The Juice Bar

My muses, thoughts, ideas, and whatever

Friday, November 28, 2008

My report on SLIFF 2008 (St. Louis International Film Festival)

Ranking the films I saw during the most recent St. Louis International Film Festival starting with my most favorite (although all were worthy films)

1. The Wrestler

This a deeply moving and authentic film. It gets all the details right, from the collaboration of the wrestlers in and out of the ring, to the desperation of these characters in gathering at strip clubs, seeing in their eyes they're just trying to keep going. And even an authentic 1980s wrestling video game with the blocky graphics, the kind I used to play back when could still figure these games out.

There's one scene in particular, the aftermath of a particularly bloody match, that is just as gut-wrenching as anything in the Passion of the Christ. Speaking of which, there is an offhand reference to POTC early in the film that perfectly illustrates the mentality of these characters, the way they view this kind of blood sport, as well as life in general.

I can see the Dardennes influence with the shots looking at the main character from behind. As well as the uncompromising realism. I can imagine that this will be a very polarizing film, nothing like you would expect from a Hollywood sports film. It will be something that you will that you love or hate, with no middle ground.

And the ending is perfect.

Definitely one of the best films of the year.

2. Ben X

I was very impressed with this film. I'm not qualified to comment as to the accuracy of its portrayal of Asperger's Syndrome, but I think the film did an excellent job in showing how difficult and painful it would be for a high school student who has some kind of condition preventing him from communicating with people and in having social skills. I can understand how Ben could retreat into his fantasy world of the computer game to cope with the extreme bullying he faces. And I could buy how someone in his situation would do what he does to cope.

Some minor flaws, though. Ben looked too old to be in high school. And the monstrous behavior of the bullies was a bit over-the-top. But this is a very worthy film.

3. Timecrimes

A very enjoyable and clever film. The film has the feel of a mathematical exercise in recursion, and there is a darkly comic feel as it shows the increasingly convoluted lengths an ordinary guy would have to go to if he actually did travel backward in time and started messing with the timeline.

I liked the simple approach: no real special effects, just good writing and believable characters. The thought of a remake scares me a little bit, but I would trust Cronenberg more than anyone else to pull it off.

4. The Grocer's Son

A low-key and charming character-driven story about an irresponsible young French man who is idling his way through life, when his father has a health problem and needs someone to run his grocery store in the country. Motivated by the desire to bring his girlfriend into the country, the man decides to take on the grocery, but his manner with customers is definitely less than friendly. Eventually, though, his interactions with the people he meets in driving his mobile store around the countryside helps him to see what an a-hole he's been, and by the end of the film, he starts to learn what it means to be human.

I can definitely see comparisons to the Station Agent, as both films featured a character who runs a business from a motor cart, and both films featured a character who comes out of a self-imposed shell and softens due to developing relationships with other people. The landscape shots of the French countryside were gorgeous. The film had some nicely done humorous moments in it too. A lovely excursion into the French culture and landscape.

5. Opera Jawa

All singing, all dancing, it's like an Indonesian version of Moulin Rouge on a micro budget, and without the gargantuan excess of Baz Lohrman's vision, and without Nicole Kidman singing pop songs out of context. But it's the film's lack of expensive sets and pretentiousness that makes this film work. It's undeniably strange, but its DIY creativity in the staging of such unusual scenes was fascinating. I'm sure there was a lot of cultural stuff that went over my head concerning the main storyline, which seems to be a myth about rival warriors battling over the heart of a princess. But I found the film very enjoyable; it was the kind of film that I wanted to keep watching just to see what odd but beautiful scene would happen next.

6. All for Free

After losing a brother and friend in a bizarre barroom tragedy, a Bosnian man with nothing to live for except an inheritance, hits the road in a grocery van and decides to go from town to town and give away food and drinks for free to anyone in the area. Some customers are skeptical, and a few are hostile, but he manages to develop little mini communities based on people getting together to share in the bounty. Along the way, he meets a pretty lady who is trapped in a house with a domineering brother, and the man with the truck tries to win her. This film is an interesting look at people trying to build communities in post-war Bosnia, but the scars of the war run deep and frustrate these efforts.

