Monday, March 31, 2008

Yesterday in my review I said that The Counterfeiters was the weakest Best Foreign Language film of the decade, but that was wrong. I totally forgot about the 2005 South African winner Tsotsi, which I found to be trite and contrived. The very fact that I forgot all about it when thinking back on the past winners should tell you something right there.

That gives The Counterfeiters a slight boost in Academy history. Tsotsi's victory over the far superior (and more challenging) Palestinian entry Paradise Now and Germany's gutwrenching Sophie Scholl - The Final Days was a travesty.

For a look at something far better to have come from South Africa, check out Nick Plowman's Fataculture.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Of all the films that have won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in the past decade, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to The Lives of Others, Austria's The Counterfeiters is by far the weakest. It is a solid, competently made film, but in a year where great films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Persepolis, and The Band's Visit were all submitted by their respective countries (Band's Visit was later disqualified), giving the title of best foreign language film of the year to a film like The Counterfeiters should raise a resounding "huh?"

Of course, The Counterfeiters is standard Oscar fare. Set during WWII, it tells the true story of Salomon Sorowitsch, a master counterfeiter who is recruited by the Nazis while wasting away in a concentration camp to run a massive counterfeiting operation designed to flood the British and American economy with counterfeit money.

It is an interesting story, and director Stefan Ruzowitzky handles the material well, and keeps the audience engaged throughout, but it is never anything more than middle-of-the-road fare. It is a Holocaust movie, and it fills in all the expectations of its genre, which is the kind of thing the Academy loves. But it is never on the level of Schindler's List or The Pianist.

I know it sounds like I don't like the film, but I do. It is merely a good film that never rises to greatness, and to see it crowned as the best world cinema had to offer in 2007 is, to me, a slap in the face to much more daring, ambitious filmmaking.

The Counterfeiters is solid all the way around - and, like The Pianist, it presents us with moral conundrums that spring from the situation the prisoners find themselves in. The counterfeiters are given much nicer accommodations than the rest of the prisoners in the camp, and they are forced to deal with the dilemma of staying alive by aiding the very people who are slaughtering their friends and families by the millions.

While it is compulsively watchable, I never felt that the moral complexities were explored to their fullest extent. Sorowitsch makes for a hard, stoic hero, and I felt that Ruzowitzky could have dug deeper into his character than he did. He is juxtaposed by Adolf Burger, a young idealist determined to sabotage the Nazis' plan, and the two continually clash as the movie progresses, but I felt there were places left unexplored in their relationship and their dilemma that could have made The Counterfeiters a better film.

As it stands, The Counterfeiters is well constructed historical drama - the kind of quality filmmaking our marketplace is sorely lacking - it's just not the best. And there is a very wide gap between good and great.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

THE COUNTERFEITERS; Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky; Stars Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Martin Brambach, August Zirner, Veit Strubner, Sebastian Urzendowsky; Rated R for some strong violence, brief sexuality/nudity and language; In German w/English subtitles
Following in the footsteps of Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino, Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), is an uplifting, heartwarming drama about a 9 year old Mexican boy named Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), who after the death of his grandmother decides to cross the border into America in search of his mother (Kate del Castillo) who is working there illegally to support him.

It is a beautiful and wholly innocent premise that is loaded with political controversy. With heated debate about illegal Mexican immigrants currently raging in our public square, Under the Same Moon attempts to put a human face on an issue that many feel passionately about, but few have any personal connection to.

The film largely (and wisely) shies away from politics, but makes a few choice digs at Arnold Schwartznegger's veto of a bill allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, courtesy of some radio deejays, and offers up some pointed song lyrics about America's prejudice against Mexican immigrants.

For the most part, however, the film is largely apolitical. The focus here is on the human side of an issue that is very easy to dehumanize if held at arm's length.

It's a new twist on a plot we've all seen before, but director Patricia Riggen handles it very well. We know where this is going from moment one, and could probably chart the storyline beforehand to relative accuracy, but Riggen directs with a compassion and grace, and young Alonso carries the movie with such charm and sincerity, that it is hard not to like.

Alonso is without a doubt the film's strongest asset - he single-handedly carries the entire film on his shoulders, and comes out with one of the finest performances by a child actor I have ever seen. He is magnetic and wholly believable. The writing may periodically fail him, but he never falters. Alonso is a talent to watch, and I hope to see more work from him in the future. If this is any indication, he has quite a career ahead of him.

Under the Same Moon may be predictable and sentimental, but it's impossible to question its conviction. It's got a heart as big as the moon, and succeeds in its goals far better than the similarly themed August Rush, which was maudlin and manipulative, whereas Under the Same Moon is touching and warmhearted.

That can only get you so far of course, but in this case it goes a long way.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

UNDER THE SAME MOON (LA MISMA LUNA); Directed by Patricia Riggen; Stars Adrian Alonso, Kate del Castillo, Eugenio Derbez, Carmen Salinas, Ernesto D'Alessio, Isaac Bravo, Mário Almada, Maya Zapata; Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements; In Spanish w/English subtitles

Friday, March 28, 2008

As far as recent comedies go, David Schwimmer's directorial debut, Run Fatboy Run (which opens today in wide release), is actually pretty good. It's nothing groundbreaking or out of the ordinary, but it is a competently made, even heartwarming little comedy with a nice British twist.

Who would have thought Ross could have put together such a solid little movie? It's all pretty predictable, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

I'll be hammering out a full review for next Thursday's Dispatch, but I wanted to go ahead and give it a little boost. There is nothing in it that hasn't been done before, but it's done with conviction and charm, putting it into an above-average category it might not otherwise have attained.

