20 December 2012

Les Mis reviews and Tom Hooper

I keep seeing this mixed reviews about how people liked the acting and such in Les Miserables, but Tom Hooper's direction has all the delicacy of any exercise involving a sledgehammer. Tom Hooper? Heavy handed? You don't say. I guess they were all drunk when they saw the infernal The King's Speech. Oh well, darling, at least the singing is reportedly good. I wish John Cameron Mitchell or Sam Mendes or somebody had directed it, but only annoying hacks like Tom Hooper, Adam Shankman, and Rob Marshall get to direct anything like this. Maybe Baz Luhrman should have directed this one instead of ruining The Great Gatsby for a whole new generation. (Though Carey Mulligan seems enchanting in the trailer.) It would have been a mess, probably, but probably an enjoyable mess.

13 December 2012

Post Vacation Update

I've been travelling the past few weeks in South America and the Caribbean. Somehow I thought I'd be so bored I'd spend the whole time watching movies on my computer. I'm happy to report the contrary, however, as I hardly watched anything at all. I watched Like Crazy while I was holed up with a case of la tourista in Colombia. On a flight from Medellin to Miami I watched Frankenweenie and half of The Bourne Legacy. That's about what I can remember. I guess I'll decide whether to post about those when I'm refreshed enough to put together sentences again. I have this feeling that I'm terribly behind in my holiday season film watching, but I think I'm still too exhausted to make it to the movies. As for my vacation, I'm already editing the rough bits out of my memory bank, but I can say with certainty that I loved Medellin, Colombia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, even though I don't so much speak Spanish.

18 November 2012

ParaNorman (Chris Butler & Sam Fell, 2012, USA)

A young boy who can see and speak with the dead must save his Salem-esque town by resolving a 300 year old curse, which ultimately means learning how to forgive bullies. To be honest, I found it tedious for the most part, and intermittently grating. The stop motion animation is creepy and weirdly ugly. It was like looking at ugly carpeting for an hour and a half. A promising enough cast is wasted on recycled storytelling and unappealing animation. Really, the animation reminds me of that hideous animation you see these days on children's television programs. The basic shell of the story is compelling, but it's buried in so many cliches and under so many shrill characters spouting so much bad dialogue that even the things I liked about it started to wear thin. I have friends who liked this, so I guess other people like this sort of blander than Tim Burton childhood kitsch. I didn't see anything particularly interesting or engaging though.

Les Miserables anticipation fatigue

I'm entering that exhaustion phase of film anticipation that comes when a movie has been promoted for what seems like eons. To be honest, I was more than a little excited that Les Miserables was finally coming to the big screen. I've also been more than a little nervous that the director is Tom Hooper, since I found The King's Speech more than a little annoying.
Anyway, I'm still bursting with anticipation to see whether and how Anne Hathaway can carry off the line, "Come on, Captain, you can wear your shoes, don't it make a change to have a girl you can't refuse?" I can't even imagine those words coming out of her mouth since she strikes me as a bit prim, but she's pulled off being a junkie, so maybe she can pull off being a whore...

15 November 2012

Worst Comedies of All Time

I guess FILM.COM has this list of the worst comedies of all time. Apparently over there at film.com the world started in 1984. Probably these kids are sheltered and don't know anything about movies from before E.T., though one of the authors, let's call her Molly Q. Millennial, says in a comment that the worst comedies are all from the past 20 years. I guess it never occurred to her that people thirty years from now will never have heard of Freddy Got Fingered. In general, the list is pretty uncontroversial, except for what kind of psychopath would include Who's That Girl on a list like this unless they were born after 1985 or before 1965? Also, it's not controversial to put All About Steve on this list, but I always felt that it was better than The Blind Side anyway, not to mention countless 'successful' romantic comedies like Sweet Home Alabama. Of course, I went into All About Steve expecting it to be bad so maybe my expectations were too low. I actually thought it was better than a lot of the movies of its sort. I mean, I haven't even seen New in Town, but I'm sure it's substantially worse than All About Steve. But why do people always have to be hating on Pat? Bullies, I say.
Anyway, I'd also suggest that Rhinestone (1984) transcends the conventional good/bad dichotomy, though I wouldn't necessarily go as far as saying I would watch the movie in one continuous sitting. Of course, this brings us back to what a questionable exercise it is to assert a supposedly objective evaluation of art. I'm willing to concede none of these movies are particularly good, with the exception of Who's That Girl of course, but I'm not sure it's a very well considered list of the the 'worst comedies of all time.' Which comedies have you seen that were more painful than these? For the record, the worst SNL films are Coneheads  and MacGruber.

14 November 2012

End of Watch (David Ayer, 2012)

There are a number of reasons I'm not generally a fan of cop dramas. My stepfather was a cop, I'm generally resistant to authority, I find them strong on machismo and weak on sociology. They tend to feel sad and tense and generally oppressive. More generally, they tend to overly simplistic, reactionary, and borderline fascistic. This film is a typical buddy cop drama in a lot of ways, but it sidesteps a lot of the frequent weaknesses. The characters are more developed and the dialogue is stronger, for starters. The approach is more naturalistic, even though some of the subject matter is really kind of sensationalistic. Given the news reports about the Mexican drug cartels, it doesn't seem like anything here is particularly implausible though.
The focus of the story is the relationship between two beat cops who work in South Central LA. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña , they seem relatively authentic. Gyllenhaal is the war vet taking courses so he can go to law school. This higher education justifies the film's strangely half executed found footage conceit. He's recording everything for a documentary class he's taking to satisfy an arts requirement. The found footage conceit in the original script was apparently scaled back during preproduction, and some viewers seem to find its vestigial presence more confusing or frustrating than anything else. Personally, I didn't get too invested in the conceit. While watching it, I assumed that the video would somehow come into play as evidence, a turn of events that is foreshadowed by another cop's remark about the dangers of filming their work because it could be subpoenaed. Ultimately that ended up as something of a red herring, but I still found that that constant thread of the filming somehow made the characters seem more human. It was just this running bit that gave a sense of continuity. Peña's character is sort of a romantic and the head of a young family. There is a certain sweetness in the way that Gyllenhaal seems to follow Peña's path with his best girl Anna Kendrick, whose milquetoast quality works oddly well here.
I made a mistake partway through the film of looking at the film's Wikipedia page because I wanted more information about the director and supporting cast. It turns out there's a spoiler embedded in the title. It seems like it might not be much of a spoiler if you've seen the trailer, which I haven't, but as someone who knew nothing, it alerted me that the film was going in a somewhat different direction than I was anticipating. After that, it became pretty clear how the film would end. I thought it would surprise me for a while, but then it didn't. So sad. Oh well. As a whole, I found the cast relatively strong and the characters relatively sympathetic, which is probably something of a feat in a film like this.
When I was thinking about this movie it reminded me of my thoughts during the film festival. How do you give an objective assessment of a film? I have my own ways of assessing films, usually based on how much they stir me in the gut or in my head, but sometimes the rubrics people use in assessing film don't seem to make sense. This isn't really my genre. It's sort of predictable, the characters may be a little sanitized, it's kind of dour sometimes. Still, considering the genre it really excels. It made me appreciate what cops do in a way that few films have inspired. I grew very fond of many of the characters, even a couple of the thugs in the neighborhood. There are these great ironic moments, like the one where the dynamic duo is arguing about a rubber band while gangland assassins are in the car behind them discussing whether or not they will attempt to kill them at the stop sign they're approaching. I don't know that I'd watch it again, but it impressed me in what it did well. I don't know that everyone would like it, but I'd probably recommend it to most people, as long as they don't mind movies that are kind of serious. It's strange to me that this film was written, directed, and produced by the writer of The Fast and the Furious.