7. Let the wind Blow

Drama about a friendship between two young men growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Mumbai, India. Each of them struggles with their station in life, fairly low on the economic scale, one step ahead of poverty. Each yearns for a better life. It's the kind of drama shared by people all over the world, but in this film there is a shadow of escalating tensions between India and Pakistan, and the specter of nuclear weapons. The human drama was very well done, although the ending betrays the coming-of-age story by seeming to suddenly leap into a different film altogether, and betraying the rest of the film. Still, most of the film is a worthy exploration of life in modern India.

Monday, November 03, 2008

My reading journal - October 2008

Cyndere's Midnight - Jeffrey Overstreet - I really enjoyed this second book in Jeffrey Overstreet's fantasy series. I was moved by the struggle of Jordam the beastman to overcome his beastly nature, and the beautiful healing properties of Auralia's Colors (as opposed to the narcotic addiction of the beastmen's "essence"). And the author continues to unfold details about the world he has created, as well as revealing secrets about the people in this world, in a way that makes me look forward to reading the final two books in the series.

A Walk in the Woods (audiobook) - Bill Bryson - An enjoyable travelogue about a middle-aged man who decides to tackle the physical challenge of hiking the 2250-mile Appalachian Trail, accompanied by an old friend who is clearly not cut out for the outdoor life. A warm look at the beauty of nature and the challenge of man tackling nature without the comfort of a car or five-star hotel accommodations. Along the way, the author recollects the history of the building of the trail as well as the ravages of time and neglect that affect nature. A funny and inspiring look at man walking through, up, over, down, and around nature.

The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher - Rob Stennett - An amusing satire of the modern evangelical church and "seeker-friendly" pastors. A real estate agent one day sees a news report on an evangelical church. He notices that with the congregation raising their arms in the air, they look like they're begging for starter homes. He puts an ad in the Christian business directory and forms a successful real estate business selling exclusively to Christians. Then when he is innocently mistaken for a pastor while doing someone a good deed, he gets the crazy idea that by running his own church, he can build an empire. So he finds a small town in Oklahoma, starts his own services in a Chuck E Cheese with a few bored and curious onlookers, and through a series of self-help sermons and strange occurrences (including an appearance on Oprah) Ryan Fisher builds one of the hottest churches in America, despite Ryan's almost complete lack of knowledge about God, the Bible, or theology. Sure, it's far-fetched, but it shows some uncomfortable truths in how Christians often rush to catch the latest trend without discerning whether it is true. At the same time, the author tempers the satire with humor and genuine characters. I chuckled quite a bit at the author's voice and his ear for exploring the weirder side of pop culture.

Notes from a Small Island (audiobook) - Bill Bryson - Having visited visitied the UK twice in the past decade, I've become fascinated by this small island. Bill Bryson describes a trip he took through England, Scotland, and Wales, a last hurrah of sorts, as he was on the verge of leaving there after living there for twenty years to move back to his native United States. The journey is humorous and bittersweet as the author recounts the fascinating character of the people and the cities and villages he visits, while lamenting how modernization has eroded the uniqueness of a culture that had stood for centuries, but is now becoming increasing homogenized due to chain stores and concrete. I do wish he had devoted some time to extolling the virtues of Hobgoblin Ale and Theakson's Old Peculiar.

Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons - I was told this was the greatest graphic novel of all time. Since the movie is coming out next year, I read this. I'm no great expert on comic books or graphic novels, having not read widely in either genre. But as far as Watchmen, goes, it lives up to the hype. Not a typical superhero story, but one that incorportates mystery, character studies, alternative history, and a complex moral dilemma into the storyline. I'm definitely looking forward to the movie now.

Sweethears - Sara Zarr - A nicely-done story of teenaged friendship and the mix of emotions that come with trying to be popular, of finding and losing the one person who really understands you, and the complexity of negotiating teenaged life. These characters felt very real and the story grabs you and draws you into the world these characters live in.

Merciless - Robin Parrish - Third and final chapter of his Dominion Trilogy. This time the stakes are as high as you can get, nothing less than fighting ultimate evil and the end of the world. Issues of human choice and the theology of free will are woven into the story in a way that doesn't distract from the action-packed storyline.