Tuesday, September 30, 2008

FTFR DVD Pick of the Week

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.

IRON MAN (***)

"Iron Man" may be a breezy, wildly entertaining superhero flick, but at its core is a very timely, post-9/11 revenge fantasy. For the film's first half, Iron Man is a one-man anti-terrorism unit before turning his sights on the ultimate villain for the strangely anti-climactic final battle, at which point the film loses some of its momentum.

Downey's performance is doubtless the highlight of the film, which he infuses with a wink of ironic humor that adds buoyancy to the movie's comic-book atmosphere. This is not a serious film by any means, but it has a kind of unifying theme (weapons are bad, but terrorism must be stopped) that will contribute to its massive universal appeal.

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.


Taxi to the Dark Side is a an essential documentary, one that, while much more narrow in its focus than some other current war documentaries (like the searing No End in Sight), is still the kind of thing that demands to be seen and considered. As the Iraq war continues to lurch forward and America finds itself buried deeper and deeper in endless conflict, Gibney dares to ask the question that must be asked - when will all this end, and who will be the ones to stand up and say "enough?"

Monday, September 29, 2008

I know this isn't movie related, but I'm an election junkie so here it is.

I have just posted a new poll on the right hand sidebar where FTFR readers can vote for their pick for president. I'm curious to see who my readers are supporting. So head on over there to the sidebar and cast your vote!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Awards Daily has posted an unconfirmed report that Paul Newman has died. Details are still sketchy and still unofficial, but if this is true it is a great loss to the film community.

We'll be standing by for more details as they become available.

UPDATE: The reports have been confirmed. After a long battle with cancer, screen legend Paul Newman has died. He was 83.

Newman was the star of such varied films as Hud, The Hustler, The Color of Money, and Cool Hand Luke. He remained active in film until recently, earning a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role in Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition, and lended his voice to Pixar's Cars just two years ago.

As much as I liked Cars, for me, his bittersweet portrayal of a patriarchal mob boss in Road to Perdition will always be his swansong, and his haunting piano duet with Tom Hanks one of his most powerful screen moments. Perdition was the film that introduced me to Newman (which I saw on its opening day - my 16th birthday), and not too long after I saw Cool Hand Luke for the first time in my high school film critique class. For anyone who has ever seen him and been mesmerized by his iconic blue eyes, they know that without him cinema has been left with a gaping hole. He was a true legend, a man of great integrity and immense talent, and he will be missed.

Godspeed, Mr. Newman.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hallam Foe is a troubled young man. Ever since the death of his mother by apparent suicide, Hallam (Jamie Bell) has withdrawn into the tree house his father built him as a child, content to watch the people around him rather than going out in the world and living. He becomes a spectator to the sport of life.

Things begin to go wrong however, when he begins to suspect his stepmother (Claire Forlani), his dad's former secretary, of murdering his mother. No one believes him of course, and as his stepmother becomes increasingly insistent that he move out of the house and out on his own, Hallam runs away to the city to try and start a new life.

He takes with him his voyeuristic habits, which lead him to Kate Breck, a beautiful HR manager with whom he becomes immediately infatuated because of her uncanny resemblance to his mother. Hallam takes a job at the hotel she works for, and as the two are drawn closer together, the bizarre, Freudian overtones of their relationship become more pronounced, forcing Hallam to confront his demons, and the specter of a past he has yet to come to terms with.

It all sounds a bit heavy and lurid, but director David Mackenzie isn't so much interested in the bizarre sexual nature of his narrative as he is the peculiar quirks of the characters he observes. Mister Foe invites the audience to be the voyeur, stepping into Hallam's shoes and watching the world as if through a glass, as the story unfolds in its own unique, crystallized space in time.

Nor does Mackenzie spend too much time probing the depth's of his characters' psyches. Any person who dresses in their dead mother's clothes, smears his face with her makeup, and has sex with a woman who looks just like her that he has been spying on for weeks obviously has some serious issues that any psychiatrist worth his salt would have a field day with. But that is not the point here. Mackenzie maintains a light touch, keeping us at arms length yet keeping his sights trained on his subjects' human characteristics.

It has such a peculiar, singular worldview that the ultimate result isn't lewd or exploitative. Instead it has a strange kind of charm, a warm, open disposition that even in its darkest moments, we always pull for Hallam, who is transformed into a lovable, unlikely hero of sorts by Jamie Bell, whose performance anchors the film, even when it threatens to become too bizarre for its own good.

