Thursday, July 31, 2008

On "Step Brothers"

From The Dispatch:
The premise is admittedly funny, and it works to some degree. But ultimately, "Step Brothers" is a one-joke comedy that wears pretty thin after a while. It sets up its premise and then runs it into the ground. I can't help but feel that it would have made a better "Saturday Night Live" skit than a feature-length film. The entire thing is coasting on the goofy mugging of Ferrell and Reilly, which would be far more tolerable in short form than long.
Click here to read my full review.

Review: "Shotgun Stories"

As the indie specialty divisions of the major studios continue to face major financial challenges, it's refreshing, indeed comforting, to realize that the America independent movement is not yet dead. While these films don't reach very wide audiences without the help of a strong studio arm to promote and distribute them, they are very much alive and well.

An exemplary recent example of this is Jeff Nichols debut film, Shotgun Stories. A Southern gothic family drama set against a rural backdrop, Shotgun Stories follows two sets of estranged half-brothers, whose hatred boils over into violence after the death of their father.

Providing a center for the film is Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), a quiet gambler whose bitterness at his father's abandonment for another family sets the entire tragic chain of events in motion.

We never meet his father (we are told of his death at the very beginning of the film), but we feel his uncaring attitude towards Son's side of the family just through the impersonal names he gave his children - Son, Boy, and Kid. Years worth of anger and resentment have been bubbling beneath the surface, and you can see it in Son's world weary eyes.

Shannon is quite good as Son, his performance is understated but very effective. It's a finely tuned portrait of a working class roughneck who isn't quite living the life he wants to live, but is stuck spinning his wheels out in the middle of nowhere, working a job beneath his abilities to feed his gambling addiction.

The film suffers from some weak performances, but the amateurish quality of some of the acting almost makes it seem more authentic. Nichols' direction is incredibly naturalistic, juxtaposing the natural beauty around the characters with their own lowly existence, as it is marred by a Hatfield and McCoy-like family feud, fueled by unbridled machismo and a never ending cycle of revenge.

Because of these sometimes awkward performances, it adds a realistic dimension to the proceedings that they might not otherwise have had. You believe that these men are backwoods Southern good-ol-boys, and the seemingly outlandish lengths they go to become instantly believable.

Nichols continually takes the film in surprising directions, flouting convention and refusing to take the easy way out. It paints an engagingly naturalistic portrait of its characters and the lives they lead that manages to be both lyrical and gritty at the same time. Nichols never pushes the characters into unnecessary directions for reasons of furthering the plot or creating false conflict. He just allows them to breathe and his camera to observe the unraveling of humanity at the hands of pride and revenge with a dispassionate eye. Shotgun Stories is a beautifully pared down family drama that may be rough around the edges, but it is a very impressive debut from a new directing talent we'll be hoping to see more of very soon.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

SHOTGUN STORIES; Directed by Jeff Nichols; Stars Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, Glenda Pannell, Lynsee Provence; Rated PG-13 for violence, thematic elements and brief strong language

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Review: "Patti Smith: Dream of Life"

Writing a review for a film like Steven Sebring's Patti Smith: Dream of Life is a daunting task indeed. It's impossible to convey the film's myriad emotions and subtle layers, its agonies and ecstasies, and the sheer rock-n-roll stream of consciousness of it all without sounding like hyperbole.

But ecstatic praise here is not only appropriate, it is totally and completely deserved.

An intimate portrait of an artist 10 years in the making, Patti Smith: Dream of Life doesn't even try to be a conventional biography or music doc. Sebring is instead aiming for something much more complex and profound. There is no narrative thread, no talking heads, no interviews to speak of, instead, Sebring looks at the legendary rock artist through home videos and candid filming sessions as the camera follows her through her concerts and her life in a small apartment, where she entertains visitors like Sam Shepard for impromptu jam sessions on the guitar.

In fact, Smith sums up her life story during a brief narration in the film's first five minutes. Because ultimately, that's all beside the point. You can throw facts and figures around all day but never get to the essence of who a person really is, and that is what interests Sebring, and in turn Smith, the most.

Shot mostly in grainy, 16 mm film, Dream of Life takes on a shot-on-the fly, home video quality, seeing through all the hype and publicity to the human beneath the artist. It's as if we're seeing Smith through her own eyes, told with her own words, music, and art. The archival footage is few and far between, but what little there is blends so well with the new footage, that its almost hard to tell what's what. It somehow manages to place the feeling of the film squarely in the 1970s, but with a timeless quality that transcends time and place and is urgently contemporary, as if no matter when one watches the film, it will feel powerfully in the now.

Always a firebrand, especially on stage, Smith's path crosses with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe, and Philip Glass, and her fiery personality takes her
political leanings to full force whether during concerts or at rallies. Smith is living history, but Sebring treats it like just another day in her life, giving the film an intimacy that is almost staggering.

In the end we may not know any more hard facts about Smith than we did going in, but Dream of Life treats us to something more rewarding, who she is in her heart of hearts. She remains an enigmatic figure, just as the film remains mysterious and dreamlike, ebbing and flowing through ruminations on spirituality, politics, life, love and sex.

It's a mesmerizing, astonishingly free form tapestry, almost like a cross between Godard and I'm Not There, where convention is thrown out the window in favor of a soul-piercing window into the mind of a legend.

