Posted by: kfugrip | March 22, 2008

Movie Review: Paranoid Park

Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy, Finding Forester, To Die For… these are the Gus Van Sant films that I have seen.  I have not seen any of the Alan-Clarke-inspired films he has been directing recently.  Gerry, Elephant (which I have DVR’d at the moment),  and Last Days are of an experimental sort, often following characters as they do nothing… or so I’m told.  I haven’t seen them.  I have seen Paranoid Park, directed by Gus Van Sant, and you are reading a post about it.

Paranoid Park is about Alex (Gabe Nevins), a sixteen-year-old skater who is trying to work through the mental anguish of his part in the accidental death of a security guard.

What I liked:  Using non-actors works better here than I’ve seen in awhile.  The depiction of teenage life and how Alex deals with weight of the security guard’s death is powerful and feels accurate.  The film is also beautifully shot using long lenses and slow motion to hypnotic effect.  The scenes between Alex and his girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) were some of the most accurate scenes of teenage relationships I’ve seen since Kids.

What I didn’t like:  Laura McKinney’s performance was distracting and selfconscious but not enough to detract from the film.  Van Sant keeps going back to the same shots of kids skating and while it does serve as a poetic base for the film I found it less interesting than the scenes where things are actually happening.

4 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | March 13, 2008

Movie Review: Frownland

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Frownland, written and directed by Ronald Bronstein, is a no-budget labor of love that chronicles the life of a young man who is unable to communicate. He speaks in stops and starts, often beginning a conversation with the dial at 10 and relaying a complex metaphor that only he is aware of. In a bit of irony the helps set the stage this young man works as a door-to-door salesman of coupon booklets, forcing his interaction with dozens of strangers a day.

The film played for a single week at IFC Center and I caught the first show on the first day. I had been looking forward to Bronstein’s debut since reading about him in a variety of publications, normally in conjunction with the mumblecore movement, with Film Comment singing his praises I thought that I should give it a shot. I’ll not be comparing Frownland with any other mumblecore films because I haven’t seen any of them, but perhaps I will find time to watch a bunch of movies about twenty-year-olds in relationships.

What I liked: While evoking the name Cassavettes is not something I do with abandon, and the description doesn’t have a glove-tight fit, the film did leave me with a similar feeling to that of Cassavettes’ films (Opening Night in particular). I couldn’t stop thinking about the film for days, it’s character’s and their tics, their behaviors. The film is more character study than anything and eschews any sense of narrative for it’s main character Keith, played with creative reckless abandon by Dore Mann, who stammers and contorts his way through a series of social situations with people who seem to hate him. The narrative push comes from the tension we feel as Keith attempts to navigate the streets of New York and it’s denizens. Those secondary characters also have their moments in the spotlight, which serves to illuminate why the world is that much more difficult for Keith. I liked this element, the feeling of exploring all the tributaries on your way down the river, it completes your view of the river as a whole.

The grainy use of 16mm in lowlight situations and the cramped quarters of the apartments added to the tone of the film. This is not an easy film to watch and would be difficult, near impossible, for me to recommend it to someone who didn’t frequent art-house films. The film was like being washed over by a wave of frustration and fear and it was a great experience.

This is what I love about independent (some would describe this as underground film) film, the ability to see a section of people, and how they live, that isn’t represented by Hollywood or television. I think that the future of cinema involves local stories about people like this, people who struggle to carve out an existence in a society that would rather ignore them. I hope to make movies like this.

What I didn’t like: This is another case of being unable to articulate what keeps the film from reaching the 5 star threshold. The best I can do is to say that it failed to deliver anything more than the admiration that I indicated in the earlier paragraphs. A film that reaches 5 stars should push past the film’s trappings and touch me emotionally or intellectually and Frownland fell just short of that, though Bronstien should be applauded for his efforts and someone should give him a fist-full of money to make another film.

4 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | March 3, 2008

Movie Review: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Upon seeing and loving 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days I immediately moved a couple of Romanian films to top positions in my Netflix queue. I did not watch the movie that this post is about through Netflix, as it was on Sundance the other night, but I like Netflix a lot. I remember when I was in grad. school and Netflix was in the toddler stage. I got a membership and when I first received my three movies I watched them on the same day. I was so excited to see some of these movies, on DVD and at the correct aspect ratio, that I couldn’t wait to watch them. I would routinely watch the movies on the same day of arrival, thus maximizing my dollar-to-movie ratio. That was then.

Now I will sit on a movie for months and months before I watch it. As a result I have reduced my membership to the bare minimum and would cancel it except I have over 3000 movies rated and that feels like a lot of work (a.k.a. time wasted) to just flush down the toilet of discontinued membership.