The film has a tendency to jump the tracks a bit in the scattershot nature of the plot, which leaves key pieces of the characters' history blank that could have further clarified where they're coming from. But as I noted earlier, that's not really the point. We're not here for psychological clarity, we're here for depth of feeling. Mister Foe isn't as moving or as emotionally probing as it could be, but it offers a beautifully unique window into the life of a decidedly odd teenager with enough issues to fill several psychology textbooks with a refreshingly uncynical eye. I may never be able to fully explain why it entertained me or why I cared so much about Hallam, but I think that's really the point. We watch, as Hallam does, for the sake of watching, and to find perhaps a window into our own world. And in Hallam we find a scarred soul with a heart of gold, whose curious charm we may not be able to articulate, but its effects won't be going anywhere anytime soon.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

MISTER FOE; Directed by David Mackenzie; Stars Jamie Bell, Sophia Myles, Ciaran Hinds, Claire Forlani; Rated R for strong sexual content and language

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The year's best film has finally opened in the United States.

Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' breathtaking masterpiece, Silent Light, is receiving a six day run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

I've grappled for weeks about which film would top my current best of 2008 list if Silent Light were to be released theatrically this year, this or 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and I finally came to the difficult conclusion that Silent Light is really the one to beat.

From my review:
I often hesitate to use the "M" word when reviewing films, as it is often abused and has loses its meaning when every other film is proclaimed a masterpiece by some critic somewhere. But it is the only word that seems to apply. Silent Light is a masterpiece, the stuff of legend. It is a stunning work, a transcendent, nearly spiritual experience, from the breathtaking opening shot to the haunting final frame.
This is landmark filmmaking. And while it may not be playing anywhere near most of my readership, I strongly recommend that anyone who can go to MOMA and see this film. Silent Light is the kind of timeless masterpiece that we so rarely see. It feels as if it stepped out of a dream, free of typical filmmaking constraints and inhabiting its own reality, as if it could have been made in any place at any time. It is not a movie of our time but a movie for all time, miraculous and sublime, haunting and ethereal, insightful and transcendental.

Reygadas channels Carl Th. Dreyer in a way that is nothing short of stunning, and this astonishing film more than earns its keep as the very best cinematic work of 2008.

From The Dispatch:
“Lakeview Terrace” is a serviceable film that aspires to be a multilayered exploration of racial themes, but never quite coalesces into a satisfying whole. And while this is by no means a heinous crime against cinema, it is indicative of a larger “dumbing down” trend in American cinema, which takes weighty material and saddles it with lame, unnecessary action. The ending would quite honestly be a joke if the rest of the film had been any weaker.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Instead of being breezy and light on its feet, "Leatherheads" is laborious and overlong and suffers from severe personality syndrome. It switches back and forth from screwball comedy to straight comedy to drama to soap opera and never seems to make up its mind as to what it is or what it is trying to do. Clooney then makes the mistake of spending too much time with the aimless subplot of Rutherford's exaggerated tale of heroism that derails the movie completely - going nowhere and taking a painfully long time to get there.


Mother of Tears is stuck with a lame plot that makes little sense and gives little reason to care. It's chaotic, unfocused, and jaw-droppingly nonsensical, with no respect for continuity or story integrity. In fact it's so laughably bad that I felt like I was watching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The film is so inept and so lacking in basic filmmaking quality that it's almost unbelievable that it was directed by someone who is so respected for being a master in his field.


It's nothing groundbreaking or out of the ordinary, but it is a competently made, even heartwarming little comedy with a nice British twist about an out-of-shape loser who decides to run a marathon to show up his ex-fiancee's new boyfriend and prove to her that he can actually finish something he sets out to do to win her back.


"Sex and the City" is an estrogen oasis in a season filled with testosterone-driven action flicks - a capable and hugely likable romantic comedy of good friends, cosmopolitans and fabulous Manolo Blahniks sure to please both the uninitiated and the hard-core fans. Either way, "Sex and the City" is a treat.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Spoutblog has listed what it considers the ten best movie titles of the last ten years. They are:
  1. All About My Mother
  2. Amores Perros
  3. The Perfect Storm
  4. Shanghai Noon
  5. Adaptation
  6. Bad Company
  7. National Treasure
  8. Shaun of the Dead
  9. 2046
  10. There Will Be Blood
The only ones I really agree with are All About My Mother and There Will Be Blood. I would add Children of Men, Babel, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God...Be Back by Five. I may even throw in Dancer in the Dark and Y Tu Mama Tambien for good measure.

What say you? Agree? Disagree? What titles would you add to the list?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The new Bond theme song, "Another Way to Die," from Quantum of Solace by Jack White and Alicia Keys is out and can be heard via Imeem at Pitchfork Media. Listen to it here.

