Archive for Reviews

Review: Mary and Max

Year of release: 2009
Director:
Writer(s): Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries

Mary and Max is a claymation film by Adam Elliot, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette. Narrating throughout the film is Barry Humphries. It is the story of the long pen friendship between Mary Daisy Dinkle (Collette), an australian girl, and Max Jerry Horowitz (Hoffman), a man living in New York. The majority of dialogue between the two are in the form of letters exchanged between them during several decades, starting in the 1970’s.

The catalyst of their unlikely friendship is the one thing they have in common: loneliness. When they first “meet”, Max is middle-aged, has emotional and social difficulties (he will later find out that he has aspergers), while Mary is an eight year old who is bullied in school, has an alcoholic mother and a father who spends his time in his garden shed performing taxidermy on roadkill. The alienation Elliot illustrates is both jarring and humorous, and to some of us undoubtedly quite familiar. Their world is a crazy mirror image of our own, full of funnily bizarre characters and odd notions. But at the same time, everything seems to be grey, awkward and dysfunctional, which tints every laugh and chuckle with a wry sense of melancholy.

There’s no shortage of films and other creative works that strive to portray human existence in a beautifying light. But it is more rare to see a movie like this, where the filmmaker shows a far less flattering visage of humanity and then purposefully taking it a step further into comical grotesqueness. Mary and Max is a movie devoid of the culturally sanitizied perception of humanity that many movies throw at us using glamorous movie stars and sentimental representations of the world, instead showing us an externalized view of our imperfect inner landscapes.

Animation can be a wonderful way to realize artistic intent. It’s free of many of the obstacles present in live action productions. In the case of this film, that potential advantage is fully exploited in the sense that claymation is a little rough and asymmetrical in its nature, which fits perfectly with the quirky gloominess that is employed to tell this story.

The uncouth, gray world of eccentricities that Adam Elliot paints us makes the depiction of the close friendship between Mary and Max so much more meaningful; even in a depressing world, uncontrived friendship can occur. I think that’s why Elliot inserts a small, bright splash of colour into almost every scene; as a small visual cue of that comforting intimation.

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Review: Salmer fra kjøkkenet (Kitchen Stories)

Year of release: 2009
Director:
Writer(s): Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries

A common stereotype about us swedes is that we’re distant, cold and a little awkward. As far as stereotypes go, it’s actually pretty accurate and that part of our national identity has manifested itself in curious ways throughout our modern history. In the 1950’s, we were obsessed with applying our particular brand of common sense to almost all aspects of human life. Back in those days, they were convinced that if they analyzed something enough and drew enough diagrams, they would be able to delve to the heart of what makes a society happy and successful. In this particular case, they were able to determine the ideal kitchen layout by studying how women moved around in their daily kitchen routine.

Salmer fra kjøkkenet takes place in a town in Norway populated almost solely by single men, where the HFI (Hemmets Forskningsinstitut, The Home Research Institute) is going to further their understanding of domestic perfection by applying their kitchen layout research paradigm to single, norwegian men.  So they ship their observers off to this little hamlet to gather the required data. The researchers each have their own little trailer that they’re supposed to live in while observing their subjects, so not to impose too much on their privacy. The opening scenes of the film when the long line of HFI trailers parade into the small, rural town are almost a little surreal.

Malmberg, the reluctant swede in charge (played wonderfully by Reine Brynolfsson) is very distraught because he’s had to drive on the right side of the road (at that time, Sweden hadn’t yet switched from driving on the left side of the road) and tries to explain this to his norwegian counterpart, who just looks at him with a bemused expression. Which is one of the central premises of the film: the subtle cultural clash between the swedes and the norwegians. Neither quite understands the other and the swedes seems cluelessly ignorant of the mildly contemptful attitude the norwegians holds of them. Remember that this is the 1950’s; the memory of the second world war is still vivdly fresh, with an emphasis on the different roles Norway and Sweden played in it.

After an awkward introductionary meeting held by Malmberg, we make our acquaintance with the swedish observer Folke (Tomas Norström) and his very reluctant subject Isak (Joachim Calmeyer). When he is guiding Folke to where Isak lives, Isaks’ son Grant explains that his father regrets volunteering for the program and when Folke first arrives, Isak refuses to answer the door. Folke fruitlessly tries to persuade him to cooperate. Having come all this way he patiently waits for several days until finally, Isak leaves the door open indicating his reluctant surrender. Folke cautiously carts his ludicrous tennis judge chair into the corner of Isaks’ kitchen and climbs onto it.

What follows is a struggle of wills. Isak is a cantankerous old fart that seem determined to make life as difficult as possible for Folke. He’s not the likeable Hollywood kind of curmudgeon most of us are used to either. No, he’s a more authentic crank that seem to have very few endearing characteristics. Seemingly out of pure spite, Isak changes his routine completely when Folke is present. He doesn’t use his kitchen sink to rinse out his cups and he takes to cooking his meals in his bedroom out of sight of the perching swede.