What is this phenomenon? Why, in a year when I watch over 104 movies do I watch so few Netflix? What does this have to do with the movie in this post? Very little but growing up in the home video age, and making an effort to turn myself into a filmmaker in the Netflix/DVD age should register better results than it has thus far from a 30 year old Production Assistant. Hmmm. More to ponder. Now on to the review.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, directed by Cristi Puiu, is one of the early examples of the new Romanian cinema that heretofore existed as a cinema, invisible to American audiences. Breaking ground as the winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2005, and collecting a slew of other awards, doesn’t mean that the film is good but it’s a strong indication that there is something worth seeing. Isn’t that what winning a festival is about? It’s a large neon finger pointing to the film and saying “look at me, I may be worth a damn” (but maybe in other languages).

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu concerns the title character, a working class, possible alcoholic who is sick and alone. He seeks the aid of first, his neighbors and then the state as he spirals further and further towards his death. He is bounced by doctors, for various reasons, from hospital to hospital before he is finally admitted, with only the EMT to care for him. It’s a bold statement about the bureaucracy’s failure to help people.

What I liked: In reading a little about the film the word kafkaesque has often popped up and I find it to be an apt description. The character of Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) struggling against the machine and deteriorating until death is dark subject matter but compelling as well. I couldn’t stop watching as this man, who I knew little about but cared for, was shuttled around the city and suburbs of Bucharest hoping to have his life saved. The performances and the style were in perfect harmony and gave me a picture of a people that are very similar to what I see when I look our the window. I feel like the realism was heightened by Puiu’s unobtrusive, observational camera. Though much of the film, or the entire film, was hand-held it was more in the style of the Dardenne Brothers and less from the “shakey-cam” school, where I’m nauseated and attention is brought to the fact that the camera is on someone’s shoulder. Again, it’s a tool and should be approached like that instead of some filmmakers making their manifesto. Digression aside, after the opening five minutes I couldn’t tell you much about the camera or its movements because it became invisible, melding with the story and characters. I look forward to seeing more of Puiu’s work.

What I didn’t like: It’s difficult to describe why I shave a star off my rating of this film. Sometimes a film is good but it isn’t as good as similar films I liked. I feel like the film’s one failing was that it didn’t involve me enough with Lazarescu, or any of the characters, that the ending was moving. The film had a distance, a remove that prevented me from feeling the loss that Lazarescu’s death should have registered. I believe that this distance was intentional, that Puiu is skilled enough to get me closer to Lazarescu and to make the film a tear inducing affair but he creates distance to, perhaps, make us intellectualize the proceeding and see it as a social problem. I see this as a careful artistic choice but I think the film could have been stronger if it took an emotional stance. The fact that the film is described as a comedy is a product of this distance, I think. I haven’t read any interviews with Puiu, so I can’t comment on his intent other than to watch the film and discern it for myself by observing my reactions.

If this film is supposed to be a comedy, like the poster indicates, then it failed to illicit many laughs from me. I was more moved by the film than amused.

4 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | March 2, 2008

I dunno… because it was on.

I like movies about moviemaking.  It’s a weakness.  I contemplated creating a website devoted to the genre many times.  Some of my favorite films are of this genre, Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Living in Oblivion, to name a couple.  This is what prompted my desire to watch Badasssss!, directed by Mario Van Peebles.  I have no love for Mario Van Peebles and I’ve seen none of his father’s films, or any blaxploitation films at all, so Badasssss! ending up on a list of films that I want to see was derived solely on the basis of what it shares with the aforementioned genre.

Badasssss! is about the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.  It concerns itself with Melvin Van Peebles‘, the director who put his finances and his life on the line to make a revolutionary film about black people, a film that hadn’t been made until that point.

What I liked:  The subject matter, Van Peebles‘ struggle to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, was interesting.  Mario, being Melvin‘s son, had a take on it that surpassed what a random outsider could have produced.  The book is based on Melvin‘s book about the same, and Melvin was involved in the creation of the film.  That was beneficial and showed.

What I didn’t like: The film is weighed down with seemingly random injections of sentimentality and machismo.  I’m sure that Melvin Van Peebles was a tough customer and willed his film to the screen as much as any filmmaker but I didn’t find it interesting and it was mainly to do with the incorporation of the melodramatic elements with the mechanical bits about filmmaking.  Sifting through the bull is also part of it.  Melvin’s film is surrounded by a mythology that should create a more interesting film but I find some of it to be posturing.  Maybe I’m wrong but it ruined some of the most compelling aspects of the film, the filmmaking.

2 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | March 1, 2008

Movie Review: Distant Voices, Still Lives

Upon reading a blurb about one of the major story elements of Distant Voices, Still Lives, written and directed by Terence Davies, I went about procuring a copy. It was difficult because the film is not available in the U.S. so I had to resort to using my friend the internet to get it for me. Thank you internet.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is a film about a working class family living in Liverpool during the 40’s and 50’s. The film is two separate films. The first, Distant Voices, is about the family and how they cope with the brutal and abusive patriarch Tommy (Pete Postlethwaite). The second part, Still Lives, is about the children, now grown up, marrying and how their lives intertwine with each other’s lives and with tragedy.

