Sunday, August 31, 2008

Judging by its 44% Tomatometer rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely hasn't exactly been lighting many critics on fire. And it's easy to see why - it's a rambling, bizarre, often overly precious film with two separate storylines that have seemingly zero connection. But I loved it.

Call me crazy, call me a naive romanticist, but there's something about the odd, shimmering peculiarity of Korine's tritych fantasy that swept me off my feet. It's a delicate, melancholy tale of a lonely Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna), who meets an alluring Marilyn Monroe look-a-like (the luminous Samantha Morton) while performing on the streets of Paris, and having nothing to tie him to his rootless existence there, accompanies her to an isolated country commune of other celebrity impersonators. There he finds his place among a self-contained society of people who are just as unhappy with themselves as he is, and find solace is becoming someone that they could never be. But their sheltered lives soon begin to take a toll, as they further lose themselves in their chosen personas, which can't always mask the real pain beneath the surface.

In a seemingly unconnected subplot, the film follows a group of missionary nuns, for whom a near tragedy is averted and turned into a miracle, prompting the priest in charge (Werner Herzog...yes, that Werner Herzog) to arrange a trip to the Vatican to showcase his newfound gift from God.

It is that seemingly random, unfocused nature of the film that has drawn so much criticism, but for me it was part of the charm. Korine has fashioned such a wholly unique narrative of such a strange and rare beauty that I find it hard to find fault in his creative zeal. It revels in the unusual and unexpected, finding a sad, haunting beauty even in the darkest situations. The dichotomy of the film's dual nature - light and dark, yin and yang, naive and cynical, may seem unfocused and confused, but Korine's real achievement here is the creation of feelings. The most random, offbeat things become objects of surprising gravity, making for a disarmingly moving experience.

Korine also creates a completely endearing cast of characters, that range from Charlie Chaplin to Abraham Lincoln, from Little Red Riding Hood to James Dean, Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley Temple, Madonna, and the Three Stooges - some agents of strife and others of comfort.

Mister Lonely is a film that exists squarely in its own peculiar reality, where the Queen of England sleeps with the Pope, eggs can sing, and nuns can fly. It is a world at once uplifting and sad, supporting and lonely, charming and frightening - but always deeply enchanting. It is a dark film, but one that even in its sadness finds a way of being oddly life affirming. For all of its surreal beauty, Mister Lonely is a feast of thematic symbolism just begging to be lost in. The question is whether or not you will ever want to find your way out again. Either way, it is a journey well worth taking.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

MISTER LONELY; Directed by Harmony Korine; Stars Diego Luna, Samantha Morton, Denis Lavant, Werner Herzog, James Fox, Melita Morgan; Not Rated

Friday, August 29, 2008

I've heard surprisingly little buzz surrounding Christophe Honoré's Love Songs. In fact the film didn't even cross my radar until J.D. over at Valley Dreamin' started talking it up a few months ago. Other than that, the critics and the blogosphere have been relatively quiet about this delightful French truffle.

Which is a real shame, because Love Songs is the best modern musical since Once. Which isn't really saying much, I know, but it certainly blows Mamma Mia out of the water, and bears instant comparisons to last year's Irish sensation due to its naturalistic style and more contemporary music.

But that's where the comparisons end because Love Songs takes a very different approach to its material.

Set in Paris, Love Songs centers around a young couple, Ismael and Julie, who decide to open their relationship up to Ismael's co-worker, Alice, and become a three-way relationship. The toll of being in a relationship with multiple people begins to wear on the threesome, however, but when tragedy strikes, they have to come to terms with their grief in the own unique way, and some find love in the most unlikely of places, as an eager young college student (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) comes waltzing unexpetedly into their lives.

One of the things that struck me the most about the film was the effortless charm of the cast, especially Louis Garrel (The Dreamers), who practically burns up the screen. Their chemistry is undeniable, and it comes across the seamless transitions into the songs - an area where Mamma Mia suffered greatly. The songs come across as naturally as a conversation, always moving the story along.

The most obvious standout, of course, is Alex Beaupain's gloriously heartbreaking music, that strikes the perfect balance between modern pop and showtunes, something akin to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg meets Spring Awakening, with the cast doing a remarkable job bringing the songs to life.

It's all so intoxicating, so effortlessly sexy, that it's easy to forgive the fact that it drags a bit in the middle section, but it quickly finds its footing again once the new love interest is introduced. I loved the fact that the movie dwells squarely in a world where love crosses the boundaries of gender and defies the labels of straight and gay. The idea that a person's soulmate could literally be anyone, be they male, female, or undecided is a universal one, and Love Songs handles that with a refreshing degree of normalcy. Love knows no bounds, and Honoré demonstrates that with beauty and grace, through Beaupain's lovely songs and the gorgeous cinematography by Rémy Chevrin.

Honoré takes his cues from French classics such as the aforementioned Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman is a Woman to create the film's bubbly yet realistic feel that seems at once heightened and immediate, taking place on a slightly higher, more romantic plane but never losing touch with reality.

Love Songs is one of those films I just wanted to envelop myself in completely, losing myself amidst its enthralling French charms. For those willing to give themselves up to it, Love Songs offers a feast for the mind and the heart, overwhelming the senses and transporting us into its delicately constructed rhythms. It's the year's tastiest surprise.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

LOVE SONGS; Directed by Christophe Honoré; Stars Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, Chiara Mastroianni, Clotilde Hesme, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Brigitte Rouan; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles

Thursday, August 28, 2008

For anyone who has seen Albert Lamorisse's 1956 children's classic The Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon will hold an extra special sense of nostalgia and magic.