I honestly wasn't that impressed with what I heard, it seems to be pretty aimless. But that's just me, listen to it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Thanks to In Contention for the heads up.
From The Dispatch:
Unlike most comedies, the Coens layer their film in such a way that it requires multiple viewings to really pick up on all the subtleties at work here. There are so many characters, so many motives and plot threads, that it could have very easily been a tangled mess, but the Coens keep everything on track with a sure and steady hand. By its very nature, it may not be on the same level of greatness as some of their more highly regarded works like "Fargo" or "No Country," nor is it meant to be. This is a completely different style of film with a wholly different set of goals, and the Coens nail it with their usual subversive glee.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lars von Trier

From EFA:
Coming from Denmark, the Dogma movement has changed they way we look at film: "In 1995, a group of Danish filmmakers rocked the film world, establishing a revolutionary set of rules for filmmaking, and invading film festivals and cinema screens with a distinctive, rough and not always comfortable look. Thus Dogma was born... without doubt it has exerted a strong influence on filmmaking and has set an astonishing example for filmmakers all over the world, demonstrating that it is possible to make successful films on a low budget, in a small film nation, and without a tripod." (Projections 15, Faber&Faber)

In recognition of a unique impulse to the world of film and honouring their dedication to European filmmaking, the European Film Academy will present Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, Kristian Levring, Lars von Trier, and Thomas Vinterberg with the award EUROPEAN ACHIEVEMENT IN WORLD CINEMA 2008.

All laureates will be among the guests at the 21st European Film Awards Ceremony on 6 December 2008 in Copenhagen.
Click here to read the full press release.

Lars von Trier is one of my favorite filmmakers, and has directed two of the best films of the decade so far (Dancer in the Dark and Dogville), so any honor or recognition is cause for celebration here at From the Front Row. Congratulations to Mr. Von Trier and all of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement, as well as to Dame Judi Dench, who will also be receiving a lifetime achievement award from the European film Academy.
Nicole Kidman stars in Baz Luhrmann's Australia.

From The Hollywood Reporter:
20th Century Fox is going globe-trotting with Nicole Kidman and Simon Kinberg.

The studio has picked up "The Eighth Wonder," an action-adventure pitch from Kinberg, with Kidman attached to star and produce. Laurence Mark also is producing.

Details of the plot are being kept under wraps, but the story centers on an archeological discovery that sets off a globe-spanning race. The goal is to create a movie that will be to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" what the "Bourne" movies are to James Bond movies: a character-driven, treasure-hunting thriller.
Click here to read the full article.

Why does this sound like a bad idea to me? I love Nicole Kidman, but this just has too much of a Tomb Raider vibe to me.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Regular readers of From the Front Row know what a sucker I am for Romanian film (Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is still my #1 film of the year), so when I heard the news that Romania had chosen the ambitious, film within a film epic, The Rest is Silence, to represent it at this year's Academy Awards, I was immediately excited. Not only because it's a Romanian film, but an epic Romanian film.

Now this seems to go against all the reasons I love the Romanian New Wave - the minimalism, the sparse music and stark editing, but I'm hugely curious to see what director Nae Carnfil will do with the material, which chronicles the making of The War of Independence, Romania's first epic film, in 1912.

The Rest is Silence is the most expensive film in Romanian history.

Source: Variety
It may have been released back in May, with a DVD street date of October 14, but I'm just now getting a screener copy of Stuart Gordon's Stuck.

Better late than never I guess.

Living in Cinema's Craig Kennedy put this one on my radar back in June, but in typical fashion the movie never opened in this area. Which is interesting because I think this latest offering f
rom the director of Re-Animator could have been a moderate mainstream success.

Gordon made the transition from B-grade horror to more character driven work in recent years, and Stuck is an interesting amalgam of both. It's not always entirely successful, but as a ripped from the tabloids exploitation piece with political overtones, it works rather well.

Mena Suvari stars as Brandi Boski, a nurses' assistant in a nursing home who is about to receive a major promotion. But her world soon comes crashing down when after a night of hard partying, she hits
a homeless man named Thomas Bardo (Stephen Rea) with her car and flees the scene in a panic, leaving him stuck through her windshield clinging to life.

Unsure of what to do and afraid of the consequences, Brandi leaves Thomas in her garage to die, still stuck in the windshield, hoping that she can cover up her crime and still receive her coveted promotion. Thomas, desperate to escape, struggles to stay alive, ending in a harrowing battle of wits in an explosive fight for survival.