What I liked: The film is like a series of vignettes that builds a clear picture of each member of the family. Compositionally the film is very posed, like a family photo, and many of the images stay with you. The Mother (Freda Dowie) sitting on the window ledge washing windows while here children pray that she doesn’t fall. The images are imbued with emotion. This collection of images juxtaposed to create meaning and spark emotion is close to a pure cinema. The film washes over you, especially with the difficult-for-Americans-to-understand-accents but the images stick and the film doesn’t leave you for awhile (it hasn’t left me yet).

The distant voices of the title are the snippets of conversation heard through open windows and the songs sung by entire rooms of people. There is a lot of singing in this film, but it’s not a musical. These people’s lives include a lot of singing at gatherings. It’s quite beautiful, especially later in the film when the eldest daughter Eileen (Angela Walsh) sings a song that directly relates to how she feels about her friend’s abusive marriage. The music binds the characters and holds the film’s disparate parts together.

The performances were excellent, which is usually the case in a film that I like, and my favorite part of the film was the tonal shifting. The first part is weighed down with the father’s presence but even when it lightens up in the latter part the father is still felt like his faded photograph on the wall.

What I didn’t like: Though I liked the style of the film it was a bit difficult to follow from a plot standpoint. Realizing that the emotion was the point helped lessen my confusion. Also, my American ears found it difficult to translate a couple of times but the performances indicated what I was supposed to be seeing and feeling more than the dialogue.

5 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | February 27, 2008

Portraiture

When I was first becoming interested in film that wasn’t typical Hollywood fare I started from two separate approaches. The first was David Lynch films, which is a self-explanatory methodology. The second was to watch interesting, independent, horror films. I didn’t do much of this before I changed my approach by watching movies from the Sundance Film Festival and adding Martin Scorsese to David Lynch for director’s filmography studies. Many times before I moved on I would pick up Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, directed by John McNaughton, and walk around my local video store, eventually picking up another movie and putting Henry down. I wish that just one time I didn’t do that.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the most self-evident titles in the history of film and loosely based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. Henry (Michael Ro0ker) has recently been released from prison for the murder of his prostitute mother. He lives with Otis (Tom Towles) another ex-con who sells drugs and works at a gas station. Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) arrives and begins to fall for Henry while Henry begins teaching Otis how to kill.

What I liked: The structure and style of this movie is what appealed to me most. The opening is a scene of Henry at a diner, eating, ordering cigarettes and leaving, cut with images of women he has killed. I liked the juxtaposition. The interactions between Henry, Otis and Becky are tense and feel like honest depictions of damaged people. While the film was shot in a typical manner there were a few places for beautiful composition and they were usually associated with murder and violence.

Having a film that is almost entirely from the killer’s point of view, and not have the police trying to find him or the victim’s running away, is a brave bit of filmmaking. A film like this would never be made in Hollywood today and only through independent means could something like this be financed. There is nobody to like in the film, unless you like damaged women who are drawn to evil men, however you find yourself empathizing more with Henry than you would like. He is a murderer. But when juxtaposed with Otis he seems like the good guy. Much of that has to do with Michael Rooker‘s performance, which is pretty good and the best in the film.

What I didn’t like: This film is a few poor performances away from being a 5 star horror movie. Many of the bit players are bad actors and take me out of the movie. The good news is that they are killed in moments. Tom Towles is barely passable in his best scenes and Tracy Arnold is bad, though she has a good scream. The music is sometimes too much of an indicator and noticeable. That is a problem but it wasn’t true of every use of music. Some of it blended well with the action.

4 stars

Posted by: kfugrip | February 26, 2008

The New Wave: comic book films

In order to turn off our brains and maybe get the crap scared out of us we rented 30 Days of Night, directed by David Slade and based on the comic by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. I didn’t read the comic though I was aware of it and my roommate at the time was into it. I don’t normally go for vampire stories so I skipped it. The concept is very “high concept” and, all kidding aside, something that I was interested in despite hearing the legion of terrible reviews.

For the uneducated, 30 Days of Night takes place in the town of Barrow, Alaska. A town which shuts down for a month during the winter because the sun doesn’t rise for 30 days. The town, now down to 152 people, is descended upon by vampires who begin slaughtering everyone. Our heroes are a group of people who band together and hide for days, hoping to wait out the horror and see another sunrise.

What I liked: Interesting concept surrounded with beautiful photography and production design. My first reaction to the movie was that it looked beautiful. Many of the shots were well composed and expertly crafted. It’s very slick in it’s style, which works. Mark Boone‘s performance is good, as always.

The best parts of the film are all visual. Decapitated man hanging from a swing set, child vampire feeding, the last glimpses of the sun before prolonged darkness, all of these, and more, were the engine driving the film.

What I didn’t like: The movie was too earnest. Every line reading was weighed down with a false sense of emotion that contributed to my inability to care about any of the characters. When you don’t care about anyone in a horror movie you may find yourself hoping that one of the main characters gets killed in the next scene. I did. It’s a great failing when a horror film doesn’t engage me with the main characters. Along with the typical parade of stilted performances there were some mannered ones distracting me throughout. The vampires, while strange to look at and nearly unable to communicate, were a broken record of screeches and Daniel Huston’s interpretation of the lead vampire was creepy but it wasn’t enough to create tension for me. In fact there was very little tension in this film for me and each scene seem to have a tension signifier (like keeping quiet while hiding, existing in a world filled with shadows, etc…).

