Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Oddities: G.O.R.A., Budd Boetticher, Darwin's Nightmare, Ushpizin, Nine Lives

There are boutique films, there are niche films, and then there are boutique niche films. It is four that latter category that places like the Brattle and Harvard Film Archive exist. I saw four of these movies toward the end of the Brattle's Movie Watch-a-Thon fundraiser, although not so much to prove a point that I was committed to unconventional films. There was really not a whole lot left; I saw a bunch of movies during that month, and Ushpizin (for instance) was the only thing that was matinee price at four in the afternoon that Saturday.

I admit to kind of being just a little bit disappointed in G.O.R.A.. I'd been hoping to see it at Fantasia, but it was during the second half of the festival and I got a screener for something else instead. The trailer on the program's DVD, as you might expect, contained almost all the F/X and grand vista scenes from the movie, so it looked snazzier than it was. But, hey, Turkey is a country that I had never seen a movie from, so I can make a mark on an imaginary checklist.

I wish I'd gotten to see more of the Budd Boetticher series. And I would dearly love to see the raw footage of A Man Can Do That's sit-down with Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino. In my imagination, it's these guys talking about one of their favorite directors of westerns for two hours. In my fantasies, it's a weekly TV show on Bravo.

So, to the reviews!


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (New Turkish Cinema)

I love sci-fi. Not to the point of praising bad examples of the genre, but I will try just about anything the genre offers up, and the more exotic, the better. I saw this on the schedule at Fantasia and immediately thought, okay, Turkish sci-fi comedy, I've never seen a movie like that; heck, I didn't know they made movies in Turkey. I was really disappointed when I couldn't fit a screening into my travel plans or acquire a screener, so I was happy to catch up with it at a Brattle screening a few months later. And even if this isn't the greatest entry in the genre, it's still a unique specimen, and what's the point of being a fan of science fiction if you're not open to new storytelling experiences?

The story follows Arif (Cem Yilmaz), a small-time tourist-trapper in Istanbul who is abducted and brought to the planet GORA by Commander Logar (also Yilmaz), who has designs on the beautiful Princess Ceku (Özge Özberk). She wants no part of the power-hungry lunatic, as she confesses to her robot friend 216 (Ozan Guven), but she doesn't seem to be getting much choice in the matter. She and Arif meet up, and escape from the city together, where circumstances will inevitably force them to save the planet.

Read the rest at HBS.

Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 December 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Ride Lonesome)

Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That makes me feel bad about for the most part giving the Boetticher series at the Harvard Film Archive a miss. It was bad timing - I was just coming off the Brattle's Movie-Watch-a-Thon and wanted out of theaters, I wound up working late, and one of the days I was free was the day they had the only Boetticher film I'd seen (and not been hugely impressed with), The Tall T, because the movie Bruce Ricker and Dave Kehr made certainly raised my interest in Boetticher as both a man and a filmmaker.

Oscar Boetticher Junior's story isn't a rags-to-riches tale, but one of a man trying to claim his own place in the world and not always having it work out well. The small son of a successful hardware salesman, he pushed himself to excel in sports as a child, then learned how to be a matador in Mexico, competing professionally for a while. He found himself in Hollywood on his return to America, where he toiled in various jobs on studio lots until he got a chance to do some second unit work, which lead to using his expertise as a technical advisor on Blood and Sand; he would later write, direct, and produce bullfighter epic Bullfighter and the Lady. He eventually paired with star Randolph Scott for a series of successful mid-budget Westerns for John Wayne's company in the 1950s before directing The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. During the 1960s, though, Boetticher's maverick streak would become his undoing, as he threw his entire effort into another bullfighting film, Arruza, which would become the very model of the career-destroying disaster.

Read the rest at HBS.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 December 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Ride Lonesome)

Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate is generally held up as the gold standard of movie debacles, and it's hard to argue with a film which nearly bankrupted a studio that had been in existence since the silent days. But for all the carnage it caused, it just bled money. Budd Boetticher's Arruza was a more total disaster for the people involved.