The cynics can wag their fingers if they want, but one must be able to recognize well-done formula, even if it is formula. And Run Fatboy Run is definitely one of the better comedies currently playing in wide release.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Band's Visit, Eran Kolirin's wonderfully droll Israeli comedy, which was unfairly disqualified from Oscar consideration last year for containing too much English, will finally open in North Carolina tomorrow in Greensboro at the Carousel Luxury Cinema.

I finally saw The Band's Visit today, and it is everything it is reputed to be and then some. This beautifully modulated fish-out-of-water comedy is the kind of droll, poignant, hugely likable film that the world could use more of.

Based on a true story,The Band's Visit chronicles one night in the lives of an Egyptian Police Band, who has been invited to play at an Arabic Culture Center in Israel. But instead of going to the concert's venue, they end up in a backwater town with a similar name in the middle of the desert.

Stuck in a strange place with nowhere to go, the band, dressed in full uniform and carrying their instruments, are invited to stay by a beautiful restaurant owner and the quirky people who work there.

Along the way, the band's uptight leader and brash newcomer are thrown together with their beautiful host, and the other musicians spend an unforgettable night in a place far from home.

Kolirin establishes the offbeat tone from the very first frame, in which a van driver takes an enormous yellow ball from the back of the van and inexplicably places it in the front seat. Using static shots, long takes, and few cuts, he accentuates the awkwardness of the band and their out of place status. They are, in a sense, a relic - a reminder of a bygone era that people have forgotten.

But for this one night, a minor inconvenience becomes something magical, and The Band's Visit opens up its surprising emotional wallop.

For all of its dry wit and visual gags, The Band's Visit is ultimately a poignant slice of life about people from totally different backgrounds and cultures forging unexpected connections and healing old wounds.

The Academy committed a grave injustice for disqualifying the film. Like Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (which was also unfairly jilted by the Academy), The Band's Visit is all about what is going on beneath the surface in any given scene. The two films may bear no other resemblance to each other (4 Months is a much grimmer film, Band's Visit is a quietly uplifting charmer), but both have the ability to say much while speaking little, and feature finely tuned performances (especially by Sasson Gabai as the band's leader, and Ronit Elkabetz as the beautiful restaurateur, who also starred in Late Marriage, another Israeli comedy that was one of my favorite films from 2002) and pitch-perfect direction.

Kolirin captures the band's alienation and old-fashioned sensibilities masterfully, and the clash of cultures (old and new, Arab and Israeli) makes for one of the most heartwarming, bittersweet, and entertaining films in ages.

GRADE - ****

THE BAND'S VISIT; Directed by Eran Kolirin; Stars Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour, Shlomi Avraham; PG-13 - brief strong language; In Arabic, Hebrew, and English, w/English subtitles.
From The Dispatch:
It's disappointing that producer Apatow and screenwriter Seth Rogen would follow up "Superbad" with a film that is such a blatant retread of previously covered material about an awkward skinny teen, a loud-mouthed fat teen and an even skinnier, squeaky-voiced über-nerd trying to navigate the tricky waters of high school. "Superbad" was an extremely funny, hugely successful embodiment of teenage fears and dreams (and centered around an awkward skinny teen, a loud-mouthed fat teen and an even skinnier, squeaky voiced über-nerd). "Drillbit Taylor," which focuses on the same thing for a younger crowd (note the less restrictive PG-13 rating), is nowhere near as good.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In honor of its DVD release today, I wanted to give a little attention to Anton Corbijn's criminally underseen Control.

I am as guilty as anyone for not championing this film earlier. Since it did not make it to my area until late in its theatrical run, I gave it very little coverage until quietly adding it to the Honorable Mention category of my 2007 Best Of List, and giving it a grade in the right-hand column of my blog. No review, no blurb, nothing.

That's a shame, because Control, the biopic of Ian Curtis, the ill-fated frontman of the 70s New Wave band Joy Division, is a fantastic film.

Sam Reilly is a revelation as Curtis, and Corbijn, a director of music videos, grabs the audience from the first frame, in no small part thanks to the gorgeous black and white cinematography of Martin Ruhe.

The camera-work gives a shot-on-the-fly feel that makes it seem more of a document than a film. Curtis' ambition, his drive for perfection, and his singular focus ends up driving him to self-destruction, but Control manages to distinguish itself from other similarly themed musical biopics.

In fact the entire time I was watching the film I kept thinking how it looked like something Jean-Luc Godard would have made early in his career. The grainy, black and white cinematography has the same edgy beauty of Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964).

There is never a moment in the film that doesn't feel unquestionably authentic. This is partially due to the involvement of the remaining Joy Division members (now known as New Order) in making the film and composing original music to bring to life the story of their fallen band member, so searingly embodied by Reilly. Samantha Morton is also terrific as always as Curtis' long suffering wife.

The soundtrack is also very good, featuring new music by New Order and other New Wave bands such as the Buzzcocks, plus original tracks by Joy Division and a particularly good cover of "Shadowplay" by The Killers.

Reilly and Ruhe's work were both worthy of more attention than they got, as both make up some of 2007's finest work.

I was in New York when the film opened, but I was unable to get around to seeing it (the only film I had time to see was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and I don't regret it one bit), but I do wish I had been able to champion this small but extremely worthy film more than I did. But now that it is on DVD everyone has a chance to catch up with it, and I have the chance to atone for not supporting this movie sooner.