In horror movies the characters should act as logically as possible. As an audience member I need to feel like the characters are smart enough to survive and, equally as important, there need to be rules that the characters, protagonist and antagonist, should follow that allow me to believe that the hero’s victories are honestly won. Having said that, 30 Days of Night was riddled with holes in these areas. While the characters behaved in a realistic and believable manner most of the time, there are moments that take me out of the movie because they seem illogical. Also the rules aren’t always adhered to. If a vampire can smell people’s blood in one scene then why can’t they track someone easier. Some of these questions can be explained but as they mount the plausibility is stretched too far.

2 stars

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When I first discovered Bravo TV it was during college. I didn’t have cable for most of my undergraduate studies but my last year we got it and I found Bravo. At the time it was more of an art network than what it is today. PBS with commercials, it what it always seemed like and it is through watching Bravo that I saw Living in Oblivion, which is a great movie about filmmaking. During this period there was another movie that kept airing about some kids. I knew nothing about it and wasn’t that interested so the channel got changed.

That movie was Over the Edge, directed by Jonathan Kaplan, and it’s about a large group of kids in a planned community in the late 70’s. These kids have little to do so they occupy themselves with drinking, smoking, vandalism and occasionally dropping acid before art class. On the eve of a meeting with developers, the kids tear the town apart in an act of rebellion triggered by the shooting death of another of the kids, Richie White (Matt Dillon).

What I liked: Movies where kids act more like the kids I remember and less like the idyllic childhoods depicted in many movies about kids of a similar age are rare and Over the Edge is one of them. These kids try to get drunk and spend a lot of time hanging out and getting into trouble. While the dialogue was off the situations were realistic and interesting. Some of the kids were good in their performances, they seemed like junior high kids, which is difficult to do in a movie. I also really like Harry Northup in this movie. He’s one of those old character actors that steals scenes.

The best thing about this movie was a freeze-frame in the middle of the film. It’s a shot of the main character Carl (Michael Eric Kramer) running towards the camera. The freeze happens in a Medium CU and fades into the next shot. One doesn’t see freeze-frame shots in modern cinema because they went out of fashion in the late 70’s/early 80’s, but this one was effective. Maybe it’ll make a comeback.

What I didn’t like: The story is all over the place and riddled with exposition that sticks out. For every moment that feels like a realistic look at 14-15 year old kids there is a moment where people, adults and kids, are saying things that people never say. It’s a huge problem.

2 stars

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The same day I watched Bubble, directed by Steven Soderbergh. This is one of the movies that was released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and HDnet. I obviously watched it on DVD a few years later but I’m glad I did.

Bubble is the story of the friendship between two coworkers, Martha (Debbie Doeberenier) and Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), working in a doll factory in Ohio. The arrival of Rose (Misty Wilkins), a younger woman with issues, turns the relationship in unsuspecting ways and eventually into an offbeat murder mystery.

What I liked: The film is closer to a social realist film than it is a murder mystery and I like that. Using non-actors found in the area, Soderbergh shows what many people in this country experience in their daily lives and I appreciate that. I grow tired of films where people are rich or criminals and never go to a job, at least not one the audience would see. The non-actors are very good and upon listening to the director’s commentary on the disc I understand how he got better performances out of them than other films I’ve seen with non-actors.

The end of the film is moving and one look at at newspaper makes one realize that it isn’t so strange that a person would react the same as Martha.

What I didn’t like: There are a couple of shots that irritate me. Things that are “wrong” filmmaking but they do work in this film. It’s an example of when studying film can lead to distraction. Pretty minor though. The pacing in the earliest sections of the film was too slow and it made the ending feel like it wrapped up too quickly. There is an argument between Rose and her ex-boyfriend Jake (K. Smith) that felt a little like a poor improvisation in a student film. Didn’t take me out of the film though.

I thought of rating this a little lower than I did but it stuck with me for a few days and that’s always a good thing.

4 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | February 21, 2008

When bad movies aren’t so bad

The easiest way describe the film I’m about to write about is to state a simple fact: Jamie Bell = good actor, Hayden Christensen = bad actor.

I’m talking about Jumper, directed by Doug Liman, about a world where some people can teleport anywhere they have seen and another group, Paladins, hunt them down and kill them because they are an abomination of God. Davy (Hayden Christensen) is a young jumper who has just been introduced to the war between jumpers and paladins, a war that goes back into the middle ages (inquisition if you didn’t guess), by Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) and during his adventures he involves his high school crush Millie (Rachel Bilson) and meets Griffin (Jamie Bell), a jumper who hunts paladins. It seems like a lot to digest but the information is spooned out over the course of the first two acts. If you like science fiction then this type of introduction to characters and setting will be easier to assimilate.