There are so many layers and aspects to be dealt with in Dream of Life, but those are for someone far more insightful and talented than me. In fact it's not really anyone. This is a film that must be felt, not described, reflected on, not explained. It is an emotional journey, a force of nature, an exhilarating and original rock and roll love poem that is not only the best documentary I have seen this year (or in several years for that matter), but one of the best films of the year period. It's b
eautiful...masterful...perfect.

GRADE - **** (out of four)

PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE; Directed by Steven Sebring; Featuring Patti Smith, Sam Shepard, Philip Glass, Flea, Jay Dee Dougherty; Not Rated; Opens Wednesday, August 6 at the Film Forum in Manhattan.

Trailering "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dream of Life

Steven Sebring's Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which opens August 6 at the Film Forum in Manhattan, is a haunting, impressionistic thing, and has been given a nice background write-up by Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times, but this is a film that can't be described with any hint of accuracy - it must be absorbed, felt, and reflected upon to be fully appreciated and understood.

Jeff Wells wrote passionately about it after a Sundance screening back in January, and indeed this is a film that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. It's hands down the best documentary I've seen this year, and quite honestly the best one I've seen in several years. This is searing, soul-piercing work of the most impressive kind - the kind that challenges the bounds of cinema and redefines what it means to be a documentary.

I'll be tapping out my full thoughts for a review closer to its release. But let me just say right now, this is something major.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Review: "The X-Files: I Want to Believe"

My first thought upon hearing that there would be a new X-Files film, some six years after the end of the wildly popular television series, and ten years after the last movie was "why now?" I mean seriously, way to strike while the iron's hot guys.

And the biggest problem with The X-Files: I Want to Believe (besides the horrible title) is that it doesn't give us much of a reason to care that it's back after all these years. One would think that the filmmakers would try to send out the show with a bang, one last hurrah before taking its place in television history and 90s trivia games. But instead, I Want to Believe is a chilly whimper, not a fitting way to end something as iconic as The X-Files.

However, to be fully honest, it really isn't all that bad. It isn't great, mind you, but I found myself interested in it nevertheless, as I might a movie I discovered playing on cable late one night.

I have not seen the original film, or more than a couple of episodes of the show, but I Want to Believe is able to stand more or less on its own, minus a few character details that I'm sure would have benefited from at least a basic knowledge of previous events. As the film opens, Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is working as a doctor at a Catholic hospital, working desperately to find a treatment to heal a terminally ill little boy. When the FBI comes calling with the case of a missing agent and a self-proclaimed psychic who may or may not know her whereabouts, Scully must find her old partner, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), to investigate the psychic and help track down the missing agent.

However, much to Scully's disgust, the self-proclaimed psychic, is a convicted pedophile named Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly), who had molested some 37 altar boys before being sent to jail. But as the case becomes more tangled and the trail to the missing agent ever more grisly, Scully is forced to come to terms with her own skepticism, as those around them grow ever more doubtful of Father Crissman, who may not be what he claims to be after all.

It's surprising that after so long, a show such as The X-Files, which should have a rich pool of paranormal plot possibilities to pull from, can only come up with a relatively straightforward story of a possible psychic detective to hinge their finale on. The result is passable, but more as something you would expect to see on television than on the big screen.

The filmmakers make no effort to show us why The X-Files is still relevant, other than a few throwaway references to George W. Bush (comical, but jarringly out of place) and stem-cell research (an integral plot point that is never fully explored).

Despite it all I found myself interested in what was going on, but it's all just so unextraordinary that I couldn't help but wonder what the point was. I wanted to believe, and I did to some degree, but the ultimate result is underwhelming in the extreme. It's a shame given the potential here. It isn't bad, but it should have been so much more.

GRADE - **½ (out of four)

THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE; Directed by Chris Carter; Stars David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Billy Connolly, Amanda Peet, Xzibit; Rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing content and thematic material

Some Thoughts on "Step Brothers"

A movie with so few deep thoughts deserves no deep thoughts about them, so I'm not going to belabor this. It's bad enough that I have to come up with enough to say for a full length review of it for publication.


This is the kind of film in which you get exactly what you expect. It's not as horrible as some are making it out to be, as it does have a few laughs, but it's a one-joke comedy where the joke runs thin very quickly. It would have made a much better SNL skit or something, not a full length movie.

Full review coming Thursday. I know you can't wait.

Review: "The Wackness"

"I see the dopeness in everything, and you just see the wackness."

It is usually considered a great honor for an actor of the stage to be given the play's title in a line of dialogue. But generally when it comes to film, shoe-horning the title into the script can come off as a bit...awkward.

I'll admit I cringed a little bit when Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) looks at Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), and utters those words, because it conveys a certain unassuredness of a film that isn't quite sure what to do with itself.

Thankfully, The Wackness recovers more often than not from its "pay attention this is important" title-dropping, but never quite to the level that I think it aspires to.

Set in 1994 against the backdrop of sweeping cultural changes in New York City implemented by newly elected mayor Rudy Giuliani, The Wackness is the story of a newly graduated drug dealer (Peck) who is just trying to navigate the tricky waters of the transition to adulthood in his last summer before college. Helping him along the way is his eccentric, pot smoking psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley, in a wonderful performance), whose stepdaughter (Thirlby) is the object of Luke's affections.

The film deals with issues that will be readily accessible and identifiable to most viewers. Luke is an outcast - a scruffy loner who is viewed by his "friends" as useful only as a supplier of weed, and little else. That is until Stephanie enters the picture, giving Luke his first taste of love, sex, and the thrill of a summer fling.

