-lit temple where screaming children are being sacrificed to a terrible ancient god can't be all bad. And that's just one of many delights in this film: elephants in the Alps (Hannibal, natch), beautiful and psychotic women (with leopards!), armies storming castles, death-defying leaps, exploding volcanoes, entire fleets bursting into flame, the aforementioned pirates, Roman cities collapsing, angry mobs -- holy crap. It's all in this film, a three-hour epic that feels like twenty minutes, it's so packed full of craziness.

Apparently Criterion are bringing out a DVD version -- not to be missed. Unfortunately, that DVD can't possibly include one of the coolest aspects of this screening -- a live pianist improvising the background music for us as the film played. Awesome. Stomp-down awesome.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Film Fest 2006: Post 3

Well, the fest is over now but I've still got quite a backlog of films to get through. Let's get started.

Close To Home


Young Israeli women work their tour of duty in the army on the streets of Tel Aviv, asking folks who look like Arabs to present their identity papers and be recorded. The historical irony is enough to make you believe in a higher power; could something like this really happen by accident? Great performances from two very charming actresses, a number of great high-tension moments (some serious, some comic), all of which is pretty much rendered empty by a chicken-shit ending that refuses to take a stand on the situation. Unfortunate.

The Page Turner


Possibly the show of the festival. I don't know why it wasn't described in the program as a "French lesbian Fatal Attraction set in the classical music world," because I'm pretty sure that would have DOUBLED attendance.

And having said French lesbian Fatal Attraction set in the classical music world I'm not sure what more I can tell you. Unbearably tense, confidently cinematic and restrained just to the right amount so that you spend the entire film waiting for the explosion to finally come. It's a silly film, but a silly film done with spectacular flair. Will get a DVD release -- worth catching. Will probably ALSO get a Hollywood remake, but who knows if that'll be worth seeing?

Hana


The anti-samurai samurai film. An anti-revenge revenge drama. The Japanese title is Hana yori mo naho, which is how it's listed in IMDB. A sweet-natured, humanistic film that wallows a little bit in sentimentality but provides so much charm and thoughtful insight into the way people respond to tragedy that it's impossible to not enjoy. It's the story of a poor country samurai who has come to Edo to extract revenge from the man who killed his father, but just isn't really up to the task. Beautifully contrasted with the famous story of the 47 ronin (who are hiding nearby, plotting their own vengeance), we watch our young hero find reason after reason why he SHOULDN'T bother taking revenge, and yet the pressure on him to fulfill his social obligation grows ever stronger.

Great film. Will probably play well at festivals all over, and most likely get a DVD release. Don't miss it.

The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt


I'd never heard of Siqin Gaowa before, but Tina assured me she was a great actress. Mongolian, apparently, and I've always had a soft spot for the Mongols, myself. And Gaowa carries this lilting, delicate film effortlessly. Watching her spar with the very-charming Chow Yun-Fat is delightful, and the journey her argumentative, boisterous character goes on is heart-breaking.

But there's this big moon. A couple of times in the film, characters look up into the sky and it's entirely full of a some humungous moon-thing. I don't get it. What is this with Chinese movies and inexplicable atmospheric phenomena? The ending isn't quite what it needs to be, even though it's heartbreaking, but that moon. I just didn't get it.

The Wedding Director


Fellini + Lynch should be good, or at least there's some interesting territory to explore in that part of the cinematic world, but The Wedding Director director, Marco Bellocchio, doesn't pull it off. He had me for the first half or so. An interesting conspiracy/paranoia thing develops as the eponymous director finds strange coincidences surrounding him, and his entire reputation beginning to fall apart.

It's the ending, though. There were at least three different endings, all of which were incompatible with each other -- does the romantic couple escape on the train, or does the princess go through with the marriage, or does the director run for it? Bellocchio seems to not want to decide, and the end result is a confused audience.

Not going to make much of a showing, I think.


Hang on! Still more to come. We still haven't gone to Bollywood, or played soccer in St. Petersburg, or other stuff.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Swarm Poster

Join the swarm. Even Warren Ellis thinks it's cool.

A whole new way of funding film -- no corporate involvement (not yet, anyway), no studios, just dedicated (and slightly insane) folks coming together in ways that only modern technology can allow, pooling their resources because they think something's worth doing.

Stuff like that is what gets me excited about technology -- because I generally don't like technology for its own sake. I'm not a gadget guy, I don't go after the latest shiny stuff with much enthusiasm. I like the new possibilities that great technology engenders, and the Swarm is a wonderful example of that. RSS feeds and forums and online payment and Creative Commons licensing all coming together to make it possible for a bunch of relative nobodies to produce (or at least plan to produce) a feature film.

Very very cool.

And now they have a poster.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Film Fest 2006: Post 2

Okay, got a few moments to breath at last so I can share a view notes on a whirlwind of films.

Men At Work


No, not a concert film featuring 80's kooks. Four old buddies coming back from a skiing trip encounter strange natural phenomenon and become obsessed with making their mark upon the world. Fairly typical "festival-y" fare, really -- fun opening, quirky characters, inexplicable shifts and way too long. Tries a little too hard to lay on the quirkiness.