What I liked: I have vowed to watch more Hollywood blockbusters (regardless of poor reviews and genre) this year in an effort to understand what I do and don’t like about them. Jumper is an excellent example and a great movie for me to see. The reviews are terrible, so my expectations were really low going in but the concept is appealing. I liked a lot of the ideas that were present in the movie. I watched one review (here) where they were questioning the rules associated with the jumper’s abilities along with many other aspects of the story. I can see where they were coming from but there seemed to be an internal logic to them, which would be too boring to describe, and I applaud Liman for choosing not to explain that bit of logic. He should have concentrated on other things however.

Jamie Bell, as Griffin, was my favorite part of the film. He had little to work with but comparing a simple line delivery of Bell‘s and Christensen‘s and you can see why I lead off with my observations. Bell has a natural manner and an energy that matches perfectly with the character. Though there is a lot of posturing going on with Griffin, Bell portrays more levels beneath the exterior and brings more life to the character than Christensen can in the entire film.

The action sequences, when they were understandable, were exciting. They were also well integrated into the story. Often I find that action sequences stick out from the rest of the story but I felt like jumper’s flowed with the story. It is a story that I was involved in and it kept me in my seat in spite of my need to urinate. That’s a feat.

Also there is a Marvel Team-Up reference which appeals to the comic fan (re: geek) in me.

What I didn’t like: Besides hating Hayden Christensen and his wooden approach to the character I thought that Samuel L. Jackson was grossly miscast. He plays the badass paladin Roland and because of Jackson‘s trademark coiled-spring/bad-motherfucker acting style we lose the religious fervor that should surround the paladins. These are people who kill jumpers simply for being able to jump. They do it for God. I think that’s a great idea but Jackson plays too much of the anger in most of the scenes. As written the character should be holy and the hunting and killing of jumpers should be a religious act. In this movie it’s not and it has everything to do with Jackson.

SPOILER ALERT

Diane Lane, as Davy’s mother, was supposed to be a big reveal but anyone who didn’t get that she would be involved as either a paladin or a jumper is an idiot. I could see it a mile off. What is she doing in this movie? This is like an episode of Law and Order where a famous actor is in the episode so you know he (or she) is going to be the murderer*. Ditto for Lane in Jumper. I suppose it’s possible that she would have been the standard, Hollywood, throw-away female, but here she is set up to be in the sequel.

The action sequences have a tendency to get so kinetic and so cute with the multiple famous locations that it becomes uninteresting after the second time. I realize that if I were in a fight (and I’ve been in quite a few) that it’s difficult to tell what is going on but as an audience do we have to spend the entire fight in that state? Don’t we get the idea after one fight? In this case I felt that Liman‘s kinetic style, which worked so well in The Bourne Identity, did a disservice to how interesting a fight between two people who teleport can be.

Christensen is the real failure of this film. I will go on record as someone who thinks that action stars can have acting chops and should. So, I’m not a fan of the Keanu Reeves school of casting where you get an attractive lead who can barely read a line and stick him in every scene of the film. Christensen‘s performance is so wooden that it becomes distracting. Listen to the voice over in the beginning of the film. It sounds like he is reading from a teleprompter. It’s flat and uninteresting. It’s not underplaying if you can’t convey the emotion. There is a scene where his girlfriend now hates him (I’m paraphrasing) and she wants to be left alone. There is a beat (maybe two beats) where he’s supposed to tell the story by emoting. Instead he avoids her gaze and purses his lips before uttering a nonsensical line. Acting is part of storytelling and even in Hollywood action movies you need to be able to act.

Going back to the voice over at the opening of the film for a moment, it’s poorly done. You can’t have voice over in the opening ten minutes and not have it in the rest of the film. That is lazy filmmaking. Also, when you have voice over from the lead actor the film should be from his point of view. That would mean that there is never a scene where he isn’t present because in theory the film is taking place in his head. In this film there are a number of scenes where we are with Roland and Davy is nowhere to be found. That is a broken bit of filmmaking and I found it very distracting.

Last, the ending. The scene with Diane Lane and Davy’s confrontation with her. It felt tacked on and it repeated things we already knew. Why couldn’t this information have been delivered during the film? It was a needless epilogue with only one good line.

In conclusion the film is flawed and stumbles over itself more than once but when compared with similar action/sci-fi pictures it wasn’t so bad. I chalk this rating up to low expectations.

3 stars

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*Kelly turned me onto this idea.
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Posted by: kfugrip | February 19, 2008

Crime in various forms

In Search of Steve Ditko, directed by Peter Boyd Maclean, is a documentary about the elusive Spider-man co-creator and artist hosted by Jonathan Ross (find out more about him here… I didn’t know who he was) who is a big fan of Ditko and his fascination lead to this documentary.
What I like: Steve Ditko is a fantastic influential cartoonist who helped create some of the most recognizable characters in superhero comics. I’ve always been a fan of his work but my appreciation grew as I started to delve into older cartoonists. This movie does an excellent job of introducing Ditko to the world. It features some of his most memorable characters and the best part of the documentary is the interview with Alan Moore. Moore should be interviewed in every documentary about cartoonists. His insight into what made Ditko interesting was the best aspect of the film.
What I didn’t like: It’s fluffy and as deep as a cat scratch. I was expecting an actual interview with Ditko, who is famously reclusive and shuns interviews, but as the running time ticked away I realized that I was being cheated. This is a good introduction to the man but for anyone aware of Ditko‘s work, it falls short of being a must-see.