13 November 2012

Steven Spielberg Top 5

Largely because of my tendency to agree with JR Jones, I tend to read the Chicago Reader film feed pretty regularly. Monday there was an interesting top 5 from a writer named Drew Hunt, whom I've honestly not taken much note of before. It seems to be an installment of his "Monday Top 5" series, which I sort of vaguely recall having read before. This particular list is of Steven Spielberg films, and while I don't necessarily feel the same about all these movies as Hunt does, I was pleased to see that it didn't focus on a lot the Steven Spielberg movies that make him one of my cinematic bêtes noires. I've been more annoyed than anything else by films like Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, the Indiana Jones films, and even The Color Purple (I loved the novel though) . I guess starting even with E.T. as a small child I never seemed to be able to connect with these over the top bourgeois populist entertainments, but there were some exceptions. Hook came out when I was in middle school, and I tended to like that largely because I really liked Julia Roberts at the time. I loved Schindler's List when it came out and I probably still think it's his best film, though I haven't seen Amistad, Lincoln, Munich, or The Terminal.

There's no sense in going in reverse order here, because the best film is obviously Schindler's List, though Drew Hunt seems to disagree because it's not even in his honorable mentions, let alone his top 5. Just to make sure we kill all the suspense here, there's no Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind here because I mostly think those movies are really boring.

1. I'm aware that some people have some problems with Schindler's List (1993), like maybe it's too manipulative or operatic or I don't even know what. It's absurd because these are the criticisms you could throw at almost his entire body of work, but it works in Schindler's List, in contrast to almost all of his other movies.

2. Sugarland Express (1974) found Goldie Hawn at the top of her game. And Steven Spielberg's kitsch was still somewhat restrained by the 1970s aesthetic.

3. Duel (1971) is a classic. I say this without even having seen the last ten minutes or so, but I tell you I saw enough. One day I'll need to find out if I'm right.

4. Minority Report (2002) could have gone either way, but the world is a better place because Samantha Morton has magic powers and her witchcraft made the entire film soar. Well, that's how I remember it anyway.

5. I'm still going to post this thing because hardly anyone reads it anyway, but I'm starting to wonder how all these real writers of content manage to come up with these things all the time. I honestly haven't seen most of these movies in years and years and years. With that said, of all those other movies I haven't seen in years, I'd probably pick Empire of the Sun (1987) as my fifth best Spielberg film, although part of me wonders if it's only because it was the favorite film of my best friend in high school. I don't know, I remember thinking it was a respectable film at the time. Anyway the only other possible contenders I could possibly think of would be AI or Always. Actually, to be honest, I fell asleep once when I saw Munich in the theater. It seemed pretty good, but I was super exhausted. Beyond that, I think Catch Me If You Can was somewhat better than I expected, and I'm hoping Tony Kushner's hand will mean I like Lincoln. So yeah, I guess that's why it's Empire of the Sun, even though it's no The Killing Fields.

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012, UK)

A few years ago I had only seen a few of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films and Dr. No. At the time I had a job where not much happened, but I could basically watch TV all morning, and Spike had a Month of Bond thing where they played almost all of the Bond movies in chronological order. Honestly, I'm not that huge a fan of the series. I liked some aspects of some of the installments and I liked some films better than others. I probably liked Sean Connery the least and possibly Pierce Brosnan the best, but I'm not sure. Anyway, I say all this to put in context my assertion that I think that Skyfall is probably the best James Bond movie I've ever seen. It has a lot of the weaknesses that characterize the previous films, and it leans heavily on the template that pretty much every James Bond movie is structured by. As usual there are two love interests here, but the interesting one (aka, the bad one for whom things don't work out too well) is probably among the most mesmerizing Bond girls in history. Honestly, I'm having trouble writing about this movie because in order to discuss how it fits in with the tropes of the series there are all kinds of spoilers that come into the equation. I guess what's interesting is that this movie fulfills most of the expectations you'd have for a Bond film, but it does so in ways that are sometimes inventive or even challenging to the canonical representations, particularly the role of Moneypenny, who appears very late in the film.

My boyfriend, like some of the reviewers I've read, complained that many of the action sequences seem weirdly slow or non-thrilling. I agreed, but I felt like it fit into the larger agenda of the film, all character development and ruminations on what it means for him and M to still be at this. Much of the acting is pretty good, particularly by Bérénice Marlohe (the bad girl, pictured above) and Judi Dench (as usual, M). Daniel Craig, Ben Whishaw (Q for Quartermaster), and Naomie Harris (Eve) are pretty strong as well, though Whishaw and Harris have weaker moments to offset their stronger moments. Javier Bardem is generally strong in his performance, though it sometimes (as is probably appropriate for a James Bond film) borders on cartoonish. The one off note for me was Ralph Fiennes. In fact, his first scene is a conversation with Judi Dench, which really becomes an object lesson in why she's considered such a great actress. Compared to him, she's so present in her role, so in command of what she's doing. There are a few criticisms you could make, particularly about the tightness of some of the action sequences, but except for one thing, which takes up less than thirty seconds of screen time but still manages to almost sink the entire film, I wasn't particularly bothered. But then, there's that thing that happens. I'd heard people talking about how absurd it is what the characters do in a pivotal moment of the film, acting stupider than anyone ever would for no particular reason at all, and as the movie progressed I had started to wonder if I was somehow missing what those actions were. Let me tell you, if you go see the movie, you will know it when you see it. It's like something from Scooby-Doo or one of those stupid spoof comedies like Scary Movie. I really couldn't believe it. The shock of it has dissipated and I'm not bothered by it as much as when I was watching the movie, but last night in the theater, I felt like my mind was blown by the inexplicably stupid direction the film seemed to be taking. Oh well.
For what it's worth, I also quite liked the Adele song and think it fit in with the movie better than they sometimes do, and the opening montage was also generally well executed.

10 November 2012

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012, France)

You can't really deny that this film is a pretty pure example of masturbatory filmmaking. The filmmaker here has cobbled together all of these concepts of his in a way that seems very personal, and possibly somehow autobiographical. At the same time, the audience is constantly stroked, exactly like the audience in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris for being hip to what he's doing here or there. It's also pretty easy to say it's like a David Lynch movie, but not as straightforward. For me, there were stretches of the film that I found tedious or insipid, but there were also segments that I found compelling or even beautiful.

Denis Lavant, who played the main character Merde in that annoying middle section of that omnibus film Tokyo! from 2008 or something, is back here playing the same character and about ten others. In the film, he is chauffeured around in a limosine, possibly with bodyguard protection, and taken to different "sessions" or appointments. The almost mystical chaufffeur is played by mesmerising Édith Scob, who is perhaps best known as the girl in Franju's Eyes Without a Face. Like many of the characters in the film, it's hard to know whether to think of them as benevolent or menacing. Perhaps, as in many dreams, the figures are meant maintain the suspense of that mystery. They make nine or so stops and at each stop, Lavant plays a different character: a gypsy beggarwoman, a green screen actor, that same stupid troll from that Tokyo!movie, an emotionally abusive father, a murderous gangbanger, etc.