It's a tawdry, torrid premise, and Gordon zeros right in on its sleazy tabloid nature, giving the film the feel of a old fashioned exploitation flick. And for the most part it works. Stuck is filled with dark humor and enough gore and bloodshed to satisfy and bloodthirsty horror fan. The film's biggest downfall, however, are the performances, which with the exc
eption of Rea (who is actually quite good), seem forced or phoned in, and quite a few moments seem to be the victim of poor post production dubbing. Rea is most definitely the highlight and the film's heart and soul, providing an emotional anchor and a sane character to root for to keep the film moving. He's able to do quite a bit with the character, even though he spends most of his screen time stuck through a windshield.

Despite the film's obvious exploitation roots, there is a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye. Rea's Thomas is a victim of the system, a regular middle class man who falls victim to a slow economy and an uncaring bureaucracy, left behind by society and newly homeless, who falls victim to another unassuming woman who puts her scruples aside in order to advance her career. Brandi is willing to let another man suffer and die so she can have what she wants. She's stepping on the downtrodden to lift herself up.

It is here where Stuck becomes something more than just another sleazy high concept thriller, and turns into a not-so-subtle swipe at capitalism. This added dimension makes for something better than your average horror film, but I couldn't help but feel a little battered myself by the end of the film. Nothing about it is subtle, and while that may very well have been the point, I can't help but feel that there was more emotional territory to be explored here rather than just blunt force political commentary

You have to respect Gordon for going the extra mile though. And even though he isn't always successful in his aims, Stuck is still a lean, nasty piece of work that deserves a wider audience than it is ever likely to receive.

GRADE - **½ (out of four)

STUCK; Directed by Stuart Gordon; Stars Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Russell Hornsby, Rukiya Bernard; Rated R for strong violence, disturbing content, sexuality/nudity, language, and drug use

I don't usually post stories about celebrity marriages and things of that nature, but I felt like I had to mention this one. George Takei, Star Trek's Mr. Sulu, married his partner of 21 years, Brad Altman on Sunday in a Buddhist ceremony in California. Also present were the best man and best woman, Walter Koenig (Chekov) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura).

As a Star Trek fan and as a human being, I wish them both a long and happy marriage, and may they live long and prosper.
I've been having problems with my laptop's AC adapter again, so my apologies for my sudden disappearance. My new one should be in this week and I'll be back posting regularly again in no time. But for now here's a rundown of some notable new DVD releases:

88 MINUTES (**)

Armed with a weak script, director Jon Avnet has fashioned a scattershot thriller whose logic is filled with so many holes, coincidences, and stretches in believability that it's hard to take seriously. We all know who the bad guy is from the get-go, and the "mole" so to speak isn't really that hard to spot.


It jumps from manic silliness to some exciting action scenes to headache-inducing video-game special effects to moments that border on moving - it was up and down, and I was in and out the whole time, sometimes hating it, sometimes actually getting into it and going with the flow. It has a schizophrenic nature that prevents it from adding up to a satisfying whole. Add that to an aimless subplot about Speed's older brother who was killed in a racing accident when Speed was just a child that doesn't really work, and you have a film that is an uneven experience at best. The Wachowskis simply bit off more than they can chew and made a film that is about 30 minutes too long, and a little too busy, for its own good.

YOUNG @ HEART (***½)

It's also painfully bittersweet. As we get to know each member, with all their unique personalities and stories, the chorus loses two members during the course of the seven weeks in a poignant reminder of their own mortality during the twilight of their lives. But the resilience and determination of this group is nothing short of inspiring, and the chorus' performance and dedication of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" to one of their recently deceased members during a concert at a nearby prison stands as the most deeply moving moment in film I have seen all year.

Friday, September 12, 2008

I think the picture pretty much sums it up.

Make no mistake, however. Burn After Reading is not a knee-slapping laugh riot. It is something much more subtle than that (but it is pretty damn funny). The Coen Brothers have crafted a thinking man's espionage comedy without any spies - it's just a bunch of two-bit losers who are in way over their heads.

They're not bumbling idiots of course, they just can't seem to get it together, and they all think they're far smarter than the really are.

It all plays into a familiar Coen theme of regular joes whose get rich quick schemes blow up in their faces - Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Ladykillers, even No Country for Old Men, but it's as each one of those films are worlds apart from each other, so too is Burn After Reading. The films may share common themes, but as usual the Coens find a new and original way of expressing it.

There is a definite light on its feet quality to Burn after Reading that I really enjoyed. It's a great, kick back and enjoy the ride kind of film that doesn't treat its audience like idiots - in other words it requires a little bit of attention. It's ridiculous of course, and that's what makes it fun. As J.K. Simmons says at one point: "Call me when it makes sense."

It's a knowing wink to the audience, and another slyly subversive success for the Coens.

