Friday, February 27, 2009

Well we have come to the end of a record setting week here at From the Front Row. I haven't posted that much, but that hasn't stopped the annual Oscar upswing. Monday set a site record for most hits in a single day, and this week 2009 surpassed the hit count for the entire calendar year of 2007 (about a month faster than 2008 did). So 2009 is shaping up to be another banner year for From the Front Row.

Starting in two weeks, I will begin my coverage of the SXSW Film Festival, marking the first major film festival I have covered here. School obligations will keep me from attending in person, but many filmmakers and publicists have been kind enough to send me screener copies of their films, so I will be very busy in the next couple of weeks leading up to the festival. I guess it's a good thing that the week prior to the festival is Spring Break.

In other news, I have been asked to contribute to the website In Review Online. My first review, Serbis, will be up in a couple of weeks, followed by Everlasting Moments and Tokyo Sonata. There are some talented writers over there so check them out.

Also, if you haven't signed up to follow my Twitter feed yet, what are you waiting for? It's another one of the newest additions to From the Front Row to connect me with readers and fellow movie buffs.

2009 is shaping up to be another great year here at From the Front Row. I hope you'll join me for the ride, and thanks as always to those of you who keep coming back.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Morality has two sides - absolute and relative."

In Brillante Ma. Mendoza's Serbis, morality isn't the only thing with two sides. In fact even the film's tagline is filled with double meaning. Because even amidst the squalor and ugliness of its gritty narrative, Serbis is above all a film about family.

Set in a rundown porn theater in the Philippines, Serbis is the story of the Pinedas, the family who owns the crumbling old movie house, and are falling apart as gradually as the building around them. Surrounded by poverty and crime, the theater is filled with "service boys," male prostitutes who service the gay patrons (hence the name, Serbis, or Service). The theater, aptly called "Family," is a haven of sorts for the displaced and impoverished citizens of the town who are not only looking to pass the time, but to survive.

But the Pinedas have troubles of their own. The family matriarch, Nanay Flor, is locked in a bitter bigamy case against her husband, and feels betrayed by her son for testifying in his father's favor. Her daughter, Nayda, who guides us through most of the film, is the fragile glue that holds the place together, stuck in a marriage she regrets and grappling with forbidden feelings toward her own cousin. Nayda's nephew, Alan, has accidentally gotten a young girl pregnant, causing the family to scramble for a quick wedding, while Alan deals with a painful, and all too symbolic, boil right on his ass.

Serbis is not a pretty film. Director Mendoza (The Masseur) does not shy away from the unattractive truths of the situations that make up his film. In fact, some of the film's more disturbing images have drawn criticism by some reviewers who found the film too repulsive. It's interesting, however, to read the director's own remarks on the subject as written in the film's press kit that touch on that very subject.

One of the film's more graphic (and memorable) images is that of Alan's boil, and his eventual lancing of it with a glass bottle. It is a scene that is difficult to watch, and rightly so, but it's symbolism as a literal "pain in the ass" is hard to deny, as are the symbolic implications for the character and the family as a whole. Mendoza is asking at what point does morality become absolute? In a world of abject poverty and extreme hardship, what exactly is immoral what it comes to your own survival?

Serbis is very much a slice of life film, following the daily activities inside the theater that make up the lives of the characters. These people are forced to make tough decisions every day, and the film's central moral conundrum is summed up by the service boys, many of whom are underage, cavorting in illicit encounters in the inky shadows of the dilapidated theater, that is collapsing every bit as gradually as the family that owns it.

In that regard, Serbis is a feast of symbolism - from backside boils to cracked mirrors as a window into a wounded soul, to a wild goat running loose in the theater, it is a a much richer, much deeper film than it immediately appears to be on the surface.

