Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ever since picking it up yesterday, I haven't been able to stop listening to the soundtrack to Sex and the City, and the track that I have played the most is Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis' haunting rendition of "Auld Lang Syne."

It may be set to a montage scene, but it's one of the best I've seen in a while, and the song totally makes it. I think it is quite possibly the most beautiful version of the song I have ever heard, and yes, I'll admit, I teared up during the New Years montage, which was my favorite scene in the film.

It's bright throwaway pop for most of the CD, with new tracks by Fergie and Jennifer Hudson, along with cuts by India.Arie, Jem, and Run-D.M.C. It's a bubble-gum pop soundtrack but, like the film that it accompanies, it's a breezy, fun listen. It's currently the # 1 soundtrack on and the # 2 pop album. I don't always go for the collections of pop songs that go along with films like this, but I really like this one, and all the songs are used in the film.

There is another album in the works, which I hope will include some of Aaron Zigman's score, who is one of my favorite up-and-coming composers.

Not only do the ladies of Sex and the City have great taste in fashion, they have great taste in music as well.

Friday, May 30, 2008

OMG I loved it!

In fact I loved it so much I went out and bought the first season on DVD, even though I've never seen a single episode. It's a little too long, but who cares? It's comfort food with a double shot of estrogen. And fabulous clothes.

Screw the naysayers. I'm tired of hearing people complain about "oh they're so shallow and materialistic and blah blah blah bitchmoancry." Shut the fuck up bitch and hand me my Prada sunglasses.

I need a cosmo.
There is much discussion to be had on whether or not Joseph Cedar's Beaufort, the official Israeli submission to the 2007 Academy Awards, deserved its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. After all, it was only chosen after Israel's first choice, The Band's Visit, was disqualified for having too much English dialogue.

There is no doubt for me which film should have been nominated. The Band's Visit is clearly the superior of the two. But with the choices given and the three nominees that I have seen, then Beaufort ends up being the winner that should have been.

I have not yet seen the Polish nominee, Katyn, or the Russian nominee, 12, but having seen Kazakhstan's Mongol (Picturehouse, 6.6) and Austria's The Counterfeiters (which went on to win the award), I can say that Beaufort is far and away the best choice of those films.

This is the movie that Jarhead wanted to be but never quite was. Beaufort tells the true story of the last squad of soldiers to occupy Israel's legendary Beaufort fort in Lebanon, in the days before the evacuation and eventual destruction of a piece of Israeli history that was captured from the Lebanese in 1982.

The soldiers are young and mostly inexperienced, and Hezbollah has stepped up mortar attacks on the fort in order to make it appear as though the Israelis are leaving in humiliated defeat. As more and more soldiers die and the rumored evacuation looms ever closer, fear and ennui begin to set in, leaving the young men to sit and wait for a defeat they can't stop, in a conflict they can do nothing about.

There are many parallels to be made between this and the current war in Iraq. The feeling of helplessness felt by the soldiers begins to boil over, and as their friends die around them they begin to lose hope in themselves and their own survival.

Cedar does a masterful job of creating a palpable tension that is nothing short of gripping. Beaufort isn't so much a war movie as it is a character study - a psychological examination of soldiers under extreme stress while politicians decide their fate hundreds of miles away. The labyrinthine tunnels of the fort become a kind of prison to the point they seem to be more for holding the soldiers in than for keeping enemies out, and the eerie presence of mannequin soldiers meant for drawing fire from hostile forces serve as a haunting metaphor for the creeping emptiness felt by the soldiers, who are no longer fighting for a cause they can put into words, but are forced to sit and wait for an inevitable end that is out of their control.

You could call it an anti-war film, but I think that puts too neat a label on what it is trying to do. Beaufort is about the soldiers and the internal battles they fight that have nothing to do with guns or bombs. This is bold, powerful filmmaking about the bonds between soldiers and the challenges they face.

All politics aside, Beaufort takes a searing look at male relationships and the psychological effects of war in a subtle and stirring way. There is no preaching or pontificating here, just young men with a lifetime ahead of them, forced to wait in hell while their fates are decided for them by men in air conditions rooms.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

BEAUFORT; Directed by Joseph Cedar; Stars Ari Weinberg, Arthur Perzev, Daniel Brooks, Danny Zahavi, Eli Altonio, Gal Friedman; Not Rated; In Hebrew w/English subtitles

Thursday, May 29, 2008

From The Dispatch:
The film is never for a moment as good as any of the original trilogy (and that includes the unfairly maligned "Temple of Doom"), but it's still a blast. Instead of the adventure serials that the original trilogy paid homage to, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is more in the vein of the sci-fi B movies that were popular during the time the film is set. It is a much more outlandish film than its predecessors, even if its central premise isn't ultimately any more ridiculous than the supernatural mythologies of the originals. However, there are several moments where the film seems to jump the tracks (Mutt's Tarzan moment during the jungle chase is a bit much), and Ray Winstone's character is horribly underdeveloped, as is often the case with the plot, which becomes increasingly muddled as the film goes on.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Is it bad that I went straight out yesterday and picked up my copy of the 2-disc special edition of Rambo on the day it was released, and then watched it for a third time?

Maybe. But I don't care. I have an absolutely irrational love for this movie that I can probably never really explain. It's politics are questionable at best, deplorable at worst, but damn it's fun.

This isn't the kind of movie I generally go for at all. I generally prefer thoughtful, enriching dramas and films that push the bounds of cinema. But there's just something about Stallone's gleefully over the top bloodletting that is oddly entertaining, in a junk-food, guilty pleasure sort of way.