Man is said to differ from other apes in his propensity to ask why. So watching all these episodes, which end in the chauffuer donning her Eyes Without a Face mask and leaving the cars to themselves, it's hard not to try to make connections. He's clearly working through something about the artist's role, probably about his own life as well, since the protagonist's name is the director's real middle name, and it ends with a photograph of his lost lover. Like any other story about artists, it's easy to see metaphysical themes in the piece. Maybe god is in all these people in all these acts. I don't know, maybe this guy is just self-absorbed and preoccupied with the grotesque. I can't tell if it's because I had lost patience by that point in the film, but I was really surprised by how absolutely bored I was during the entire Kylie Minogue scene. In constrast, I was pleasantly surprised by Eva Mendes in the film. She's in the session with the stupid troll, but for some reason the troll shtick just barely tips toward succeeding in this film while it pretty squarely hit with a thud in Tokyo! Weirdly, my biggest reaction to the film is that my new dream is to enter Paris by car some day. I think I've been to Paris three times, but all three times I entered by train. In fact, I don't think I've ever even taken a cab in Paris, but this film makes driving around Paris look incredibly beautiful, all the while eschewing a lot of the kitsch that that idea is probably conjuring in your mind. In fact, there are all kinds of gorgeous views of the city, particularly as they stand atop the historic Samaritaine department store, which is allegedly being converted into a hotel, according to the interwebs.

I imagine I will probably watch this movie again at some point in the future, but I can't think of many people I'd recommend it to. I'm honestly surprised by the critical reception it's received. It won the awards for best film, best director, and best actor at the Chicago International Film Festival. I wasn't surprised at all to find out at after seeing the film that the director's mother is a long time friend of the festival organizer. Maybe it was nepotism, my cynical side says. Of course, it's also true, as the French say, à chacun son goût. I don't know, I can see making love letters to the movies, but for me there needs to be more than that, and this film didn't really connect to me like it seems to connect to a lot of other people. Oh well.

It occurs to me while reading through these reviews that I really did love the film for about the first third and it gradually kind of wore on me. Like Roger Ebert apparently, it brought to my mind the Walt Whitman line, "I contain multititudes." I guess I'd also agree with Ebert that the film is exasperating and sometimes funny, though I didn't really sop it up as much as he did. It's amazing how all these reviews keep talking about how exciting and not boring this movie is, since I was more or less bored for much of the second half of the film. The sessions in the latter half become increasingly more dour and confounding, I thought. In reading these reviews though, it's surprising how many people, like myself, seem to have forgotten about one of the more enjoyable scenes in the film, the entr'acte, in which a band of hipster accordionistes rampages through an old church.
I've also discovered that the title refers to old film cameras and the movie, shot on digital for financial reasons, seems to be about the death of film in some ways, though the director says allegedly that this movie isn't about film at all. I feel as gypped as the next guy when it comes to seeing a movie in digital projection, but I don't know how thrilling a two hour lament on the subject is.
It's funny as I read through the reviews listed at mrqe.com, everyone seems to agree that this movie will elicit all these possible responses from the audience. It's a unique film, but it's not as unique as people say it is. It can be touching, it can funny, and it can be frustrating, but I really don't see why people react so strongly to it. There was one review somewhere that said that the film says most of what it has to say in the first few episodes. I'd agree with that. My own experience of the film is that it would have benefited from some trimming, since like I said before there were some significant dull patches in the second half of the film.

Surviving Progress (Mathieu Roy, 2011, Canada)

Apparently based on the book A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, this documentary looks largely at the inherent dark side of progress. If you're a thinking person, you've probably thought about most of this stuff already, but I did learn one interesting concept from the film: the progress trap. Essentially, progress has a tendency to lead to a saturation point past which dire consequences occur.  A primitive example is native people driving herds of mammoths over cliffs and driving the extinction of their main food source. The film features people such as Margaret Atwood and Jane Goodall talking about primates and progress and the ecological dangers facing us today. It's interesting, but I often found it difficult to pay attention to because it's so distressing. I think I will probably endeavor to read the book, and I may watch the film again when I'm feeling more emotionally robust.

Now streaming on Netflix, btw.

09 November 2012

Deadfall (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2012, USA)

One of the many strange things about this movie is that it was directed by the director of the Oscar winning foreign language film The Counterfeiters. Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde star as siblings on the run after having robbed a tribal casino in what I took to be Michigan. Their flight toward Canada has been deranged by a freak car accident on a snowy country road. I'm not sure whether I should start with the strengths or the weaknesses here, because they probably balance each other out.

Their stories smash up against a few families in and around the community of Beaver Lake. All of the people involved seem to be struggling with the same sorts of family troubles that fuel the madness of our pair of siblings, particularly Eric Bana. Eric Bana's character seems to have some weird incestuous energy flowing toward his sister, but she ends up looking for redemption with a disgraced Olympic boxer fresh out of prison, played by Charlie Hunnan. The boxer's parents are a retired sherriff or something played by Kris Kristofferson and idealized homemaker Sissy Spacek. The boxer and the father naturally have issues. The new sherriff's daughter, a friend of the family, played by Kate Mara, also has issues with douchebag father.

Basically everyone in the whole movie has trouble with their fathers, probably because aside from Kristofferson's charcter, they're all total scumbags. The actors are all pretty good and they really tip the scales toward making this film worth watching. The only trouble is the film gets kind of weighed down in sorting out everybody's endless family dramas which keep playing out all over the place. It's also tricky becayse you're trying to follow along with Eric Bana, but he does a couple of things that are hard to forget about, which makes the ending a little flat. It's a mess, but it's probably worth renting from VOD if you're pining for something new on the VOD.

Mission: Impossible (Brian DePalma, 1996, USA)

It's strange that I'd never seen this film before, or maybe not, since I've rarely ever liked Tom Cruise (possible exceptions being largely films he starred in from 1999-2002, and possibly Collateral). On the face of it, it seemed relatively promising. Brian DePalma, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Béart, Vanessa Redgrave. Add to that that I saw John Woo's M:I-2 in a second run theater because its coincided with the time I was assigned to write a paper on John Woo and auteur theory during my brief stint as an intended film studies major. I haven't seen M:I-2 in a dozen years, but I can only hope it's nowhere near as dated and unsatisfying as this one. It's funny, I think I've been wanting to see this movie since about 2001 when my French teacher, in one of those oddly random foreign language class moments, showed us part of the sequence on the train, to demonstrate, apparently, that the TGV (train de grande vitesse) was in fact de grande vitesse.
I kind of feel like the most remarkable thing about this movie are the talents it squanders. It's amazing that Brian DePalma produced such a dull film. As tedious as any lesser James Bond movie, it seems to follow the same blueprint, which naturally includes offing the most interesting woman in the first fifteen minutes. Kristin Scott Thomas is riveting in her scenes, but so are Emmanuelle Béart and Vanessa Redgrave. Weirdly, Emilio Estevez is also quite effective in his small part. Jon Voigt and Tom Cruise on the other hand are beyond tedious. Not that it would have mattered if that plot had made sense at all. It's this weird combination of setpieces connected only by the most strained bit of logic. Ving Rames and Jean Reno are brought on halfway through the movie to steal some data from CIA headquarters in a dull, drawn out "action" sequence notable only as a potential missing link between the 70s and the 21st century. Ving Rames is completely wasted in a flat characterization, but Jean Reno is relatively effective given the limitations of the script.
blah blah blah
There was a nice moment at the end where Mazzy Starr is playing at a cafe.

08 November 2012

Madea's Witness Protection (Tyler Perry, 2012, USA)

As painful as Diary of a Mad Black Woman was, I thought for some reason that this movie would outlandishly bad enough to be entertaining, but I guess I don't feel like that was the case. The acting is beyond dreadful, which may or may not have to do with the script of the editing or I don't even know, but this film might contain the worst performances by Tom Arnold or Denise Richards to be caught on film, if you can believe it. Some of the characters are sort of likeable, but the dialogue is so grating, it's hard to feel at ease at any moment in the film. I guess nobody goes into these Tyler Perry movies thinking they'll be any good, but you always want to believe that something this popular has some kind of redeeming quality.
I guess the real problem is that the whole things feels very amateurish, from the plot to the dialogue to the performances. It all feels sort of thrown together, like they made the whole movie in two weeks.