Mendoza's roving camera captures his characters strife and pain with an unblinking eye, and despite an often muddy sound mix (remedied for English speaking audiences by subtitles), Serbis comes to bustling life with the hard scrabble existence of a family just trying to get by. And we, as the audience, are confronted with hard questions right up until the haunting final frame, about a world where morality has lost its meaning in the face of sheer survival.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SERBIS; Directed by
Brillante Ma. Mendoza; Stars Gina Pareno, Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Kristopher King, Dan Alvaro, Mercedes Cabral, Roxanne Jordan; Rated R for sexual content, nudity and language; In Tagalog w/English subtitles
It's been nearly two months since I first saw it, but I finally got around to reviewing The Wrestler.

From The Dispatch:
Aronofsky wisely steps back and allows the story and the characters to speak for themselves. Rourke, for his part, has never been better, and his performance is truly astonishing, while his co-stars, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, more than rise to the challenge. They navigate the film's tough emotional waters and emerge with some of the year's best performances. But the film really belongs to Rourke. He makes it what it is, and his presence carries the film with the sad charisma of a wounded animal, still dangerous and as majestic as ever.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In the WTF news story of the day, Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has been tapped to direct The Green Hornet starring Seth Rogen.

Production Weekly first broke the story via their Twitter feed, which was quickly picked up by other Tweeters, and eventually Cinematical. The story was confirmed by the Hollywood Reporter.

This is intriguing, but bizarre. I mean, really? I love Gondry, but I do not think of him as an action director. His films are quirky comedies, albeit often with a deeper, more meaningful bent. Still though, it just doesn't seem like a good fit. It's like Ang Lee meets Hulk all over again. Especially with Seth Rogen starring. It makes you wonder what tone this is going to take. Campy, serious, or somewhere in between?

Oh well, time will tell.
From Film Comment:

1. WALL·E Andrew Stanton, U.S. (5)
2. The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan, U.S. (21)
3. Milk Gus Van Sant, U.S. (10)
4. The Wrestler Darren Aronofsky, U.S. (23)
5. Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle, U.S./U.K. (38)
6. Let the Right One In Tomas Alfredson, Sweden (11)
7. Happy-Go-Lucky Mike Leigh, U.K. (4)
8. Wendy and Lucy Kelly Reichardt, U.S. (1)
9. A Christmas Tale Arnaud Desplechin, France (3)
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button David Fincher, U.S. (34)
11. Man on Wire James Marsh, U.K. (18)
12. Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman, U.S. (14)
13. Vicky Cristina Barcelona Woody Allen, Spain (39)
14. Rachel Getting Married Jonathan Demme, U.S. (25)
15. Gran Torino Clint Eastwood, U.S. (32)
16. Paranoid Park Gus Van Sant, France/U.S. (7)
17. Waltz with Bashir Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany (8)
18. In Bruges Martin McDonagh, U.S./U.K. (—)
19. The Edge of Heaven Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey/Italy (37)
20. Frost/Nixon Ron Howard, U.S. (41)

Not a bad list, but there are some surprising inclusions like Frost/Nixon. Good to see Gran Torino getting some love. I'm not surprised The Dark Knight is #2, the real Film Comment list was better.

Monday, February 23, 2009

And so, with the 81st Oscar telecast come and gone, the time has come to put an end to the 2008 season.

I stand by my assertion that 2008 was a weak year for film in general. Especially in the shadow of 2007. But out of that came what is possibly the best Oscar telecast in years. It had a few hiccups (I found the 5 presenters for the acting awards to be a bit awkward), but overall the show felt breezy and fresh. There are some old trappings I missed...the clips of the nominated performances, playing selections from the film's score when it wins an award, bringing back last year's winners to present awards, but on the whole the show was fantastic. Everyone really seemed to be having fun. The atmosphere was more laid back than usual, and Hugh Jackman made for a fine, charismatic hosts. Even the presenters seemed more at ease, without the usual overripe dialogue. I loved the bits with Tina Fey and Steve Martin, as well as the musical numbers (the musical compilation with Beyonce was wonderfully nutty).

There were some great speeches to be heard as well. From inspirational (Dustin Lance Black), to moving (Heath Ledger's parents accepting his posthumous Oscar), to quirky (Kunio Kato's charming "Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto" after stammering in broken English while accepting the Best Animated Short award for La Maison en Petits Cubes).