2 stars

Unrelated AWESOME Ditko Pin-up

Gone Baby Gone, directed by Ben Affleck, is another in a long line of potboiler detective stories that make it to the screen. This one just happens to have a great cast performing at a high level and a freshman directorial effort that has everyone talking.
What I liked: Performances. When you get Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman in a movie you are moving in the right direction, The word on the street (did I just write that?) was that Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck are great in the movie and for once the street is right. Ryan in particular is believable as the unfit mother. Casey portrays some nuance that is rare in the lead of a detective story like this. Based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, Ben Affleck captures the people and mood of the neighborhoods where the story unfolds. This level of detail elevates a story that is more typical than I would usually like.
What I didn’t like: While Ben Affleck is doing an excellent job and weaving the plot elements together in a way that unifies the film, I think that as it inches towards the climax the film’s visual style goes limp. There are too many matching singles or single/OTS sequences with long speeches. Perhaps the novel has these talky scenes at the end, but it makes for a weaker ending. That being said, I liked the movie a lot and it was close to adding a star.

3 stars

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The Brave One, directed by Neil Jordan, the Jodi Foster vehicle/revenge drama about a woman whose fiance is killed when they are both beaten while walking their dog. Foster does what any movie heroine would do, she gets a gun and becomes a vigilante, eventually tracking down the men that ruined her life.
What I liked: Very little. Foster is doing her best to pump some life into this character and the idea behind a woman whose radio show “Street Walker” is about loving New York City, fearing that same city after her life is turned upside down, is the stuff of high drama. I like high drama. But only when it’s well done.
The cinematography was good, so that’s something.
What I didn’t like: This was a movie that was forced and akward in many respects. Neil Jordan, a director I like, fails to keep the momentum in the film. The scenes between Foster and Terrance Howard should be tense and stood out as a moment for the actors and filmmakers to shine. The scenes fall flat. As an audience member I cared about Foster’s character up to a point but the film was too interested in her sitting in her apartment and smoking and less interested in making me care about her. Every time I began to get into the character we cut to a scene with Howard‘s character chasing the case. His character was the uninteresting center of what failed in this movie. This movie should have been a character study and instead it felt like it was trying to blend character study with procedural. It was a bland mixture and not a movie I would recommend.

2 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | February 12, 2008

Another Epic

A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for Epic Films reveals the following:

“The epic film is a film genre typically featuring expensive production values, an emotionally moving music soundtrack, and dramatic themes. The name is derived from the grand themes, stories and characters of epic poetry, and is often used as a shorthand for “sword and sandal” films, although it can also refer to films in other genres, such as King Kong.”

Under normal circumstances I would not describe myself as a fan of the epic film. 2007, apparently, is not a year for normal circumstances as there are at least two films that I could fit into the category. The best and most obvious being There Will Be Blood, which I’ve written about here. The other, perhaps holding a more vaulted status, especially by the Hollywood Foreign Press, is Atonement, directed by Joe Wright.  My skepticism at Atonement being better than either There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men, kept me from seeing the film earlier.  I’ve decided to see a more Hollywood pictures (meaning films that use a more traditional structure and methodology) this year so Atonement is the first of these.  It was set up to fail in my eyes, however, due to my aforementioned skepticism.

Atonement is the story of Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), and Briony Tallis (at various ages Saorise Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave) whose lives are forever changed by an event and a lie that occurs just before World War II. The lie follows the characters throughout their lives.

What I liked: I really liked the way the film was shot. When watching the preview it looked sentimental with longing glances and push-ins on characters emoting. I was surprised that, while those moments existed, they were well integrated into the picture. The long take at the evacuation at Dunkirk is another example of a “showy” technique that is well integrated into the film. I have read a couple of article criticizing the use of the long take in that sequence and while I have problems with it (which will be mentioned below) I think that the criticism comes from the shot’s insertion into a film that has very few similar sequences. There are many inserts of details in this film, like Cecilia’s bare feet close to shards of a broken vase, that I found beautifully rendered and seamlessly incorporated into the flow of the story. The same goes for some of the consciously composed shots (e.g. Cecilia on the diving board). The cinematography and production design were perfect for the story.

The performances were good all around, not distracting in the least. I believe the enemy of film is the distracting element and I was afraid that Keira Knightley would be distracting in this film. In fairness to her I haven’t seen many of her films (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and The Jacket… both of which I disliked) but I find that whenever I see her I’m only paying attention to her mouth. There is something weird about it and I can’t figure it out, but it bugs the hell out of me. In this movie the distraction went away early so I was able to become involved in the story.

The ending, which I will not spoil, was pitch perfect and emotional. I don’t normally respond to love stories that are depicted with standard techniques. A film like Atonement twists this and leaves with an ending that is both self-reflexive and emotionally powerful.