However, the film tries to position itself as a cultural time capsule, looking back with misty eyed nostalgia at a time that really wasn't all that long ago. And this is where The Wackness stumbles. Outside of as many references to Giuliani as the filmmakers can cram in, and a few laments about the lack of readily available drugs, the film fails to fully examine the effects and wider ramifications of the Republican mayor's now legendary reforms. I wanted there to be more to it, historically speaking, than a simple "where have all the drugs gone?" theme.

The real point here, of course, isn't so much the drugs, it's actually a pretty standard coming-of-age tale about a boy's last summer of childhood. The cultural backdrop of rap and marijuana is what is supposed to give it it's personality, but that didn't interest me so much as Ben Kingsley's delightful performance. He brings vulnerability and emotional shading to a character who could have easily been turned into comic cliché, played strictly for laughs. Instead, he breathes a soul into his character and turns him into a living, breathing person, with hopes and dreams all his own, a free stuck in a never-ending cycle from which there is no escape. There is a poignancy to Kingsley's performance that bleeds into the film around him, giving it a sense of quirky melancholy. His work here is the highlight of the film, and it's one of the finest acting jobs of the year so far.

The rest of the movie doesn't always seem to know what to do with itself or what it's trying to be, but it ends up working for what it is, even if what it is doesn't always seem to be what it wants.

GRADE - **½ (out of four)

THE WACKNESS; Directed by Jonathan Levine; Stars Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Method Man; Rated R for pervasive drug use, language and some sexuality.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Front Row Film Festival

I had been contemplating some kind of From the Front Row film festival blog series thing, when along came Piper from Lazy Eye Theatre with the 12 Movies Meme.

I'm not usually a fan of blog-a-thons and things of that nature. But since I was already on the same wavelength, I thought why not?

Here are the rules:

1) Choose 12 Films to be featured. They could be random selections or part of a greater theme. Whatever you want.
2) Explain why you chose the films.
3) Link back to Lazy Eye Theatre so I can have hundreds of links and I can take those links and spread them all out on the bed and then roll around in them.

4) The people selected then have to t
urn around and select 5 more people.

I'm not going to select five people, I don't do chains or chain letters or anything like that so I'm not going to do it on a blog. But I will link back to Lazy Eye Theatre.

I'm trying to go with a crash course through film history here, but that's impossible to do in just 12 films (I may be doing this again soon), so here are some personal favorites:

DAY 1: LOVE AND HATE
1. THE BIRTH OF A NATION (D.W. Griffith, USA, 1915)
2. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Robert Mulligan, USA, 1962)


What better way to kick off the Front Row Film Festival than with the film that started it all? D.W. Griffith's epic masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation, may not have been the first film ever made, but it may quite possibly be the most influential. With a running time of nearly three hours, Birth of a Nation was the first major feature length film, and pioneered many filmmaking techniques that are still being employed today - most notably the stunning final sequence which intercuts between three battles going on in three different locations. Some feared that this switching back and forth between story lines would confuse audiences, but it didn't. And cinema hasn't been the same since. However, it is also one of the most virulently racist films ever made. But despite its abhorrent content (the KKK are treated as heroes), its influence and skill of craft cannot be denied, and as such it must be recognized for what it is - the first cinematic masterpiece.

So to balance it out, I've chosen a film that condemns the hate and intolerance that Birth extols - Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird. Tender and loving where Birth of a Nation is ignorant and abrasive, To Kill a Mockingbird is above all a haunting tale of childhood and innocence lost in the face of blind hatred. It's the perfect antidote for theunfortunate racism of Birth of a Nation.

DAY 2: THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS
3. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, USA, 1952)
4. SUNSET BOULEVARD (Billy Wilder, USA, 1950)



Two films about Hollywood, two vastly different approaches. To lighten the mood after the heavy drama of Day 1's films, let's start off with one of the all-time great musicals, Singin' in the Rain, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's colorful, toe-tapping musical comedy about the end of the silent era of filmmaking, and the dawn of the sound era. It's a movie for people who love movies.

But if Singin' in the Rain is the bright, happy crowd pleaser, then Sunset Boulevard is the bitter pill that comes after. A razor sharp satire (condemnation?) of Hollywood excess that chronicles the deterioration of an aging silent movie star unable to cope in a world of sound. I
t's a much colder, darker take on the business than Singin' in the Rain, but it is the quintessential movie about movies, which makes it a must for any true lover of film.

DAY 3: THE ART OF GROWING OLD
5. WILD STRAWBERRIES (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1957)

6. IKIRU (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1952)

If To Kill a Mockingbird is the quintessential movie about childhood, then these are equally unsurpassed in their examinations of old age, although coming from two vastly different points of view. Bergman's Wild Strawberries is a haunting mediation on life from an elderly professor coming to terms with his own mortality, as he reflects upon his life up to that point. Kurosawa's Ikiru is more sentimental but no less masterful, as it follows an aging office bureaucrat who discovers he is dying of cancer and realizes that his life has amounted to nothing, and wants to leave behind a lasting legacy.

Both films ultimately end up with a positive outlook on life, although they take very different roads to get there. Either way, both films are extremely rewarding and deeply moving examples of life as it should end.