07 November 2012

Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs, 2012, USA)

This more or less autobiographical drama is about a documentary filmmaker who takes a break from cheap flings long enough to have a years long frustrating relationship with a crack addict. In the lead role is Thure Lindhardt, whom I recognized from Danish films Flame & Citron and Brotherhood, both of which I probably liked better than this movie. Lindhardt plays Erik, the documentary filmmaker who spends a lot of time on those phone lines that existed before people starting hooking up through websites like gay.com and manhunt. Because much of the film takes place in the 90s, in Manhattan. It's one of those movies where you can always tell what year it is by what cell phone someone is using. Anyway, he hooks up with Paul (Zachary Booth) and gets smitten with him even though he's basically a closeted homosexual with a crack problem.

For me, the film was too cavalier about all the drugs. I guess it reminded me of my own life in the 90s, to some extent, but I feel like the weakness of this film is that the director seems too uncritical of the character based on himself. He's a sweet and likeable character, but I ultimately didn't find him believable. I almost felt by the end of the film that the director used it in such a way as to grant himself absolution for something.

I liked the film, I guess, but something about it seemed flat to me.

06 November 2012

Ted (Seth McFarlane, 2012, USA)

That this cinematic atrocity has earned almost a half a billion dollars already and critical approval around the world will likely be a source of despair for me at many points throughout the rest of my days. Seriously, I'm starting to wonder if the only thing that separates man from monkeys is an aversion to feces. I sort of suspected that this movie would be what it ended up being, but I guess part of me thought the presence of quasi-respectable actors like Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis might indicate that it would pleasantly surprise me. Oh god, how it was worse than I could have imagined.

I think I chuckled twice in the hour and forty-five minutes this film ate up of my life. Once when a fat kid was called Susan Boyle, and once when the fat kid was punched in the face and Joan Crawford was invoked. Beyond that, it's just a lot of really stupid humor that would seem best suited to boys who are technically too young to watch this movie. Seriously, it's a lot of jokes about retarded people, fat people, women as sex objects, and hitting bongs. I am a stranger in a strange land.
F (for fuck this shit.)
Edit: I forgot about the scene with Giovanni Ribisi dancing in front of the television. In context it's stupid, but taken on its own, it's weirdly delicious. In fact, I guess I'd say that creepy ass Giovanni Ribisi is probably the only reason to watch the movie, though it would be a long walk for a short drink of water, if we're being honest here, which of course we are, because we're friends like that.

05 November 2012

Total Recall (Len Wiseman, 2012, US)

I think it's borderline hilarious the way people compare this to the original as though the original film were any good. For me, the Schwarzenegger film is hard to watch, since the only redeeming qualities I found in it were Sharon Stone's shoulder pads. It's silly and the special effects are embarrassing as is everything about the plot and the acting, pretty much.

Given that I don't hold the 1988 version in very high regard, despite my sometimes affection for Paul Verhoeven, it should come as no surprise that I found this version superior. I mean, I would certainly rather spend two hours with Colin Farrell than Arnold Schwarzenegger. In theory, I prefer Sharon Stone to Kate Beckinsale or Jessica Biel, but while I found Beckinsale a little flat, I liked Biel in the film, though her role was slightly limited. In this film we follow Farrell, who may or may not be a spy in what may or may not be reality. I prefer to think the movie deals with reality, improbable as it sometimes may be, because if it isn't really, the logic of the film is severely flawed. I like the themes of this movie relating to stark divisions among classes and the exploitation of workers. It seems to bear reminding that the workers paradise that seemed to emerge in the west in the latter half of the 20th century was likely an aberration which is now dissolving into the mists.

The film was generally engaging and sort of energetic and sort of compelling, but for me there was just something flat about it. Maybe it was like listening to someone else tell you their dreams.

Brave (Mark Andrews/Brenda Chapman/Steve Purcell, 2012, US)

I confess that I've never been particularly enchanted by Pixar films, and off the top of my head, I can't think of the last animated Disney film I cared much about. I guess for me, they're about as empty as an old Care Bears movie, but with less charm. Anyway, this film got attention for featuring Disney's first female hero. If Disney was trying to step into the modern age with this film, I can't say they met their mark. Sure, this princess is tough and can shoot an arrow straighter than any boy. But she's still a princess. And the main struggle is whether or not she'll be forced to marry some idiot she doesn't know. I guess it's interesting that the main conflict here is with her mother since research seems to indicate that it is usually other women who enforce social norms among women.

In this film, the fiery princess is something of a tomboy, much to the annoyance of her mother. She comes of age, apparently, although she seems pretty young here. All the same, it's time for her to choose the first born son from one of the three rival clans, and thus ensure further peace among the clans. She decides she's not going to cooperate and the mother tries to force her and the witch in the forest makes a spell which turns goes awry. Blah blah blah. It was marginally engaging, but eminently forgettable. I also thought the CGI looked like a video game. I can imagine children liking it though.

03 November 2012

The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012, USA)

This film, which is recently out on DVD, is described as a documentary surrounding the construction of the largest home in America. Or something. Anyway, I feel like my experience of the film was colored strongly by two extraneous factors. One is the fact that the businessman, David Siegel, at the center of the film is the guy who made news recently for threatening his Vegas employees that they ought to vote for Mitt Romney if they wanted their jobs. The other is a piece I read recently in the New York Times, which discussed the subsequent lawsuit surrounding this movie, which is about as interesting a story as anything in the film. Other than giving some more insight into Mr. Siegel's perspective, the piece also left me with reservations about the filmmaker's approach. There are scenes in the film which are misleading, and some that are out of order. There are scenes in the film which were more or less choreographed by the filmmaker. I know this is very common practice among documentarians, but it makes me a little uneasy all the same.

Mr. Siegel is the very wealthy man behind the Westgate time share operations in Orlando and Las Vegas. His (third?) wife is a former Mrs. Florida and mother of 7+1 who kind of presides over the madness of the household with a kooky authority. The movie starts out fairly promising, if disingenuously so. The Siegels have begun building what is meant to be the largest home in America, inspired by Versailles. The time share business is more or less devastated by the financial crisis in 2008, and Mr. Siegel, who never set much aside, is suddenly in trouble. I felt pretty ambivalent about all the characters in the film, but the film certainly has something to say about a lot of facets of America, from just about any social, cultural, or economic angle you could think of.

I don't know, something in me rejected the film. Perhaps it's meant to leave you uneasy. From a distance, these aren't supposed to be very likable people, but they are actually likable to a point. And really, despite their extreme wealth and seeming detachment from reality, I'm not sure I've ever seen such authentically American people on film before. They really seem like anyone you've ever met who lives in the suburbs. Affable, delusional, entitled, and living beyond their means to some extent. And then you have the wife who is something like Norma Desmond or Little Edie mixed with your average billionaire soccer mom. Like I said though, I feel ambivalent about it. I'll probably watch it again some time.

01 November 2012

Cloud Atlas (Wachowskis/Tykwer, 2012, USA)

I saw this movie again last night, this time at one of those fake IMAX things called "The IMAX Experience." We were kind of hesitant about driving out to the suburbs for what the internet said was a fake IMAX experience, but I have to say that at least in the case of the AMC Showplace Crossing in Skokie, Illinois, that it was worth the trip. The sound was a million times better than at the AMC in downtown Chicago and the picture also seemed appreciably superior. Plus there was free parking. Certainly it may be less convenient than taking the train downtown, but it was a fun adventure I might do again.