Full review coming Thursday.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Confession: I have never seen Takashi Miike's infamous and controversial Japanese horror film, Audition, a film one could say gave rise to the "torture porn" genre that would later be carried on by the Saw and Hostel franchises. So going into his latest film, Sukiyaki Western Django, I had nothing to compare it to from Miike's earlier work.

It turns out that doesn't really matter, because Sukiyaki Western Django isn't a film about contemporary style, it is a throwback to the Spaghetti Westerns of old, as seen through a decidedly Eastern perspective.

The film centers around a small village in the Nevada countryside that has been taken over by two warring gangs, the Reds and the Whites, both searching for a legendary lost treasure said to be buried somewhere nearby. The gangs and their ruthless leaders hold the village in a grip of fear with their constant fighting and merciless killing, until one day a mysterious gunfighter wanders into town to rescue the town from the gangs' reign of terror, and woo a local widow whose son may be the key to their future.

The film is very much an amalgram of films such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, drawing upon the conventions and cliches of its genre to create a loving homage and sly parody. It never takes itself too seriously, although it does play it straight most of the time, keeping the humor subtle even when the action is not.

Despite this being a Western, there are undeniable Eastern influences here, bringing in bits and pieces of the Japanese equivalent, the samurai film (there are shades of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai to be found in several scenes), making it almost like a mash-up of both Kill Bill films. Which is appropriate given the presence of Quentin Tarantino hamming it up as an old time gunfighter who figures prominently in the film. His character (and by turn his very presence) is high camp, adding to the ridiculous nature of the plot, but I ultimately felt like he distracted from the rest of the film. He comes of more as a stunt than an inspired cameo.

In fact, that is where Sukiyaki Western Django falters the most. It's modern flourishes feel strangely out of place, as if they belong in another movie. In one particular scene the image freezes, and with machine-like sound effects the camera begins to scan the frozen image like some kind of high tech security camera, before landing on the target it was looking for and starting the image back up again. These moments are so few and far between that they seem more like stylistic experiments with no real purpose, and ultimately they just don't work.

The rest of the cast is made up entirely of Japanese actors, giving the idea of the Western a new twist that is both welcome and jarring. The dialogue is often unintelligible, but the cast devote themselves to the goofiness of their surroundings (especially Teruyuki Kagawa as a bumbing lawman with multiple personalities).

They, like the audience, understand the gleeful trashiness of the film they are in, and never try to make it anything more. Sukiyaki Western Django is a stylish and fun genre throwback that honors the films of the past while crafting a rip-roaring new experience with a gritty and clever verve.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO; Directed by Takashi Miike; Stars Hideaki Ito, Masanobu Ando, Koichi Sato, Kaori Momoi, Yusuke Iseya, Renji Ishibashi, Yoshino Kimura, Teruyuki Kagawa, Quentin Tarantino; Rated R for strong violence, including a rape; Now playing in New York City, opens tomorrow on Los Angeles
From The Dispatch:
Allen finds beauty in their attempts at happiness, however, set amidst the sunny backdrop of Spain. Shot in lovely, warm tones by Javier Aguirresarobe, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a smooth, sexy valentine to Spain and all its rich beauty. There is a laid-back charm to it all, thanks in part to its attractive cast, that feels a bit like comfort food that's high in taste but low in nutritional value. It's a solidly crafted film, but it never fully explores the intricacies of the relationships it sets up.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Despite early rumors that Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che Guevara epic, Che, would be distributed by Magnolia Pictures, IFC has picked up the distribution rights, with an aim toward a one week qualifying run in December, and a wider release in January. The film will also be released on IFC On Demand on the same day.

It seems as though the film will remain as one, 4 hour plus package, instead of being split into two films as was originally planned.

IFC president Jonathan Sehring had this to say about the film:
"'Che' is nothing less than the film event of the year. By giving us the rise and fall of one of the great icons of history, Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro...have humanized him and given audiences around the world something that will be discussed for years to come."
I've been excited about this one all along, but now that the prospect of a release has gotten closer, I almost can't wait. I'll be there on opening day.

Source: Variety

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Those of you who have not yet seen Tarsem's magnificent The Fall no longer have any excuses. Go rent it now.

Here is a look at some notable DVD releases this week:

THE FALL (***½)

This is cinema without limits, filmmaking at its purest and most primal. The Fall is Tarsem's imagination unleashed, brilliantly original and gloriously imperfect, and the world is a better place for it.


No masterpiece this, but a pleasant, inoffensive way to spend a lazy afternoon. Sure it follows a familiar plot trajectory and isn't quite as funny as its trailers would lead one to believe, but it's competently put together by director Michael McCullers and could easily be described as "cute."
It's been several weeks now since I first saw Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky (Miramax, 10.10), and I've been trying to put together some coherent thoughts about it ever since.