That's not to say that one needs to have seen The Red Balloon to appreciate or understand Hou's film. Flight of the Red Balloon is an homage to the Lamorisse film, not a remake or a sequel. Hou takes The Red Balloon as a starting place of inspiration, and builds around it a loosely structured slice-of-life narrative about a little boy, his preoccupied mother, and their new nanny.

Juliette Binoche is in fine form indeed as Suzanne, a harried voice over artist and single mother who loves her son, Simon (Simon Iteanu), dearly, but is having trouble balancing her family life with work obligations and an ongoing legal battle with a deadbeat tenant who lives downstairs.

As a result, Simon must create an idyllic world of his own. He is a quiet child, content to play video games or wander around the streets of Paris on his way home from school. He is also very observant of the world around him, and when his new nanny, filmmaking student Song (Fang Song) arrives, Simon begins helping her make a movie about a red balloon in honor of Albert Lamorisse.

The film doesn't have what one would call a conventional plot or a typical narrative structure. It is more content to meander much like the red balloon of its title. It flits about through the lives of the three central characters, content to observe and occasionally interact with what is going on. This unique structure has been an issue for some, who call the film aimless and dull, but I think that misses the point of what Hou was going for here. He isn't trying to tell a story, he's trying to evoke a feeling, an essence if you will, of childhood innocence, in an unconventional way.

Simon doesn't have a typical idyllic childhood. He doesn't lead a bad life, but neither is it your typical sunshine and red wagons Hollywood existence. He doesn't play with other children much, and spends most of his life around adults with their own sets of problems. So he takes his innocence with him.

As the film progressed, I couldn't help but wonder if Simon was the only person who could see the red balloon that follows him around for most of the film. No one else seems to acknowledge its presence. The original Lamorisse film is mentioned several times, but Simon is seemingly the only one who pays any attention to the actual balloon. This could mean several things. In many ways I think the balloon is representative of childhood and the innocence that goes along with it. The balloon is playful and flighty, and the adults are either too busy to notice or just can't see it at all.

I loved how Hou seemed to capture that beautiful melancholy of childhood existence, the carefree happiness surrounded by an untraceable sadness, striking a delicate balance between the dichotomous emotions. It's also interesting that, with a few exceptions, most of the actors maintain their real names in the film, adding to the film's naturalistic flow.

If nothing else, Flight of the Red Balloon is an exquisitely crafted, beautifully modulated film, featuring some heartbreakingly gorgeous cinematography by Pin Bing Lee. It's a slow burner, and definitely not for all tastes and sensibilities, but I found it intoxicating from beginning to end. It is a charming, achingly beautiful ode to childhood, channeling the pure-hearted essence of Lamorisse's immortal masterwork, and ranks right up there among 2008's finest films.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON; Directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien; Stars Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Fang Song, Hippolyte Girardot; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles
Charles Ferguson, the director of the powerful and illuminating documentary, No End in Sight, will be screening the Oscar-nominated film from September 1st to November 5 for free on Youtube.

That's right, Ferguson is putting the importance of the film's message ahead of profit, which shows just how dedicated he is to getting his message out there in time for as many people to see it as possible before the election.

No End in Sight is a fantastic film, and I highly recommend that everyone watch it. This is must-see filmmaking that takes a hard-hitting, even handed look at the build-up to the Iraq war and the jaw-dropping incompetence with which it was staged, from the ultimate insiders - the people who were there and in charge.

Don't miss your chance to see this film, and spread the word. This is the kind of thing that opens eyes and changes minds.

To see the film, click here.
From The Dispatch:
I'll admit I expected "Death Race" to be a much worse film than it is. The presence of Statham and Allen seem to elevate the material to a watchable level, and Anderson's directorial technique seems to have matured some since the utter mess that was "Alien vs. Predator." But in the end, "Death Race" is a dumbed-down popcorn action flick that doesn't have much going on upstairs. This is the kind of film destined to be nothing more than what it was meant to be, although it has a chance to comment on our voyeuristic culture, but who needs social commentary when you can just blow something up instead? It is what it is, and it's never anything more. It's hard to find too much fault in that.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's interesting watching Chicago 10 while the 2008 Democratic convention is going on in Denver at the same time that the events chronicled in the film happened nearly forty years ago to the day.

It is especially shocking to the eyes of a 22 year old to see such unrestrained violence and police brutality over a peaceful war protest, even with our own modern day parallels with the Iraq war. One would hope that such a thing would be unthinkable now, but it never seems too far removed from the realm of possibility.

Directed by Brett Morgan (The Kid Stays in the Picture), Chicago 10 is a documentary pieced together from animated reenactments and archival footage that tells the story of the riots during anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and the ensuing trial of ten of the protesters that turned into a circus of injustice. Images of the protests and riots are taken from archival footage from the time, but the most striking and unique aspect of Chicago 10 is the animated recreation of the trial, using actual courtroom transcripts, and the voice talents of Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber, and Jeffrey Wright.

The animated sequences capture the chaotic atmosphere of the trial, as the defendants introduce a little anarchy into the proceedings, and the establishment judge does everything in his power to shut them down, including denying them their constitutional rights. My only question, ultimately, is why? They give the film a jolt in the arm, and the transcripts are harrowing and hilarious in and of themselves, but what purpose does the animation serve? Why not do live reenactments, or a narrative film?

The animation works, however, as the audacious experiment that it is meant to be. Morgan captures the fiery spirit of the protesters whose intentions were noble but whose methods were ultimately misguided, and just as responsible for the anarchic trial as the unyielding authorities. To paraphrase The Dark Knight, an unstoppable force met an immovable object, and all hell broke loose in Chicago.

