Delayed Reaction: ‘Boy A’

Boy A is a British film that came out in 2007, but one I just saw the other night. Its title refers to a court practice of hiding the identity of a child defendant – Boy/Girl A, Boy B, and so on. After all, there is always the chance that they will be released as an older teen or young adult – out back into the world after being deemed “rehabilitated,” and no longer a harm to society. (It should also be noted that, while it completely stands on its own, the movie’s plot seems to share some similarities with the horrific James Patrick Bulger case in Liverpool of ’93.)

Andrew Garfield plays our Boy A, and he is amazing. I mean, indescribably so, although this did not come as a surprise. It’s intriguing to me that an actor who has excelled at so many smaller, dramatic, and emotionally heavy roles will be the new Spiderman in the reboot series. (I’m sure he’ll do a great job, but it’s just a whole other world of showbiz.) I hope that no one forgets how heartbreaking and impressive he was in Never Let Me Go (his performance being the best part of the film) and The Social Network (for which he was robbed a Best Supporting Actor nod at the Oscars), and Boy A, which he received a BAFTA for.

Garfield’s characters real name, as a child, is Eric Wilson. We first meet him during the opening scene of the film where he is about to be released from prison. His rehabilitation worker, Terry, asks him what his new name will be to embark on his new life. Already, we know one thing: Eric’s past life cannot be known; it’s a huge, dangerous secret. And then we come to know another thing, as Eric responds with grateful smiles and nervous laughter, “I can’t make up me mind!”: Boy A is innocent. Or, at the very least, no longer a harm to society, fully rehabilitated.

He chooses to be called Jack Burridge, and off he goes into the world of 9 to 5, new friendships, and a brand new romance (with much help from Terry all the way).

As Jack starts his new life and tries to neglect his old one, the audience does not. We are instead in a position where we see Jack’s new, stable life paralleled by his childhood and the crime he was imprisoned for. The reveal comes steadily but surely, the flashbacks eloquent and paced very carefully. We see Eric failing at school, his mother dying of cancer, his father wretched and verbally abusive, being bullied and beaten up by older kids, and then finally befriending Philip – a clear troublemaker with an unusually rough demeanor for a kid. Nonetheless, he likes Eric and he stands up for him. The crime that is committed is perceived to be carried out by the both of them, equally, but the flashback scene to the actual tragic incident doesn’t fill in all the blanks for us. We find out what happened, realize that Philip (as predicted) was the leader in the crime, but we do not find out which crime Eric is guilty of – assisting in the murder of a schoolgirl, or never stepping in to stop it.

The way the film unravels, it seems as though Garfield’s portrayal of the adult Eric (now, of course, Jack) is supposed to speak to his involvement in the crime. Jack is quiet, easily flattered, surprised by other people’s kindness and yet very kind himself, nervous but gentle, naive and literally sheltered, desperate to love and even more desperate to be loved. There is nothing about him that yells “murderer,” but there is definitely something that whispers “follower.” For an actor to go off of a child’s uncomplicated performance and come up with all of this, continuing the journey of this human being in such a complex way, is truly remarkable to watch.

Garfield may have us rooting for him, but the film is not as sympathetic. Though Jack starts out leading a very positive second life (in which he even saves a little girl from a car crash and becomes the town hero), the media gets word of his new identity and the whole country seems to be ravenous to snatch it away from him. The story shoots off from one about a rehabilitated child criminal to one of a young adult running from his past and from the public that wants him to pay. It’s a story about one’s privacy, and if one deserves it after being tried for a very serious crime before he could be considered a teen. It’s a story that makes us question if second chances in extreme cases like these are really possible, and if so, for how long?

No matter what the answers are, or if there even are any, this film – beautiful and delicate when it could have easily been exploitative and harsh – is worth the watch.

Michelangelo Antonioni: Man vs. Manmade

“I have never drawn, even as a child, either puppets or silhouettes but rather facades of houses and gates. One of my favourite games consisted of organising towns. Ignorant in architecture, I constructed buildings and streets crammed with little figures. I invented stories for them. These childhood happenings – I was eleven years old – were like little films.” – Michelangelo Antonioni

The 4th anniversary of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s death was a few days ago on July 30th. If you have followed my posts, it may be clear by now that I am in love with Antonioni’s work, especially the “trilogy” of the early 60s (L’avventura, La Notte, L’eclisse). These black and white films were incredibly dark, isolated, rich and yet lost, just like the characters inhabiting them. There is a haunting kind of romanticism about all three.

The above quote by Antonioni himself describes perfectly an essential running theme in all of his films: his unique emphasis on architecture, portrayed as always overpowering the people. The director made a point to frame the characters with huge, modern buildings looming over them – maybe menacingly, maybe without any intention whatsoever.

