Thursday, June 3, 2010

Coping With Chaos

What happens when the shit finally hits the fan? When the situation no longer requires talk, but action? Are you the type of person who can rise to a difficult challenge? Or will you stay in your seat, paralyzed by fear?

Split-second decisions, though sometimes required in life, do not come easily to everyone. Some people's reactions may be slowed by drugs and alcohol. For others, a lack of intellect and problem-solving skills may present a severe handicap.

When raging rivers flood a town, when a tornado rages through a community -- or an earthquake brings sudden death and destruction, survivors must cope with the grisly aftermath. Many are as ill prepared for the task as BP was to stop an oil leak 1,000 feet below sea level.

Whether a person is stuck in the middle of an environmental catastrophe or is working in a medical unit within a war zone, one's ability to stop the bleeding (both literally and metaphorically) is constantly being tested. After the initial crisis has passed, does one aim for revenge or relaxation? For destruction or detente?

Three new films focus on people forced to operate in crisis mode by circumstances beyond their control. Although two are fictional (with a heavy touch of fantasy), one deals with real-time crisis management. Each film has a profoundly different impact on its audience.

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Joachim Back's 21-minute film, The New Tenants, holds the honor of winning the 2010 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. Thanks in large part to the wonderful cinematography by Pavel Edelman (who did such magnificent work in Katyn), this brooding dramedy/thriller (which is part of the Fun In Boys' Shorts program at the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) may leave audiences stirred, shaken, and convinced that a bitter, middle-aged gay couple (in which each man really knows how to push his partner's buttons) is more well adjusted than most of the people in their neighborhood.

Peter (Jamie Harold) and Frank (David Rakoff) have just moved into a dingy apartment that reeks of despair. All they have brought with them are some packing boxes, two chairs, a shitload of cynicism and attitude, and the small card table on which Frank is playing solitaire while puffing cigarette smoke in the direction of his lover's face.

David Rakoff as Frank

The doorbell announces the arrival of a nosy elderly tenant (the great character actress Helen Hanft) who is hoping to borrow some flour so she can bake the cinnamon buns that her granddaughter loves so dearly. Although her annoying presence brings some disquieting news about a series of recent deaths in the building, Peter manages to find a large baggie filled with a flour-like substance in the kitchen and gives it to her.

Liane Balaban as Irene

In short order the couple is visited by the granddaughter's jealous husband (Vincent D'Onofrio), a furious landlord and part-time drug dealer named Zelko (Kevin Corrigan) who is looking for his stash of heroin, and the drugged-out Irene (Liane Balaban). With a string of dead bodies marking the path from their card table to the stairs, Peter and Frank end up dancing in the streets -- their depression having lifted with the knowledge that, at the very least, they are still alive.

The New Tenants is very much a character actor's film in which each new intruder to appear on the screen is afforded a near-operatic meltdown before being killed. Shot in the legendary Hotel Chelsea by a director who has worked for many years in the advertising world, its lighting often invokes the feel of an old Law and Order episode. While I doubt that The New Tenants will add much fun to the Fun In Boys' Shorts program, there is no denying its raw emotional power and grisly dramatic impact. Here's the trailer:

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Some people claim that revenge is a dish best served cold. But in the case of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's anti-war farce, Micmacs, it would seem that revenge is best served by a team of misfits who possess the bizarre imaginations and tactical media expertise one might expect to achieve by uniting The Yes Men with the creative forces behind Cirque du Soleil. If you feel frustrated by the death and destruction inflicted on the general public by the likes of BP and Goldman Sachs, this is the film for you.

At the center of Micmacs is a man whose father was killed while trying to defuse a land mine in the Moroccan desert. Now a grown man, Bazil (Dany Boon) has been working in a video rental store where he enjoys watching movie classics. One night, a drive-by shooting causes a stray bullet to lodge in his forehead without exploding. When examined by a doctor, he is told that the choice is to remove the bullet (which could leave him totally paralyzed) or to leave the bullet in his head with the understanding that it could explode at any moment.

A coin toss decides Bazil's fate.