It's obvious from the get-go who the "good guys" are, but I think Morgan went a little too far in vilifying the judge, who, as voiced by Roy Scheider, sounds more like Emperor Palpatine than an actual human being. I think the transcripts and actions of those involved speak for themselves enough not to need any editorial pushing from the filmmakers.

The animation and free-flowing style, however, lend themselves to a more impressionistic approach, and as an exercise in style and form, Chicago 10 is most certainly successful. It isn't as ultimately illuminating as one might hope, but it tells the story in a powerful way that is impossible to ignore. This is in your face, risk taking documentary filmmaking that gets its point across without feeling the need to preach or explain its meaning. Morgan's brash take on recent history never feels like the history lesson that it ultimately is, which makes it something to be respected and learned from.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

CHICAGO 10; Directed by Brett Morgan; Voices of Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright; Rated R for language and brief sexual images; Now available on DVD

Monday, August 25, 2008

Earlier this evening I was standing in the grocery store check out line, looking at the movies in the DVD rack while I waited, when I noticed they had a copy of Andrucha Waddington's The House of Sand for $9.99.

I hadn't seen the film since it was in theaters back in 2006, but I was blown away by it at the time. The film ended up on my 2006 top ten list (#4 on the original list, #7 in the final version), but I saw precious little notice for the film at the time, and even less since. But I championed the film quite a bit in the early days of From the Front Row, and it was among my Front Row Award nominees for 2006. It is a tragically overlooked, under seen gem, and finding it again as I did today (in a grocery store of all places) is cause for celebration.

From my review:
In this quiet, windswept drama, director Andrucha Waddington and his cinematographer, Ricardo Della Rosa, capture the barren deserts of Brazil with a grandeur to rival David Lean. But the true mastery of "The House of Sand (Casa de Areia)" is its deep intimacy. Told with haunting grace, this story of three generations of women living lonely, restless lives stranded in the barren Brazilian desert is the stuff of which grand epics are made, but Waddington keeps the focus deeply personal with the hand of a born enthraller, using real-life mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres to play the three women at various stages in their lives. Told without music (the sound of the wind and the shifting sands provide the soundtrack), "The House of Sand" is a moving and deeply felt examination of the relationship between mothers and daughters and the ties that bind us across generations. It doesn't just take your breath away - it steals it.
Naturally I bought the DVD, and can't wait to revisit it. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of seeing it, I highly recommend you seek it out. It's a timeless masterpiece (that's right, I used the "M" word) that deserves so much more attention than it received upon its release.
Omnibus films, by their very nature, tend to be hit-and-miss affairs. Even Paris, je'Taime, as much as I loved it, had its weak links (most notably Olivier Assayas' Quartier des Enfants Rouges). The same is true for Chacun son Cinema (To Each His Cinema), a collection of 34 short films by 36 of the world's most renowned filmmakers, that was commissioned to honor the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Each director's challenge was to create a three minute film that somehow describes "their state of mind of the moment as inspired by the motion picture theatre."

The overall effect is less cohesive than that of Paris, je'Taime because it presents each film as a separate work, complete with separate end credits after each film. But it also gives room for each film to be digested before moving on to the next, each one like an individually wrapped present from a favorite rich relative holding wonders untold.

It also provides the chance to play a fun guessing game for cinephiles such as myself. I instantly recognized the work of Alejandro González Iñárritu (whose segment, Anna, is one of the film's highlights), Zhang Yimou (the gorgeous En regardant le film, another highlight), Walter Salles (whose musical 5,557 Miles From Cannes, in which two men mistake Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows for a porno, is a fun comic jolt), and David Cronenberg (At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World), while others didn't hit me until after they had finished.

Castanha and Caju in Walter Salles' 5,557 Miles From Cannes

There are quite a few gems to be found her, including the aforementioned Anna, Lars Von Trier's darkly comic Occupations, in which he plays himself at the premiere of Manderlay trying to deal with a talky neighbor who doesn't realize who he is, Wong Kar Wai's atmospheric I Travelled 9000 Km to Give it to You, about two lovers who meet in a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, and evokes the indelible imprint that film can leave when identifying time and place, Abbas Kiarostami's Where is My Romeo, which memorably examines the emotional female reactions to Franco Zefferilli's Romeo and Juliet, and Elia Suleiman's absurdly funny Irtebak (Awkward), which stars the director himself as a director at a film festival for whom nothing is going right.

The films that left the greatest impression on me, however, were the ones that seemed to mourn the modern state of cinema, which is probably why I so identified with Andrei Konchalovsky's Dans le noir (In the Dark), which introduces us to a lonely theater owner (Yola Sanko) sitting enraptured by Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 in an empty theater, except for a young couple obliviously making out in the back. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Electric Princess House takes a similar theme, showing families gathering and buying refreshments at a busy theater, juxtaposed with Robert Bresson's Mouchette playing to an empty house.

Jacques Frantz and Lars von Trier in Von Trier's Occupations.

By far my favorite segment, however, was Atom Egoyan's Artaud Double Bill, in which two friends who were supposed to meet at the same film, end up in two different theaters, one showing Egoyan's own film The Adjuster, and the other Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa Vie, where the characters in the film watch Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Enthralled by the film and the beauty of Antonin Artaud, the woman begins capturing the film on her camera phone, sending it live to her friend in the other theater, who becomes so enraptured by Joan, even on the smallest of screens, totally ignores the film she is in and gives herself up to Dreyer's timeless masterpiece.