Jeff Wells hit the nail on the head when he said "It's so relentlessly blunt, so absurdly violent in a '70s exploitation vein, so visceral and depraved and elbow-deep in jungle blood & guts that I loved it...Rambo 'works' in its own deranged way. It's like an ultra-violent half-time show at the Super Bowl. It's shit, of course, but it's fast, fun and agreeably grotesque."

I couldn't have said it better myself.
XXY, one of the very best films of 2008, has closed.

After only 10 days in release in one theater, the film has fizzled into a footnote after grossing a mere $6,634.

I bring this up only because Lucia Puenzo's haunting film about a 15 year old hermaphrodite and her struggle with sexual identity is one of the most deeply moving cinematic experiences I have had this year. This film deserves better. It is a sad comment on our culture and the tastes of the movie going public that brainless pap like 10,000 B.C. gets a huge release and fine, high-grade, thought provoking works like XXY die on the vine after two weeks.

Commercialism almost always triumphs over art however, and XXY is too hot-button and too provocative for mainstream America.

What a shame.

Click here to read my original review.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jeff Wells' second take on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is, I think, spot-on. When saw the film the first time last Tuesday with an audience of critics and lucky radio/television contest winners, I totally went with it and had a blast.

I still had fun on Sunday evening when I went out with friends to see it with a paying audience. But this time the films flaws seemed more glaring to me. The Shia LeBeouf "Tarzan" moment, the ease with which they find the crystal skull, Ray Winstone's character, the overall scattershot nature of the plot, and the moments that are pretty ridiculous even by Indiana Jones standards (the boat in the tree).

Says Wells:
Yesterday's second viewing convinced me that it's just too silly and George Lucas-y. Anyone who had a fairly good time after seeing it last week or weekend....don't go a second time! No film infected with the Lucas-collaboration virus ages like fine wine. Precisely the opposite, in fact.
That pretty much nails it. I stand by my three star grade, but it doesn't really hold up to repeat viewings the way the originals do. It's a one-time through sort of deal. Just surrender to it, enjoy the ride, and leave it at that.
Ellen Page is making a pretty good career out of playing precocious teenagers. She first appeared on my radar in Hard Candy in 2005, as a 14 year old girl who is picked up by an online predator, only to turn the tables and become the predator herself. She then rose to stardom in Juno, a movie that I found terribly overrated.

In her latest film, The Tracey Fragments, she plays a disaffected 15 year old girl who is an outcast at school and constantly teased for her lack of breasts. We are introduced to Tracey on a public bus, where she sits in the back naked but for a ratty old curtain wrapped around herself. She is looking for her nine year old brother, who has gone missing after she hypnotized into believing he is a dog.

If you're looking for an easy, normal movie, stop reading now.

What makes the film so unique, and really the only reason it is getting any attention apart from Ellen Page, is that nearly every frame is done in split screen. Nearly every second of the movie is split into sections, giving us alternate views of the action, and often fragments of Tracey's thoughts or memories at any given moment.

It's a daring experiment that tries to rewrite the language of cinema, and it works for the most part. The typical shot/reverse shot technique is struck down by showing them all at once. It has a tendency to wear thin after a while, but it's surprisingly easy to get used to. It may not always serve a narrative purpose, but you have to give it points for sheer audaciousness.

The story is essentially told backwards. We meet Tracey on the bus after all the action has happened, and through her (often fractured) eyes we see the events that led her to where she is now. It is a world populated with high school bullies, manly female psychiatrists, deadbeat parents, angsty teenagers, shady street figures, and mobsters. We're a long way from Juno here.

It's a dark journey, and one that is ultimately a downer. But the film has a singularly wry sense of humor that one comes to expect with the presence of Page. Her outsider observations are razor sharp and often very funny, but I never felt like the film added up to a satisfying whole.

I get that Tracey is a unique outsider, but why? Why are her parents so distant? Why did she hypnotize her brother? The actions of the characters don't always make sense, as the characterizations tend to be very broad, and much of it seems to come from the Teen Angst 101 text book. Of course, they are often seen through Tracey's eyes ad the categories in which she places them become almost caricature-like. But Tracey is an enigma, and the film never quite lets us in.

There are quite a few things to like about The Tracey Fragments, but the ultimate feeling I left with was one of contrivance - of difference for difference's sake. Individual pieces of the film work, but they don't come together to make a complete experience. It's an experimental film, and as such some things work and others don't. But you have to give the filmmakers credit for trying to do something different and unusual. It's an attitude cinema could use more of, even if doesn't get hit the mark every time.

GRADE - **½ (out of four)

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS; Directed by Bruce McDonald; Stars Ellen Page, Ari Cohen, Maxwell McCabe-Locos, Slim Twig, Erin McMurtry; Not Rated
The thought that kept crossing my mind as I watched Tom Kalin's Savage Grace was "how did so many talented people go so horribly, horribly wrong?"

That's right. Savage Grace is an unqualified train wreck, a mess from start to finish. And it's not even the kind of train wreck that you can't look away from, it's just plain unbearable.

The subject matter is unpleasant, but that isn't really the problem. It just could have been handled in a much better way. Based on a true story, Savage Grace is a dramatization of the infamous case of Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore), a wealthy socialite whose relationship with her son descended into madness, incest, and murder.

There is plenty of material there just begging for a good movie, but Savage Grace isn't it. Not by a long shot.

The film takes place over a period of nearly 30 years, but the characters never age. This is not a problem so much for Barbara's son, Tony, who is played by 3 different actors, but Barbara never changes.