The things that bothered me the first time I saw it were mostly the Tom Hanks style acting that largely dominates the film, the too obvious makeup, and the confusing barrage of information. I characterize this Tom Hanks style of acting as generally uneven and over the top. Except in a handful of rare moments, Tom Hanks is always playing a caricature of himself as much as a late career Bette Davis. The first time around I felt the same way about Jim Broadbent. I actually found Jim Broadbent pretty likable this time around. Surprisingly, I also liked the hammy acting and the cheesy makeup this time around as well. It seemed to help in stressing the theme because the actors are almost always obvious in their roles, so you can see the way these archetypes fluctuate through time and so forth. I also found it less confusing the second time. There's so much information about the characters and events, it's really hard to process it on the first viewing, even as someone who had read the novel.

On the subject of the novel, of the many absurd criticisms I have seen of this film perhaps the most patently absurd is that the film lacks the depth of the novel. Because any sane person would walk into a three hour movie and expect to find the depth they found in a 600 page novel.
I'm also surprised by how many critics sneer at Lana Wachowski. It's no wonder their tastes are so bad, they all sound like a bunch of straight, white men, clinging to their 1970's glory days.

In any event, I liked it quite a lot, and I imagine I'll watch it several times more. I think it will be something of a cult hit, though I won't be surprised if it loses money. $100m on this type of film was a real gamble.


Click here for my original post on this film.

29 October 2012

The Scapegoat (Charles Sturridge, 2012, UK)

If you were ever a big fan of Bette Davis or Alec Guinness, you've probably seen the 1959 version of this story, adapted from a Daphne Dumaurier novel. My impression from my vague memory and from what little I've read is that this version is fairly different from the older version, and, from what I've read, this is supposedly more faithful to the source material.

It's 1952, and boarding school teacher John (Matthew Rhys) has just been relieved of his position, due apparently to budget cuts. He decides he's going to travel around the world, but before he even gets to the train station he runs into a man who looks exactly like him, playboy Johnny. Johnny oversees his family's estate and their glass foundry and like many titled families in this era it all seems about to come crashing down. How alike can they possibly look, you might ask... Well, they're both played by the same actor. Johnny contrives for them to switch places so he can disappear for a while, and in a string of scenes that is more trying to the patience than anything else, John is for various reasons compelled to play along, usually because the people around him are acting like no person would ever act.  Anyway, once he commits to playing the part, the movie picks up a little steam. There is this interesting theme about atoning for another man's sins, but in general the film plays like a glossy made for tv film, which is what it is.

All of this occurs on the eve of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, which seems to hover at the background throughout the movie until they finally watch the coronation occur on the newfangled television machine. I'm not keyed in enough on recent UK history to understand the significance of this, but it's interesting that Johnny's daughter's deceased goldfish is named Mrs. Simpson. Interesting, but again I'm not really sure what the significance is. One thing that bothered me about this film is that the values embedded in the film struck me as somewhat anachronistic. It's very clearly leaning toward more contemporary attitudes, which makes sense, but I found it distracting. I also worry it's the sort of thing that leads to nostalgia for a kind of brutal classism that doesn't deserve to be nostalgized. But of course I grew up in America in a pocket of Wisconsin that still retained the progressive values that put the state on the political map, so I may see the film differently than other viewers. All in all, it's an engaging made for tv film with an engaging cast, and it does pretty well, aside from a big chunk in the first third which I actually kind of found hard to watch.

Afterword: Now that I think of it, I suppose you have this theme about the social changes in England, possibly an increased democratization and a transition into the contemporary era. The queen replaces the king, television takes hold, and a working class person literally replaces the son of a Lady. I'm still not sure how Mrs. Simpson fits in, other than seeing her symbolic passing as another symbol of the death of a bygone era.

28 October 2012

This Mortal Coil - I Want to Live

I'm feeling a little gothy today. This doesn't really have to do with film, but here's a pretty song that's as complicated as a good film. Have you felt this way? Why do you think people feel this way? Erich Fromm suggested it might have to do with our dehumanizing society. Que penses tu?

27 October 2012

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012, USA)

I love PT Anderson films, cults, movies about cults, and Amy Adams, more or less. I don't like Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman annoys me a lot of the time. I've seen this movie twice now. The first time I loved it, and the second time I found it kind of sterile. I think the first time I was so mesmerized by the audacity of it. It really cuts to the quick of that era in America and I was surprised by how transparently about Scientology it was. My boyfriend said Lancaster and Freddie were drawn to each other because they each lived the life the other coveted.

Anyway, Freddie Quell is a WW2 veteran who arrives home completely off his rocker. What discussions of this film don't seem to take into account often enough is that he was likely bonkers before he ever set sail for the South Pacific. He drunkenly wanders on to the boat Lancaster Dodd, founder of quasi-Scientology cult The Cause, is using to sail from California to New York via Panama. They have various misadventures arising from the fact tha they are both insane criminals, basically. I think the supporting cast in the film is pretty good, as is the sound. It's a little disappointing because for me this was the first PT Anderson film that didn't really stand up to a second viewing, although I've only seen Hard Eight once.

A Royal Affair / En kongelig affære (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012, Denmark)

This film seems to have done well in Denmark and it seems poised to do well enough in America. I got the impression that it was going to get released here early in the spring. I got a sticker for checking in to this movie on my GetGlue app, which tells me that someone is actually pushing this movie. It's based on a true story, alledgedly one of the great stories of Danish history, according to the director, who also wrote the screenplay for the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

This film deals with the end of the Danish feudal system and the ultimate rise of the Enlightenment in Denmark. It seems that feudalism lasted longer in Denmark than in the rest of Europe. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard stars as the mad king Christian VII and Alicia Vikander stars as his wife, Queen Caroline. Both actors are relatively new here but give performances good enough that they're considered breakout performances. I particularly like Vikander as the queen. Mads Mikkelsen seems to be the number one actor in Denmark for the past several years. If you're like me, you've probably seen him in After the Wedding and Flame and Citron. If you aren't like me, you've probably seen him in Clash of the Titans and Casino Royale. In any event, he's at the center of the film as the Enlightenment oriented doctor beloved by both the king and queen, who have pretty much been estranged since they first met. In these days when the oligarchy is threatening centuries of progress, this film actually seems pretty relevant. I think we have this illusion that the forces in our world which enjoy wealth and power could somehow be checked for the greater good if the need and the will arose. This film argues that, at least in the short term, it's best not to underestimate them that has.

Sister / L'enfant d'en haut (Ursula Meier, 2012, Switzerland)

This film somehow feels a lot like Meier's last film, Home. The main character here is 12 year old Simon, who seems to support himself and, to some extent his sister, by stealing from tourists at the nearby ski resort. Much of the film is him going up to the top of the mountain and stealing skis and so forth. He's staying with his sister, and things seem off, and they are. A lot of the films I saw at the film festival seem to consider those people in the society whom the larger society fails. It was kind of hard for me to watch, though I'm not sure everyone would feel the same way. Anyway, it's Switzerland's submission for the 85th Academy Awards.

Shun Li and the Poet / Io sono Li (Andrea Segre, 2012, Italy)

Tao Zhao, as lovely and graceful as in Still Life (2006), stars as a woman who has come from China to Italy. At the start of the film she is working off the debt she incurred in coming to Italy at a garment factory, awaiting the day she's repaid her debt so her son can come. She is transferred to a bar near the port of a city on the mainland near Venice. At the bar, she meets a kindly old man whom his friends call the Poet because he's always making these silly rhymes. Shun Li and the Poet become friends and it's sweet until everyone in the area starts clucking about how she's a scheming Chinese lady and all this stuff. It's really lovely how the film shows us how these two sad, lonely people find comfort and joy together, until society intercedes and reminds them that the social contract requires them to remain unhappy. It's not as dour as all that, though it can be quite sad. Anyway, I thought the film was just as graceful and lovely as the lead actress.