It was meant to illustrate how lost and vulnerable the characters were – man vs. manmade. At some point, each of them appears dwarfed by large structures that are often not beautiful nor remarkable, but overwhelmingly immense and stable. These composed shots reveal the dreadful truth about humans, how small and fluttering we are.

New German Cinema: ‘When we behave, nobody cares, but when we are bad, nobody forgets.’

I took a class called “New German Cinema” at the end of my freshman year of college. It was designated as a “seminar” credit, and I enrolled because I knew I was interested in becoming a film major at that point. I think I saw the words “cinema” and “German” and thought I’d get a nice overview of European film, or actually, any film that was ever set in or around Germany.

Those were my naive expectations going into it. What New German Cinema turned out to be was a movement from the 1960s to the 1980s aimed at creating “quality” film, almost like a German version of the French New Wave. What constituted as quality varied, but was predominantly quieter, more challenging, more artistic-oriented, and much, much more “on the outskirts” than mainstream film.

The professor, a wickedly smart but brutally bitter and jaded man, set out to unnerve and stir us with films by Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The teacher being a a firm hater of all things Hollywood (with choice words for Spielberg), the “New German Cinema” seminar took me in as an impressionable 19-year-old who thought movies were generally cool and magical, and then spit me out as a doubtful and suspicious film school kid, scarred for life in ways good and bad, for now movies would never look the same again, would never serve the same purpose as previously believed.

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) was the first film I ever saw of Werner Herzog’s, shown in this class. I laughed and laughed, and felt bad and crude for laughing, but kept doing so, couldn’t help it, and then there came a distinct moment where I stopped suddenly as it hit me, sucking in air to cease the laughter: Oh, wait, it’s not funny, and it never was supposed to be. In fact, it’s disturbing, fucking frightening.

I cannot think off the top of my head of another film that got this reaction out of me. Whatever you thought it was, you were wrong, and Herzog had the last laugh, as he usually does.

When we behave, nobody cares, but when we are bad, nobody forgets.

The little people in Even Dwarfs shout this during their rebellion against their ominous superiors. Perhaps the filmmakers of the New German Cinema movement were shouting this at all of Hollywood, to all mainstream audiences, trying to violently shake us awake.

‘La jetée’ (1962) and the Power of Words and Images

He says something. She doesn’t mind, she answers. They have no memories, no plans. Time builds itself painlessly around them. As landmarks, they have the very taste of this moment they live, and scribbling on the walls.

I rewatched one of my favorite films since school the other night – La jetée, a 28-minute French film from 1962. Director Chris Marker tells the story of time travel in post-nuclear Paris almost entirely through a series of still photos. (There’s one scene with just a few seconds of motion.) In under 30 minutes, the plot unravels a Paris in ruins, with the survivors divided up into a hierarchy. One group is experimenting in time travel to the past and present to improve their situation; the others are lab rats. The protagonist proves a successful candidate for their experiments, but his past, present, and future collide in an eerie tragedy. In my very first film class, my professor showed us this movie to teach us the power of words and images, how they can stick with you for a lifetime, how you can tell a story without flashy gimmicks or superfluous material.

Whether it’s the French version with subtitles or the English voice-over version, it is one of the most poetic things I’ve ever come across. While it most obviously inspired the Terry Gilliam movie 12 Monkeys, watching it recently made me think of how it must have inspired other recent films; Christopher Nolan’s Inception came to mind the most. The sweeping string orchestra soundtrack, the imagery, and the distant but observant narration all come together to make romance out of dystopia and sci-fi. While it’s been done since and also before the film came out, watching it always feels like watching something brand new and revolutionary. So many filmmakers and storytellers choose overkill to get their story across, but La jetée remains there in the film school archives, just waiting to be watched, just waiting to remind you how to tell a story and how to tell it well.

Retrospective Admiration for Monica Vitti

It’s not hard to become fascinated with actresses in older, black-and-white films – especially when you’re viewing them for the first time in your college years decades later. There’s something about the mystique of this glamor of the not-so-ancient past: the cigarette smoking before it was publicly deemed life-threatening; the delicate implication of sex instead of, well, what we have now; the classic but on-the-brink-of-modern flirtatiousness; the early 60s. Some glamorize Jean Seberg. For me, it’s Monica Vitti.

The late Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni really knew what he was doing by casting the uniquely captivating Italian actress in all three of his “trilogy” films (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse).  I say “uniquely captivating” because – aside from the tousled blonde sex hair and the big, pensive eyes – you can’t exactly place your finger on what else draws you to Vitti, though you know it’s a culmination of things.