The truth is I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. I respected the film for what it was - a light on its feet serio-comedy about a young grade school teacher with an irrepressibly positive outlook on life. On the other hand, she began to wear on me after a while, becoming more insufferable than charming.

I don't think I would fully embrace Jeff Wells' negative take on the film, with its allusions of Poppy's "emotional fascism," but I agree with his basic point. I ultimately found her to be immature, unfit to be in charge of children because emotionally she is a child herself - she seems wholly unable to take anything seriously, until the end of the film when the bitter unhappiness of her beleaguered driving instructor (Eddie Marsdan) comes to a boiling point, and she realizes that she can't make everyone happy.

Up until that point however, she greats every trial and every hint of unhappiness with a sing-songy joke that would make me want to strangle her if I spent any length of time around her. Leigh acknowleges that you can't make everyone happy, but the distance between Marsdan's hateful driving teacher and Poppy's bubbliness is vast - they are two extremes of the same spectrum, and I found it hard to root for a character who is so singularly oblivious of people's emotions around her. It's almost as if she can't grasp that everyone else doesn't feel the way she does. Until the end she's the epitome of a one note character.

Leigh's last film, Vera Drake, was one of my top five films of 2004. It's a grimly powerful film that I have great respect for, especially Imelda Staunton's stunning performance. Happy-Go-Lucky, on the other hand, seems so slight in comparison. I know it's like comparing apples and oranges, but Leigh's human insight doesn't seem to be as keenly displayed here, and the emotional impact lessened as a result.

I plan on seeing the film at least once more before it is released in theaters and I write my final review, so maybe I will feel differently by then. But as of right now my respect for the film comes with great reservations.
Beautiful. Sexy. Awful narration. Inconsequential. I wanted to punch the narrator. Fine performances. Did I mention I hate the narration?

It's not a great film, but it's solidly crafted. I don't think it's up to the level of Match Point in Woody Allen's recent canon, but it's decent entertainment, if lacking the depth I think it could have had. I liked it, but I never liked it as much as I wanted to.

Full review coming soon.

Monday, September 08, 2008

I finally succumbed to all the hoopla surrounding Stephenie Meyers' Twilight Saga a few weeks ago, and read the first book in the series, Twilight.

I know this isn't exactly movie related, but since the film adaptation of Twilight is being released on November 21, it's close enough.

I usually stay away from fad books such as this. I was lucky enough to have gotten on the Harry Potter bandwagon before it became the monster hit that it is today, and I was able to enjoy them apart from all the hype, which was the very reason I avoided Twilight for so long. I didn't want to read them just because everyone else was.

But so many friends told me how good they were that I finally decided to see what all the fuss as about, especially with the movie coming out soon. So I bought the first one, and very quickly devoured it. It's not a great book, but it is a fun and compelling read, not to mention achingly romantic. So in my enthusiasm, I bought the second book in the series, New Moon, and began to read it immediately after finishing Twilight.

And I stopped after 148 pages because I just couldn't take it anymore. It was pissing me off. Meyer took away what made the books so entertaining in the first place, and it drug so much to the point that I just couldn't go on. So I put it down and picked up Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope, which I have found far more rewarding.

My question is this - does anyone else feel the way I do about New Moon? I know people everywhere (mainly teenage girls) have been eating up Meyer's series right up until the final book, Breaking Dawn, was released in the past few months. But I found the book absolutely interminable, completely devoid of the spark and romantic personality that made Twilight such a joy.

Will the movie live up to that? Doubtful - I'm fully expecting a neutered pre-teen friendly soap opera. It's an interesting phenomenon, and I'm all for kids reading. But is New Moon really the best they could do?
It's official, this past weekend was the lowest grossing weekend at the box office in the five years.

With only one new wide release, Bangkok Dangerous, which only grossed an estimated $7.8 million, Hollywood was feeling the crunch.

Then again, it was Bangkok Dangerous...was anyone really surprised?

The last #1 film to perform so poorly was Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, which grossed $6.7 million in its first weekend back in 2003.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

One of my favorite conservatives clowns, Movieguide's Ted Baehr, has posted a typical gloating bitch-fest about how Hollywood's numbers are down, and contributes it to the darker tone of the current marketplace, saying:
Attendance at movie theaters has plummeted 4.7% in 2008 so far, despite the hoopla surrounding THE DARK KNIGHT, as Hollywood has turned to the “dark side” this year with dark movies and few uplifting family movies or no inspiring action thrillers with very strong Christian values.
He totally fails to mention, of course, that The Dark Knight, the year's biggest hit and the second highest grossing film of all time, is also one of the darkest of the year. Because that would, you know, go against his little theory.