What I didn’t like: While the long take at Dunkirk was interesting, and I liked it, I found it taking me out of the story at a certain point. If the film had included a couple other shots of similar length then it may have solved this. I also found the movie dragging during Robbie’s time at war. I know that this time is important to the film but my mind was wandering when the story veered away from the intereaction of Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony.

I liked the film quite a bit and if I had seen it in 2007 then I would have placed it in my top movies list.

4 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | February 6, 2008

Persepolis

Persepolis, written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, is a film based on the autobiographical comic book about Marjane Satrapi and her experiences growing up in Iran and Vienna. She was there during a time of revolution and was forced to leave twice, once because of war and again because of the limits that the fundamentalist society places on her life.

I have not read the comics and that is a shame.

What I liked: There were some inventive visual moments, like what I’ll term the “snake-ladies” sequence, that add an interesting flavor to the film. All told the style of drawing and animation was smart and a welcome departure from the dumbed down vanilla animation that dominates the current landscape, the backgrounds in particular. Marjane is an interesting person who lived through times rife with drama. The details of the Iranian revolution and the country’s move towards its current regime were my favorite parts.

What I didn’t like: There was a distance and a remove in the film that never allowed me to get emotionally involved with this woman. I feel like it was the style of storytelling where the narration tells us something and we see a sequence that symbolizes it but we don’t actually see it happen. Combine that with the fact that the story was animated in a stylistic way, mostly in black and white and you get the remove that I felt. It’s a shame because the movie is so dramatic.

I also didn’t respond towards the more personal moments in her life because of it. Her relationships with men, for example, I found completely uninteresting. I feel the strength of the story lies in her sense of being Iranian, and when the film strays from this so does my attention.

3 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | February 3, 2008

Once. Upon a time. I could control myself.

Once, written and directed by John Carney, the low budget Irish film about an aspiring singer (Glen Hansard) who makes a connection with a piano playing, Czech Girl (Markéta Irglová) that inspires him to take the next step in his career by getting a band together, with said girl, and record a demo.

What I liked: The music was moving and beautiful and the highlight of the film. The relationship between Hansard’s character and Irglová’s character was smartly done and believable. The humor in the story was always timely and it felt like real people.
What I didn’t like: Not a lot of conflict, perhaps none. Other than trying to get money to record and some romantic tension, there was very little conflict.

4 stars

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The Lookout, written and directed by Scott Frank, is about former local golden boy Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose brain damage has left him with memory and sequencing problems. Pratt is recruited by a group of bank robbers to be their lookout in a robbery of the bank where he works as a janitor.

What I liked: Smart script with some nice imagery. I like the wounded/disabled hero and making him work as a hero wasn’t easy. The performances were good and the story was well constructed. Gordon-Levitt is a great young actor and I’ve liked him in the last two films I’ve seen him in (this and Brick). I’ll have to watch Mysterious Skin to get the full effect of his abilities to date. The hype for this movie was deafening and it did an excellent job of living up to it for me.
What I didn’t like: Like many stories of it’s kind, this movie veers too much into actions that I don’t find believable. Without spoiling the end, the Pratt character has a little too much foresight. That’s all I’ll say about that. The most disappointing aspect of the film was the last few minutes where we are given the voice-over-montage of how things have been since the robbery. Hated that.

3 star

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Masculin Feminin, written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, is the story of French youth culture during the 60’s (1966 to be exact). We follow the adventures of Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), and idealistic socialist, as he becomes romantically involved with Madeline (Chantal Goya), a pop singer.

What I liked: The interviews with female character with Léaud of screen were interesting critiques of pop culture. Some of the non sequitors, with appearances by Brigitte Bardot for example, were well crafted moments.
What I didn’t like: I found the characters stilted and uninteresting. Just because you can spout semi-clever catchphrases about socialism and Bach doesn’t mean I care about the character. That goes double for images of people sitting in cafes and smoking. Though that may be what French youth did during the 60’s it doesn’t make it an interesting subject in itself.

I would really like someone to explain to me why I should like this movie and why Paul Schrader included it in his article about the proposed film canon. Please. Help me understand. I feel like I have post-modernist leanings and that I should love Godard but I don’t. Help.

2 stars

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I reserve the right to revisit Masculin Feminin and write about it again if I choose.

Posted by: kfugrip | January 30, 2008

The anti-Juno

It is a rare thing to experience a movie and for it’s beauty to slowly consume you like a fever. Even more rare, is when a film about dire subject matter does this.
4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile (or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, is a revelation. The film is about a woman who helps her friend and roommate procure an abortion. This all happens in 1980’s communist Romania, where having an abortion was illegal and could get all parties connected with it imprisoned.

Spoiler Alert !

What I liked: The first thing that jumps out at me is that the film is beautifully shot and composed. The cinematography appears to use natural light and practicals as the main source in most scenes but I think that is a tribute to the skill of Oleg Mutu the cinematographer. Later in the film there are scenes where Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is walking through the streets trying to find a safe place to dump the aborted remains and she walks into scenes with no light, we only hear the sound of her footsteps and breathing, before the emerges again in a pool of light. It is a very tense sequence and the visuals meet perfectly with the content of the scene.