This would not be such an issue if the movie bothered to develop its characters. But it never does. They're all just crazy. Howard A. Rodman's screenplay never gives the characters any depth or motivation or anything resembling development or three dimensional personalities. They're all just a collection of neuroses and selfishness. They are caricatures, especially Moore's Barbara. But the fault doesn't lie with her so much as the script, which doesn't do anyone any favors.

The film looks good, and has an overall air of quality about it, but that makes its complete lack of quality even more shocking. If this were say, Prom Night, this would be expected. But it isn't. And it's still unwatchable. It's the potential for quality that makes this one such a great travesty.

Try as I might I could find nothing redeeming about this film. The only really positive thing I can say about it is that I think Eddie Redmayne is becoming a real talent to watch. He has had memorable supporting roles in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Other Boleyn Girl, and finally gets to spread his wings a little in a meatier role. Too bad it's in such a terrible movie.

Savage Grace is a poorly constructed, flaccid drama that treats complex emotional and psychological issues with all the depth of a particularly dull rock, and is an embarrassment to all involved. Rarely is such potential so blithely thrown out the window and wasted, and Savage Grace is one of the worst offenders I have seen in a long time.

GRADE - *½ (out of four)

SAVAGE GRACE; Directed by Tom Kalin; Stars Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne, Hugh Dancy, Unax Ugalde, Belen Rueda; Not Rated; Opens tomorrow in select theaters.

Monday, May 26, 2008

From Variety:
Sydney Pollack, the prolific director, producer and actor whose films tackled a variety of social issues while garnering critical acclaim and earning boffo numbers at the box office, has died. He was 73.

An Oscar winner himself for "Out of Africa," Pollack led 12 actors to Oscar-nommed performances, including Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, Holly Hunter, Jessica Lange, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand. Collectively, his feature films have received 48 Oscar nominations.

I know Pollack has been suffering from health problems of late, but this still comes as shocking news. He was one of the good guys, a consummate filmmaker whose works included Three Days of the Condor, Out of Africa, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and Tootsie.\

Recently, he took to acting, making appearances in films such as Michael Clayton.

This is a major loss to the film community, and he will be missed.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Winners in competition:

"The Class"


Catherine Deneuve ("A Christmas Tale") and Clint Eastwood ("Changeling")

"Il Divo"

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, "Three Monkeys"

Benicio Del Toro, "Che"

Sandra Corveloni, "Linha de passe"

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, "Lorna's Silence"

Source: Variety

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mauro is 12 years old. He lives in Brazil in 1970 and his only care in the world is seeing Brazil win its third World Cup. That is until one day, his parents tell him they're going on vacation, and drop him off at his grandfather's house many miles away. But after his parents leave, he discovers that his grandfather has passed away, and he suddenly finds himself alone in a strange place. Until he is taken in by his grandfather's kind but gruff Jewish neighbor, who vows to take care of him until his parents return.

Mauro's parents have not gone on vacation of course. They are leftist revolutionaries fighting against the military regime that controls Brazil. And so Mauro spends a year living in a close knit Jewish/Italian community, where he forges long lasting friendships and a deep bond with his newfound family, as the World Cup unites Brazil as its political battles divide it.

Set against a time of change and political upheaval, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (which was Brazil's foreign language submission to the Academy Awards last year) is a sensitive and poignant drama from Brazilian director Cao Hamburger, who directs with a compassionate eye and a stunning feel for time and place. It is immediately apparent that Hamburger (who was born in 1962), was young in Brazil during this time, as the film exudes an overwhelming sense of location and the bonds that hold the community together.

The film examines the bonds of family, friends, community, and religion in a way that is supremely moving. There is not a wasted moment in the film. We see the world through a child's eyes, and Michel Joelsas is remarkable as Mauro. He carries the film almost single handedly, although Germano Haiut is also quite good as Schlomo, the man who becomes his surrogate father.

Hamburger deftly weaves the sociopolitical climate of the time into a narrative about a boy who only wants two things in life; for his parents to return and Brazil to win the World Cup. Surprisingly, the film is also about the unifying spectacle of sports. It is much more subtle than most sports movies, but the theme is definitely here. As civil unrest grows in the country, the World Cup still unites a country around its TV sets, reveling in their teams successes and mourning for its failures as one body.

Hamburger moves the audience without resorting to schmaltz or manipulation. The story's simple beauty speaks for itself. It balances gentle humor and devastating tragedy with graceful aplomb, treating its characters with a rare tenderness.

There is nothing false or cloying about it. It has an authenticity and sense of genuineness that is truly beautiful. This is the best kind of filmmaking - a film with a living, breathing, heart and soul, where all the ingredients add up into one exceptional whole. The Year My Parents Went on Vacation strikes all the right notes along the way, and rewards its audiences with a simple and poignant slice-of-life tale that ranks as one of 2008's finest.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

THE YEAR MY PARENTS WENT ON VACATION; Directed by Cao Hamburger; Stars Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut, Paulo Autran, Simone Spoladore, Eduardo Moreira, Caio Blat, Daniela Piepszyk; Rated PG for thematic material, mild language, brief suggestive content, some violence and smoking; In Portugese w/English subtitles

Friday, May 23, 2008

I've always been a big advocate of critics watching films in their entirety, because they can't have a well-formed opinion unless they have, no matter how bad the movie is.

I have never walked out of a film. I don't care how bad a movie is, I will stay and finish it so I know what I'm talking about when I trash it later. But I tried to sit through Joshua Seftel's war/corporate corruption satire, War, Inc. (which opened today in limited release), and I just couldn't make it through.

I watched about 40 of the films 104 minutes, and I had absolutely no interest in continuing. It doesn't count as a walk out because it was a screener copy, but I found nothing in the movie worth continuing to watch it.