Were the 2008 Oscars representative of the best in film this year? No. Synecdoche, New York was nowhere in sight, Gran Torino was snubbed completely. But of all the nominees, the best film won in spectacular fashion, with Slumdog Millionaire racking up 8 Oscars in a good old fashioned sweep. It felt nice to be on the winning team for once...the film I've pulled for hasn't won since 2003 with Return of the King racking up a record tying 11 trophies.

There are very few wins I would change if I could. I was pulling for Meryl Streep to win Best Actress, but Winslet was overdue (even if she was better in Revolutionary Road). I was pulling for Penn, but it would have been nice to see Rourke win, as this may be his only chance at Oscar gold.

But I think when all is said and done, the 2008 Oscars were a great success, a fine send off to a rather dull and uneventful movie year. And now it's over, time to move on and look ahead to 2009. Here's hoping it's a better year for film, and that next year's Oscars lives up to this one.

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Actor:
Sean Penn, Milk
Best Actress:
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Animated Feature: WALL-E
Best Animated Short: La Maison en Petites Cubes
Best Art Direction: Benjamin Button
Best Costume Design: The Duchess
Best Makeup: Benjamin Button
Best Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Animated Short: Toyland
Best Documentary Feature: Man on Wire
Best Documentary Short: Smile Pinki
Best Visual Effects: Benjamin Button
Best Sound Editing: The Dark Knight
Best Sound Mixing: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Film Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Music Score: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Song: Jai Ho, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Foreign Language Film: Departures (Japan)

Via Awards Daily.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My final Oscar predictions were published in today's Dispatch. And they are:

Prediction/Preference: "Slumdog Millionaire"

Prediction/Preference: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"

Prediction: Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"
Preference: Sean Penn, "Milk"

Prediction: Kate Winslet, "The Reader"
Preference: Meryl Streep, "Doubt"

Prediction/Preference: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"

Prediction: Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Preference: Viola Davis , "Doubt"

Prediction: Dustin Lance Black, "Milk"
Preference: Martin McDonaugh, "In Bruges "

Prediction: Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Preference: John Patrick Shanley, "Doubt"
Prediction: "The Class"
Preference: "Waltz with Bashir"

Prediction/Preference: "Man on Wire"

Prediction/Peference: "WALL-E"

Prediction/Preference: A.R. Rahman, "Slumdog Millionaire"

Prediction/Preference: "Jai Ho," "Slumdog Millionaire"

Prediction/Preference: "The Curious Case of Benjamin But

Prediction/Preference: "The Duchess"

Prediction/Preference: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Prediction/Preference: "Slumdog Millionaire"

Prediction/Preference: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Prediction/Preference: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Prediction: "The Dark Knight"
Preference: "WALL-E"

Prediction/Preference: "WALL-E"

Prediction/Preference: "Presto"

Prediction: "Spielzeugland (Toyland)"

Prediction: "The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306"

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards last year, renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda's Katyn is just now making it to American screens.

Arriving an the Film Forum in Manhattan tomorrow for a three week run, Katyn tells the story of the massacre of Polish soldiers in the Katyn forest at the hands of the Soviet Union, and the massive cover-up that ensued, as the Soviets attempted to blame the massacre on the Nazis.

It is a well known event in Poland, less so in America, and as a result the film is a fascinating history lesson. Wajda allows the shadow of the tragedy to hang over the film like a great black curtain, but never allows us to actually see it until the very end of the film. Our first glimpse comes in a German propaganda newsreel, in which the actual story of the event is told. But, coming from Nazis, you can't help but wonder just how true what you are hearing really is.

But it turns out they are telling the truth. The Soviets were at fault, and as soon as the war is over they begin their campaign of lies to reverse the official story against the Germans.

Wajda tells the story from several different viewpoints. He centers around the family of a Polish officer who is captured by the Soviets in a prison camp. His wife and daughter are on the run from the Soviets, who are rounding up officers' families, while his father falls victim to the Nazi roundup of professors at Polish universities for teaching against Nazism. His mother is left to fend for herself, and eventually take care of her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, as the Soviet grip on Poland grows ever tighter.