The performances are as fantastic as the direction. Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, and Vlad Ivanov are pitch perfect and exist in harmony with the minimalist reality that Mungiu creates. The tools that the actors have at their disposal is limited to subtle and delicate effect. This film seems as though it appeared in front of the camera rather than being written. From the opening scenes of typical student life under a communist regime, purchasing cigarettes via the black market and borrowing train tickets, the film sets the tone of realism. Mungiu’s integrates a mobile camera in the style of the Dardenne Brothers with a still camera to create a sense of how the character’s lives are lived, with stops and starts.

All who read this blog regularly know my predilection towards long-takes. We aren’t in Bela Tarr area, but the film is structured in long takes focused Otilia and her journey. It’s amazing that more people don’t respond favorably to long takes. When the frame is active, as it is in 4 Months…, then it is a joy to watch. I’m in awe of a filmmaker who can direct the eye without moving the camera or cutting, controlling the visual experience with minimal manipulation and simultaneously telling the story. There is one masterful sequence where Otilia is at a birthday party of her boyfriend’s mother (Luminita Gheorghiu). Eventually the party settles in front of a single long take where Otilia is bombarded with political and social issues that emanate from the intelligentsia. It is a masterful shot and tells an immense amount of story in an apparently simple way. It is, however, quite complex, with dialogue that overlaps when it isn’t rapid-fire, and individualized performances where the eye darts from face to face, always returning to Otilia.

Tonally I like that the film is devoid of melodrama and everything is understated, even the shot of the aborted fetus. Though that shot is shocking and one of the more disturbing images I’ve seen in awhile, I think that it is warranted and powerful given the subject matter.

What I didn’t like: Warning. The following is the most petty and insignificant criticism I’ve ever produced;

The opening and closing credits start with silence, a prolonged silence that is actually distracting because of it’s lack of sound. A credit sequence should aid in setting the tone for the piece and I don’t feel that silence was the strongest choice. However, I do think that there is intent in that choice and not randomness.

It is difficult to recommend this film because it is in my wheelhouse, and it’s a phenomenal film but would I tell my mother to watch it? Maybe.

5 stars

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Posted by: kfugrip | January 28, 2008

Cloverfield (or reach for your barf-bag)

My dislike of hand-held camera work is well documented in this blog but there are times when it works well and fits with the director’s concept. Mostly I feel like it’s lazy filmmaking. A director (or even a writer if it’s in the script) thinks that it puts the audience in the moment so any time there is an emotional scene they feel like it has to be hand-held, and the shakier the better.

I didn’t watch the show On the Lot but I did see part of one episode. During that episode they showed the contestant’s short films and one of the short films was a two-hander at an outdoor cafe. I couldn’t hear the dialogue but the scene consisted of a single and an over-the-shoulder shot and both were hand-held. It made no sense but I knew what the director was thinking, he was thinking that it would put us in the moment and make the scene work. Well, it didn’t and the director’s short cut to creating a tense dialogue failed.

Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves, is 84 minutes of hand-held camera work, some of it nausea inducing, about a group of friends who set out to save another of their friends during a giant monster attack on New York City.

What I liked: I did not hate that fact that the film was entirely hand-held. The concept of the film lent itself perfectly to a roaming, nervous camera. For those that don’t know, the film is shot from a home video camera by one of the characters, Hud (T.J. Miller), as he follows his friends through the city. This in sometimes intercut with footage that was previously on the tape, of two characters, Beth (Odette Yustman) and Rob (Michael Stahl-David), on a trip to Coney Island. It works.

The performances are good especially for a monster movie. The action is well paced and leads to an interesting conclusion. Not typical Hollywood, the ending is foreshadowed in the opening text. I liked the story a lot, and I thought that the unexplained monster was perfect, and reflected what these type of experiences are like. You don’t know what is going on.

I also must mention the early ad campaign. The teaser was great and drew me in and I’m not an action (or event) movie person. Maybe the trailer was better than the film.

What I didn’t like: The film breaks the strands of plausibility too many times. It’s difficult to believe that someone would continue to film everything during this crazy attack but there are some scenes where people aren’t going to pick up the camera and film things. I can’t go into detail without spoiling, but everyone knows the scenes I’m talking about. Also, there is a scene in the subway where one of the characters gets a phone call… in the subway station. For a New Yorker, which I am, it took me right out of the film because you can’t get cell service in a subway station unless you’re at 72nd street at the 1 or 9 station.

The camera work did get to me a few times. I had to look away to get my bearings and that is not good. I wasn’t running for the aisles but I didn’t sit as close as I normally like to sit, so I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. I think that this film could have been shot with a Steadicam and it wouldn’t have taken away from the experience. The audience would have understood that it was still a guy walking around with his camera it wouldn’t have been as difficult for people to watch.

4 stars

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