DAY 4: THE ARCHERS
7. THE RED SHOES (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1948)
8. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1943)

Nobody makes films more lushly produced than The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and these two films represent these legendary partners at their very best. Starting out with their best known work, The Red Shoes, based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson and one of the most beautiful films ever made. It is a consummate work about devotion to one's art, featuring some of the most breathtaking ballet work ever put to film in full Technicolor glory.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, on the other hand, is a heartbreaking epic tale of a career soldier, who lives through three wars only to find himself left behind and irrelevant as modern warfare takes a brutal turn he no longer understands. It could easily fit into Day 3's line-up, but it is about more than just growing old. It's about love, friendship, war, politics, and life itself. They just don't make them like this anymore.

DAY 5: MAGGIE SMITH IS A GODDESS
9. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (Ronald Neame, UK, 1969)
10. GOSFORD PARK (Robert Altman, UK/USA, 2001)

What From the Front Row film festival would be complete without a tribute to my favorite actress? Showcase here are my two favorite Maggie Smith movies - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for which she won her first Oscar as a charismatic teacher undone by a jealous student, and Gosford Park, the film that started it all for me, in which she plays the delightfully haughty Lady Trentham.

DAY 6: THE GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME
11. SEVEN SAMURAI (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)
12. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Carl Th. Dreyer, France, 1928)

That's right, I've been saving the best for last - in my opinion the two greatest films ever made, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. When it comes to films like this, the less said, the better. These are films that must be experienced, and on the biggest screen possible. Seven Samurai is THE epic film, a thundering spectacle about a ragtag group of samurai raising to protect a village from marauding bandits that practically wrote the book on fusing action with intimate character development - using bits of American westerns and techniques pioneered by D.W. Griffith to create an action spectacle for all time.

As for The Passion of Joan of Arc, there isn't much to say that I haven't already said. This is quite simply the greatest film of all time, and the most emotionally overwhelming theatrical experience I have ever had. And it also features the all time greatest screen performance in the form of Maria Falconetti, whose face conveys more emotion than pages of dialogue ever could. Dreyer's camera is unforgiving in its incessant close-ups, which enhances the claustrophobia and heightened emotions - which are further enhanced by Richard Einhorn's stunning oratorio, Voices of Light, which was added to the film upon its rediscovery in 1981.

It is the supreme work of film art, yet to be surpassed nor is it ever likely to be equaled.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On "The Dark Knight"

From The Dispatch:
Nolan uses a realistic world to create what is essentially a complex moral character study. How far can Batman go to ensure safety without going too far? How is Batman's violent nature different from The Joker's? Should crime be fought within the realm of law, or outside it? The Batman as portrayed in Nolan's films is not a hero, he is the quintessential anti-hero. He is rough, violent, uses questionable tactics and is completely fallible. He doesn't always get the job done. "The Dark Knight" has no mercy for its characters, and for the first time in a long time, we have a superhero film where we truly don't know what's going to happen or who is going to die. Nolan keeps us on our toes, constantly on guard and constantly on the edge of our seats by defying expectation and convention at every turn.
Click here to read my full review.

Get Ready for "Hairspray 2"

Variety is reporting that New Line has reached a deal with John Waters to write a treatment for a sequel to last year's hit musical Hairspray, based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which was in turn based off the original John Waters film.

This has superfluous bad idea written all over it, and I'm surprised a contrarian like Waters is going for it. I love Hairspray, but there is absolutely no need for a sequel. It just doesn't make sense. And sequels made on the fly like this, especially to an adaptation of a Broadway show that has no sequel, seems like a recipe for disaster.

At least songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and director Adam Shenkman are returning, with all new songs being written for the film. I hope lightening will strike twice for them, but I remain pessimistic.

No cast has yet been announced.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Review: "You, The Living"

Every once in a while you come across a movie that you absolutely love, but can't quite articulate why - something so beautiful and unique that the only real response that seems to fit is a satisfied cinematic sigh.

The last time I remember feeling this way was after watching Miranda July's delightfully off-kilter Me and You and Everyone We Know. And now after seeing Roy Andersson's sublime, dreamlike You, The Living, I got to feel it all over again.

You, The Living is a film that is hard to describe, not to mention sum up in a brief review. It doesn't have a plot, or a story for that matter. It is a mosaic in the Magnolia vein, by way of Jacques Tati.

In the film we are introduced to a series of disparate characters, some who show up again, and some who don't. It is a celebration of life in all of its singular sorrow and beauty, humor and heartbreak, told though a series of absurdly comic and strangely poignant vignettes.

The film opens with a quote by Goethe: "Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe's ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot," and then takes us on a strange and haunting journey though life and its trials as it might be imagined by Luis Buñuel.

We are introduced to an overweight woman who is breaking up with her boyfriend on a park bench, wailing that no one understands her. We meet her again later in a similar situation in a restaurant, where much of the movie takes place, and where a young girl meets a rock star she idolizes and falls in love in a romance that only works out in her own fantasies.

We also meet a tuba player whose constant practicing drives those around him crazy enough to bang holes in their own ceilings to get him to stop, a disgruntled barber who takes his frustrations out with his hair trimmer, and a couple whose marital woes spill over into their workplaces. And the characters just keep coming, each one just as odd and troubled as the one before.

But throughout each segment, no matter how short or how long, whether it is a recurring character or a brief clip, there is an undercurrent of childlike wonder at the very act of being that is nothing short of breathtaking. It's not a perfect film, and some of the vignettes don't work as well as others, but what a thrill, what a joy, to be so alive in such a unique and beautiful world.