It has a interesting premise - John Cusack stars as a corporate assassin working for a corporation run by a former Vice President (Dan Aykroyd), who are waging the world's first privatized war in the fictional country of Turaqistan. It's heart is in the right place but it's all painfully obvious and ham fisted. There is no sting to its satirical tongue because it is so blunt and contrived.

I just didn't feel like wasting anymore time on it. There are far too many more films I want to see to be bothered with this sort of drivel. Has anyone seen this? Does it get better? Or did I get pretty much the correct impression of it?

I don't care enough to ever revisit it to find out.
I'm not quite sure what in the career of Roger Spottiswoode gave anybody the impression he had a sweeping historical drama in him. When your highest profile films have been Turner & Hooch, Air America, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The Sixth Day, there seems to be no indication that a film of this magnitude is in his capability.

And ultimately, it isn't, because The Children of Huang Shi is a miserable failure. All the ingredients are here for a fantastic film, but they all fall woefully short.

It's a true story just begging for a great film to made about it. George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) was a British journalist covering the Japanese occupation of China in the days before World War II. Desperate to cover the story from behind enemy lines, he sneaks a Red Cross pass and travels to a ruined city where he witnesses the mass murder of innocent Chinese civilians, and is captured by Japanese forces. But he is rescued by Chen Hansheng (Chow Yun-Fat), a Communist resistance fighter, who sends him to Huang Shi to learn Chinese before continuing his journey. However, when he arrives, he discovers that he has been sent to a refuge for war orphans, where a courageous Australian nurse named Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell) leaves him in charge while she leaves for more supplies. There, George forgets all about his original quest for the ultimate story, and devotes his life to protecting and educating the children, and eventually taking them on a perilous thousand mile journey through the snowy mountains to save them from the advancing Japanese onslaught.

It sounds fantastic. But Spottiswoode's weak direction and awkward pacing all but sink the film. The one-dimensional characters are given little to no motivation, situations little to no set up or explanation, and seemingly important events just happen out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason. Add that to an atrocious script, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Spottiswoode's penchant for overripe melodrama is also a major issue. The film is absolutely swimming in unintentionally hilarious moments due to its self serious nature and soap-opera like leanings.

The acting is also surprisingly lackluster for such a talented cast. The only one who doesn't seem totally bored is Michelle Yeoh, who is a regal presence as always as Mrs. Wang, an aristocratic merchant who helps George feed the children. It is clear that Spottiswoode is not a very strong actor's director, and the entire film suffers from a lack of fire and passion, especially on the part of the actors.

The film is beautiful to look at however, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of Xiaoding Zhao (House of Flying Daggers), and David Hirschfelder's score is also very nice. The Children of Huang Shi may have the look of quality, but it has none of the feeling. The entire thing feels inept, like a great film in the hands of an amateur, totally fumbled and lacking all the qualities of a great film. This is paint-by-numbers Picasso.

There is a wonderful film in here somewhere, but Spottiswoode is totally out of his element here. In the hands of a better director more suited for this type of film, The Children of Huang Shi could have easily been one of the year's best films. As it stands, it is an awkward, stilted mess that is a chore to watch. This was a major wasted opportunity.

GRADE - *½ (out of four)

THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI; Directed by Roger Spottiswoode; Stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, David Wenham, Guang Li; Rated R for some disturbing and violent content; Opens today in select theaters.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Hollywood Reporter is reporting that Richard Dreyfuss has been cast to play Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone's upcoming biopic, W.

I don't have much to say about this other than to pass along the news. But I think this is perfect casting. I thought this was just going to be wishful thinking on the part of Jeff Wells, who has been advocating this for a while. But now that it's reality I can't think of anyone better suited for the job.
From The Dispatch:
Ultimately, "Prince Caspian" manages to entertain in places, and features some spectacular battle scenes (which occasionally feel too derivative of the original), that are actually pretty intense for a PG-rated film. It certainly looks and sounds good, but it's fatally overlong and lacks the great story that made "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" so much fun. It replaces wonder with action and straightforward allegory with muddled theological apologetics that leave much to be desired. I would admire a children's movie with the guts to explore deeper issues in a complex way, but here it is more alienating than enlightening.
Click here to read my full review.
Eugene Hernandez is now officially cinematic public enemy #1 as far as I'm concerned. He may usurp Uwe Boll's (or Harvey Weinstein's, depending on your point of view) crown as the most detestable figure that currently has any connection to the film industry.

Hernandez's live blogging of the premiere of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at Cannes via cell phone text messaging is the official jump the shark moment the anti-blog crowd has been waiting for. If this is the best we can offer then the establishment has every right to hate us. This is the epitome of sleazy fanboy gotta-have-it-now impatience. I'm surprised Paramount allowed this. The people sitting close to him must have been pissed. I would have had to fight the urge to reach over and smash his cell phone.

The absolute unapologetic rudeness of this is the kind of thing we would only expect from the lowest of lowlifes. I expect a higher standard from indieWIRE.

I know this is kind of old news, as it happened last Sunday. But I refused to read it until I saw the film on Tuesday. Now that I've read it, I wish I hadn't been subjected to its childish inanity. People wonder why film criticism is dying, because our standards of film commentary are so low. And it's hit a new depth here. If this is where film criticism and reporting is headed, I want off now.

Who in their right minds would want to experience the film this way rather than watching it for themselves?
Now that it's officially opening day, and the first commercial screenings of the first Indiana Jones adventure in nearly two decades are unspooling as I write this, I can finally talk about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Ultimately, I liked the film. Scratch that, I had a blast. Spielberg has really delivered the goods on this one. I don't think it is as good as any of the original three (that includes Temple of Doom), but it is highly enjoyable. Parts of it have a more "trip down memory lane" vibe, but it's one of the most entertaining trips down memory lane I've ever had.