The film had an impact on me first because of my deep love for The Passion of Joan of Arc, but Egoyan's film seemed to sum up the entire point of Chacun son Cinema in three heartbreaking minutes. Cinema, as we know and love it, is dying. It has been reduced to a commodity readily available whenever and wherever we want it - convenience has overtaken that collective experience. But it also recognizes the power of cinema - even on the small fuzzy screen of a cell phone, Joan of Arc's greatness overtakes the film being played on the big screen in front of her. The poignancy is the flippant disregard with which it is shown on the phone - indicative of our current "nothing is sacred" film culture.

Atom Egoyan's Artaud Double Bill.

There are a few weak links, as there are with any omibus films. Bille August's The Last Dating Show is too precious and cloying, and ultimately just doesn't jell, while Ken Loach's Happy Ending, about a boy and his father trying to decide what movie to go see, before ultimately deciding just to go watch a ballgame, throws the baby out with the bathwater and ends the film on an odd note, and seems to spit in the face of the film's ultimate theme of celebrating cinema, despite being in line with Loach's contrarian spirit. I also wasn't a fan of Raymond Depardon's aimless opener, Cinéma d'été (Open-Air Cinema), which didn't seem to serve much of a purpose.

Despite its weaknesses, however, Chacun son Cinema is ultimately something to be celebrated. It takes that grand art form that unites and divides us all, and creates a sometimes funny, poignant, and heartbreaking look at what it is that makes us all love it so. Even today, when iPods, cell phones, and the internet have created a climate where cinema is no longer as exalted and valued as it once was, there is still great beauty and magic to be found in the flickering lights in the darkness. In a world where Mouchette plays to empty houses and The Passion of Joan of Arc is broadcast on cell phones, Chacun son Cinema reminds us of the power and the glory of that mythical medium we call the movies.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

CHACUN SON CINEMA; Directed by Theodoros Angelopoulos, Olivier Assayas, Bille August, Jane Campion, Youssef Chahine, Chen Kaige, Michael Camino, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, David Cronenberg, Jean-Luc Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Manoel De Oliveira, Raymond Depardon, Atom Egoyan, Amos Gitai, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Aki Kaurismaki, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Andrei Konchalovsky, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Nanni Moretti, Roman Polanski, Raul Ruiz, Walter Salles, Elia Suleiman, Ming-liang Tsai, Gus Van Sant, Lars Von Trier, Wim Wenders, Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou; Not Rated

Friday, August 22, 2008

I did this back in April and it spawned some pretty good feedback, and there's nothing I like more than sparking good discussions about film. So I decided to make this a running series, by running down three more films that have a special place in my heart, but seemingly no one else's.


I don't think anyone would ever mistake this for a good movie. It's awkwardly edited, poorly constructed, and features overwrought dialogue and a hammy performance by John Goodman as a nostalgic dying man, who was trying to make an appointment with a childhood sweetheart he made 40 years ago, only to collide with fate on the highway on his way there.

Robert Carlyle stars as the good Samaritan widower who is the first to arrive on the scene of the accident, and goes in his stead to Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, only to find that the girl he is looking for isn't there. Instead he finds a place where he belongs, and falls in love with a beautiful classmate who finally frees his heart from the grief after his wife's suicide.

It's all quite mushy and shamelessly manipulative, but damn it if I wasn't bawling my eyes out ten minutes into the film. I knew it shouldn't be affecting me the way it was, but I couldn't help it, I had been sucked in.

The film is based on a 1990 short film of the same name, and uses some of the footage from the original film as flashbacks. Miller really captures that innocent, starry eyed nostalgia that gets me every time, even when I know better. This was most definitely one of those occasions. But I found myself completely charmed by it despite myself. Plus it has a surprisingly unsentimental ending, taking on an interesting twist of hard-edged honesty that is an odd tonal shift, but really adds personality to the film, further setting it apart from the pack. It's a hard film to pin down or categorize, but I stopped trying long ago. I just love it, and leave it at that.

2. STRANGERS WITH CANDY (Paul Dinello, 2006)

Yes, I'll admit it: I have a warped sense of humor. And no other recent film quite sums up my comedic sensibilities like Strangers with Candy, based on the Comedy Central show of the same name. The brain child of Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello (who all co-star and co-wrote the film), Strangers with Candy is a gleefully irreverent spoof on after school specials about a raucous misfit (Sedaris) who after spending 32 years in jail decides to pick up her life right where she left off - by returning to high school.

What follows is an unadulterated exercise in absurdity where unabashed political incorrectness insure that nothing is sacred. Sedaris' fearless performance is a marvel - its pure, over the top comic ridiculousness of course, but everyone involved commit themselves so totally and earnestly to their roles that it makes it that much funnier - even in cameos by Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker (as an addled guidance counselor), Alison Janney, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

It's definitely not a film for all tastes, because it crosses all kinds of lines and then spits on them, but it's one of my favorite comedies, if for no other reason than for its sheer audacity. You can't really explain something like this, it just needs to be seen.

3. STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (William Shatner, 1989)

Part of me can understand why this one gets a bum rap. But the other part of me loves it so much that I don't care about its obvious flaws. Yes the ending doesn't make sense, yes things get tied up a little too quickly and lamely (apologizing Klingons, really?), but it's freakin' Star Trek man! The relationship between Kirk, Spock, and Bones, is the real highlight here, and the search for god with Spock's renegade brother Sybok (he feels emotion, gasp!) is a noble idea that never gets fully explored.

But I really think it's the funniest of the Trek films, even more so than Star Trek IV, which is intended to be more of a straight comedy. But here, you have Spock and those moonboots, the Kirk/Spock/Bones sing a long, toasting marshmellons, what's not to love? And how can the only Trek film directed by the Shat himself not be awesome?