If the film had stayed focused on that core group of characters, it might would have made for a more engaging, more streamlined narrative. Instead it branches off, following a myriad of secondary characters with mostly dead end stories, in an attempt to illustrate as many aspects of life in Soviet controlled Poland as possible. While it's an admirable effort, the ultimate effect is one of disorientation. I can't help but feel if Wajda had kept the film's focus more trained on the core group, the film would have been much more successful in its aims.

That being said, Katyn is undeniably a beautifully shot film. It contains several haunting images, especially during the climactic massacre scene. However the entire film seems strangely disjointed, the emotional impact neutered by its scattershot structure, and the often overbearing score by Krzysztof Penderecki.

Having now seen all of last year's Best Foreign Language Film nominees (with the exception of Russia's 12...I just haven't gotten around to it yet), I think it's pretty safe to say that my favorite of the bunch is the Israeli entry, Beaufort. Katyn, ultimately, is far too weak structurally to have the emotional impact it should. There is a great film yet to be made about this tragedy. Sadly, Katyn falls short of the mark.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

KATYN; Directed by Andrzej Wajda; Stars Artur Zmijewski, Maja Ostaszewska, Andrzej Chyra, Danuta Stenka; Not Rated; In Polish w/English subtitles; Opens tomorrow, 2/18, at the Film Forum in New York.
A commenter on the Dispatch forum boards had this to say about my review of Milk, which was published in last Thursday's edition:
After reading the movie review for Sean Penn's new film "Milk", by Matthew Lucas, I felt compelled to write. Lucas is obviously a very talented writer, but his blatant bitterness concerning those who exercise their constitutional right to voice opposition to the homosexual agenda overshadowed his descriptions and opinions of the actual film. Lucas spent his most descriptive and passionate comments on those who voted for Proposition 8 and Proposition 6. That's social commentary not a movie review. What's more, he needs to get his facts straight about who supported Proposition 6 and 8. A litte research would have revealed that fundamentalist Christians were only a small portion of those who voiced opposition...even if they were "rabid" and "right-wing". I'd prefer a little more discussion about interesting points of the movie, such as supporting actors, character development, cinematography, etc.
What say you? Feel free to click on over and comment for yourself.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I've made it pretty clear that I'm not a huge fan of Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, which opened in limited release this past Friday. I respected the film for what it was, but found it surprisingly underwhelming and a bit too scattershot for its own good.

But reading Anthony Lane's review in this week's New Yorker is almost enough to make me revisit my opinion. The biggest draw, and indeed the biggest success of the film, is its gritty realism. But get a load of this opening paragraph:
The first thing you should know about “Gomorrah” is that no fewer than three members of its cast have been arrested on suspicion of illegal activities. There could be no more unimpeachable testament, surely, to the integrity of Matteo Garrone’s film, which is about organized crime in Naples. Many of the actors were recruited from the area, presumably on the basis that they already knew the ropes, not to mention the Kalashnikovs.
That's not going to convince me that the film lacks focus...but damn. That really adds a whole new dimension of reality to it.

I still think it is a respectable piece of work, but my appreciation for it may have just risen a bit. And people say that film criticism is dead. THIS is what film criticism is all about. It makes us look at a film in a way we hadn't before. Even other critics can sometimes be made to revisit a position.

I'm not saying I think it's a masterpiece...I don't think I will ever think that. But the integrity and dedication of Garrone's work is undeniable.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Made on a shoestring budget in San Francisco by a crew mostly made up of director Barry Jenkins' buddies from film school, Medicine for Melancholy is a delicately beautiful slice of life about two strangers who wake up in bed together after a drunken one night stand with only one thing in common; they are both African American.

What follows is the story of a budding friendship that is both tender and raw, a tale of burgeoning attraction in a city still wounded by racial tensions that has gone unseen and untreated.

The two protagonists, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and 'Jo (Tracey Heggins) could not be more different. 'Jo lives with her white boyfriend, an art curator, in an upscale apartment. Micah believes that Black History Month is in February because it is the shortest month. Both come to the table with their own ideas
of race relations and their own histories to form an unlikely bond that shows San Francisco through a unique and rarely seen lens.

