Thursday, March 19, 2009

Urban Fantasies

Cityscapes are often seen as breeding grounds for grim reality. Petty theft, drug abuse, and sudden eruptions of violence fester on the streets of the metropolis while white collar criminals work their evil in glass towers owned by companies like AIG, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch. While speculators and hedge fund managers fantasize about pulling money out of thin air, the folks down at street level (or below) are often left to struggle with more fearsome challenges. Some of their fantasies exist solely within the deep recesses of their minds. Others manifest themselves in shocking new ways.

Because of their amazing variety of architectural styles, cityscapes offer a much richer palette for the imagination. Whether one envisions a giant ape climbing a skyscraper with a terrified woman in his hand, a tsunami laying waste to a major metropolis, or the "Bat signal" being projected against the Gotham sky, an urban skyline can serve as an incubator for millions of tall tales. Two films recently shown at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival demonstrate that you don't need to have Godzilla stomping down a wide boulevard, demolishing buses filled with terrified passengers, to keep an audience enthralled. All you need is a good idea that can be spun into a tale of urban woe.

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Every now and then a filmmaker throws together a group of characters who, on the surface, seem so bizarrely unrelated that it would require radioactive tracers to fudge a connective narrative from their lives. So my hat goes off to director Ed Radtke and his co-writer, Mark S. Nieson, for their achievements in The Speed of Life, an exciting new film whose cast of characters is astonishingly disparate. Instead of trying to find a linear narrative with which to connect their characters they have chosen a series of stolen digital cameras whose contents patch together an electronic quilt with a surprising secret.

At the center of this tale is a teenaged foster child named Sammer (Jeremy Allen White), who steals cameras from tourists in New York and obsesses over the images stored on their flash drives. Sammer has rigged his bedroom with a series of monitors and editing devices which allow him to examine the private moments captured by his victims during their vacations, at family gatherings, and in moments of innocence.

His foster mother (whom he insists on calling Granma), is an elderly black woman (Ella Garrett) who is nearly blind. Sammer's older brother Juan-Si (Blaze Foster), who is soon to be released from prison and has been promising to clean up his act, but lies about everything.

Sammer has been doing a curious kind of research for Frank (Peter Appel), a juvenile probation officer with a history of anger management problems whose daughter (Juan-Si's girlfriend) has taken out a restraining order against her father. Frank's "research" involves befriending and tailing an eccentric old man named Jerry (Edward Seamon), who has returned from years mysteriously spent in Alaska and who now lives in a tiny, decrepit apartment. Jerry, who seems to be obsessed with a wealthy businessman his age, keeps trying to break into the man's suite of offices, and thinks he can fly.

Living across the hall from Jerry is a quiet, hulking, black ex-con(George T. Odom) who is assigned to cleaning the cages at a pet shelter and has a weakness for puppies. Add to this motley gang Richie (Robert Seymour), a slightly retarded friend of Sammer's who lives in Granma's apartment building and thinks he can be a superhero.

And then there is Dukie (Justin Soto), another adolescent thief with delusions of military grandeur, who tries to heroically stop a convenience store robbery while dressed in camouflage and brandishing a plastic toy AK-47.

Sammer and his friends like to experiment with the video cameras they steal (whether by dropping them from rooftops, attaching them to a bevy of balloons, or sliding them under the divider into a men's room stall to record a businessman talking on his cell phone while sitting on the toilet). But when Jerry commits suicide by jumping through a window in the mysterious businessman's office, the footage Sammer finds in the camera Jerry was carrying yields some surprising footage. Dukie is quick to grasp its significance, even if the adults investigating Jerry's death remain clueless.

Unlike Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant Magnolia (or some of Robert Altman's more intricately interwoven films), the characters in The Speed of Life do not careen toward a final moment of truth or revelation. Although the children identify the missing link to a barely visible puzzle, none of the characters have any idea that such a puzzle even exists. Only the audience does, as it watches random bits of footage piece together a fragile web of connections resulting from a grand theft gone wrong, dysfunctional families, and some desperately kept secrets.

The wonder of Radtke's film is that, by trying to see its subjects through the eyes of disenfranchised teenagers who have gotten their hands on some curious video footage, it develops a lyricism that is quite remarkable. Much of this has been helped by the filmmaker's work with urban youth at risk during which he has taught them how to use video cameras and, simultaneously, they have taught him new ways to look at their world. The Speed of Life is filled with mischief, mystery, and a rare, gritty kind of urban magic. Here's the trailer:

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Opening in theaters this week is a triptych of three short films, all set in modern day Tokyo! In each segment, a gifted filmmaker weaves a web of surreal intrigue that begins to resemble Rod Serling's classic Twilight Zone series.

The first installment, Michel Gondry's Interior Design, focuses on a young couple that arrives in Tokyo from Hokkaido and crashes in a friend's tiny apartment. Akira (Ryo Kase) is an aspiring independent filmmaker who quickly finds himself a job wrapping gifts. His girlfriend, Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), is easily identifiable as a codependent/enabler type of personality who picks up after Akira and rescues his film equipment after his car has been towed and impounded. 

As Akira continues to scold his girlfriend for her lack of ambition, she sinks further and further into depression and retreats into the background. Akira becomes more involved in his work and less solicitous of her attention.

One day, Hiroko discovers strange things happening to her body. As she struggles to return to their apartment, her arms and legs start turning into pieces of wood. Soon, her metamorphosis is complete and she is transformed into a chair (a doormat might have been more appropriate). Ironically, her new appearance brings a strange kind of happiness and sense of fulfillment. Hiroko now serves a more functional purpose by being able to provide loving support for Akira whenever he needs a place to sit.

In Bong Joon-Ho's Shaking Tokyo we meet a lonely man played by the doleful Teruyuki Kagawa (who also stars in Tokyo Sonata) who has been living as a hikikomori  for more than a decade. His entire life is built around meticulously fetishized routines that prevent him from having any kind of eye contact with another person. One day, when the usual pizza delivery boy fails to show, a woman (Yu Aoi) delivers his pizza, instead. As she is about to leave, an earthquake strikes Tokyo, knocking her to the ground. As the man steps out of his apartment to try to rouse her, he breaks the strict rules of his hermit-like existence.

After she leaves, the man's hunger to reconnect with this woman and spend more time with her forces him to leave the safety zone of his tiny apartment (which has been crammed to the limits with empty pizza boxes and neatly-aligned rolls of toilet paper). As he searches a seemingly deserted Tokyo, a second earthquake rocks his world -- along with the rest of the city --  and he finds love.

By far, the best of the three films is the middle segment. Directed by Leos Carax, Merde is a grand spoof of urban monster films as well as a cautionary tale of post-9/11 xenophobia. A hilarious send-up of such film classics as The Phantom of the Opera and Godzilla, Merde is a grotesque man-creature (Denis Lavant) who arises from Japan's sewers and causes utter panic. The demented protagonist in Merde has no qualms about randomly throwing grenades at passersby, killing scores of people, or ranting insanely in a court of law. He is the face of random urban terrorism.

Merde does, however, attract the attention of a French attorney named Maitre Voland (Jean-Francois Balmer), who insists on defending Merde and communicating with him in a form of French gibberish. Easily the most interesting and engaging of the three short stories, Merde benefits from a knockout musical score as well as some great work from cinematographer Caroline Champetier.

The political implications are often hilarious, especially the final moments in which the announcement of a sequel -- Prochainement: Merde USA -- flashes on the screen. I found Merde to be the most imaginative, provocative and enjoyable of the three short films which comprise Tokyo! Here's the trailer:

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