It's obvious they were shooting for the stars on this one, and they fall pretty short of the mark, but it's an enjoyable ride anyway, if for no other reason than to get to spend time with our friends on board the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

From The Dispatch:
Hollywood is a place ripe for satirical fodder, and ultimately Stiller pulls it off, but there are times when it seems a bit too scattershot and protracted to reach its full potential. That is why I felt "Pineapple Express" is a superior film, because it is a much more finely tuned narrative. The characters in "Tropic Thunder" are meant to be caricatures, of course, but it does best when it keeps its sights trained on Hollywood, even if the humor may translate to those more familiar with the industry than those who aren't.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

...the stories never really go anywhere, and by the time we get to the end, the movie throws in a gimmicky twist that throws everything off and makes it all even more of a waste so that the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. Some critics have pointed out that it would make a better literary device, which is probably true. But here it feels manipulative and contrived, taking an eye-rolling M. Night Shyamalan "gotcha" path that is neither emotionally honest or satisfying.


It's all utterly charming, and its wonderfully droll British sense of humor never fails to delight. This may not be earth-shattering art by any stretch of the imagination, but this is my version of comfort food. I LOVE movies like this - lighthearted British comedies that wear their heart on their sleeve (a la "Mrs. Henderson Presents"). I feel like I can wrap myself up in them on a dreary day and just be completely happy. Some of the dialogue may falter by the end of the film, but to be honest I was so taken with "Miss Pettigrew" that I really didn't care.

PROM NIGHT (no stars)

Who makes movies like this? And more importantly, who goes to see them? What kind of person goes into a movie like this and says "Wow, that was a great movie?" This is vapid, soulless filmmaking aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator, for people without discerning tastes who don't know they've just been duped into watching a mass-produced marketing tool with no real interest in, you know, actually making a good movie.


Without Farmiga, Quid Pro Quo may not have had the same impact that it does, and I want to know why we're not hearing more buzz around her from the critics. This is the kind of film and performance that critics need to be championing to put it on the radar beyond specialty art houses. It was never going to be a mainstream success, it's far too dark and strange for that (it was only in theaters for a week), but I would love to see Farmiga show up on some year end precursor awards to put her in the 2008 Oscar race. She's that good. Her Fiona is tragically lost woman in search of her soul, whose macabre desires are buried in a shadowy past - it's a devastating performance that should not be overlooked come awards time.

Monday, August 18, 2008

I have a lot of respect for Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, and the lengths he went to to prove his point. He's also done some good work on his television show, 30 Days, where he puts two diametrically opposed people together for 30 days in hopes that they can come to understand each other from the experience. His work to illuminate the darkness and dispel ignorance in all its forms is admirable and laudable, but in his latest big screen documentary, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, I think he has finally taken his cinematic muckraking too far.

Not that his goal isn't noble or his intentions in the right place, but Where in the World positions Spurlock less as his own voice and more as Michael Moore lite. And as a fan of Michael Moore and his films, that's almost an insult to Michael Moore, because Where in the World is pop-trash documentary filmmaking at its worst.

Spurlock starts out with the premise of setting out on the trail of the world's most infamous terrorist when he learns that his wife is pregnant. Fearing for his child to be born into a world as dangerous as this, he decides to single handedly try to find Bin Laden himself. It's an inherently arrogant premise, but Spurlock treats it with a tounge-in-cheek humor that could have almost worked if he hadn't tried to make important statements with the film, which makes its comical tone seem flippant and obnoxious.

Traveling all over the Middle East, Spurlock decides to take a different approach to finding Bin Laden, by asking every day citizens if they know where he is. They don't of course, or offer vague replies like "Afghanistan" or "Pakistan." But the goal of looking for Bin Laden takes a back seat as Spurlock tries to explore Middle Eastern feelings about America, attempting to dispel the all too commonly held belief that all (or at least a majority of) Muslims support Bin Laden's brand of radical jihadist Islam.

It's a noble goal, and one that really needs to be heard, but Spurlock's condescending, preachy tone tends to overshadow his ultimate goal, as does a needless and distracting subplot about Spurlock's wife having a baby that sticks out from the rest of the film like a sore thumb. It makes for a film with a severe personality syndrome, at once cartoonishly goofy and somber as Spurlock unsuccessfully looks for deeper truths. He is completely unable to strike a tonal balance, something that Michael Moore consistently excels at, using biting humor to drive home a point. Spurlock's humor seems to have no purpose, making his film a lighthearted romp through the Middle East with a few random breaks for some "serious" reflective moments.

That's Where in the World's biggest problem, it's fatally unfocused and scattershot, jumping from thought to thought and place to place with little cohesion or purpose. I got what he was trying to say because he kept looking directly into the camera and telling us, as if he has to constantly ask "did you get it?"

Yes, we get it. Muslims don't all love Osama and don't all hate America, and America has brought much of its problems on itself. It's an important message that we've all heard before, and those that haven't and should probably won't be watching this film anyway. It's too bad the message is so convoluted by Spurlock's lazy, unfocused direction and awkward, slapstick tone. He had a great idea, but squandered it on random faux-video game footage and a gratuitous storyline about...himself. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden would be more aptly titled Where in the World is Morgan Spurlock, because the movie is all about him. He's the star, and we know it. A little less Spurlock and a little more insight could have made this an important film. As it stands, it's just a shameless vanity project that's better off ignored.