Shadow Dancer (James Marsh, 2012, Ireland)

Tom Bradby has adapted this screenplay from his own novel. Honestly, my reaction to this movie is that the only excuse for how things went is if it was based on a true story, which it doesn't seem to have been. In the prologue, we see that the McVeigh family has personal reasons for fighting the English in Northern Ireland. Their son was shot outside their home. Colette, played as an adult by Andrea Riseborough (the best thing about the movie), is also implicated in this event because she was told to get cigarettes for her dad, but she bribed her little brother to go instead. So we fastforward some number of years to the mid 1990s. Colette is an adult who gets picked up following a botched terror attack in London. Clive Owen puts the squeeze on her to become an undercover agent, but the plot is thicker than it first appears. Honestly, I don't find that the final twist of this film holds up to much scrutiny. Or maybe it's saying something pretty harsh about officials. Anyway, the film is mostly the suspense you see in the trailer. What will be the ramifications for Colette and her family? Will her info lead to the deaths or arrests of her friends and family? Will they find out and kill her? It's an interesting enough movie in the abstract, but mostly it didn't feel like it had enough heft and it certainly didn't seem to me to earn its ending. That said, the middle aged ladies I kept encountering at all the screenings seemed to like the movie quite a bit more than I did.

The Exam / A vizsga (Péter Bergendy, 2011, Hungary)

Most discussions of this movie seem content to dismiss it as a lesser The Lives of Others. This dismissal says more about the rigid thinking, mental laziness, and weak education of people writing about film than anything else. I mean, both films are about Eastern Bloc countries surveilling their citizens, but the similarities really end there. The film begins by telling us that at some point the government has passed a law requiring all intelligence personnel to be tested for loyalty. In a conflict of interest that seems too strange for none of the investigators to take note of, a middle aged investigator, Markó, oversees the test of a young agent, András, who was his protege and who is meant to dine with him and his wife that night. Because it's Christmas Eve. 1957. András's cover is that he gives English lessons from his apartment, but really people just come and rat out all their friends and associates. As the test is about to end satisfactorily a woman shows up at the apartment and everything is suddenly different from what it seems. Some of these plot twists you can see a mile away, and some are more surprising. Some of the actions taken by the characters seem logical and motivated and others seem borderline insane. In any event, the film is engaging and well put together. The cast is both attractive and capable. The film won first prize in the New Directors competition at the Chicago International Film Festival, and of the films from that slate that I saw, I imagine that it probably deserved it.

Everybody's Got Somebody...Not Me / Todo el mundo tiene a alguien menos yo (Raul Fuentes, 2012, Mexico)

Alejandra is a lesbian living in a large city I assumed to be Mexico City, but honestly I have no idea. She's probably in her late 20s and she seems to be drawn to 18 year olds she can lecture to and emotionally abuse. The director says the film is in black and white because Alejandra and her main love interest, the fair Maria, are polar opposites. Anyway, the film looks good. Whatever his intentions may have been, for me the most affective theme in the movie is the effect of this arrogant negativity that seems to prevail among us. That resonated with me because I've seen that self defeating behavior derail plenty of promising relationships.

Yuma (Piotr Mularuk, 2012, Poland/Czech Republic)

It's kind of a sexy film, I guess. Jakub Gierszal, who plays the protagonist Zyga, is a pretty faced actor who kind of drips a sort of sexual energy. Actually, almost everybody in the film does. The story starts toward the end of the 1980's, I imagine. Zyga and his best friend help this East German escapee get to the West German embassy. He gives them money that Zyga first tries to decline, but they end up accepting it, which leads them to a prostitute in the forest, which leads to hijinks, which leads to a traumatic experience which sets the film in motion, more or less. The friend disappears and comes back later on in the film as a deranged lawman. Basically it's about these kids who succumb to the madness for materialism that sweeps through the former Eastern Bloc after the Iron Curtain falls. We're informed at the beginning of the film that the area of Western Poland that borders Germany is called Juma (pronounced Yuma) and because stolen German goods are so widespread in that part of Poland, the word Juma has come to mean something about reselling stolen goods. So this is what Zyga gets mixed up with, naturally. Alongside all the massive trucks operated by the Russian mafia, Zyga starts smuggling stolen goods across the border, first Marlboro cigarettes at the behest of his brothel running aunt, and eventually anything you could think of. Things naturally go well for a while as Zyga and his friends run around town in their stylish threads blasting their stylish music and so forth and naturally things get out of hand. The protagonist is inspired by the old western 3:10 to Yuma. I haven't seen that film in a few years but I don't remember the plot being too similar to what happens here. Anyway, it's sort of an exciting movie, but sometimes the characters are weirdly mean given how likable they can be and how fluffy the film can be. In the end, it's an entertaining film, but not one you can always take seriously.

Dreams for Sale / Yume uru futar (Miwa Nishikawa, 2012, Japan)

A husband (Teruyuki Kagawa) and wife (the exquisite Takako Matsu) have this little restaurant that burns down during the dinner rush one night. The fire insurance doesn't go very far and they're desperate. The wife seems more okay with things, seeming relatively content to work a job at a cheap restaurant while they're working on getting a new restaurant. The husband's self pity basically turns him into a scoundrel. At one point he sleeps with some old acquaintance of theirs who gives him a bunch of money she doesn't want. The wife puts two and two together and comes up a plan that she dedicates herself to, seemingly to both make her husband's dream restaurant a reality and also to make him atone for what he's done with this other woman. This plan is to convince all these women that he's going to marry them and to weasel money out of them that they will eventually pay back with interest. As is often the case, the driving force in these schemes is pretty much the male ego, but as is also often the case, the woman ends up getting stuck with the blame. More or less. The film has an interesting premise and a lot of interesting characters. I just didn't really buy into a lot of the film's logic. Perhaps something was lost in translation, I have no idea.

Our Children / À perdre la raison (Joachim LaFosse, 2012, Belgium)

Belgium's submission to the Academy Awards foreign film competition, this film is apparently based on a true story. Perhaps if I had known that going in, it would informed my viewing in such a way that I didn't find the film such a downer. It kind of uses the Lars Von Trier template where you start out with this great woman, and this case a very likable new husband, and drag her through endless unpleasantness until something dramatic happens. The film starts with the woman ( Émilie Dequenne) in an emergency room telling the nurses that her children needed to be buried in Morocco. We then see some small coffins being transported and then we start at the beginning of their friendship. She's a school teacher dating this resident at a hospital or something, played by the guy from A Prophet (Tahar Rahim). The old guy plays his friend/mentor is the old guy from A Prophet (Niels Arestrup). For financial reasons the couple move in with the older friend, who turns out to be married to the guy's sister, and the wife starts banging out kids while the audience is left wondering what kind of strange relationship is going on with the two men. The husband gradually becomes less and less sympathetic, but the movie still seems to expect us to sympathize with him and his desperate family. I just read a review that called the film emotionally draining and that's exactly how I would describe it. Maybe it's because I'm not particularly interested in all this breeding stuff, but I didn't find anything particularly appealing about the film as a whole, though I like most of the actors well enough.

Guys and Balls / Männer wie wir (Sherry Hormann, 2004, Germany)

I hope this movie is as dated in Germany as it is here. I lived in Germany ten years ago and I thought it was strange that although the culture is relatively tolerant and progressive, that people were more comfortable with homosexuality in the abstract. I don't know, really, I never figured out what the deal was with gay culture there.

