Tuesday, June 27, 2006


WATER (Deepa Mehta, 2005)

According to the Sacred Texts of Manu, a woman has three choices when her husband dies. She can choose to burn with him on the funeral pyre, live a life of self-denial, or marry her husband's younger brother if the family permits. Set in India in 1938, Deepa Mehta's WATER, the third film in her elements trilogy, observes the lives of Hindu widows at an ashram.

The film begins with eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) being taken to a residence for widows. She was in an arranged marriage. Unfair as it seems, the passing of Chuyia's husband, a man she didn't really know, dictates how she will live the majority of her life. Chuyia does not understand why she is being separated from her family or why she must spend a lifetime mourning a stranger, but she finds a friend in Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young widow who is not prepared to accept her fate.

WATER simmers at the injustice heaped upon these women because of religious tradition. Mehta shows how the widows are victims of a patriarchal system passed down for two thousand years. Through no choice of their own, they are forced into lives of misery. Destitute and desperate, the more attractive widows are prostituted to help the group survive. In spite of sensing that they are being mistreated, the women know no better than to accept what they have been taught is proper.

In criticizing religion as a means of oppression and control, Mehta courts controversy but not in an irresponsible or self-righteous manner. (Some Hindu fundamentalists would beg to differ. During her first attempt to make the film, protesters burned the sets and an effigy of the director.) WATER is intended to draw attention to the issue and affect social change. Mehta's accomplishment is conveying the message through a sad and beautiful film.

Although set nearly seventy years ago, a time that puts Mahatma Gandhi's social movement in the background, the outrage continues. At the end of WATER we're informed that the 2001 census accounts for 34 million widows living like the women in the film. It's a shocking statistic and one that points out that there's still a long way to go to fulfill the hope in the final shot, a long take in which an older woman looks back accusingly while a train in the background takes a child widow to safety.

Grade: B

Thursday, June 22, 2006

World Cup Fever

World Cup viewing party at Crew Stadium for the USA-Italy match (Mark Pfeiffer/June 17, 2006)

While I'm far from the most knowledgeable person or ardent fan when it comes to soccer, I really enjoy the World Cup. In 2002, in what must have been fits of insanity, I went to most of the viewing parties at Crew Stadium, which sometimes meant getting up at 4:00 a.m. to go watch matches on TV. Although this tournament's games are on at friendlier times, I've seen fewer of them because they're on during the meat of the work day.

I did make it to the Columbus Crew's viewing party for the USA-Italy match, mostly because I had to be at the stadium that night to help spot for the Ohio North-South All-Star Football Classic. So we're clear, this was football of the American kind. I arrived early so I could take in the game.

Other than being at the matches in person, there's no better way to watch the World Cup. The people who show up at these free parties are passionate and bring the feel of a live sporting event. I'd guess there were a thousand or so packed into the tent beside the stadium, most of whom were cheering for the United States. Many were decked out in the appropriate gear, be it scarves, hats, or jerseys, and some took the body paint route. Yeah, it kind of strange to have that commitment when you're not even at the game, but it adds to the atmosphere.

View from the stands (Mark Pfeiffer/June 17, 2006)

I watched the second half from the bleachers in the stadium. More people were out there than are seen in the photograph, but most were sitting on the same level as me or higher to be in the shade.

Of course, this is prelude to the USA-Ghana match, which begins in a little more than an hour. A win, coupled with an Italy defeat of the Czech Republic, means the US advances to the next round. Will it happen? I'm feeling upbeat about their chances, but I'm not going to be putting my money where my mouth is on this one. After all, the national team has yet to have one of their players score a goal.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Of Tow Trucks and Danish Provocateurs

Long time, no post. Suffice it to say that the combination of end of the school year work and dissatisfaction with some written but unposted until retooled reviews has fed this recent blogging malaise. So what's up in my little corner of the world?

As a big fan of DOGVILLE, I've been chomping at the bit to see MANDERLAY. It finally arrived in town courtesy of the Wexner Center, and I was all ready to see Lars von Trier's latest provocations. The trouble was that as I went to stop at the light at 15th and Indianola I heard and felt a clunk as I depressed the brake. It went down a lot easier than it should have, but thankfully the car came to a stop and didn't hit anyone or anything. (Better for this to happen here than on I-71 at rush hour.)

I was meeting a friend for a bite to eat before the movie, so I was on campus plenty in advance to have dinner and call AAA to tow the car back to Westerville. Since my experience with tow trucks typically has meant waiting a long time, I decided that I ought to have one come before the film. With an hour until start time and an estimate of an hour or less for a truck, I bit the bullet on possibly missing a few minutes of the film rather than waiting an hour afterwards. Of course, after an hour was up a AAA agent called to say that the towing company was busy and that another truck was being dispatched. Estimated arrival: 30 minutes or less. On a zero to thirty minute scale, guess when the truck came.