The film was shot mostly on soundstages, and their artificiality is part of the film's charm. It adds to the film's singularly peculiar atmosphere, creating a place somewhere between dreams and reality. You, The Living is a film that exists in that place of being between being asleep and being awake, seeming to make sense at first even though it really doesn't.

What is going on here though isn't just strangeness for strangeness' sake. As the opening scene foreshadows impending doom, life goes on, and just as Goethe's quote extols the blissful ignorance before a violent end, Andersson seems to alternate between satirizing his characters and gazing at them with a loving eye. For better or for worse, they are alive. And You, The Living embraces that with every fiber of its being. Glorious, beautiful, bizarre, unbridled life. That is what this movie is about. And if I can think of no other words to describe what a wonderful film this is, hopefully it will emerge from its current limbo state caused by the folding of Tartan pictures (a predicament shared by Carlos Reygadas' brilliant Silent Light), and it can be experienced by everyone for the small wonder that it is.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

YOU, THE LIVING; Directed by Roy Andersson; Stars Jessica Lundberg, Elisabeth Helander, Bjorn England, Leif Larsson, Olle Olson; Not Rated; In Swedish w/English subtitles

Review: "Mamma Mia!"

Let me start out by saying that I love musicals. LOVE them. I love being in them, I love watching them, and I love this new film adaptations of Broadway musicals trend. Even if the shows don't translate to the screen very well, I've still loved them all for what they were, just out of my love for the show.

That is, until we got to Mamma Mia.

I really like the music, and I've been listening to the soundtrack nonstop for a couple of weeks now. But the movie just does not work. At all. It's so ineptly put together with such an amateurish aesthetic that I have to wonder if director Phyllida Lloyd (whose work up until now has been mostly stage) actually understands basic film form, because Mamma Mia doesn't have a single cinematic bone in its body.

I won't spend much time on the plot, because that isn't the point here.

On the eve of Sophie's (Amanda Seyfried) wedding, desperate to know who her father is, she invites three men from her mother's (Meryl Streep) past to attend to see if she can uncover which one is actually her father. That's pretty much it. Not that anyone should expect anything deeper than that. ABBA is the star of this movie, but Lloyd ruins some of the best numbers by cutting away from them for dialogue breaks, while the song continues faintly in the background, offscreen.

I wanted to like the film as much as I like its music, but I just couldn't. The transitions into the songs are awkward, the musical numbers are dull and stiffly staged, and the entire film has a garish, washed-out look to it that just doesn't seem to fit. Lloyd doesn't seem to realize that she is directing a film, not a stage production, and it shows in how flat and lifeless the numbers come across onscreen. Ideas that may look great on the stage end up being static and stilted on the big screen, as does Seyfried's overly blubbly performance, which seems more geared to a theater full of people than the intimacy of the camera.

In fact everyone in the movie acts like they need Ritalin. Streep is great as always, but the film around her is a manic mess, saved only by the music that is the key drawing point anyway. I just wish the numbers had lived up to the songs themselves, but the music seems far too big for what is going on in the story at the time.

The film also tries to be a tolerant romance by adding a token gay character, but then ignores his relationship completely. By the end of the film, everyone has paired up with someone else, but the gay character is given the least attention, almost as if the movie felt good about itself by including it, but felt that was enough and didn't take it any farther than that. That's all well and good, but I feel that we're at a point where movies shouldn't be scared of homosexuality, and if they're going to have a gay character they shouldn't treat him or her any differently than the other relationships in the film. But they do, and I think it's a glaring oversight.

But that's a minor quibble given the overall lack of quality on display here. It's just not the movie it should have been. It's awkward, unfocused, and strangely unpleasant. There's just something off-putting about the whole affair. It's not fun or carefree, it's just tacky - lost in a sea of clichés and contrivances that somehow makes even its fantastic music lose its appeal.

GRADE - ** (out of four)

MAMMA MIA!; Directed by Phyllida Lloyd; Stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters; Rated PG-13 for some sex-related comments

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: "Tell No One"

It is a refreshing thing in a world filled with convoluted, high concept thrillers like 88 Minutes to stumble across one that doesn't treat its audience like stunted children.

Tell No One, the new mystery thriller by French director/actor Guillaume Canet, is the very definition of a high concept thriller, i.e. a movie whose plot can be summed up in 25 words or less. But what makes it work, and work well, is that it is never pigeonholed in by its main concept. It is a complex, well crafted paranoid thriller that, while not perfect, still rises above most of the current genre landscape.

As the film opens we are introduced to Dr. Alexandre Beck (Francois Cluzet), and his wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) as they sneak off to a lake for a romantic evening under the stars. However, it all comes crashing down when Margot swims ashore and is brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer.

Flash forward eight years and Dr. Beck is just trying to live a normal life, until one day when he receives a mysterious email that seems to be from his dead wife.

Suddenly, his whole world is turned upside down, and the details of that fateful night at the lake seem to make less and less sense, as his own innocence in the death of his wife is called into question.

The hook, and therefore the high concept, is the email from his supposedly dead wife eight years after her murder, and Canet handles the answers well, even if they tend to get a little too tangled in their own web, because there are many threads running through this film, and many aren't always on the surface. Yet Canet keeps us guessing and asking questions, constructing the film in such a way that we too begin to question what we saw at the beginning of the film.