The plot (which I will not go into much detail about here) seems much more outlandish that the originals on first glance. But then upon reflection, it's main premise is actually probably more plausible than the Jewish, Hindu, and Christian mythology that made up the supernatural plots of the originals.

I miss the old school special effects of the originals. CGI is not replacement for the way things were done then, at least in this case. That is one of the biggest differences that separates Crystal Skull from its predecessors. It works in a modern context, but I just don't think that an Indiana Jones film should have that much CGI, no matter how impressive it is.

But I really did like the film. It isn't perfect, but I don't think anyone expected it to be. Spielberg and Ford handle the issue of Indy's age very well, and get a lot of mileage out of it. Cate Blanchett is obviously having a grand time in her villainous role, and its nice to see Karen Allen back after all these years. I especially like how the film revisited so much from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I'll be tapping out a full review for next week's Dispatch. But for now, go out and see it for yourselves. I myself will be back in a theater to see it again tonight.

Long live Indy!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

In a world (cue Don Lafontaine voice here) where the putrid likes of Meet the Spartans and Epic Movie clog our multiplexes, apparently making enough money to justify the creation of more low brow genre spoofs, a hero must rise up to reclaim a genre once held in esteem by the likes of Mel Brooks and Airplane!. And that hero is none other than OSS 117, the hilariously inept French spy who has been sent to Cairo by the French government to solve the murder of his friend and former partner, ensure Western control of the Suez Canal, and to single handedly achieve peace in the middle east.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg in Michel Hazanavicius' delightlful French spy send-up, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. OSS 117, as played to oily perfection by Jean Dujardin, is like a mash up of James Bond and Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot. He is arrogant, ignorant, culturally insensitive, and all around clueless. But he somehow always manages to get the job done, even if it's by accident.

The entire film has the look and feel of an old 1960s spy thriller, right down to the overripe color palate to the rear projection behind cars to create the illusion of movement. Most modern spoofs focus on making ironic pop culture references and lampooning specific films, without ever really capturing the flavor of the genre it is sending up. Hazanavicius perfectly captures the look and feel of these old spy films, while slyly skewering the conventions of the genre.

It's all very tongue in cheek of course. The film nails the sometimes self-important atmosphere of its genre, and provides some of the biggest laughs of any film I have seen this year. Durjadin is wonderful as OSS 117 (love those eyebrows!), and he is the very embodiment of the ignorant westerner, with slicked back hair that never gets messed up.

Which is another point the movie nails very well. Not only is it a genre spoof, but it is a pointed satire of Western ignorance about Middle Eastern culture ("what kind of stupid religion doesn't allow alcohol?" 117 scornfully asks his Muslim secretary after she says drinking is against her religion). The film is never directly political, but it finds great comic material in Western ignorance.

OSS 117 may be supremely silly, but it's the best kind of silliness. There is an intelligence at work behind the ridiculousness, and it makes for a highly enjoyable experience that doesn't feel as though it's playing to the lowest common denominator. It's a hilarious genre spoof that puts all the recent films in that subgenre to shame. It has intrigue, romance, action, and plenty of laughs to go around. This is skillfully executed comedic filmmaking that uses slapstick to its advantage along with witty repartee to make one zingy cocktail of a movie.

Leave it to the French to show how to do a genre spoof right, because I haven't seen a funnier film all year.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES; Directed by Michel Hazanavicius; Stars Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Aure Atika, Philippe Lefebvre, Constantine Alexandrov, Said Amadis; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Teenage sexual awakening and self discovery has long been a favorite topic of filmmakers throughout the last century. You could say we've seen it all before, and in many ways we have. But seldom do we see it done as beautifully or as lyrically as in Celine Sciamma's debut feature, Water Lilies.

The film centers around three 15 year old girls, Marie, Anne, and Floriane. Marie (Pauline Acquart) is a shy, awkward tomboy who dreams of becoming a synchronized swimmer. Her best friend Anne (Louise Blachere) is a synchronized swimmer, but she is also overweight and painfully self-conscious about her body. So much so that she refuses to change out of her bathing suit until everyone has left the locker room. And Floriane (Adele Haenel) is the star of the swim team, a beautiful bad girl that all the girls hate and all the boys want. Or at least that's what she wants everyone to think.

As Anne begins to fall for Floriane's boyfriend, Francois (
Warren Jacquin) in ways that begin to border on obsessive, Marie and Floriane strike up an unusual friendship that soon turns into a budding romance of unspoken desires.

Water Lilies is a film filled with adolescent angst and longing as each struggles with their own sexuality. Anne must overcome her own self image, Floriane strives to keep up the image of herself she has created, and Marie is struggling with feelings she never knew she had for the first time.

It is a potent and at times powerful examination of adolescent sexuality, infused with a haunting melancholy reminiscent of the films of Sofia Coppola. I can't think of a film I have more singularly identified with this year than Water Lilies. I felt like I was on the verge of tears for the entire film. Marie's deep seeded longing is by far the film's strongest part. Floriane's posing was maddening not just for Marie but for the audience as well. But it's painfully realistic, like most of the film. Floriane is determined to keep up her slutty reputation no matter what, even at the expense of Marie, and in turn her own lesbian desires.

Floriane is the film's most enigmatic character, with the most ambiguous sexuality. But at 15, she is still trying to discover herself, as are they all. And anyone who has been a teenager in recent years will most likely recognize parts of themselves in one or all of the characters.