I am a believer in Joy Division, fuckin' hallelujah!

And you should be too.

UPDATE: Control will actually be released on DVD June 3rd.
Sitting in a commercial screening of Drillbit Taylor yesterday (I wasn't able to make the press screening...but don't worry I was there on The New York Times' dime), I had to suffer through some of the most insufferable previews I've had to see in a while.

The trailer for Ben Stiller's upcoming Tropic Thunder is actually quite good, and the re-teaming of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Step Brothers looks like it could be amusing. But it was all downhill from there.

The Mike Myers vehicle The Love Guru looks nothing short of repulsive, ditto the latest Eddie Murphy "comedy," Meet Dave. These are the kinds of trailers that make me wonder if people actually see these and think "wow, that looks like something that would really be worth my time!"

Do these people exist? Are there really people out there who find this drivel in any way entertaining or enriching? These are both summer films, yet I can't help but think that there was a time when trash like this would have been dumped in January or September/October, not given prime summer release dates.

Drillbit Taylor is not as horrible as Jeffrey Wells says it is, but it's not exactly something you would call a good movie either. The young leads are appealing, but other than that it's just Superbad-lite.

I found nothing particularly offensive about it (other than the fact that it is made up of nothing but high school movie clichés), the trailers before it were what bothered me. After sitting through them it almost made Drillbit look like passable entertainment.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It hasn't even been released yet, and already Ben Stein's "Intelligent Design" (i.e. Creationism in disguise) documentary Expelled is drawing controversy.

Recently, noted scientests P.Z. Meyers and Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) attended a screening of the film, where Meyers, upon being recognized was barred from entering. Dawkins and Meyers' family were still allowed in (one assumes they did not recognize Dawkins...despite filmmakers claims to the contrary).

The film, according to the New York Times, "asserts that people in academia who see evidence of supernatural intelligence in biological processes — an idea called “intelligent design” — have unfairly lost their jobs, been denied tenure or suffered other penalties as part of a scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nation’s laboratories and classrooms."

I have yet to see the film, so I will refrain from making comments on the film itself until I have seen it, but the central premise, that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools, is a flawed one at best. It seems these creationists have problems with such things as facts, which as Stephen Colbert would say, have a notorious liberal bias. A scientific theory is merely a fact that cannot be tested in a laboratory...Intelligent Design, no matter how you dress it up, is a belief system, and has NO business being taught in science classes alongside evolution as an "alternate viewpoint." Leave it for Sunday school where it belongs.

One has to wonder what the Creationists are afraid of, and why they barred Meyers from attending. These are the types of things conservative blowhards love to complain about when it comes to the other side, and as such this action is the very height of hypocrisy.

Sasha Stone over at Awards Daily posted an item about this yesterday, only to be immediately shot down for being anti-Christian. That is ridiculous of course. Being against Intelligent Design taught in classrooms is not anti-Christian - it's anti-stupidity. Not to say that those who believe that God set things in motion are stupid...but anyone who totally denies the existence of evolution is a fool. Plain and simple. Believe that evolution is God's tool if you must...but to deny evolution is to totally ignore the facts.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

I had the opportunity today to attend an acting workshop with renowned character actor Anthony Zerbe, who is probably best known for his film roles as villain Milton Krest in License to Kill, the corrupt Admiral Dourgherty in Star Trek: Insurrection, and Counselor Hamann in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.

He has also appeared in Cool Hand Luke, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs, co-starred with John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn, Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, and Christopher Walken in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone .

His television credits include Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, Mission: Impossible, Dynasty, The Young Riders, Columbo, Murder She Wrote, Tales from the Crypt, Frasier, and Judging Amy, as well as countless stage credits in everything from Richard III to Cyrano de Bergerac to Othello with James Earl Jones, and often toured with the late Roscoe Lee Brown doing dramatic readings.

The workshop was supposed to last an hour and a half, but ended up lasting nearly three hours, and it was worth every minute. Zerbe is a fascinating man with lots of experience and insight. It was great listening to him talk about his love for Cormac McCarthy's novels and his friendship with Josh Brolin, and how Brolin called him up after landing the part of Llywellen in No Country for Old Men and left a message on his answering machine, causing Zerbe to talk excitedly to a recorded message. He promised to tell Brolin about our group's admiration for him.

He shared some great stories of his experiences in film - of his first take on the set of Mission: Impossible to the first read-through of Star Trek: Insurrection, in which he mispronounced Data's name. He also spoke of his work on The Matrix and made some very funny observations about Keanu Reeves.

He took the time to speak to each one of us, and was very interactive throughout his lecture. When he got to me he reached over and hit me on the knee and said "I've been neglecting you all morning!" to which I replied "it's OK, I've just enjoyed listening." And he said "Well good, I just wanted you to know I noticed." Then we proceeded to talk about my favorite playwright, Tony Kushner.

Later, I had the privilege of attending a performance of his one man show, It's All Done With Mirrors, a performance of the works of poet e.e. cummings, his first performance since the death of his partner Roscoe Lee Brown. Afterward he stayed to talk with the audience from the stage, and acknowleged people from the audience he knew, then later noticed me and stopped and exclaimed "Hey man! I've neglected you again! Goddamn it!" So I waved and he went on. It was great.