He also goes on to say:
Comic book movies seem to be all the rage, but MOVIEGUIDE® is concerned about reports that some Hollywood filmmakers want to make darker and darker comic book movies with little or no positive Christian values. If they continue making dark movies with lots of objectionable content and little or no heart, these producers will be ignoring years of box office experience and information from MOVIEGUIDE® showing that people prefer uplifting, optimistic movies with positive biblical values.
Well it seems like they're doing pretty well for themselves so far, seeing as how The Dark Knight has grossed $512,198,000 to date. Kinda puts a dent in his little threat huh?

Oh Movieguide...always good for a laugh.

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler took home top honors at the Venice Film Festival today, beating out early favorite, The Burning Plain, directed by Babel scribe Guillermo Arriaga. Aronofsky's previous films include Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain.

There has already been some buzz about what is being called a comeback performance for Mickey Rourke in the lead role. It looks like the film has just leaped into serious consideration as well.

Here is the full list of winners:

GOLDEN LION "The Wrestler,” (Darren Aronofsky, US)

SILVER LION “Paper Soldier” (Aleksey German Jr., Russia)

GRAND JURY PRIZE "Teza," (Haile Gerima, Ethiopia-Germany-France)

ACTOR Silvio Orlando (“Il Papa di Giovanna,” Italy)

ACTRESS Dominique Blanc ("L’Autre," France)

BEST SCREENPLAY Haile Gerima (“Teza,” Ethiopia-Germany-France)

TECHNICAL CONTRIBUTION (Cinematography) Alisher Khamidhodjev, Maxim Drozdov (“Paper Soldier,” Russia)


SPECIAL LION FOR BODY OF WORK Werner Schroeter (Germany)


LUIGI DE LAURENTIIS LION OF THE FUTURE “Pranzo di Ferragosto,” (Gianni Di Gregorio, Italy)

VENICE HORIZONS “Melancholia” (Lav Diaz, Philippines)

VENICE HORIZONS DUCUMENTARY “Below Sea Level,” (Aleksey Fedortchenko, Russia)

VENICE HORIZONS SPECIAL MENTION “Un Lac,” (Philippe Grandrieux, France)

VENICE HORIZONS SECOND SPECIAL MENTION “Women,” (Huang Wenhai, China-Switzerland)

Label Europa Cinemas – Venice Days 2008 Prize ““Machan,” (Uberto Pasolini, Sri Lanka-Germany-Italy)

FIPRESCI (INTL. CRITIC'S ASSN) COMPETITION PRIZE "Gabbla” (“Inland”) (Tariq Teguia, Algeria)



Corto Cortissimo Prize “Tierra Y Pan,” (Carlos Armella, Mexico)

Corto Cortissimo Special Mention “The Dinner,” (Karchi Perlmann, Hungary)

UIP Prize for Best European Short “The Altruists,” Koen Dejaegher (Belgium)

Source: Variety

Saturday, September 06, 2008

I may have been one of the few people to praise Robert Benton's film adaptation of Philip Roth's The Human Stain. It's not a great film, but I stand by its competence. I think for many people, however, Roth's somber tones and subject matter tend to translate to the screen as turgid and downbeat.

So for Isabel Coixet's Elegy, an adaptation of Roth's novel, The Dying Animal, the result could have gone either way.

To my pleasure, I found Elegy to be a finely crafted, intelligently written work, featuring some exceptional performances by Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz.

Kingsley stars as David Kepseh, a cultural critic and college professor, long since divorced from his wife and in a long term, no strings attached sexual relationship with an almost always absent businesswoman (Patricia Clarkson), who falls in love with a sophisticated and beguiling Cuban graduate student, Consuela (Cruz).

Unused to the feelings of love after a failed, loveless marriage, David is struck by pangs of jealousy and possessiveness that he has never felt before, throwing his life into unexpected disarray. His only refuge is in the arms of his other lover, a constant beacon of stability and non-commitment, and his best friend, George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper), a noted poet and fellow professor.

For all of its potential for soap opera leanings, Coixet handles the material well, taking the familiar tale of a professor and his student, older man with younger girl, and keeping it inwardly focused rather than wallowing in its sordid nature. It's a character study of the effects of loneliniess, jealousy, and the fear of commitment, even in a man for whom society dictates should have settled down long ago.

It juxtaposes David with his bitter son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), who still has not forgiven his father for walking out on their family, but is going through similar marital problems and does not want to see himself make the same mistakes as his father, who is somehow making them all over again. How can a father and son be so different yet so alike? The film never explores their relationship as deeply as I would have liked, and I felt that the dynamic between them was one of the film's weakest aspects. It is an afterthought, and rightfully so, to the main thread of David's relationship with Consuel. But it's so much of an afterthought that I never really accepted it.