Too many characters, really. It starts with four but by the end of it there's more than a dozen folks milling around -- since we don't get to meet them very well they remain cyphers and largely interfere with our ability to connect with the main characters. Offside got this much better -- never too many characters to follow, but still introducing new elements throughout the story.

Still Life


Slice-of-life drama in the Three Gorges area of China, where entire towns are rapidly disappearing beneath the rising waters, with painful impact on all those involved.

Unfortunately, the film relies on UFOs to tie one storyline to another, and honestly, if you're going to have a UFO in your movie, your movie ought to be ABOUT UFOs in some manner. Close Encounters -- the UFOs work there. Still Life, not so much.

Great photography of the area and a wonderful portrait of one man's heartbreak. But too many UFOs for me (or not enough).

No Mercy For The Rude


Shoulda been better. Mute Korean gangster provides voice-over narration to the story of his redemption (sort of). Filled with trademark Korean goofiness, but fails to provide either a) good fight scenes or b) a truly compelling emotional ride. Gotta have one or the other, says me. Some good stuff in it, but the script could have used a few more pass-throughs, just to streamline the story properly. It gets unclear who the bad guys are, which isn't so horrible really, except that by the end you're not really afraid or worried or satisfied or anything. You've just watched a lot of Korean people die.

Better than Oldboy, at least (that's for you, Daryl). But not a worthy follow-up to the glory that was Volcano High.

The Host


Speaking of follow-ups to Volcano High, this one started off so well I thought we were seeing the fabled successor. Usually in a monster movie, the monster is held back on a bit, teasing the audience, until its big reveal for the latter part of the film. Not so here; the first thing that happens is a giant monster comes leaping out of the river and starts chowing down on Korean people.

Clearly South Korea has had Japanese consultants come over and give them pointers on handling giant monsters, as the tanks roll out immediately and the beastie is more or less contained right away. No need to convince the military that this is a threat, nor is there any suggestion that maybe the military isn't up to handling it. Instead, it's the Americans (whose foolishness cause the creature in the first place) who have the completely insane idea about how to handle it and it's up to doughty if rather goofball heroes (we see a recurring trend this way in Korean cinema) to save the day and destroy the monster in a way that doesn't take all of Seoul out at the same time.

Slapstick comedy, heart-wrenching loss and special effects; it should be a home run, but something holds the whole thing back from true delight. The monster just isn't around enough. The opening sequence is the only "monster runs amok" part of the whole film, which is too bad because it's a great monster. We really needed to see it tear into those tanks.

There's also the question of the virus that's at first suggested to be around and then turns out to be a hoax, or something. Maybe it's clear if you're Korean, but I didn't really get what that was all about.

And the final gag, the one that really finishes off the monster? Saw it coming about twenty minutes before it landed.

More to come! Lesbians, Chow Yun-Fat, Bollywood and more!

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Film Fest 2006: Post 1

Opera Jawa


Sadly, not Star Wars-related at all. I had images of this sort of thing, really:

But such was not to be. Probably just as well, really. A Jawa Opera is probably a true hamsmacker of an idea.

Opera Jawa does provide an hour's worth of steamy dance-based erotic storytelling, cranking up its very charistmatic stars and building a fearsome tension in the protagonist, a good woman caught between two men. Her struggle to resist her own lust and remain true to the husband she loves is thunderously captivating. Unfortunately for the audience, she settles that struggle an hour or so into the picture.

Which leaves the audience sitting there watching, well, not very much for the second hour of the film.

A New Day in Old Sana'a


Important note for filmmakers around the world: just because you know a guy who speaks English doesn't mean you should cast him in your film, no matter how good looking you may think he is. Find out if he can act first. And whatever you do, dear god, please don't film him performing with those little ribbony things rhythmic gymnasts use. Please.

A New Day in Old Sana'a isn't as bad as this urgent plea might make it seem. The bits with the English guy are tedious in the extreme, yes, but he's not on screen for very large portions of the film. Though yes, he does perform with those little ribbony things. Swear to god.

This film is really driven by the hilariously over-the-top performances from the women. THEIR story is the one you really care about -- Bilquis the queen bitch of Sana'a and humble Ines the ngash painter.

But damn, those ribbons are really a problem.

Sound of the Soul


Why don't more festival films sell DVDs at the theatre? Probably for complicated and dull reasons, but fortunately these folks weren't so shy and we came home with this amazing documentary about the Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco. More highlights than I can reasonably fit into a single post, unfortunately. Awesome.

Offside


Women Who Love Soccer and the Men Who Keep Them From It.

Filmed, it seems, DURING the Iran/Bahrain qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup, Offside is yet another film anchored by tremendous female performances, but in this film the women, who risk imprisonment to sneak into soccer matches (where women are not allowed by Iranian law), are bolstered by a laconic, exhausted performance by the guard who just wants to get through the day without getting into trouble with his bosses. He has no answers for the women who challenge him on the law he's trying to enforce, and eventually their willingness to work with him comes from their personal sympathy with him rather than their submission to an insane law.

GREAT film, one of the standouts of the festival so far.