My friend and I stayed with one of our professors after everyone left and were the last ones in the theater standing around talking with him (being a Trekkie, I got to talk with him about Star Trek for a bit). It was an amazing experience being so close to such knowledge and experience from such an incredibly funny, kind, and gracious man. It's especially disarming considering the villainous characters he usually plays. His insight into the craft of acting is immeasurable, and it is an experience I will treasure always.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

"I feel so lucky, so much blessed that one day our roads have crossed. Anthony my friend, my soul mate who made me blossom and create the best of my music. You are alive for ever in my heart. Despite my sorrow, I'll keep going on and remembering you through my work. I can see you smiling at me, always...there are no words, in English or French to say what I mean, I will say it in music throughout my life."
- Gabriel Yared

You can read this and more memorials by those who knew Minghella at the newly created Anthony Minghella Memorial Blog.
One of the things I love about being in college is the ability to catch up on classic films I have never had the chance to see. With our library's wealth of classic and obscure films (not to mention a smörgåsbord of Criterion discs) I have been able to see gems that I might not otherwise have had access to.

Last night I watched Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly for the first time. I was not introduced to Bergman until I got to college, but he is without a doubt one of my favorites. My favorite Bergman work remains Wild Strawberries (1957), and is one of my top ten films of all time. But Through a Glass Darkly definitely gives it a fun for its money.

What I like most about Bergman is that he is not so much a director as he is a visual composer. He paints images like music - each frame has a lyrical beauty that is breathtaking in its own right.

There's something totally immersive, almost otherworldly about his composition. The film's haunting, ethereal nature, that is present in most of Bergman's work from The Seventh Seal to Persona, is what makes them so distinctive.

They just don't make them like this anymore.
From The Dispatch:
Donaldson's direction, however, keeps the proceedings taut and engaging. He keeps the goals clear and the twists coming, but they never get tangled over themselves or lose sight of the film's purpose - to entertain. In that regard "The Bank Job" is highly efficient, shifting back and forth between suspense and lighthearted moments with ease so that the film never feels choppy or false. Donaldson also does a fine job of not only evoking the 1970s as a time period but the style of filmmaking as well. "The Bank Job" may not be the best evocation of '70s filmmaking of recent years ("Zodiac" has that distinction), but it is still a very good, middle-of-the-road kind of entertainment that is hard not to like and respect.

Of course, solid mainstream films such as this one tend to get overlooked when they are released in the shadows of mega-blockbuster wannabes like the dreadful "10,000 B.C." "The Bank Job" is infinitely more skilled filmmaking and is one of the best films playing in wide release, and as such deserves far more attention than it has received. Movies used to be fun without being dumb, and "The Bank Job" fits that description perfectly.
Click here to read the full review.

There are lots of typos in that article...but they're not present in the copy I sent in, so don't blame me.
I am loathe to participate in the current glut of internet speculation over the just announced, but off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush Clint Eastwood project Gran Torino, which he is directing and starring in, and will be released this December. But this wild rumor-mongering over it being a new Dirty Harry movie just can't be ignored. Even Jeffrey Wells is buying into it.

Come on guys, the source must be taken with a grain of's a some random guy who wrote in to Ain't it Cool News, and suddenly everyone is taking it like gospel truth.

I just can't believe that Eastwood would resurrect Dirty Harry like this, especially since he said himself he doesn't care about ticket sales anymore and is just making the movies he wants to make. His performance in Million Dollar Baby was supposed to be his this must be really special. I don't think he would follow his supposed swan song with Dirty Harry.

A guy named Edward Havens has a much more credible theory in Hollywood-Elsewhere's comments section.

And that's all I'm going to say about this until we have official word.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I received an email today from a Paramount Vantage rep inviting me to an upcoming festival screening of Nanette Burstein's Sundance hit documentary, American Teen, on April 5.

The press release sums it up thusly:

AMERICAN TEEN is the heartbreaking and hilarious Sundance hit that follows the lives of four teenagers- a jock, the popular girl, the artsy girl and the geek – in one small town in Indiana through their senior year of high school.

We see the insecurities, the cliques, the jealousies, the first loves and heartbreaks, and the struggle to make profound decisions about the future.
Filming daily for ten months, filmmaker Nanette Burstein (ON THE ROPES, THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE) developed a deep understanding of her subjects. The result is a film that goes beyond the enduring stereotypes of high school to render complex young people trying to find their way into adulthood.

I plan to attend the screening, but won't be able to review the film until its theatrical release sometime late this summer.

I'm really looking forward to this one - I've heard some very good things, and Burstein's The Kid Stays in the Picture was a big critical success, so I'm hoping this one lives up to my expectations.

Burstein will also be present at the screening for a Q&A session after the film and will be available for interviews.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Variety is reporting that Anthony Minghella, Academy Award winning writer/director of The English Patient, has died of a brain hemorrhage. He was 54.

Minghella also directed The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain. His last film was Breaking and Entering starring Juliette Binoche.

His latest project, No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, is set to premiere on BBC1 on March 23.

Click here to read the article in Variety.
George Clooney's Leatherheads (Universal, 4.14) was shot near where I live (the train station scenes were filmed where I had my high school prom), and with the release date close at hand, I began to remember the almost ridiculous amounts of coverage it was given by our local paper. Not The Dispatch, but the Salisbury Post. Check out this gem from March 19, 2007:

Josiah Gamble was working the drive-through window Thursday at Starbucks when he got an unexpected customer -- Renee Zellweger, a star in the movie "Leatherheads."

"She came through and she had the visor down in her car like she was trying to block her face," he said.

Zellweger visited around 5:30 p.m. Thursday, driving a navy blue Ford Explorer -- a car Gamble said he thought was rented.