GRADE - *½ (out of four)

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?; Directed by Morgan Spurlock; Featuring Morgan Spurlock; Rated PG-13 for some strong language

Sunday, August 17, 2008

From Entertainment Weekly:
George Lucas is turning into the enemy of fun. This all-animated chapter Star Wars: The Clone Wars sounds like a perversely logical evolution of the series, which has been built around increasingly thick gobs of digital eye candy. But you never knew how much you'd miss all that lousy, wooden human acting. The animated Anakin, Obi-Wan, etc. (all with faux movie-star voices) are drones, and the repetitive combat sequences only add to the turgid videogame anonymity of it all. Lucas' fantasy empire has morphed into a machine that plays itself.
Whenever I hear someone use the phrase "quid pro quo" I am immediately reminded of Hannibal Lecter's ultimatum to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, that their meeting of the minds would be strictly quid pro quo, "I tell you things, you tell me things."

Carlos Brooks' Quid Pro Quo is by no means anything like Silence of the Lambs in either plot or execution, but that mutual sharing of information is an essential element to this strange and beautiful little film.

Running a scant 82 minutes, Quid Pro Quo may seem like a blip on the 2008 movie going radar, but it's one of the most unique and engrossing films I have seen this year.

In it, Nick Stahl plays Isaac, a paraplegic public radio host who is assigned to do a story on a man who walked into a hospital and tried to bribe a doctor to amputate his perfectly healthy leg. In the process he discovers a bizarre subculture of perfectly healthy people who dream of being paraplegics. It is there he meets and falls in love with the beautiful and mysterious Fiona, a museum restoration artists who longs to be paralyzed herself, while Isaac dreams of one day being able to walk again. Together they form an unusual relationship, as they work to achieve their two diametrically opposed but irrevocably connected goals, to become who they truly want to be.

It's a plot rife with possibility for a David Lynch-esque erotic fantasy, but Brooks keeps it grounded instead, whittling it down to a peculiar yet no less erotic dance between two characters in a dark and freakish romantic character study. Isaac and Fiona seem to compliment and oppose each other at the same time, making an unlikely pair that somehow seems to be exactly what each other needs, despite the weird nature of Fiona's fantasies.

Vera Farmiga brings Fiona and her deep seeded forbidden desires to haunting life in what is quite possibly the performance of her career. She is incredibly good, nearly single handedly pilfering the movie from Stahl, who nevertheless does a fine job of holding his own. They are aided by the tightly crafted screenplay and Brooks' solid direction, which strips the film of useless excess to create a lean, extremely effective dramatic arc.

Without Farmiga, Quid Pro Quo may not have had the same impact that it does, and I want to know why we're not hearing more buzz around her from the critics. This is the kind of film and performance that critics need to be championing to put it on the radar beyond specialty art houses. It was never going to be a mainstream success, it's far too dark and strange for that (it was only in theaters for a week), but I would love to see Farmiga show up on some year end precursor awards to put her in the 2008 Oscar race. She's that good. Her Fiona is tragically lost woman in search of her soul, whose macabre desires are buried in a shadowy past - it's a devastating performance that should not be overlooked come awards time.

Even beyond her though, this is a fascinating film. Brooks takes us into a world of dark human fantasies of which they dare not speak, and makes it seem accessible and oddly beautiful. Quid Pro Quo is an enthralling, erotically charged drama that marks the terrific debut of a director that is most certainly a talent to watch.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

QUID PRO QUO; Directed by Carlos Brooks; Stars Nick Stahl, Vera Farmiga, Amy Mullins, Phil LaMarr, James Frain, Rachel Black; Rated R for some sexuality and language; Available on DVD 8/19

Friday, August 15, 2008

Brideshead Revisited - C+
The Children of Huang Shi - D
The Dark Knight - A
Hellboy II: The Golden Army - B+
Mamma Mia! - C
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor - D-
Pineapple Express - B+
Star Wars: The Clone Wars - D
Step Brothers - C+
Tell No One - B+
Transsiberian - B+
Tropic Thunder - B
The Wackness - B-
When Did You Last See Your Father - A-
The X-Files: I Want to Believe - B-
I can't for the life of me understand why George Lucas is so obsessed with the Star Wars prequel universe. I think at this point he is the only one who really cares. What happened to the time of the original trilogy? I'm sick of hearing about the Separatists and padawans and droid armies...seriously does anyone out there really care about what's going on here?

That's what I kept wondering as I watched Lucas' latest lame attempt to squeeze every last penny out of his 31 year old cash cow that he can, the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

I knew I was in for trouble when I saw the first trailer, when Yoda said "kidnapped, Jabba the Hutt's son has been." And lo and behold, Lucas built the entire movie around that, using director Dave Filoni as his lackey for hire.

Taking place between episodes II and III, Clone Wars follows Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, as they are sent to rescue Jabba the Hutt's son, Rotta the Huttlet (I'm not even kidding), after Jabba called upon the Jedi to help. At stake is a treaty with the crime lord for safe passage of Republic troops through the Outer Rim territories in the fight against Count Dooku and the Separatists. But there are much darker forces at work here - Dooku is behind the kidnapping of Rotta, with his lethal assassin Ventriss, who plans to kill Rotta and frame the Jedi, in order to form a deadly alliance with the Hutts.

I could spend all day talking about the inanity of the plot, but I may come across as a major Star Wars geek. I'm a fan of the original trilogy, and actually liked Episode III, but I'm no fanboy, although I have retained quite a bit of Star Wars knowledge from my younger, action figure days. The central role played by the Hutts just doesn't make sense...when have the Hutts ever been this powerful, and why is the Republic so concerned about making a treaty with a known criminal? And what's with Lucas' obsession with giving characters obvious names like General Loathsom. Is it his way of saying "hey look he's a bad guy!" just like with General Grievous in Episode III?

But that's a different argument for a different review. Suffice it to say that doesn't make much sense when compared with the larger Star Wars universe and the films that came before it.

The major issue with the film is just how bad it looks. The animation is pathetic, betraying its small screen roots. Clone Wars is basically the pilot episode for a planned animated TV series that Lucas liked so much he decided to put it on the big screen. Which was a huge mistake, because Clone Wars is an utter mess.