Vitti in 'L'Avventura'

In Antonioni’s films, she often plays the role of “the lost woman,” in a state of limbo in romance and in life. And she plays it well. Though the audience knows she is unsure and she admits it herself at times, she always somehow retains a sense of self-assurance, striking in its tenacity. While her roles in Antonioni’s films often require copious amounts of staring off deep in thought, Vitti accomplishes this by refusing to bore the audience. Simply put: You just can’t stop looking at her. Beauty helps, I’m sure. But I like to think it’s more of what she can produce with her eyes alone. It’s a look of profoundness masked with boredom.

Overall, she is effortless – walking or running in strappy heels, leading on a suitor, or putting on an outrageous show. There’s a scene in L’Eclisse that happens to be one of my favorite examples of Monica Vitti as an actor. Though – I must warn – this clip is drenched in racism, it’s one of the rare opportunities where we get to see Vitti break out of her more somber role. Vitti’s character, Vittoria, is over at a friend’s apartment – a white woman with a family-owned plantation in Kenya who also expresses blatant notions of racism towards Africans. In this scene, Vittoria and another friend put on a crudely offensive show and dance, mocking the Kenyan women who appear in numerous photos around the friend’s apartment.

I’ve always believed that this scene is meant to caricaturize the white Kenyan’s unabashed racism (and presumably the more suppressed racism of the other two), while also pointing to the desperately sad states of these bored, well-off Italian women cut off from the reality of the rest of the world. And here, Vitti is the obvious “star” – the ultimate vessel of upper-class boredom and yet provocative introspection.

While Monica Vitti is 78 years old now, she feels indefinitely suspended in the first few years of the 60s – placed in an Antonioni black-and-white film, playing the beautiful and charismatic “lost” woman with the intense, preoccupied eyes.

Oscars 2010 and the Spanish Snub

Originally posted on my Open Salon blog.

When I think of the best foreign films of 2009, the very first film to come to mind is Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos). Starring his muse Penelope Cruz and actor Lluis Homar, this Spanish film told the story of love and the love of film in the style of neo-noir.

Though I had a personal beef with Almodovar for being one of the first to sign the “Free Polanski” petition at the end of last year (a whole ‘nother story all in itself), I’ve been a long-time fan and have a special place in my heart for this particular film of his. The story behind my first viewing of this movie is somewhat magical: I was a senior in college studying film, and I got into this studio’s 2-week Cannes Program. Ecstatic and beyond honored, I got to stay in the South of France with ten other filmmaking kids, work on the studio’s screening, and best of all – attend some of the events at the 2009 Cannes International Film Festival.

I’ll stop the bragging here, I promise. My only reason for bringing it up is that I somehow lucked out in getting into the premiere of Broken Embraces. (And by “lucked out,” I mean “clicked refresh a hundred dozen times on the ticketing webpage.”) Anyway, the experience and the film were both glorious.  It was very Almodovar-esque in terms of beautifully ridiculous plot twists and turns, but overall it was just…scrumptious. Cruz was at her best since Volver (another recent Almodovar masterpiece), and the director himself got to really express his love for cinema and writing in this movie about a blind writer and filmmaker who gets the chance to finish his last movie from 14 years ago.

But, le sigh, this all means nothing to the Academy, seeing as how the film was completely overlooked from the nominations for the 2010 awards. Alright, alright, the snub from the Best Foreign Language category is not the Academy’s fault. It’s Spain’s. No, really. For whatever reason, Spain did not include Broken Embraces in its submissions to the Oscars in September. The writers are Incontention.com covered this and explained that “Almodovar and the Spanish Academy selectors have an on-and-off relationship.”

Okay, fine. So the Academy really had no control over the lack of nomination for Broken Embraces as Best Foreign Language Film. But what about all the other categories? The ones that would make the most sense would be, maybe, Best Original Screenplay, or Best Director, even Cinematography, or Best Actress. Oh wait! Penelope is nominated for Best Actress! But…for her role in Nine? Is that some kind of consolation prize? No one really cared about Nine this year anyway! Why not just nominate her for her brilliant performance in Broken Embraces? (Not to mention that the general opinion has been that French actress Marion Cotillard deserved it, if anyone, for that film.) Why, Oscars, why did you have to overlook Almodovar’s film completely?

I’ll start taking deep breaths now and put an end to my stream of consciousness rant. But the point is this:

Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces got screwed by Spain and snubbed by the Academy. And for that, I am eternally confused and disappointed.

Top 50 Films of the 2000s

As what’s left of 2009 runs out, I’ve been inspired by Salon.com‘s “Films of the Decade” series written by guest writers. Not to mention the numerous other movie blogs that list their personal picks for the best movies of the decade.