Her shoulder-length blonde hair was curled 1920s style and she had on her full costume, Gamble said.

"I was trying to be professional about it. I didn't want to scream or ask for her autograph or anything," he said.

Zellweger came to the window and ordered five drinks. Gamble couldn't remember exactly what she got but "it was all soy stuff," he said.

When she was at the window, she told Gamble she was going to come inside to use the shop's rest room and then she'd get the drinks.

"She was friendly and she had a really soft voice," he said.

NEWSFLASH: RENEE ZELLWEGER USES SALISBURY RESTROOM!! There's something painfully pathetic about that kind of star-fawning. Movie stars come to town and suddenly their trip to the Starbucks drive-thru becomes newsworthy.

They did casting calls for extras for weeks, and I considered going but was just never motivated enough. I figured there was no point in fighting through the throngs of star struck fans trying to get close to Clooney who could care less about acting to bother with it. Sure it would have been a neat experience, but un-professionalism is just something I can't stand. And if that news article was any indication then I was going to be in for it. My school schedule wouldn't have allowed for it is 2.5 hours away from home and is where I spend most of my time.

Still, it will be nice to see familiar places on the big screen. I hope the film is the breezy throwback that it promises to be.

Monday, March 17, 2008

From the Front Row has just become LAMB #52 over at the Large Association of Movie Blogs . Welcome to all LAMB members who are coming over to read my blog, and I hope those of you who aren't members will head over to the LAMB website and check out the 51 other blogs who make up the membership.

If you ever want to visit the LAMB website, you can click on the link above, or click on the LAMB button in the right hand bar.
Maybe it's because I share Michael Haneke's contempt for audiences in general, or maybe it's because I enjoy seeing people get worked up in a righteous outrage.

Either way, I love Funny Games. And I will continue to champion it even in the face of its severe critical thrashing. But people are outraged by it, incensed by it, and most leave angry, upset, or worse.

And for that I applaud Haneke. To be able to make a film that provokes that kind of extreme reaction in people, especially intentionally, is an achievement indeed. By trashing the film they way so many have, Haneke has actually succeeded in his goals. It's all part of that Brechtian construct that many find pretentious, but I will always respect (compare Funny Games to, say, Godard's Weekend).

It's hideous, it's enraging, it's sadistic, it's brilliant. It's a movie that punishes you for even daring to sit in the theater, but hey, I respect that. It's a psychological brute force movie that relentlessly puts its audience through hell like a cinematic torture device. But if that was what it was aiming for, and that is what it succeeds in doing, doesn't that make it a successful film?

It's not a movie people are supposed to enjoy, or feel good about upon leaving. If it infuriated you then it achieved its goals and is therefore a well made film and not deserving of the low, low grades that it is receiving. You may not like it, but that doesn't mean its bad.

I just don't understand how people can say stuff like this:
"The fact that it features fine performances, talented direction and some moments of genuine suspense only makes the end product that much more grotesque and appalling." - Richard Roeper
And then give it a bad grade. He admits that it is well acted and directed...yet then gives it a rotten grade. That is not what film criticism is supposed to do...we are supposed to recognize quality filmmaking even when it repulses us to do (i.e. The Birth of a Nation, Triumph of the Will).

I wanted to make sure I wasn't the only one singing Haneke's praises, so I did a quick scan on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes to get some glowing notices for Funny Games:
"Can a movie be gripping and repellent at the same time? In Funny Games, a mockingly sadistic and terrifying watch-the-middle-class-writhe-like-stuck-pigs thriller, the director Michael Haneke puts his characters in a vise, and the audience too." - Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly
"A chilly and extraordinarily controlled treatise on film violence, Funny Games punishes the audience for its casual bloodlust by giving it all the sickening torture and mayhem it could possibly desire. Neat trick, that." - Scott Tobias, The Onion (A.V. Club)
"This is cinematic gamesmanship that is simultaneously brutal, bizarre and elegant in its audacity. Director Haneke has artistically exploited cinematic structure to play with and engage the mind. It's a very funny game indeed." - Adam Fendelman,
There are more of course, but you get the point. Funny Games wears its purpose on its sleeve, but there is plenty going on beneath the surface as well...but it must be experienced. For better or for worse this is a film that demands to be considered by every serious film buff, cinephile, or critic.

My only issue with the remake is that Haneke remade the film to reach an American audience, but the only Americans who see this remake are the type that won't mind seeing a subtitled film anyway. He is essentially preaching to the choir...but it is a message worthy of being heard.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Because MovieGuide's Ted Baehr hates it, and manages to work up his usual moral outrage over it:
FUNNY GAMES is one of the most despicable movies ever made. It is a pretentious, sadistic thriller intended to make a phony statement against media violence by showing in graphic detail the psychological torture of a family by two psychotic young men.

The filmmaker, Michael Haneke, claims that he’s trying to show “the reality of violence” and the pain it brings to victims. He also claims that this movie is a reaction against the violence in American cinema, “the way American cinema toys with human beings.” This is pseudo-intellectual baloney. Haneke never asks himself, So what? And, he never gives viewers a clue as to how they’re supposed to respond to the pain he presents. Thus, the only thing he accomplishes in the viewer is buyer’s remorse for being asked to pay for sitting through such a despicable movie. The actors involved should be ashamed of wasting their talents. The studio should also be held accountable for releasing it.
See Funny Games, piss off a conservative nutjob. What a hypocritical review...he constantly rails against violence...but only when it isn't of the patriotic/crucifixion variety. He has the gaul to criticize Haneke's stance against violence, while constantly lecturing in his own reviews in a far more pretentious, holier-than-thou manner.
I spent yesterday catching up on some final things I wanted accomplished before my spring break ends (it's back to school tomorrow), and hanging out with some friends I might not see again for a while.