So I missed the first forty minutes--chapters one and two--but was undeterred in watching the remainder. I liked what I saw of MANDERLAY, but I'll have to see the whole film to render any verdict on it. I've waited since Cannes 2005 to see it, so what's another two months to see the rest on DVD. I'm not surprised that the critics are evenly divided--currently 51% on the Tomatometer--in part because it seems made to offend the very people who would see it in the first place.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


BRICK (Rian Johnson, 2005)

Desktop audio tools have allowed music fans to make something fresh by combining seemingly incongruous songs. Mashing-up The Strokes and Christina Aguilera sounds like a potential disaster, but the end result is surprisingly catchy. Likewise, BRICK, a cinematic mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett detective stories with a contemporary high school drama, seems like a better idea as a stylistic stunt, but writer-director Rian Johnson’s film works quite well. This isn’t an exercise in playing dress-up. The characters inhabit a place where disappointment and pain lurk around every corner, something all too familiar to teenagers.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives a note and a phone call from his distraught ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She’s in a jam but can’t bring herself to disclose the details of her situation to him. Two days later she turns up face down in a culvert. Still smarting from their break-up two months prior, Brendan sets out to get to the bottom of Emily’s death and expose the unsavory characters with whom she had been spending her time.

Brendan’s investigation leads him to the local drug dealer The Pin (Lukas Haas), a cane-wielding 26 year-old; Tugger (Noah Fleiss), the short-fused muscle who stomps around like an ape; and Laura (Nora Zehetner), a kimono-clad femme fatale first glimpsed singing and tickling the ivories at a private party.

BRICK’S language is anachronistic and its tone irony-free as the teenagers strike their world-weary postures. Think of it as the flip side of VERONICA MARS, which uses hip patter and an ironic tone in following the adventures of Kristen Bell’s teenage gumshoe. Neither approach is more correct than the other—BRICK and VERONICA MARS do what they do well—but Johnson’s film is refreshing in its lack of winking. BRICK has a sharp sense of humor, but it’s filtered through the hard-boiled lingo and the occasional dissonance of noir and suburbia rather than postmodernism.

It takes time to develop an ear for the jargon-laced dialogue, but Johnson doles out enough clues, often through the all-seeing The Brain (Matt O’Leary), to keep viewers from getting lost in the argot. This specialized language is a good fit for teens, who create slang some adults find nearly impenetrable. It also gives BRICK verbal texture that differentiates it from just about every other film made today.

Elevated emotions are a hallmark of adolescence, so the film handles romantic splits and hallway betrayals like the matters of life and death that kids feel they are. Except for an assistant vice-principal (SHAFT’S Richard Roundtree) and an oblivious, doting mother, adults are absent from BRICK’S world. Their non-presence is crucial to sustaining youthful misperception that they are alone in their experience of intense feelings.

Johnson’s visual acuity turns BRICK’S southern California suburb into a gray sky wasteland of concrete and asphalt. The landscape speaks of loneliness. Large, foreboding spaces swallow up the few people inhabiting them. The rare bright blue sky is visible before Brendan falls from innocence, before Emily ends their relationship. It’s also in this flashback that his forehead is able to be seen. Once Emily has left his life, the emotional turmoil is manifested in the tousled bangs drooping just above his glasses.

It’s worth noting BRICK’S soundtrack and sound design. Composer Nathan Johnson, the director’s cousin, includes a few standard noir cues but favors rusty lounge music not far removed from Tom Waits. The spare music extends to the frequently quiet natural sound, all the better for bringing to the fore essential aural information. A schoolyard chase scene gains its urgency from two distinct sets of clopping feet. One character removes his shoes to elude the pursuer and trips him, sending him headfirst into a pole that rings like a bell from the impact.

With his performances in MYSTERIOUS SKIN and BRICK, Gordon-Levitt has grown into an actor worth following. I had tarred him for being on the sitcom 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN, a show I didn’t care for at all, but his shift from the TV comedy series to more serious roles proves that he is a versatile and serious performer. As Brendan, Gordon-Levitt is convincing as the good kid who has been wounded and let the trauma darken his perspective and toughen his skin. Now he hits hard and hits fast and isn’t afraid to be on the receiving end any longer.

Similar to Gordon-Levitt’s transformation away from sitcom kid, Haas shakes up his screen persona. Typically not one to cut an imposing figure, he brings a frightening quality to The Pin. As the mysterious Laura, Zehetner is seductive and forthcoming, assuming that one of those qualities doesn’t cancel out the other. Her wide eyes make her look innocent and in need of protection, but if the genre’s demands are any indication, that appearance is anything but true.

Johnson’s sources of inspiration for BRICK put forth tough dicks and dames in a cold, uncaring universe. Glum teens are a clever and natural evolution for the genre.

Grade: A-