Everything about Isak exudes loneliness. He lives in a secluded house in a remote town by himself, his only human contact it with his son Grant. Their relationship is so minimalistic that it’s actually amusing to watch them interact.

On the other hand, Folke also seems lonely. After all, he spends his days living in a trailer in the norwegian countryside. He has no family aside from an elderly aunt and he seems to cling to his work for meaning, telling himself that it will better the lives of a great many people.

The story devleops in pace with the relationship between these two lonely men. While the story takes a somewhat predictable turn, it does so in a very honest way. There’s no sense of forced sentimentality to the burgeoning friendship between Folke and Isak.

It takes a great deal to make a bitter old cynic like me to admit to enjoying watching two lonely individuals connect in such a touching and heartfelt way. I think it is because the film takes such a unpretentious approach to the subject. It doesn’t go out of its way to pander to established clichés. Even more impressive is the fact that when it does take the predictable path, it does so in a fresh and engaging way.

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The Corn People

Read this book!
Read this book!

Did you know that the average US resident consumes more corn than the “Corn People” of Mexico and South America, every day? There are almost no items in a US supermarket today that do not contain corn in any form – processed, perfected, enchanted, et cetera – and scientists have ways to tell what a person’s diet are made up of. By investigating dead skin cells (hair, nails) of US residents, they find that a significant percentage

of the nutrition comes from corn – even through the meat they consume, where most of the cattle have been fed with corn, and the sweets, where corn syrup and the likes have provided the sweetening. I guess it’s safe to say that you pretty much are what you eat, and most US Americans are corn cobs with fat legs.

In Mexico and a large part of South America, where people identify themselves as the Corn People, and eat corn in a non-processed, natural form just about every day, the same studies of dead skin cells have been conducted – and these people are less like their food than the US Americans are. Their cattle are mostly fed on grass. Their peripheral foodstuffs don’t contain much processed corn. They, who’ve lived off the corn for hundreds, or thousands of years, are more varied and diverse in their diets than the US Americans who exploit them. So who are the real corn people, really? Those who revel in it and embrace it… or those who unknowingly resemble it?

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Review: Mein liebster Feind

Year of release: 2009
Director:
Writer(s): Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries

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Werner Herzog does not make “easy” films. So, it’s not all that strange that he would be at his best when working with difficult people. Klaus Kinski was a very difficult person. With him, Herzog made some of the best films of this century. Before the two met, no director had worked with the mercurial actor more than once. Herzog and Kinski made 5 films together.

This documentary by Werner Herzog about his tumultuous professional (and personal) relationship with Klaus Kinski was riveting. It’s fascinating to not only get an insight into the nature of Klaus Kinski, but also the nature of Herzog and how the two interacted. The film is simple in its structure: we follow Herzog as he journeys throughout the places where his story took place. From the house where he and Kinski briefly lived together when he was young, to the site of their last film together. Along the way he talks about his friend, their relationship and shares a number of anecdotes from their time working together. He also seeks out and interviews some of the people that were sucked into their vortex along the way; co-stars and extras. They all have their own perspective and Herzog lets them tell it as they saw it.

kinski-herzog

Their relationship was a complicated one. It alternated between being a warm friendship and an acrid rivalry of wills.  Herzog reveals how he once seriously intended to firebomb Kinskis house. He says it in a way that suggests levity, but I don’t doubt for a second that he did indeed intend do just that, and that the only thing that stopped him was the fortuitous intervention of Kinskis dog. Just a short while later, they met at a film festival where they hugged, joked around and seemed to genuinely enjoy each others company. They were both grand personalities and paradoxically seemed to simultaneously complement and detract from each other. It sometimes seemed as though Herzog managed to coax cooperation out of their relationships only by a supreme effort of will; his intense desire to make great films won out over his exasperation with Kinski. In the world of cinema, they were almost like two celestial bodies colliding, but instead of crashing and exploding, they developed a kind of mutually beneficial orbit.

review_kinskiKinski was a crazy bastard. There’s really no avoiding that little fact. A schizophrenic (he was actually diagnosed as such at one time) egomaniac. He sometimes got so involved in his performances that he seemed to lose his already tenuous grip on reality. One of his more famous debacles was his stage set retelling of the life of Jesus Christ according to Klaus Kinski, which quickly derailed into barely lucid, frantic ranting where Kinski painted himself out to be some sort of messianic figure.

Kinskis volatile nature is probably why Herzog primarily cast him in parts in which the character descends into insanity. That inherent quality in Kinski shines through, expertly modulated by Kinskis considerable acting talent and Herzogs masterful directing. That same masterful filmmaking is evident in this documentary. Herzog doesn’t stoop to just regaling us with stories of Kinskis madness, which would undoubtedly be entertaining in itself. No, he cuts down to the very bone of what made their relationship unique.

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