I met some folks from the Dispatch Forums for breakfast and enjoyed it immensely. I've been posting there for years and it was nice to put faces to some of the names.

Then it was on to Winston-Salem to get a haircut (my hairdresser is an hour and a half away from I try to visit her whenever I'm in town), then I met up with my best friend to see Rambo. Yes...Rambo. I was overtaken by a strange urge to see Stallone's latest action flick recently, so she promised we'd go see it once it came to the $2 theater. And, believe it or not, I loved it. Seriously, I had a blast, and no one is more surprised about it than me.

Of course the dialogue is hokey and much of the acting is bad...but you know what to expect going into a Rambo film, and Stallone delivers it in spades.

It is a highly efficient movie that is successful in its aims, and nothing more, which makes it hugely entertaining. It's a ripsnorting, balls to the wall shoot-em-up without any regards for political correctness. It's ideology may be skewed (as a bleeding heart liberal, I would have trouble applying its values to reality), but it's undeniably fun, and I was caught up in it from the get go. So much so I went out and bought a copy of the original First Blood because suddenly I just can't get enough Rambo.

We were practically the only ones in the theater, so when John Rambo first appears on screen, or every time he would appear behind the bad guy to save the day, and I would lean over to my friend and whisper "RAMBO!!" in her ear. This is a highly interactive can't just sit there and take it. Like Snakes on a Plane before it, this is an audience participation movie.

Once it gets going it doesn't let up, the last 30 minutes is pretty much a dialogue free massacre at the hands of our hero, filled with exploding heads, severed limbs, and spilled viscera.

But it knows its place in the grand scheme of things, unlike the similarly gruesome but oh-so-self-serious Hostel films. Rambo may be violent but Stallone is having fun, unlike Eli Roth who is getting his rocks off on cruelty and suffering. Rambo delivers no more and no less than what is expected of it...and it does it with zest and glee. And it's hard not to appreciate that. I'd see it again in a heartbeat, and for that I give it a pretty solid three stars.

Yeah I know...strange huh?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

George Lucas recently gave theater owners at ShoWest a glimpse of the latest Star Wars film, a feature length animated film called Star Wars: The Clone Wars, based on a popular series of shorts set between episodes II & III from Cartoon Network. The film will then be followed by a TV series, and eventually a live action series set between episodes III & IV.

I'm not really sure how I feel about this. Another Star Wars film is not exactly cause for celebration in my book, especially after how the prequels turned out (even if Episode III is pretty good), and it's animated to boot. I'm much more excited about J.J. Abram's new Star Trek movie than this (I'm a fan of both, OK?).

I'm sure there are plenty of fanboys out there wetting their pants over this, I'm just not one of them. Who really thinks than an animated big screen Star Wars film is a good idea?

Maybe it will be good, who knows? But the whole idea has a very ominous feel - our beloved Star Wars is becoming even more of a corporate commodity, its integrity continually ruined by second-rate outings such as this. The good news is that it's being directed by Dave Filoni, who I'm admittedly not familiar with but it's not Lucas himself so that must be a good thing, right?

Time will tell if it is successful or not, but my gut feeling is screaming "NOOOOOOOO!"

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is due in theaters on August 15.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Jeffrey Wells is reporting by way of Lou Lumenick, that Hounddog, the movie that caused a huge stir at Sundance 2006 for being the movie with the Dakota Fanning rape scene, will finally be distributed by Empire Pictures in "more than 500 theaters" on July 18.

This is good news of course. Less because of Hounddog's quality (I've heard nothing but bad things), but more as a slap in the face to the prudish naysayers who raised hell about it.

The controversial rape scene, from what I have heard, is neither sexually graphic nor inflammatory, but leave it to the religious right to work themselves up in a moral outrage over nothing.

Chalk it up as a victory for free speech over censorship, and over those who went so far as to call for the filmmakers to be brought up on child exploitation charges.

I just hope it turns out to be a good movie and doesn't turn out to be some kind of film people attend out of perverse curiosity.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The first in a new weekly feature - Say What?! invites the readers of From the Front Row to write funny captions to pictures from current films. This week it's The Other Boleyn Girl!

I'll start.

"Don't worry Mary, we can BOTH have Henry. I mean, there ARE eight of him...right?"

All right Front Row your worst!
A successful period piece should first and foremost be a total immersion into the time and place it depicts. Braveheart, Elizabeth, and Gladiator, to more contemporary period films like Zodiac are all prime examples of this - pitch perfect evocations of bygone eras in every detail, from the production design to the costumes to the performances.

The Other Boleyn Girl, director Justin Chadwick's big screen adaptation of Philippa Gregory's popular novel of the same name, tries to join that company, but in the end comes up short.

Of course it has all the ingredients - the sumptious production design, fabulous costumes - but it misses the most important thing, the essence.

For all the film's visual strength, I never once got past the feeling that I was watching a bunch of modern people get together and play dress-up.

The Other Boleyn Girl is never anything more than a royal soap opera, following the romantic manipulations of Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman), whose rivalry with her sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) over the affections of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) led to the splitting of England from the Catholic Church, and the birth of one of Britain's greatest monarchs, Elizabeth, but ended up costing Anne her head.