Here we have a gay sports comedy. Ecki, the goalie of his local soccer team, inadvertently comes out of the closet when he is seen making an unwanted pass at his best friend. He leaves his podunk town in shame and his parents become laughingstocks as he seeks refuge with his sister in Dortmund. He's challenged his team to play his gay team that doesn't exist yet in four weeks' time. He scours the underbelly of Dortmund until he finds enough leather daddies and kebab queens to man his team and naturally they go back to bumblefuck and continue to act out all of the sports movie tropes you'd expect. What makes the film problematic, other than it being a movie about soccer, is that it's an endless stream of gay stereotypes, homophobic humor, and cheap sentiment. It's so funny to me that Germans are thought of as these cold robotic types by a lot of people, but they're really as cornball as anyone else.

I liked certain members of the cast though and I automatically tend to like movies more just because they're in German since I like to listen to German, in case you're wondering about the charitable rating. I guess I also have a soft spot for gay movies, and even though this one is painful to watch sometimes, it seems to mean well.

Color of Sky (Dr. Biju, 2012, India)

An old man comes to town to sell some art objects and pick up some flour or something. A thief sees him get the money at the art place and follows him back to his boat and eventually tries to rob him on the boat at knifepoint. The clever old man thwarts the robbery and ferries the thief to his isolated island where the thief is held prisoner, more or less, though he is treated like a hotel guest or something. Also at the hotel type place are a man, a woman, and a child, all of whom are mostly silent in the film. I liked the message of the movie, which is essentially that you need to find beauty in your life and that creating art and helping other people are both redemptive activities. I'd be surprised if this movie ever materialized anywhere, but I enjoyed it quite a bit, even if it was sort of meditative and intermittently perplexing.

26 October 2012

Valley of Saints (Musa Syeed, 2012, India)

Valley of Saints takes place primarily on and around Dal Lake in Kashmir.  At the start of the film, rebel actions lead to a city wide curfew which exempts the boat people who live on these little islands in the lake or in houses on stilts in the lake. Two boys have been planning to leave the city to try their fortunes in Delhi. Afzal is a typical macho type male, committed to various smuggling schemes and so forth, while Gulzar seems to possess a more sensitive and artistic temperament. Naturally Gulzar becomes out protagonist. The friends' attempt to leave the city is thwarted by the curfew and their relationship is strained as they booth swoon over this girl they are told to look after who is staying on Gulzar's uncle's (?) houseboat, which seems almost like a guesthouse built on stilts in the lake. The girl, Asifa, turns out to be a researcher studying the condition of the lake. It's great because there are the stories of these characters wrapped up both in the story of the political situation of Kashmir which looms in the background alongside the ecological crisis occuring witht his lake. I thought it was well done and compelling, overall.

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012, USA)

 I keep seeing established film critics defend Magic Mike. Defend might not be the right word, because many of them don't seem to understand that it needs defending. I think this is in part because a lot of working film critics have lowbrow tastes and exalt the likes of The Avengers or Magic Mike as the best movies of the year and all that absurdity. Not that it matters. I'm trying to figure out what it is about the absurd Magic Mike, which more or less seems like an updated movie from USA's Up All Night, if you can remember that far back. The USA network used to play racy movies late at night that were always about some dream that rested on some amount of money and it always revolved around strippers or nightclubs or something. I don't know. I feel like the plot of Burlesque borrowed heavily from that genre, as does Magic Mike, but for some reason people seem to lap it up with Magic Mike.

I have two theories. One is that Channing Tatum (or is it Matthew McConaughey?) somehow tapped into this sea of latent homosexual desire, and these film critics respond to these uncomfortable feelings by defending the plot of this silly movie, thereby avoiding cogntive dissonance. Conversely, it could be that it taps into some phenomenon whereby men are deep down in love with their best friends and it's somehow cathartic to see this worked through as Tatum eventually channels that romantic energy into his bromantic partner's sister, literally. Anyway, these are just stray throughts, as you can probably tell. This phenomenon could all boil down to the fact that Steven Soderbergh benefits for one reason or another from a love affair with auteur theory.

25 October 2012

Black's Game / Svartur á leik (Óskar Thór Axelsson, 2012, Iceland)

Pretty much everybody I met at the festival liked this movie. Ever the contrarian, perhaps, I wasn't quite as impressed. I thought it was a tacky, violent movie that glorified violence, nihilism, substance abuse, and cheap sexuality. The main character Stebbi is a miscreant who has just stumbled out of a jail where he's been booked for fucking some kid up when he was drunk. He runs into an old acquaintance from his hometown, Toti, all muscles and Satanic tattoos. Eventually, Stebbi does a dangerous job for Toti so this gangland lawyer will get him off of this heavy assault charge. Things go wrong during the job and Stebbi proves himself by going psycho on some important gangster or something. This earns him the nickname Psycho. Things go okay for a minute and then go out of control when this Satanic black metal looking criminal mastermind shows up and pushes it to the fucking limit. I didn't really buy all the plot elements, particularly a string of things toward the end of the film. It's also hard to care too much about these people because they're all evil, even though Stebbi is kind of attractive.

Westerland (Tim Staffel, 2012, Germany)

Based on what I just read on some German site, this film is apparently all about delivering the unexpected, or something. It takes places on Sylt, an island to the north of Germany which is associated with summer vacations. This film takes place here in the winter. It's also ostensibly a gay love story, but there is very little indication that this is actually a romantic relationship instead of a some kind of codependent friendship. They sleep in the same bed and spend a lot of time together but I don't recall them ever kissing or being otherwise physically romantic. I didn't know what to make of the film. The characters and their situations struck me as very authentic, but I don't know how interested I was in the story or how revelatory it felt. The characters are Cem and Jesus. The former is an industrious fellow who seems to let his own life affairs and possible future prospects drift into an abyss because of this strange codependent relationship. Jesus is unstable, possibly homeless, probably a pathological liar, constantly smoking pot, probably bipolar or something. These characters felt more or less real to me, maybe a little sanitized, and I enjoyed spending time with them, but I'm not sure the film had anything interesting to say about them. The crazy one is very pretty though.

The Last Friday / Al Juma Al Akheira (Yahya Alabdallah, 2011, Jordan)

This was a dour, somewhat depressing movie. A cab driver, likable enough, but deep in hock following a failed attempt to make it big by going abroad, deals with cancer (or some testicular problem) of some sort and a juvenile delinquent son. He's also got all kinds of issues about his wife being married to a wealthy man, we discover. He also doesn't seem interested in telling anyone that he has this serious health condition. I don't know, most of the characters are likable enought but the film, like the city it takes place in, is stark and somehow painful to watch. This movie and I may have been doomed from the start because men annoy me so much, but for whatever reason, I had trouble really connecting to this one. The acting is good; Ali Suliman deserves the praise he's gotten for a good performance. The film is probably really real. People are probably too cold and unhelpful and self-defeating. It's probably just hard for me to watch sometimes, because it reminds me that I might not like people too much. It's funny though that people in this movie seemed so fond of dogs because we're all the time hearing that Arabs don't like dogs. It's funny how little we know about each other.

Postcards from the Zoo / Kebun binatang (Edwin, 2012, Indonesia)

A little girl loses her father in the zoo and apparently ends up staying and living there. That's the first few minutes of the movie. The rest of the movie takes place as she is an adult of indeterminate age, perhaps 20? I really wasn't sure. She wanders around the zoo, dreams of petting the giraffe's belly, and falls in love with a strange, silent cowboy magician. I liked this movie, in some ways, but mostly I was just kind of bored. That might be the pitfall of seeing five movies in one day at a film festival. I'm not sure. I can imagine myself liking this movie, but I didn't really engage with it at all when I saw it.

Coming of Age / Anfang 80 (Gerhard Ertl & Sabine Hiebler, 2011, Austria)

This was supposed to be my light palate cleanser of the festival, and being a film festival, this pretty much was, is the funny thing about that. Right before it started the lady next to me said something about it being sad or something, and I was like, what? I guess what I failed to glean from a trailer or anything before seeing this movie are two key facts of the film that are presented upfront in the film, but not so much in the trailer, as I recall. First, the man in the story is already married to another woman. Secondly, the woman has cancer. That said, it's still a pleasure to watch. It's half comedy, half tearjerker, and more or less 100% crowdpleaser. The cast is great, it's beautifully filmed, and the story hits in all the right places. Anyway, I ate it right up.