I was also not a fan of Kingsley's narration. I'm not usually a fan of narration anyway, I generally find it to be an unnecessary narrative crutch that betrays an inherent weakness in the storytelling. This isn't always the case (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an excellent recent example), but here it just doesn't work, and I often found it jarring and a needless addition to the action. Sometimes more can be said by saying nothing at all.

Overall, however, I found Elegy a pleasure to watch. It has an extreme air of quality, in part because of Coixet's fine craftsmanship and the performances of a strong cast. It is obviously a film of class and high caliber - an engaging grown up drama that doesn't always hit all the right notes, but hits most of them most of the time.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

ELEGY; Directed by Isabel Coixet; Stars Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Dennis Hopper; Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language

Friday, September 05, 2008

This review has been a long time coming.

For weeks now, James Marsh's Man on Wire has been fawned over by critics and bloggers everywhere, especially at From the Front Row favorites Getafilm and Living in Cinema. And all the while I could only sit back and watch, a victim of a small market where movies like this take their own sweet time getting there. In other words, if I don't get a press screening or screener copy, I'm up a creek.

So, never being the patient one, I traveled nearly 2 1/2 hours to the newly opened Park Terrace theater in Charlotte, which specializes in independent, foreign, and art house fare, where Man on Wire recently opened.

And I wasn't disappointed. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what documentaries are all about.

Man on Wire takes us back to 1974, introducing us to Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker who dreamed of doing the impossible. He started off small, with tightropes in the backyard and such, eventually working his way up to walking between the belltowers of Notre Dame.

But it wasn't enough - it was never enough. Petit wanted more, he wanted to stage the ultimate rope walking coup and fulfill the dream that started it all when he saw the images of two towers in the works in New York City - he wanted to walk between the towers of the World Trade Center.

So he gathered a group of friends to be his accomplices, and travelled to America to make his dream come true by staging what would later come to be called the artisitic crime of the century.

Through interviews, photographs, and reinactments, Man on Wire takes us on a journey back in time with Petit and his crew as they relive their historic accomplishment, that has often been forgotten about in the subsequent years. But Marsh, mostly through the unbridaled enthusiasm of Petit himself, makes it all seem thrillingly immediate. We are there with Petit as he makes that first ominous step out over the seemingly infinite space between the towers. And even though there was almost no film taken of the event (there is a little bit of footage taken from the ground and circling helicopters), just the photographs themselves offer some of the most exhilarating cinematic moments I have seen in quite some time.

Man on Wire conjures a sense of awe that is so rarely ever captured in films with ten times its budget and with all the special effects wizardy Hollywood has to offer. Petit, and his then girlfriend Annie, have such a vivid memory of the event (and in Annie's case, such a profound reverance) that they paint unforgettable images with just their words. It is a magical, enthralling evocation of deep wonder and freedom - of a man who dared to dream the impossible and reached out and touched the sky.

To walk on air, to be suspended between two of the highest structures on the planet and feel no fear - Petit is a remarkable human being with an indominatable spirit, and Man on Wire captures that youthful exuberance he still possesses even today, and turns it into a thing of great beauty.

Of course it is also underscored by a haunting poignancy brought on by the events of September 11, 2001. To its credit, the movie never mentions it, but it is impossible to watch see the Twin Towers without seeing flashes of their fiery demise some 27 years later. You see the photographs of Petit's astonishing walk, you see the wall on the roof that he signed with a drawing of his tightrope, and you realize with a pang of sudden sadness that they are no longer there. The mountain that Petit so blithely conquered has fallen forever.

Thankfully, the movie ignores it completely, the only hint being that the towers are spoken of in the past tense. Marsh never pushes the subject, instead focusing on the triumph of Petit's walk and letting that bittersweet victory speak for itself. We don't need to be reminded of what we already know - the nagging sadness is already inherently there. But for that magical walk across the void, suddenly all of that is forgotten, and we are back to 1974 when one man dared to make his dream come true.

Now it can be seen for a whole new generation - one in which the object of Petit's obsessive fascination no longer exists, and as such we need something to dream about more than ever. It may sound corny, but Man on Wire reminds us that dreams can come true and men can fly, through the heights of the imagination and the triumph of the human spirit - this a film for all those who ever dared to dream.

GRADE - **** (out of four)

MAN ON WIRE; Directed by James Marsh; Featuring Philippe Petit, Annie Allix, Paul McGill, Ardis Campbell; Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, and drug references