But perhaps what I liked most about the film is how he keeps us connected through the film's emotional undercurrents, adding a human element that justifies the suspense. Canet may be quite adept at constructing intrigue and mystery, but the heart of Tell No One is what raises it above the competition. This is not a cold, clinical, by the book thriller, it's a movie of nuance and feeling in a thriller's clothing, with characters worth investing two hours in. In fact it reminded me a bit of Michael Haneke's Cache, but not as creepy.

I found the film's use of songs rather than score to convey emotion a tad off-putting at times, but generally it worked well in the context of the film, and some of the flashback scenes are genuinely heartbreaking.

I would like to say that more thrillers are this good, but it's not usually the case. But I'll take what I can get, and Tell No One is a taut, well crafted nail-biter that manages to rise above its genre, and give the audience just a little bit more.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

TELL NO ONE; Directed by Guillaume Canet; Stars Francois Cluzet, Marie-Josee Croze, Kristen Scott Thomas, Marina Hands, Andre Dussollier; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Some Thoughts on "The Dark Knight"

There isn't much to say about this one that hasn't already been said. And it's after 2 AM and I have to be up at 8, so I'll be brief. Starting with the obvious, Heath Ledger's performance is the stuff of instant legend, period. We're dealing with icon level work here.

That being said, The Dark Knight is the Godfather of superhero movies, a dark, bold, soulful work that explores issues of character and morality in refreshingly complex and ambiguous ways, surpassing its predecessor in every way.

The score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard expands on their Batman Begins material, and adds a hair-raising, droning motif for the Joker that sounds like a cross between radio static and a swarm of flies, that may quite possibly be the scariest sound since John William's iconic two-note theme from Jaws, and the two themes serve much the same purpose. Wherever the theme shows up, the Joker and his influence isn't far behind.

There's much more to be said, but it's late and I'm tired and my official review isn't due until Tuesday. My full thoughts will be published in the Dispatch on Thursday. In the meantime let me take this time to announce that I will be away from the computer for the next two days while I go on vacation with some friends of mine to visit a mutual friend out of state, and I won't be back until sometime Monday evening. At which point I will return with my thoughts on You, the Living, Tell No One, and Mamma Mia. I haven't made up my mind whether I'm taking my computer with me or not, so don't expect any new posts until then.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Tomorrow is Another Day

I just got done watching Roy Andersson's sublime You, the Living, but I don't have the time to post my thoughts right now. It's another one of those films that, like Silent Light, has gotten lost in the Tartan shuffle. It's going to be a busy weekend for me, but I'll try to get around to posting a review later.

But for right now I'm off with a group of friends to see The Dark Knight. I'll post my thoughts later tonight.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Some More Thoughts on "Silent Light"

One of the things that has haunted me the most about Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light is his unconventional use of mise en scène.

Typical film form tends to shy away from placing subjects in the dead center of the frame. That's Cinema 101, I was taught that in a high school broadcasting class. It works for talking heads on TV, but when framing a film or a photograph, it tends to be more aesthetically pleasing to place it off center, otherwise you have a shot that is flat, static, and boring. There are exceptions to every rule of course, but this is one that doesn't often get broken without good reason.

Silent Light, however, is filmed in such a way that nearly every subject is placed in the center of the frame. Often the subject may be at a slight angle, but for a great deal of the film the action takes place in the middle of the frame. The shot pictured above isn't quite what I am talking about, but notice how the two characters are positioned in such a way that the picture is almost perfectly symmetrical. It is that kind of unconventional framing that displays the rigidity of the characters' lives and their stiff, exercised emotions. They almost seem imprisoned by the frame.

Notice here in this shot, which takes place at a highly emotional moment, that the framing reverts back to a more conventional, off-center shot, using sight line direction to draw the audience's eyes in the direction the characters are moving toward the car across the screen. Their emotions have been let loose, and suddenly the film loosens its belt a little and allows a break in the rigidity of the framing.

Something like this wouldn't always work, but here it's a stroke of genius. It has an immediate singularity that distinguishes the film and adds gravity and weight to the characters without saying a word.

Also, despite the Christian beliefs of the characters, the God of the film seems to reach beyond that. Indeed, every frame of the film seems to be infused with the divine, especially the opening and closing shots, and the powerful final scene (which is heavily inspired by the final scene in Carl Dreyer's Ordet). I may not be a religious person, but the sense of something beyond ourselves that is present in this film is nearly overwhelming. It's a kind of "God is in everything" sense that seems more pagan or spiritual than specifically Christian, and I think Nick Plowman put it best when he said: "Without so much as an introduction, the much talked about opening shot establishes Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light” (”Stellet Licht”) as more of a transcendental contemplation elevated by a pantheistic evaluation than a high-art, austere glorification."

Pantheistic is the perfect description of the all-encompassing god of Silent Light, permeating every frame and every feeling, present at every turn - unspoken, soulful, silent, and beautiful.

Just like the film itself.

On "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"

From The Dispatch:
This is the kind of summer movie we need more of - a lush, intelligent spectacle that fuels the imagination and makes the impossible possible. It is a world of fairies, demons, angels, adventure, humor, unforgettable characters and unmitigated creativity. It's the best superhero movie we have seen so far this season (yes, even better than "Iron Man") and paves the way for del Toro's upcoming "The Hobbit." If there was ever any doubt about his ability to continue Peter Jackson's epic vision, then "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" erases it. This is summer filmmaking as it was meant to be.
Click here to read my full review.