On a bit of a side note, the lady from Paradise: Love appears in a supporting role in this film. It's not a huge role, but it was a fun surprise, having just seen Paradise: Love a few days prior to seeing this.

Post tenebras lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012, Mexico)

The film's title is Latin for "After darkness, light." That's about as much clarification as you're going to get here. The first few minutes set me up to think that this would be an amazing film. There is this demented high energy sequence where this little girl is standing in a rainy field calling the names of herd animals which seem to be stampeding about her. The sky is a poisonous garden. The actual title sequence is annoying as each of the three words is placed on the the screen individually for too long a time. Honestly, it kind of undercut the energy of the previous scene by seeming silly and self-important. This is followed by a scene of a cartoon devil walking into an apartment with a toolbox. Very unexpected. Then are all these random scenes of rugby, sex clubs, animal cruelty, an AA meeting, family bonding, and strange weather. I liked a lot of this movie. Some of the sequences are electrifying. I'm just not sure the film earned its high moments, and the sum of the parts seem more than the whole. By the way, several people left the screening early on when the ostensible protagonist seems to beat a dog to death. Still more trickled out during an inexplicable sequence in a sex club which went from perplexing to tedious to enchanting. The latter scene has a lot of nudity but nothing too graphic and the dog scene is disturbing but it's filmed in such a way that the dog is mostly offscreen while it's taking place.
Essentially, I kind of feel like the cinematographer Alexis Zabe is the real star here, as perhaps was also the case in Silent Light. The little girl in the movie is also exquisite; I was surprised to learn that she's the director's own daughter.
I guess I'm not giving the full picture here. I may have read too many other reviews. The movie seems to be about dreams, maybe life being a dream, maybe childhood being a dream, and a wistful longing for the experience of being a child. At least that seems to be part of it.

Flowerbuds / Poupata (Zdenek Jirasky, 2011, Czech Republic)

This was actually the final film I saw of the film festival, during the best of the fest screenings. It won the runner up prize in the first time director category. It seems like a subversive made for television Christmas movie. It's not quite as dour as I expected, given that the synapses I found focus on the serious problems faced by all the characters. The father is a compulsive gambler with a questionable work ethic, the daughter is pregnant with a child of which she may or not know who the father is, the son is in love with a prostitute, and the mother has to deal with it all. I actually ended up finding it sort of funny though. I mean, it's certainly dark, and don't look for anything remotely happy about the ending, but there is something sort of uplifting about the audacity of big finale. Despite their foibles, I found most of the characters relatively likable, particularly the Vietnamese couple who seem to be friendly with the wife.

24 October 2012

Germania (Maximiliano Schonfeld, 2012, Argentina)

As you may or may not know, a bunch of Germans who had relocated to Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great eventually chose to move elsewhere when the situation in Russia changed for the worse. (See more info here.) This film introduces us to a family in one of these German Argentine villages. For whatever reason, the family's farm seems to have been afflicted by some kind of plague, which may be the result of water contamination, in which their chickens are all sick and so forth. The family has to leave their farm behind and move on to another community, where they will be forced to leave their heritage and even their language behind. It's what you'd call a meditative film.There's a weird storyline about the sister running around with some itinerant farm laborer and some weird sexual tension or something between her and her brother. The father seems to have died some time ago and the mother doesn't exactly seem with it.
I don't envy filmmakers who bring something like this to a regional film festival. It's all crochety old people who talked throughout the movie and then complain about what they didn't like about it. It's sort of in the same vein as Silent Light, I guess. It's interesting from a cultural perspective and fascinating from a linguistic perspective, assuming you have at least basic knowledge of German and Spanish...

22 October 2012

Paradise: Love / Paradies: Liebe (Ulrich Seidl, 2012, Austria)

This film is more or less the story of Teresa, a middle aged Austrian single mother who lives a pretty drab life. Her daughter, on the verge of juvenile delinquency, doesn't seem to care about her at all, and there doesn't really seem to be very much in her life that's particularly fulfilling. For her birthday she's going to Kenya with a friend of hers, who has been to Kenya before and knows the ropes down there, at least as far as the ins and outs of holiday love affairs with young African gigolos goes. I feel like Western audiences in general will focus a lot on how these African men seek to exploit or take advantage of the white women. That's the impression I could from the audience I saw it with, anyway. Speaking of that audience, they laughed like children any time anyone was naked or did anything remotely sexual. I felt like I was back in junior high. The movie certainly has moments which are funny, but I also felt like a lot of the racism was being driven by petit bourgeois ideas about race, gender, and body shape, which I confess to have found simple minded and, for lack of a better word, counterrevolutionary.
It's true that the local men are constantly on the make, whether they're trying to sell trinkets on the beach or demanding large sums of money from the European women they sleep with, but clearly the women think it's worth it, because they keep going back. It's kind of a complicated situation. You find yourself feeling overwhelmed as the tourists are mobbed by people selling things and asking for money, but then again you have an upscale resort protected by armed guards and surrounded by extreme poverty in a country with a long history of European colonialism.
The acting in the film is very good, but it's not always easy to watch. Another tale of mutual exploitation, perhaps, though it's hard to say it's mutual when there is such a power differential here.

Diaz: Don't Clean Up This Blood (Daniele Vicari, 2012, Italy/France/Romania)

This film tells the story of the brutality that emerged as a response to the protests that occurred during the 2001 G8 Summit n Genoa, Italy. It focuses on these media centers were all sorts of journalists, activists, and random people who couldn't find hotel rooms in the city congregate and sleep. After the film the actor suggested that the shocking response of the police force to these protestors was a political act by Berlusconi, who was having some trouble and needed to appear capable and strong. The actor also mentioned that the director said he actually left out a lot of the more harrowing things that occurred because he didn't think the audience would believe it all. So if you're wondering if it was really as bad as this, it was apparently worse. The film does a pretty good job of establishing likeable characters, which makes the brutality that ensues even harder to watch. There film is, to a small extent, in a not entirely chronological order. These flashes out of time serve to build tension throughout the film. I almost feel traumatized watching this movie. It's really disheartening to see what it looks like when people dare to talk back to money in any real way. About a week after I watched this movie, I saw the Danish film A Royal Affair, and I can't help feeling like the situation we have today isn't as far from serfdom as we'd like to believe.

After Lucia / Después de Lucía (Michel Franco, 2012, Mexico)

This film is Mexico's submission to the Academy Awards best foreign language film competition. It seems to be pretty popular with both audiences and critics, but somehow it didn't work for me as much as I expected it to.

In the film, Alejandra and her father have just relocated to Mexico City from Puerto Vallarta following the traumatic death of her mother. For reasons which can be speculated upon based on how the mother died, Alejandra never tells anyone at school that her mother is dead. At school, she falls in with a group of bratty, pot smoking miscreants who seem to be the popular kids. One weekend at a party she gets drunk and lets one of the boys film her having sex with him and the video gets sent all around school. For some reason, possibly relating to the jealousy of one of the other girls, Alejandra is then subject to bullying which is almost too harrowing to watch at times. The ending goes a somewhat different direction that you might expect, but it's not particularly satisfying. For me, the film's scenes of extreme cruelty seemed hard to believe, and this was exacerbated by failing sometimes to understand why these characters made some of the choices they made. It's definitely moving sometimes, maybe horrifying is a better word, but I'm not sure it earns the emotions it conjures.