For me it was Marie. She is the film's heart and soul, her longing becomes our longing, and Sciamma does a masterful job of putting the audience in her shoes. She is experiencing love for the first time, falling head over heels for Floriane but having no idea what to do with these feelings that until now have been foreign to her.

Even Anne, whose attempts to be noticed by the popular Francois grow more painful and pathetic as the movie progresses, seems wholly real. These are real, living, breathing teenagers. So few films ever capture the teenage experience so keenly.

Needless to say I loved this film. Water Lilies moved me in a profound way that very few other movies this year have. The only other one to really hit me like this was Lucia Puenzo's XXY, another film about teenagers struggling with their sexuality. Both films take unique looks at familiar themes, displaying a potent insight into teenage sexuality, unspoken desires, and unrequited love.

This is what it's like to be a teenager, relived all over again.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

WATER LILIES; Directed by Celine Sciamma; Stars Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachere, Adele Haenel, Warren Jacquin; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles

Monday, May 19, 2008

My first impression after seeing Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven was "well, it certainly was no Lives of Others."

But that is an unfair comparison, even if Heaven was the official German submission to the Academy Awards the year after their victory in that category for Lives. But Lives of Others was a masterpiece of rare power, and a Cold War espionage thriller to boot. The Edge of Heaven is more akin to films like Babel in its aims, with its interconnecting story lines that examines the random and unseen connections that skirt the lives of six people in Germany and Turkey.

In fact, comparing it to Babel is a bit unfair too, because instead of jumping from one story to the next throughout the film, it tells its story in three distinct linear segments, each one following a different set of characters. Each one connects to the others of course, and as the film progresses, we see how missed connections and seemingly random coincidences connect the lives of the characters in ways they don't even realize.

The central story, such as it is, is very complex, and difficult to sum up quickly. We are first introduced to Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), an old Turkish man living in Germany who asks a prostitute named Yeter (Nursel Kose) to be his live in girlfriend for hire. She agrees, much to the chagrin of Ali's son, Nejat (Baki Devrak), a college professor at a German university. But when her death tears father and son apart, Nejat travels to Turkey to find Yeter's long absent daughter, Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay) to help pay for her education. But Ayten, a radical political activist, is already in Germany, living illegally with her newfound girlfriend, Charlotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) and seeking asylum from being jailed for her political activities back home. When her request for asylum is denied, she is deported back to Turkey, forcing Charlotte to follow, and her mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla) to go after her in an attempt to reconcile after their contentious parting.

Of course, this is more of a character driven film that a plot driven one. Akin is more interested in how these people's lives interconnect, and how the fleeting nature of fate brings them together and keeps them apart.

The problem is that it doesn't always connect, and the film doesn't always finish what it starts. Not that that is always a bad thing, but the connections and coincidences don't always ring true.

The film is finely acted and well written (it won the Ecumenical Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival), but its parts don't always add up to a satisfying whole. Also, some of the loose ends leave some character arcs incomplete, making their journies muddled or lacking motivation for their sudden changes. This is especially true in Nejat's story, which concludes the film on a hopeful but abrupt note.

Still, there is a delicate beauty to it all. The missed connections tend to get maddening after a while (how many times can you almost miss someone?), but Akin directs with a clear compassion for his characters and the cultures in which they live. It's also a film embroiled in a changing political climate, as Turkey begins its transition into being a member of the European Union.

Despite its shortcomings, its hard to deny that The Edge of Heaven is a notable work. It starts off very strongly, but its uneven nature hampers it as the film goes on. Akin creates characters we sympathize with and feel for, but in the end we're still held at arm's length. It's enough to keep us interested, but not enough to truly enthrall us.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN; Directed by Fatih Akin; Stars Nurgul Yesilcay, Baki Davrak, Tuncel Kurtiz, Hanna Schygulla, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Nursel Kose; Not Rated; In German, Turkish, and English w/English subtitles; Opens Wednesday in New York City.
I saw this over at Awards Daily, and Sasha is right in saying no other director on earth could possibly get away with this unscathed (except maybe Werner Herzog, who once famously ate his shoe...guess that makes them a match made in heaven?). But with Lynch, it's business as usual.

Okay, maybe John Waters could get away with it too...


Beverly Hills, CA – As part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Gold Standard screening series, the epic “Once upon a Time in the West” will be presented on Friday, June 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. The screening celebrates the West Coast premiere of a new restoration, courtesy of Paramount Pictures, and marks the 40th anniversary of the film’s 1968 release in Italy. (It was not shown in the United States until May 1969.)

At the height of what might be called the “Spaghetti Western” era, director Sergio Leone created this follow-up to his highly regarded trilogy starring Clint Eastwood (“A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”). The screenplay was crafted from a story written with Dario Argento, the now-legendary Italian horror director, and future Oscar®-winning writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci.

With a cast of Americans (Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson) and Italians (Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa), “Once upon a Time in the West” unfolds in a frontier town where the impending construction of the railroad brings together a rough mix of men and a beautiful widow who is menaced by a ruthless killer. Shoot-outs and acts of revenge and intimidation abound in this fast-paced, bloody exploration of the lawless age of western expansion.

The restoration of “Once upon a Time in the West” was made possible by The Film Foundation and the Rome Film Festival in association with Sergio Leone Productions and Paramount Pictures.

Tickets to “Once upon a Time in the West” are $5 for the general public and may be purchased online at, in person at the Academy box office or by mail. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The Samuel Goldwyn Theater is located at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. All seating is unreserved. For more information, call (310) 247-3600.