Review: "Silent Light"

The opening shot of Carlos Raygadas' Silent Light has to rank as one of the most breathtaking shots in recent memory. Opening on a dark, starry sky, the camera pans across a million sparkling points of light, before settling on what we soon realize is a tree lined horizon, and for the next five minutes, we watch one of the most glorious, uninterrupted sunrises ever captured on film.

I was not the biggest fan of Raygadas' last film, Battle in Heaven, which I found to be merely adequate. But I was hooked from the first frame of Silent Light. As the sun rises and the camera begins a soon-to-be trademark slow zoom that signals the significance of the shot, we are introduced to a solemn Mennonite family at dinner. As it turns out, the father, Johan, is having an affair with another woman in their community, after many years of marriage with lots of children to show for it.

Wracked by guilt and grief, the deeply religious Johan faces a dilemma between family duty and love, between virtue and sin, and a crisis of faith that may be bringing him closer to Satan than to God.

The first thing one notices about Silent Light, even before the gorgeous cinematography, is the silence. The film is eerily silent, sometimes unnervingly so (not a note of music is heard in the entire film), perfectly reflecting the quiet despondency of its characters. The dialogue, despite this being a Mexican film, is almost entirely in the German dialect of Plautdietsch, but there is precious little dialogue to begin with. Raygadas is a director who shows and doesn't tell, allowing the audience to pick up on the nuances created by the images and the actors' performances.

Their silence speaks volumes about who they are and the kind of lives they live. Johan is a simple man who leads a simple life, who suddenly finds himself faced with a situation he has no idea how to handle, even less so in the face of the religious conundrum he finds himself in. His beleaguered wife, with whom he shares his woes, is torn between her wish for Johan's happiness and her desire to keep her family together. Her vacant stares, which are observed in many long, unedited takes from Raygadas' unflinching camera, offer a window into the soul of a wounded woman.

Watching the film, I was reminded of Carl Th. Dreyer's Ordet (Denmark, 1955), and as the film progresses the parallels become even more clear. Especially in the film's final scene, the links between the two films are almost undeniable. Silent Light is the best Dreyer film that Dreyer never made. Raygadas seems to be channeling Dreyer's visual prowess with his mastery of silence and religious gravity, that is evident in all of his films, from Ordet to his supreme masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

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.

There has been some confusion recently over when and if the film will ever make it to American screens. The final verdict is still up in the air, but it is available on all region DVD from Amazon UK. This is a film that deserves to be seen, and I hope this is all sorted out soon, because a film of this caliber should not be hidden away, it should be let out into the light for all to see. It's definitely not going to be for all tastes, it is slow, deliberate, and very specific in its design. But it is keenly observed and masterfully crafted, worthy of the company of Dreyer's name. Silent Light is a knockout sucker-punch of a movie whose power is as loud as a whisper.

GRADE - **** (out of four)

SILENT LIGHT (STELLET LICHT); Directed by Carlos Raygadas; Stars Cornelio Wall, Miriam Toews, Maria Pankratz, Jacobo Klassen, Peter Wall; Not Rated; In Plautdietsch w/English subtitles

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Silent Light"

HOLY. SHIT.

I'm still kind of reeling from the cinegasm I just had in the form of Carlos Raygadas' Silent Light. I need time to collect my thoughts and put together a review that does justice to the film and my feelings toward it.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New on DVD 7/15/08

Some notable new releases:

THE BANK JOB (***)

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

THE YEAR MY PARENTS WENT ON VACATION (***½)

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

Monday, July 14, 2008

Review: "Chop Shop"

Watching Chop Shop, director Ramin Bahrani's (who, by the way, is a North Carolinian) follow-up to his acclaimed Man Push Cart, I was instantly reminded of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, a 1977 masterpiece I championed quite a bit when it was finally released in theaters just last year.

Like Burnett's film, Chop Shop doesn't tell a story in the conventional sense. It is more like a slice of life, following a young, Hispanic orphan who is fending for himself on the streets of New York City. Working and living in an auto body shop in a rough neighborhood outside of Queens, Alejandro (Alejandro Palanco) is a tough, street smart kid with big dreams, who is faced not only with taking care of himself and proving his value to the adults around him, but taking care of his irresponsible 16 year old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who makes her money on the side as a prostitute.

But Bahrani isn't interested in introducing false conflicts or injecting plot twists that don't belong. So he dispenses with plot altogether, opting instead for a naturalistic, free flowing form so that the film and its characters seems more found than created, representing life as it is actually lived in the slums of New York.

As such, Chop Shop bears more than a passing resemblance to Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and the films of the Italian Neo-Realists (and, very randomly, Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas), using non-professional actors, unaltered found locations, and no musical score to create a raw naturalism. The long, hand-held takes suggest that the events were merely captured on film, not set up and created by a director, with actors reciting memorized lines that were penned by a screenwriter.

That is what makes the film such a wonderful little gem. It never feels artificial or created, it feels raw, earthy and urgently immediate. Bahrani is in no hurry to move any story along or manufacture any character arcs. For an hour and a half, he just lets his characters be, living their lives as they would on any normal day in a part of the world most of us don't see. It is poverty in our own backyard, a third world country in the shadow of the Empire State Building, and Bahrani invites us to walk those litter-strewn streets with a ten year old street urchin who knows his way around better than anyone else.