Setting aside for a moment the shoddy, simplistic animation that looks like it came from a second rate video game, Clone Wars features dialogue so inane, so unbelievably ridiculous, that it makes the hideous romantic speech about sand in Attack of the Clones look like a Shakespearian sonnet. And Lucas didn't even write it! It's made worse by the wooden deliveries of the voice-over actors, who mostly sound like they're just reading by rote. The only life is injected by original actors Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, who I'm sure were payed handsomely for this, because they're definitely slumming it.

Clone Wars is strictly second rate territory, aimed directly and children and hardcore fans, who aren't even treated with enough dignity to be given a decent movie. Instead they get this laughable cartoon that doesn't even attempt to hide its soullessness. It's a sad indication of just how far Star Wars has fallen, because in The Clone Wars, the original magic is nowhere to be found.

GRADE - *½ (out of four)

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS; Directed by Dave Filoni; Voices of Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein, James Arnold Taylor, Dee Bradley Baker, Tom Kane, Nika Futterman, Ian Abercrombie, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, Christopher Lee; Rated PG for sci-fi action violence throughout, brief language and momentary smoking

I hate this goddamn machine. I don't understand why this has become such a fad. We live in a culture where moviegoing and filmmaking has become such a commodity that everything is now mass produced and prepackaged. Now you can rent movies from a vending machine! You don't even have to go to the rental store anymore, just head on over to your local grocery store and pick up the latest soulless blockbuster from an equally soulless machine.

Movies are art and should be treated as such. Nothing is sacred anymore.
"In the hands of a free spirit the cinema is a magnificent and dangerous weapon. It is the superlative medium through which to express the world of thought, feeling, and instinct. The creative handling of film images is such that, among all means of human expression, its way of functioning is most reminiscent of the work of the mind during sleep. A film is like an involuntary imitation of a dream." - Luis Buñuel, Mystery of Cinema

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oh my...this looks like shit.

Why don't they just call it Conservative Movie? It will fit right in with Scary Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie, Superhero Movie, and Disaster Movie.

In a scene that Sokoloff described, but didn't bring, Patton and his soldiers storm a courthouse that's about to remove the Ten Commandments and start opening fire on the people trying to stop them. "You can't shoot these people!" Malone says. "They're not people!" says Patton. "They're the ACLU!" At this point we see that the ACLU members are unkillable George Romero zombies.
This may end up being the most tasteless, offensive piece of trash of the year.
In a clip we saw, Washington takes Malone to St. Paul's Cathedral to lecture him on freedom of religion and "freedom of speech, which you abuse." Malone is grossed out by dust in the priest's box, so the doors open onto the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. "This is the dust of 3000 innocent human beings!" bellows Washington. Malone whimpers that he's just making movies. Washington won't have it. "Is that what you plan to say on Judgment Day?"
Who knew that a goofy, B-grade comedy like this one could actually be heavy handed?
From The Dispatch:
Discussions of a film like this can't really get too deep beyond just how gaspingly funny it is. This is minute for minute, laugh for laugh one of the funniest movies I have seen in ages, averaging more consistent laughs per minute than any other film this year. It can be awkwardly edited at times, but Rogen and Franco are always right there to keep things moving in the right direction, rising to the occasion and bringing the belly laughs at every turn. It may not be deep or profound, but it is wonderfully hilarious and well-directed by Green, who manages to make even the most absurd situations work and seem completely grounded in the reality of the film, even during the ludicrously over-the-top violent finale, which is one of the most ridiculously uproarious scenes in quite some time.
Click here to read my full review.
In a surprise move today, Warner Brothers announced that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has been bumped back from Nov. 11 2008 to July 17, 2009.

Warner president Alan Horn said the delay was due to the writers' strike, which left the studio with a lack of summer tentpoles, and the film was moved to fill that hole. The film itself has been completed on time.

Looks like Valkyrie is in, Harry Potter is out.
Bryan Singer's much discussed Tom Cruise WWII vehicle Valkyrie, which caused a minor stir when it was pushed from a 2008 release date to Valentine's Day 2009, has now been moved back to December 26, 2008.

The news comes as United Artists CEO Paula Wagner announced that she will be leaving UA. Valkyrie was one of the major UA projects after Wagner took over UA with Tom Cruise in a partnership with MGM.

This should dispel rumors of troubles with the film prompted by the nearly two month delay from a prime release date to a mid-winter one, but this is an interesting new development in the 2008 Oscar race, which now has a new player. MGM says that awards consideration was not a factor in their decision to move the release date back to 2008, but Warner Brothers downplayed The Departed as not an awards film back in 2006, and it payed off. I still don't see Valkyrie being a major player...but MGM could know something we don't.
I'll admit, I was slightly disappointed by Tropic Thunder. I liked it and thought it was quite funny, but I thought it lagged behind David Gordon Green's Pineapple Express in nearly every way.

Tropic Thunder is an incisive Hollywood satire, but I never thought it was quite as funny as Pineapple Express. I know it's not really fair to compare two such dissimilar films in this manner, but having just seen Green's comedy and laughed myself silly for nearly the whole running time, and finding myself only chuckling mildly at Tropic Thunder and laughing out loud only a few times, I have to say that Pineapple Express is ultimately more successful in its goals.

The difference is that Tropic Thunder shoots for something bigger, it takes on Hollywood idiosyncrasies and exposes them for the lunacy that they are. Pineapple Express' goals are much simpler, and therefore it achieves them with greater ease. Tropic Thunder works, but I always had the feeling that it could have worked better. It has moments of great comic inspiration and truly funny commentary on the current state of Hollywood, but there are quite a few lulls where it doesn't quite connect as well as it should.