Once Upon a Time in the West is my all time favorite western. Made after his "Man With No Name" trilogy of A Fistful of Dollars (a western remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo), For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West is a culmination and perfection of the styles and techniques that Leone employed in those earlier films. Modern audiences unfamiliar with this but familiar with Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 2 will notice parallels, as this was one of the key inspirations for that film's haunting, ethereal tone.

The wordless opening sequence (scored only with the incessant squeaking of an old windmill), is one of the great opening scenes in movie history. And the film itself is a deserved classic.

Anyone who lives in the Beverly Hills area is strongly encouraged to go. Anyone else who can't make it is strongly encouraged to seek out the DVD. Once Upon a Time in the West should not be missed.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I have mixed feelings about this animated Star Wars film (Fox, 8.15), based on the popular series of cartoon shorts from Cartoon Network. Embedding the trailer from YouTube has been "disabled by request" for some reason, so if you want to see it, click here.

I saw the trailer in front of Speed Racer a couple of weeks ago, and the general audience reaction, me included, seemed to be a collective WTF? I just can't get behind that animation style, especially on a big screen. The fact that the preview starts out with Yoda saying "Kidnapped, Jabba the Hutt's son has been" doesn't bode well.

Who knows, it may end up being better than the prequels themselves. But right now, my interest level is "ehhhh."

Saturday, May 17, 2008


This is the version of Coldplay's "Fix You" from the documentary Young @ Heart, sung by Frank Knittle, who suffers from congestive heart failure. The song was supposed to be a duet between Knittle and Bob Salvini, but Salvini passed away a few weeks before the concert, and the song was done as a solo dedicated to him.

This is one of the most moving moments in any film all year. If you have not seen the film, it may not have the same impact, but you cannot deny the power and conviction with which Knittle and the Young at Heart chorus sings this song to their friend. Simply beautiful.

In my review of Joachim Trier's Reprise, I talked a lot about the film's reminiscence of the works of French New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, often recalling early Truffaut and Weekend era Godard at the same time.

That is not to say that Reprise is merely a retread of old ideas. But what makes it great is how it captures the spirit of the Nouvelle Vague. The New Wave directors were obsessed with cinema, utterly consumed by it. And they mimicked what they saw (Godard's debut, Breathless, was a new take on American gangster pictures), but instead of mere regurgitation, they let the old inspire new directions for them.

In an interview with The New York Times, Trier lists Nicholas Roeg, Steven Soderbergh, and New Wave director Alain Resnais as key influences on the time and reality-tripping nature of Reprise. The article goes on to say:
In its way “Reprise” is a rebellion against the Norwegian dramatic tradition and the social-realist tenets that informed Mr. Trier’s film education in London. “There’s a guilt in Norway and in Britain over beauty,” he said. “They’re both very Protestant cultures.” Anything but ascetic, “Reprise” harks back to the French New Wave, which he called “cinema at its sexiest.”
is unabashedly and unapologetically its own movie, but Trier knows where its roots lie. That's what makes the film such a unique and refreshing experience. It's a throwback with a stunning modern sensibility, and in many ways, one that is ahead of its time. It feels wholly timeless, and that, I think, is one of the greatest heights a filmmaker can achieve.
I just confirmed that I'll be seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Tuesday, May 20.

I won't be able to say anything of course until opening day on the 22nd, as I'm sure Paramount is going to be very tight-lipped about this one. But I'm getting more and more excited by the day. I had reservations about it early on, but now I'm psyched. Bring on that bullwhip and fedora!
As I said in my review of Stephen Walker's excellent documentary, Young @ Heart, "The best documentaries explore worlds, cultures, and situations that have not seen before, illuminating things we have never seen or pondered."

In Yung Chang's haunting new doc, Up the Yangtze, we are transported not only to an old China that is quickly fading into the past, but a new China where progress threatens to overwhelm tradition.

The film centers around the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which will turn the river into a lake in many areas, swallowing up entire towns and forcing the relocation of thousands of people.

Among these people is the family of Shui Yu, a 16 year old girl who dreams of going to university to become a scientist, but her poor, farming family barely has enough money to feed itself, let alone send her to college. So she goes to work on a cruise ship that sails the Yangtze River, taking mostly American tourists on what is called the "Farewell Tour," carrying its passengers up the Yangtze to see the historic sites and natural beauty that is soon to be swallowed up by the rising flood waters.

Up the Yangtze is, first and foremost, a requiem for a China that is slowly being washed away, both in reality and metaphorically. The Three Gorges Dam was a pet project of Mao Tse Dong, and represents progress for the sake of progress. While some on the river praise it for its technical mastery (it is the largest dam in the world) and the glory it brings on the country, in reality it is destroying lives - the ultimate symbol of empty, useless progress. The people are powerless to stop it as it washes away their memories of a mythic past.

Chang's grandfather even says he no longer recognizes the China he once knew, the traditions being increasingly swallowed by the hungry river of technological progress.

Shui Yu and her family place a human face on the situation. Their house is going to be flooded, but they cannot afford to move. So they stay in a hut near the river and farm for a living, hoping her job on the cruise ship will give her the money she needs to continue her education. But the cruise and its hoary tourist commercialism is hard to bear. Watching clueless Americans show how ignorant we can be is always painful, but seeing how we turn other people's pain into the objects of fascinated gawking, and in turn how this is exploited for profit, is almost unbearable. There are a few shining lights who manage to see through some of the more blatant propaganda (such as one lady who questions a tour guide about what happens to the people who did not get into the nice relocation apartments that are so proudly showcased to visitors), but for the most part they're pretty much what you would expect.