Being one of the most indecisive people I know, this list was very difficult to finalize. I somehow narrowed it down from 83 to 50. Don’t ask me how. It’s strange to to think back to a certain movie from, say, 2003, and realize I was sixteen when I first saw it. But I feel a sense of accomplishment and enjoyed looking through and reminiscing about all of my favorite films from the 2000s.

Though it was tough, it has to be better than coming up with a “Best of 2009″ list. (Because I feared I’d come up with too few to even make a list for this year.) You may disagree with my rankings or even have suggestions for missing films. Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts and favorites on the best films of the decade!

WARNING: All Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fans, please don’t send me hate mail. I’m just a party pooper who couldn’t get into those series…I apologize in advance for being the idiot you’ve already assumed I am.

TOP 50 FILMS OF THE 2000s

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Just a Thought on Amanda Knox

AP Photo/Luca Bruno

I would like to make it very clear that this post is in no way my saying that I believe Amanda Knox is guilty for the murder of Meredith Kercher. I want to make that known because, basically, I don’t know whether she’s guilty or not. The more I read up on it, the more conflicted I feel.

Rather, I’d like to bring up some questions that have been concerning me:

  1. What if Amanda Knox was not white? (Meaning: Black, Hispanic, etc.)
  2. What if Amanda Knox was unattractive? (Meaning: not pretty.)

Yes, of all the questions to ask about this case, these are the ones I’m asking. Because frankly, the media is not addicted to this story only because they seek out justice. Sure, that’s part of it – Americans think she’s innocent and should not spend 25 years in Italian prison, and Italians are convinced she’s guilty based on evidence that really isn’t evidence at all and think she should rot in prison.

Americans, in the meantime, are adamant that this is a patriotic issue. “Italians hate Americans” is one of the reasons you hear constantly about why Amanda Knox has been such bait for the Perugia government.

So Americans can’t stop talking about how much they love her and want her innocence proven, and Italians can’t stop talking about how much they hate her and know she’s guilty. If Amanda Knox wasn’t a seemingly-wholesome and pretty white college student, would our media still be so hung up on her case? And likewise, would the Italian media still be so obsessed if they couldn’t say things like, for instance, she has “the face of an angel, but the eyes of a killer”?

Again, not saying she’s guilty or not guilty. I’m also not saying that I don’t feel sorry for her, because honestly it is eerie to see a girl my age (also in love with Italian culture) going through all of this, sentenced to 26 years in a foreign country, with the possibility that she may not be guilty at all. I don’t know how to feel about the crime, but I know how I feel about the media’s obsession with it.

Our media has been called out on spending too much air time on white females who are murdered or go missing. (See: “missing white woman syndrome”.) So if Amanda Knox wasn’t white, young, and beautiful, would the intrigue and passion for the case all but disappear? Or is it really an issue of patriotism and justice?

Switzerland in the Media, Pt. II: Minarets Ban

Poster (in German) reading: "Stop/Yes to the minaret ban"

I don’t want to spend this whole post outlining the history and politics of the minaret ban in Switzerland, but this article from the BBC in 2007 provides some good background on the controversy. (Please note especially the quotes from Oskar Freysinger.)

Aside from my view that this compromises the promotion of dialogue between religions and cultures in Europe, there are several things about this situation that make it controversial, offensive, and troublesome. One of those things being the feminist argument of this ban.

The Times Online wrote an article that provided details as to why feminists were boosting the Swiss efforts to ban minarets.

Pictured is a widespread Swiss poster aimed towards feminists to promote the ban. Take a closer look at it. What does it say to you? What does it represent? Can one ad speak volumes of a whole continent’s feelings towards minority groups?

Switzerland in the Media, Pt. I: Polanski

Photo by Rita Molnár; Wikipedia Commons

For the past week it’s been reported that Roman Polanski will most likely be released on bail. The latest report from Variety says:

Roman Polanski will remain in jail until Friday as the filmmaker raises the $4.5 million bail, Swiss authorities said Tuesday.

Polanski will basically be under house arrest – mind you, in his “chalet” in the Swiss Alps – until the government decides whether or not to extradite him to the U.S. to be charged for the crime he fled in 1978.

But what if Polanski tries to escape yet again?

I, for one, don’t see why Polanski wouldn’t try to escape this yet again. The fact that he has a family and is almost eighty years old seems to give him more reason to flee.

I guess we’ll have to see what happens. Until then, I am not doubting that he will be released on bail (Variety also reported that in Switzerland, the bail has to be paid in full). After all, if things are still the way they were in early October, Polanski has all of Hollywood behind him.

You can read more about the Polanski case and my initial thoughts on it in this post from October.