It's strangely engrossing and ultimately, surprisingly moving. It's a movie where literally nothing of any great significance happens, but therein lies its knowing heart. What may seem meaningless to us are moments of great importance for the people who live in this world, where children dream of opening a moving kitchen in the back of an ice cream truck in order to make a better living, who steal hubcabs off of parked cars for a few extra bucks, and sell pirated DVDs on street corners to people who are equally desperate. These are people for whom the simple act of feeding pigeons becomes a life-affirming ritual where just for a moment they can forget their troubles and taste the freedom of birds whose wings can bear them away from the heat and grime in a way they will never be able to.

But Bahrani doesn't wallow in sorrow nor does he allow his characters to. They are oddly happy in their own little corner of the world that seems like an entirely different culture to someone like me, but would be perfectly normal for them. Alejandro has never been to school, and must support a family before he's even old enough to shave. But he holds his own and rises to the challenge, stalwart and focused, always out to prove that his spirit is greater than his height.

Alejandro's likeability holds Chop Shop together (although the people around him can be frustrating...but that's life), and it has such a keen sense of time and place that its almost astonishing to realize that it sprung from someone's imagination rather than from real life. It's not so much a movie as it is a document of a life that never was, but might have been, and probably is.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

CHOP SHOP; Directed by Ramin Bahrani; Stars Alejandro Palanco, Isamar Gonzales, Ahmad Razvi, Carlos Zapata, Rob Sowulski; Not Rated; Now available on DVD

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea"

There are few directors for whom the announcement of a new film gives me more excitement than Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animation master responsible for Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke.

His latest film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, opens this month in Japan, and while there is no American release date set as of right now (it will most likely be sometime next year), I'm already excited. Apparently Ponyo, which tells the story of the friendship between a five year old boy and a goldfish princess who wants to be human, is aimed at a much younger audience than many of Miyazaki's previous films.

My favorite Miyazaki film remains Spirited Away, but his last film, Howl's Moving Castle, had a very grown up sensibility with its themes of a young girl who is magically transformed into an old woman, and longs to be young again. So it will be interesting to see how this film plays out, because Miyazaki's films always have a beauty and emotional richness above and beyond most animated product (even that of Pixar), and they can also be quite intense.

It will be interesting to see Miyazaki's brilliance applied to a film for children that young, but I guarantee it will be better than the usual pandering silliness that is generally aimed at them. It's never too early to start kids on a healthy diet of great filmmaking, and Miyazaki is as good a place to start as any.

"W" Actors, Crew Arrested in Bar Fight

From CNN:

SHREVEPORT, Louisiana (AP) -- Actors Josh Brolin and Jeffrey Wright and five others involved in filming the Oliver Stone movie "W" were arrested during a bar fight Saturday morning, police said.

Shreveport police Sgt. Willie Lewis said the seven were arrested just after 2 a.m. at the Stray Cat bar.

The Times of Shreveport reported that Brolin was booked and posted $334 cash bond to be released. Police did not say Saturday night whether he or the others had been released. The paper said they are part of the crew filming "W," about President George W. Bush.

A call to Brolin's publicist was not immediately returned Saturday night.

Click here to read the full story.

Well this is certainly shaping up to be the weirdest journey to the screen of any movie this year (sorry QT and the Inglorious Bastards). I've been behind this one from the beginning, even though it's been turned into a punching bag by the oh-so-ironic, hipper-than-thou types in the blogosphere. But stuff like this is making my faith waiver.

Come on Oliver Stone, don't let me down.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Some Thoughts on "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"

This is what summer movies should be.

Imagine if Pan's Labyrinth were a summer popcorn action film, and you have a basic idea of what Guillermo Del Toro has done with Hellboy II. He brings that same sense of boundless imagination and visual mastery to the table that he did with his previous masterpiece, and applies it to the realm of the summer blockbuster. And in that regard, Hellboy II is the best superhero movie so far this season (sorry Iron Man) and second only over all to WALL-E.

I was not a huge fan of the original Hellboy. It was likable, and just offbeat enough to set it apart from the rest of the pack. But it never lit me on fire, so to speak. Hellboy II on the other hand, is like the main course after the appetizer. It's flashy, funny, thrilling, and gorgeously designed. By this time the characters have become so well developed and the plot so rooted in Irish folklore rather than the colder, more well worn Nazi bad guy path of the original, that it feels as if Hellboy has finally found its voice and come into its own.

It is immediately apparent that Del Toro was allowed more control over the final product, as it bears the mark of a creative genius let loose, free to flex his muscles and realize his vision. Hellboy II features more of Del Toro's trademark fantastical creatures and otherworldly locations to the point that it is a journey into the mind of an auteur.

It is pure summer fun that is both original and intelligent, never insulting the intelligence of the audience or jumping the tracks with outlandish third-act twists (a la Hancock). It is an action fantasy that, once surrendered to, is grandly entertaining, and superior to its predecessor in every way, from the visual effects, to the costume and production design, to Danny Elfman's rich score.

As much as I liked and respected Iron Man, Hellboy II: The Golden Army is the better film. It doesn't lose steam in the final act the way Iron Man does, and while it doesn't have Robert Downey Jr., Hellboy is clearly the more creative and artistic endeavor. I loved it.

Full review coming Thursday.