I know that it sounds like I didn't like the film, but I did. It's a three star effort...on the lower end of the rating but a three star effort nonetheless. It shoots for something a bit more than the average comedy, and that must be taken into account even when it doesn't always hit the mark.

Robert Downey Jr's performance as the pretentious Australian actor Kirk Lazarus, who undergoes a cosmetic procedure to make him resemble an African American - continuing a stellar year for the actor. The numerous cameos from various celebrities are also a highlight.

It may grow on me in the coming weeks, but I think I'll go see Pineapple Express again before revisiting this. It remains for me the funniest movie of the summer, while Tropic Thunder is going to have to settle for second.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I do not like the Saw franchise, nor do I like the torture porn genre in general...but this trailer is seriously creepy.

I love the use of the Christian hymn "Be Thou My Vision." It adds a new, twisted dimension of disturbing that the films just don't have. I really like it when trailers use unexpected music like this...the Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem trailer featuring "Silent Night" actually made me want to see the film, despite hating the first one.

It's eerie and extremely provocative, which I'm sure was the intent. Piss off enough people and you put more butts in your seats.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Critics tend to throw around the word "Hitchcockian" anytime someone makes a thriller with any kind of twists or turns. The problem is that since Hitchcock pretty much wrote the book on suspense, most modern thrillers owe some kind of debt to Hitch, but few ever live up to his standards.

Brad Anderson's (The Machinist) latest film, Transsiberian, however, comes pretty damn close. It's not on the level of Hitchcock's best works, but you can feel the presence of the master hanging over every frame.

The film wastes no time introducing us to Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a relatively normal couple who are in China with a church group helping Chinese orphans. As their trip comes to an end, Roy, a train enthusiast, decides to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow to see the sights before going home. While on board, they meet another couple and become close friends, but this new couple has a dark secret, a dangerous secret, one that threatens to tear Roy and Jessie apart, and throw them into an investigation by the corrupt Russian police force.

Anderson begins slowly building the tension from the get go, letting the barren Siberian wasteland reinforce the characters' isolation as they head out into white wilderness where no one is safe. He does an excellent job of grinding on the audience's nerves, before heading off into unexpected directions, teasing us into one direction and then throwing us into another. Transsiberian is a slow burner, creating an atmosphere of impending disaster, but when it finally arrives it's not at all what is expected.

His use of the barren snow covered landscapes are both chilling and beautiful - their natural beauty belying their dark past and current illegal activities. I appreciated the fact that he didn't go for the obvious American tourists in foreign nightmare scenario a la Hostel. The fish out of water sense is there, things are always more frightening when surrounded by the unfamiliar, but it isn't a central theme and isn't exploited for cheap effect.

There are some fine performances on display here. Harrelson is great fun as the dorky good boy Roy, who is the very embodiment of the awkward, insulated American traveling abroad. Mortimer is also quite good as his former bad girl wife, itching to get out of the shadow of Roy's overbearing niceness. But the standout here is, as usual, Ben Kingsley as a Russian detective whose motives may not be completely on the up and up. As in The Wackness, Kingsley walks away with every scene he is in, letting his playful Russian joviality mask hidden motives.

Transsiberian is no masterpiece, but it is a taut, well crafted, and highly entertaining thriller that really delivers the goods. Part mystery, part tourist nightmare, it takes the audience on a ride into the heart of darkness. Anderson has shown a keen eye for suspense of the less-is-more vein, allowing the audience to create their own shadows on the wall where none exist. I think Hitch would be proud.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

TRANSSIBERIAN; Directed by Brad Anderson; Stars Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, Thomas Kretschmann, Ben Kingsley; Rated R for some violence, including torture and language

Saturday, August 09, 2008

From Variety:
Bernie Mac, the actor and comedian who teamed up in the casino heist caper "Ocean's Eleven" and gained a prestigious Peabody Award for his sitcom "The Bernie Mac Show," died Saturday at age 50.

"Actor/comedian Bernie Mac passed away this morning from complications due to pneumonia in a Chicago area hospital," his publicist, Danica Smith, said in a statement from Los Angeles.

She said no other details were available and asked that his family's privacy be respected.

The comedian suffered from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory lung disease that produces tiny lumps of cells in the body's organs, but had said the condition went into remission in 2005. He recently was hospitalized and treated for pneumonia, which his publicist said was not related to the disease.

What a shock. My thoughts go out to the family.
I didn't realize that Brideshead Revisited director Julian Jarrold had also directed the delightful Kinky Boots until I got home and was doing the usual IMDB research for my review. I thought I recognized the name from somewhere, but it wasn't until then that it dawned on me.

Now I'm wondering what the hell happened?

I loved Kinky Boots. It was one of those films I went into having no idea what to expect, and walked out totally and completely enchanted. It treats its admittedly edgy subject matter - about a timid man who inherits his father's traditional, struggling shoe company and turns it into a manufacturer of boots for drag queens after he meets a lovely and domineering transvestite named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) - and treats it with a tender charm and gentle humor that is both refreshing and wonderfully funny.

But to watch Brideshead Revisited, you would think all homosexuals are whiny, wimpy, simpering, flamboyant drama queens. Why the sudden change? Jarrold went from a film that I adore to a film that I loathe so much that it still pisses me off just to think about it.

Kinky Boots is a tragically overlooked gem of a film - Brideshead Revisted deserves to be buried. I hope to see a return to that light touch that we have come to expect from Jarrold in Kinky Boots and Becoming Jane, not the heavy handed, misery laden self pity of Brideshead.