Boetticher's idea, apparently, was to make something like The Jackie Robinson Story, a fictionalized biography whose subject would star as himself. The man who captured Boetticher's interest was Carlos Arruza, widely considered Mexico's greatest matador, who had retired at the top of his game, purchasing one of the nation's top cattle farms where he would breed champion toros. When one of his animals gets loose, he herds the beast back on horseeback, which inspires him to learn a different form of bullfighting, rejoneador rather than picador. Michael Jordan retiring from basketball to try his hand at professional baseball is not a bad analogy, although Arruza's new sport was considered less prestigious than his old one (and Space Jam is a better movie). Boetticher's wife, Debra Paget, would be the leading lady.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2005 at Landmark Kendsall Square #9 (First-run)

I feel like a bit of a heel for not liking Ushpizin more than I do. I talk a good game about how being edgy is over-rated, especially in comparison to being heartfelt; I say the one of the things I love about foreign films is being exposed to different cultures. When something big-hearted and unfamiliar like Ushpizin comes along, I feel like I should appreciate it more. Instead, I find myself looking at my watch, trying to suppress a yawn because I don't want to offend the older folks who don't need the subtitles, and afterward noting that it had really good intentions.

The movie opens with scrolling text to inform Gentiles (and less-religious Jews) of the rituals surrounding the Succot holiday, which involve (among other things) living in a wooden shelter, acquiring a citron fruit, and showing hospitality to any guests (the ushpizin of the title) who may appear at one's doorway. For Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand), times are tight, and he's afraid he won't be able to afford these things, even though he and his wife Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) are praying for a child. However, things work out, or at least they seem to - the guests they are blessed with (Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani), are in fact convicts who didn't return to prison at the end of their furlough.

Read the rest at HBS.

Darwin's Nightmare

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

The blurb on the calendar played up the ecological angle: A foreign species introduced into a new environment destroys the native fauna, sending the ecology into a tailspin. Though some time is spent on how a small population of Nile perch quickly came to dominate Lake Victoria, biodiversity is not actually the focus of the film. Instead, Darwin's Nightmare focuses on how the perch dominates the area's economy just as totally as it does the lake, and how despite being able to export an abundant, renewable resource, the region remains impoverished.

Why? Globalization, apparently. Russian planes arrive, fill their holds up with Tanzanian fish fillets, and fly them to Europe. The fish are so plentiful that the fishing boats and processing centers are only somewhat profitable by paying the workers almost nothing (it's not like potential employees are in short supply). So the locals subsist on fried fish heads while their bounty flies overseas, with malnutrition and disease constant problems.

Read the rest at HBS.

Nine Lives

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 January 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

How can you tell the difference between a "real" independent film that manages to snag some well-known actors and a studio project that gets released under the "classics" banner? I'm guessing that one way would be to look at those actors' interviews with the media. As much as an independent filmmaker may be able to convince, say, Glenn Close to work for scale as a favor to a friend, that's not going to get her to take a break from other commitments to do interviews. That's why a movie like Nine Lives, with its very impressive cast, is able to come and go almost completely unnoticed (if it even came to your town at all).

Of course, part of the reason you don't get the stars doing press is because this film doesn't have a real lead to push. It's a sort of anthology film, nine segments that each follows a woman for ten or fifteen minutes before moving on to a different character's point of view. Some of the stories overlap in obvious ways; others share characters but place them in incongruous situations. The last story appears to be entirely self-contained. If there's a single premise that unites the segments, it's that love is a responsibility, and sometimes even a burden, as well as a source of joy.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: The Brattle's Samurai Cinema series from way back in November. I'm starting to despair as I look at the "to-review" list again, so I'll probably start doing capsules for recent movies soon. The stuff where I had to ask the HBS/EFC guys to put the movie in the database, though (like the samurai films), I figure I owe them a full review. The pipe dream is to get caught up by the SF/31 marathon a month from now (or at least within a reasonable distance).

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