Chang never exploits or pushes this at all, though. One of the film's great strengths is its ability to step back and observe. He lets the natural beauty and tragedy of the story speak for itself. The river has its own story to tell, and Chang knows how to listen to its ebb and flow, winding its way through the ages until running up against the cold gray concrete of progress. Up the Yangtze is a poignant reminder of the human, natural, and historical cost of technological advancement, where the price is not only tangible, but the very soul of a nation.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

UP THE YANGTZE; Directed by Yung Chang; Featuring Jerry Bo Yu Chen, Campbell Ping He, Cindy Shui Yu; Not Rated

Friday, May 16, 2008

None of this will probably ever make it in my review (to be published Thursday), but my initial reaction after seeing The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, was one of extreme annoyance. It wasn't so much the weaker story (which isn't really the movie's fault), or the banal pop song that serves as the film's finale. No, what really pissed me off about Prince Caspian was the film's messianic lion, Aslan.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan served as an allegorical representation of Jesus, as per the original novel by renowned Christian author C.S. Lewis. In Prince Caspian, however, Aslan more resembles the God of the Old Testament (except not quite as jerkish), explaining his 1,300 absence (during which Narnia was conquered and its people almost totally wiped out) and why he did nothing to stop it with a pat "nothing works the same way twice," along with some other "mysterious ways" mumbo jumbo.

That is pure and utter bullshit. It ends up being all about faith of course. Lucy has faith in Aslan when no one else does, so he returns to save the day. WTF? So, he allows how many hundreds of thousands to be slaughtered into near extinction over a period of 1,300 years, when he most certainly had the power to return, but doesn't until a little girl has faith? I call bullshit.

Of course it fits it with Christian theology, but that pisses me off too. How can I pull for a hero who allowed such horrible things to happen just so he could return in some kind of dogmatic recourse of his own devising? He's playing by his own rules. And they suck.
“I wanted to make a film that focused on the poetic details of boy culture,” Norwegian director Joachim Trier said in a recent interview with the New York Times, “a bit like what Sofia Coppola did for girl culture in The Virgin Suicides. ”

In his astonishing film debut, Reprise, Trier does just that.

The film centers around two best friends, Phillip (Anders Danielson Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner); both aspiring writers who are trying to navigate the increasingly complex waters of early adulthood. Phillip finds a measure of early success, but then finds himself crippled by writers' block, and an obsessive love that triggers a relapse of his psychosis. Erik's manuscript is rejected at first, but later the tables are turned and it is Erik who becomes the successful one, but it is at the expense of his own personal life.

Trier directs with an energy and verve reminiscent of the early works of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (a comparison made even more blatant by the striking resemblance of Victoria Winge as Phillip's girlfriend Kari to frequent Godard collaborator Anna Karina). His keen insight into the male psyche is extremely potent. The circle of friends that form the story's core are full of macho bravado, sinewy bundles of testosterone with nowhere to go. Their energies and frustrations are expressed as childish immaturities that mask unspoken pains and wounds that society forbids them to express. These boys don't least on the outside.

That is Trier's most profound statement in Reprise. These boys are products of masculine expectations that pigeonhole them into preconceived notions of masculinity, producing insecure boys in the bodies of men, trapped in a state of flux after childhood but before adulthood. They are lost, adrift, in a real world they're not quite ready to accept, which may not be ready to accept them anyway.

It is these in-between places that seem to fascinate Trier the most. I love the fact that in many of the one-on-one dialogue scenes, Trier allows the words to continue, but the camera lingers on the in-between moments, the glances, the stares, the faraway looks. We still hear the words, but the lips have ceased to move, the camera has stopped to watch a moment that would have otherwise passed by unnoticed. He forces us to observe the moments most never pay attention to, the small, seemingly inconsequential moments where things left unsaid suddenly come bubbling to the surface.

And there is plenty left unspoken in Reprise. In fact, much time is spent imagining alternate, more positive realities for the characters that will never come true, but might have under the right circumstances. Maybe its the way things should have turned out. But real life isn't like that, and neither is Reprise.

It is a vibrant, ethereal look at male relationships that goes where few films dare to go. It punctures the bravado and looks at the boyish soul underneath, painting realistic portraits of love, ambition, and friendship. It loses some steam in the middle stretch, which keeps it from getting perfect marks, but picks it again near the end, making it a near masterpiece on the very first try.

Joachim Trier is an exciting new talent, whose style seems both thrillingly fresh and refreshingly old school. It is obvious he learned much from the French New Wave, but true to the spirit of the original Cahier du Cinema critics, Reprise embraces the old while forging brave new trails in the art form. This is filmmaking as it should be.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

REPRISE; Directed by Joachim Trier; Stars Anders Danielson Lie, Espen Klouman-Høiner, Victoria Winge, Henrik Elvestad, Christian Rubek, Odd Magnus Williamson; Rated R for sexuality and language; In Norwegian w/English subtitles; Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Werner Herzog (left) and David Lynch

From The Hollywood Reporter:
CANNES -- Werner Herzog and David Lynch are teaming for "My Son, My Son," a horror-tinged murder drama based on a true story. Herzog and his longtime assistant director Herbert Golder co-wrote "Son," loosely based on the true story of a San Diego man who acts out a Sophocles play in his mind and kills his mother with a sword. The low-budget feature will flash back and forth from the murder scene to the disturbed man's story. A guerrilla-style digital video shoot on Coronado Island is tentatively set for March.
Oh. My. God. I think this just made my day. David Lynch is God as far as I'm concerned, and teaming him up with Werner Herzog, another one of the greats, seems like a minor miracle.

Of course, since they both have such distinct styles and personalities, this could end up being a disaster. But hey, I can hope can't I?