But the film is far more preoccupied with the romantic entanglements instead of the historical implications - it's like watching a prequel to Elizabeth that isn't nearly as good. In that vein it's more Golden Age than Elizabeth, but without the kitschy entertainment value.

The Other Boleyn Girl
is a dour affair, and the two leads fail to generate any kind of sympathy or interest in their characters - it's all political posturing and catty sibling rivarly and romantic entaglements - but for all the intrigue and conflict it all feels oddly flat.

Not that it's a particularly bad film. It's moderately diverting and held my attention for two hours, but I never escaped the feeling that it could have been so much more than it is. The film certainly looks great, thanks to production designer John Paul Kelly and costume designer Sandy Powell, and Paul Cantelon's score is quite good, but the film itself is plodding and unfocused.

I'm a big sucker for period films like this, but ultimately The Other Boleyn Girl left me unsatisfied. It's a grand, gorgeous production to be sure, but there is little substance beneath the glitz.

GRADE - **½ (two-and-a-half stars out of four)

; Directed by Justin Chadwick; Stars Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Sturgess; Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content and some violent images
The theatrical costume class I'm currently enrolled in has ruined me. I can't watch a period film like The Other Boleyn Girl now without sitting there going "hey look! He's wearing a doublet! And it's been slashed and pulled! And those are leg-o-mutton sleeves! And his chemise is poking out at the wrists!"

I'll never look at costumes the same way again.
From The Dispatch:
It's all supremely silly, as it continues to defy logic and intelligence at every turn. I would have preferred to see the filmmakers take a chance and make a movie totally without dialogue (these cavemen would not have had much of a language to speak of, let alone English) and let the images speak for themselves. It's an interesting concept, but the execution is beyond ridiculous. The scenery is pretty, and the special effects are passable, if nothing special (the close-ups of running men early in the film betray their greenscreen roots), but the dialogue is truly atrocious to the point of being laughably bad, and the rest of the film, well, if this is what passes for good entertainment these days then we have reached a sad state indeed.

Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Michael Haneke's Funny Games will be released in theaters this Friday, and already the critical reactions have been extremely divided, with many crying "brilliant" while the others gather up their moral umbrage.

I have yet to see the shot-for shot remake, but I have seen the original, and I agree that it is one of the sickest, most vile films I have ever seen (click here to read my review). But one cannot deny its skill and sense of purpose, no matter how disturbing it may be.

Jeffrey Wells spends several posts in a row over at his newly designed Hollwood-Elsewhere blog (which looks good, by the way) decrying the film, then later claims to "respect it for what it is." But how can one do that while singing the praises of quotes like this one from New Yorker critic Anthony Lane, who somehow manages to state the point and yet miss it completely in his ignoring of (or perhaps ignorance of?) the Brechtian theory of verfremdungseffekt:

If this movie knows it’s merely a movie, and concedes as much, why should we honor its mayhem with any genuine fright? When Michael Pitt turns to the camera and asks, with a smile, “You really think it’s enough?,” or “You want a proper ending, don’t you?,” we don’t feel nearly as chastened or ashamed as Haneke would like. We feel patronized, which is one of the worst moods that can beset an audience. Would “Psycho” have been a more profound film if Norman Bates had turned off the shower halfway through, adjusted his dress, and said to us, “Don’t worry about the blood. It’s chocolate sauce”?

Of course that wouldn't have worked for Psycho - Hitchcock was not trying to make an alienating film techniques that were espoused by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who said if you remind the audience that what they are watching is a play (or a film), and keep them from losing themselves in the world of the play, then they cannot miss the message and forget the troubles of the world around them.

THAT is what Haneke is trying to do here, and if you miss that then you miss the point entirely. I find it hard to believe that Lane, as film critic for the New Yorker, has never heard of Brecht or his theories (as a theatre/film student, I never hear the end of him), but to totally ignore him in his review of Funny Games seems almost like dereliction of duty. Even more surprising is he doesn't seem to understand the alienation effect or its purpose.

Wells at least admits to respecting the film, but then faults Warner Brothers for distributing it and saying if he was in charge it he never would have approved it (why? Kudos to Warner for taking a ballsy chance). But he also subscribes to this aversion to breaking the fourth wall, and yet again never once mentions Brecht.

You cannot unlock Funny Games without first understanding Brecht and what he was trying to do (I was in a production of a Brecht play a couple of years ago, and trust me it isn't easy).

It just suprises me how few critics are mentioning this, and condemning it without ever really exploring its roots.
Director Martin McDonagh won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short film in 2005 for Six Shooter, a film that I was admittedly not a fan of (I was pulling for the haunting Icelandic nominee, The Last Farm). I found the film well made but ultimately grating and unpleasant, but I want to revisit it after seeing his first feature length film, In Bruges.

When Six Shooter was released, McDonagh's style invited comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, and In Bruges cements that, playing out like an Irish Pulp Fiction set in Belgium.

But to say McDonagh is merely an Irish Tarantino is a disservice to a fantastic director with a clear, singular voice.

In Bruges follows mismatched hitmen Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), who have been sent to the medieval town of Bruges, Belgium after a botched hit to lay low and wait for their next assignment from their mysterious and volatile boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes).

McDonagh's screenplay is devilishly witty, filled with macabre humor and gleefully irreverent observations about everyone from fat American tourists, to the mentally disabled, to midgets. In other words, it's not a film for the easily offended. But for those who can stomach drolly offensive humor peppered with ultra-violence and nearly non-stop profanity, then In Bruges is a rare treat indeed.