Having been replaced at his job and lost his apartment, Bazil tries his luck as a street performer. When a strange man invites Bazil to meet his friends, he is introduced to a group of bizarre misfits who live in a surreal metal cave they have built close to a junkyard. They include:
  • Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), a young woman with a mind like a computer. The daughter of a land surveyor and an alterations seamstress, she has a photographic memory and can instinctively measure, itemize, and calculate every item her cronies bring home with them.
  • Tiny Pete (Michel Cremades), a small elderly man who creates amazing automated sculptures and machines using items found in the junkyard.
  • Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), a very talented contortionist who could be an erotic dream come true. She's the kind of woman who wouldn't hesitate to bend over backwards to help her friends.
Bazil (Dany Boon) and Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier)

While walking around Paris one day, Bazil recognizes a corporate logo on two large buildings that face each other. Not only is it the symbol imprinted on the type of bullet lodged in his head, it is also the logo of the manufacturer whose land mine killed his father. Intent on finding a way to avenge his father's death as well as his own bad fortune, Bazil enlists the help of his new friends in ruining the lives of two major French weapons dealers: Nicholas Thibault de Fenouillet (André Dussollier) and Francois Marconi (Nicolas Marié).

What follows often feels like a cross between a James Bond film and Terry Gilliam's most recent spectacle, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. It's difficult to articulate all the wild twists and turns in this story as Jeunet's mischievous band of misfits plan a revenge that includes an exceptional coup de theatre achieved through an aggressive type of citizen journalism.

Jeunet stresses that one of the most difficult parts of writing the screenplay was finding the right tone for the film:
"We just had to find the right balance between the gang of junkyard dealers (who look like they just walked out of Toy Story) and the weapon sellers, who are more serious types. We didn't want to make the weapon sellers too serious, or to make them into caricatures, either. That was another balance we had to find. That was why, knowing so little about the weapons industry, before starting to write I made my own little investigation.

With the journalist Phil Casoar, I met and questioned a man who had retired from a job at the highest level of the weapons industry, a former secret agent and an engineer from Matra. We also visited a weapon factory in Belgium (in France, that wasn't possible). Really nice people, technicians who talk so passionately about their factory it could be a chocolate shop, only when the new caramel they've just invented hits its target, it makes a tank heat up to 4500°! Which means that on the inside, everyone burns to a crisp in a fraction of a second! Terrifying. And they talk about it as if it were just a technological innovation!

All the lines in the film that refer to the weapons industry are authentic, like for example 'We don't work for the Attack Department; we work for the Defense Department.' That's a pretty marvelous justification to keep your conscience clean! Except that their 'products' are sold, and at the end of the chain, they cause suffering, mourning, death."
Dany Boon as Bazil

Micmacs is a delightful romp through a nonsensical, but magical underworld blessed by an embarrassment of riches. The combination of Aline Bonetto's production design, Tetsuo Nagata's cinematography, and an ensemble of superb character actors makes Micmacs the kind of film where you should just sit back, forget about trying to make sense of anything, and enjoy the ride. Here's the trailer:

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Don't expect to find a whole lot of belly laughs or a sense of whimsy in Living in Emergency, a poignant new documentary by Mark Hopkins that focuses on the work done by Doctors Without Borders (officially known as Médecins Sans Frontières).

Unlike medical soap operas that feature handsome heartthrob actors as the doctors with whom every nurse falls in love, this film concentrates on doctors trying to keep people alive during real crises. Hopkins stresses that:
"As an organization, MSF is apolitical, so the underlying reason for why people are suffering is not their primary concern; their interventions are first and foremost about addressing a medical emergency. The film is not meant to be a call to action, but more of an immersion into the MSF environment.

I suppose the film requires some people to readjust their expectations of hope. But, from my point of view, I feel it actually is quite hopeful because, despite the overwhelming nature of the situation, there are people who are willing to engage so much of themselves in doing what they can without the need for some big picture sense of accomplishment. The work in and of itself is enough. That is a tremendously powerful statement, especially when you think of it in the context of overwhelming need.

The film is about emergency medicine from a doctor's perspective, and I think it accurately reflects their life in the field and the issues that engage them. If people feel the doctors’ perspective is bleaker than they’d like it to be, I think that’s more a reflection on how some people might wish things were, and not how they are. To have created a feel-good story with a happy ending would have been disingenuous to the reality of the subject."

Much of the film takes place in the Congo and Liberia (in particular, Monrovia and the northern towns of Foya and Kolohun). A great deal of the footage was filmed at the Mamba Point Hospital after the Second Liberian Civil War. Hopkins follows the trials and tribulations of:
Living in Emergency graphically depicts the kind of triage emergency physicians must perform when confronted with poverty, language barriers, a lack of sanitary conditions, and war. For those who were revolted by some of the inanities of the recent healthcare debate in the United States, this documentary offers a cold hard look at the brutal reality faced by people who are far less fortunate than Americans. Although this documentary was primarily created as an educational vehicle rather than a fundraising tool, if you want to help support Doctors Without Borders, you can make a donation here.

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