Surprisingly enough the tone is more melancholy than ironic, which is what separates McDonagh from Tarantino. As much as I love Tarantino's work, you would be hard pressed to find a beating heart in any of his films outside of Kill Bill: Vol. 2. But beneath In Bruges' cynical veneer lies the wounded soul of a man who has done the unthinkable, and has had to live with the pain ever since.

The difference is clear from the opening credits, where McDonagh makes great use of the scenery and architecture of the ancient town, accompanied by Carter Burwell's wistful piano theme. In fact music is one of the film's strongest aspects, especially the powerful use of The Dubliners' "Raglan Road" near the end of the film.

In Bruges works on so many levels - as a comedy, as an action film, as a mood piece, but above all, an exercise in pitch perfect filmmaking. McDonagh really nails this one, everything about it is perfectly executed and finely tuned for maximum impact, and all the performers are in absolutely top form (Gleeson and Farrell have never been better).

In short - I loved every single minute of it. McDonagh's first feature film hits it out of the park in a bloodly blaze of drunken Irish rage - with plenty of profane insults just for good measure. In Bruges is a an absolutely maniacal, and yet strangely beautiful, pleasure.

GRADE - ***½ (three-and-a-half stars out of four)

IN BRUGES; Directed by Martin McDonagh; Stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Jordan Prentice, Thekla Reuten; Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language and some drug use.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Having suffered through the truly dreadful 10,000 B.C. yesterday I thought I would offer some constructive criticism outside of my official review (which will be published in The Dispatch on Thursday) on how it could have been done better:

1. No dialogue. Cavemen in 10,000 B.C. would have barely had a language, let alone English. How much cooler would this movie have been totally without dialogue (the script was so bad they could have thrown it out and been fine anyway), and let the story speak for itself through images - to really give the feeling of what 10,000 B.C. was like. Now that would be worth seeing.

2. Hire a different director. Roland Emmerich has proved himself totally incapable of directing an intelligent movie. I loved Independence Day, and The Patriot wasn't bad (but a little cartoonish), but there is no excuse for the moronic Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow.

3. Better saber-toothed tigers. If you're going to have a movie with saber-toothed tigers, at least have them, you know, do something - like attack somebody - instead of going all soft-hearted because it has been rescued by a human.

4. Hire a historical consultant. The use of swords was bad enough - but woolly mammoths helped build the pyramids??

5. Find better actors. What happened to Camilla Bell? She was great in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, but now she does movies like this and When a Stranger Calls. Maybe they should hire someone who can actually, you know, act.

6. Dispense with the narration. The dialogue was bad enough (especially that romantic pap near the beginning about being "like a star in my heart"), but the narration was grating and unnecessary.

7. Spend more time perfecting the special effects. Some of it looked great, but some, especially early close-ups of the men running alongside the mammoths, are painfully obvious that they're greenscreen shots.

8. Throw out Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. And do something completely original. I know Campbell says every heroic myth follows the same basic structure, but damn it's almost like you just gave up and followed the book's Cliff's Notes.

Monday, March 10, 2008

In Gus Van Sant's latest film Paranoid Park, the prolific director wastes no time in drawing us into the world he creates. But what is so fabulous about this world is that it doesn't seem created at all, but wholly organic, as if Van Sant just stumbled across it and set up a camera to capture what he saw.

Enter the world of Paranoid Park, a skateboarding hangout for local teenagers, where one in particular, Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins), a sullen, self-conscious high-schooler who wants to skate like the older guys but can't quite make it, accidentally becomes involved with the violent death of a local security guard, and must come to terms with his own growing guilt while navigating the complex world of high school relationships.

Van Sant is a master of detached observation, placing a camera in front of his subjects and just letting them be. But his brilliance, on keen display here, is that we are never really detached from what is going on. By taking an objective perspective, Van Sant allows us a window into their world - and the sense of time and place is keenly felt.

Through the performances of the mostly non-professional cast (Taylor Momsen, as Alex's girlfriend, has been around for a while how far Cindy Lou Who has come), Paranoid Park captures the essence of high school life better than most teen movies could ever dream. Van Sant achieved a similar feat in the Palme D'Or winning Elephant five years ago, but despite some truly beautiful moments in that film I have never really been a fan of it. Here, however, Van Sant has achieved something very close to breathtaking. The blurred images of soaring skateboarders that repeat throughout the film take on a hauntingly surreal beauty, almost as if they are a foggy notion of what Alex could one day achieve, or something he sees begin to fade away as a tragic accident changes his life forever.

The acting isn't always stellar, but it is truthful - and that is the key. The teenagers all still have that awkward self-consciousness we all remember, and it translates into a wholly immersive and believable world.

In Paranoid Park the camera is a window to the soul, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Hero) treats it as such. It allows images to linger in the mind and sink slowly in, like a lingering sunset or a flowing river. And through his lens, Paranoid Park becomes a place we all remember, where a frightened little boy growing up in an ever changing world must learn to deal with things he doesn't always understand or know how to handle. It is teenage life seen through a horrific situation to amplify that unspoken fear that we all feel, but precious few know how to articulate.

But Van Sant does, and he articulates it with a lyrical grace that transcends words - he says more with glance or a song or complete silence than many films ever do - and that makes Paranoid Park one astonishing piece of work.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

PARANOID PARK; Directed by Gus Van Sant; Stars Gabe Nevins, Jake Miller, Daniel Liu, Lauren McKinney, Taylor Momsen; Rated R for some disturbing images, language and sexual content. Now playing in New York City, opens in additional cities March 14.