Jenkins uses his two characters to open up an internal dialogue about the state of race in American today, and indeed this may be the first essential cinematic examination of the subject of the Obama era, even if the film itself was shot before Obama was inaugurated.

By taking two such disparate characters and thrusting them together in a tentative friendship (romance?), Jenkins shows us the San Francisco he knows, one still plagued by housing problems and racial poverty. With 'Jo as the more moderate, enlightened voice, and Micah as the more radical, 20th century voice, Jenkins asks us to ponder just how far we have come, and where the real state of race relations lie somewhere in between.

As I was watching the film, I was often reminded of John Carney's Once, even if it isn't a musical (the film's soundtrack, however, is fantastic). The idea of a slowly blossoming romance is quite similar, but they take very different approaches. Imagine if you took Once and mashed it up with Paranoid Park and you might get a vague idea of the film's visual look and tone.

Medicine for Melancholy is a film very much enamored with feelings and textures, soulfully in tune with the heartbeat and rhythms of the city. It is filmed in a washed out, almost black and white color palette reminiscent of Tom Stern's work in Clint Eastwood's films, albeit with a much more modern verve. It is a film of sublime beauty, about a modern relationship struggling to be born and survive in a world where race is still an obstacle to be overcome, even in the least expected places.

It is extraordinary on any level, even if at the end of the day one can't help but wish it had dug a little deeper into the issues it raises. But once you realize the circumstances under which it was made, you can't help but marvel at its achievement. This is a film to be cherished, a romance that feels real, lived in, and ultimately believable. Jenkins doesn't bathe us in cliché...and as such Medicine for Melancholy feels wholly naturalistic. It's a modern love story that's not really a love story, a love poem to chance encounters and lives that intersect, no matter how briefly, to impact another in unexpected ways. It's one of the first great joys of 2009.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY; Directed by Barry Jenkins; Stars Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins; Not Rated

Friday, February 13, 2009

Of the list of possibly entries in this year's Cannes Film Festival, as listed by Mike Goodridge of Screen Daily, I am most looking forward to:
  • Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar)
  • Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
  • Tales from the Golden Age (Cristian Mungiu)
  • Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee)
  • Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Several others look interesting but those are the ones that really caught my eye...mostly due to my love for their respective directors. Check out he full list of possibilities here.

Monday, February 09, 2009

In case you're wondering why my updates have slowed down significantly, I've been in rehearsals for a production of Inherit the Wind, in which I play the Reverend Jeremiah Brown. This past weekend was tech weekend, and I was in rehearsal for 11 hours yesterday. In other words, I don't have much time for blogging or movie watching. The only thing I've seen in the past two or three weeks is Katyn.

The show opens this coming Thursday, February 12, and will run this weekend and the following weekend. So don't expect an upswing in posting until after then.

Also, I'm a little burnt out with blogging because, well, I'm disgusted with the movie blogosphere. This has been the pettiest, bitchiest, whiniest Oscar season in recent memory. There are so many major bloggers who run big sites that I used to frequent and respect, that have become insular bitching boards where all people do is complain and advocate for and against certain things just to spite the Academy.

As if any of it mattered. People are entitled to their opinions, but I'm so sick of people acting as if their's is the only one that matters.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Silent Light, my #1 film of 2008, will be ending its theatrical run at New York's Film Forum on February 10, making room for some classic film screenings (including Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her). Also closing is Kelly Reichhard's lovely Wendy and Lucy,

The week after, the Film Forum will be opening Andrzej Wajda's Katyn, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007, but is just not being released theatrically in the United States.

I'll be posting a review of Katyn sometime in the near future after I finish getting my thoughts together...but I was not as taken with it as I wanted to be. I still stand by my opinion that Beaufort should have won that year over The Counterfeiters.
From The Dispatch:
Hanna’s impact on Michael isn’t necessarily positive, but she gave him his first taste of love, and it is something he never forgot. And in the end, we realize Hanna is little more than a child herself. There is an innocence about her that is well-hidden but ever present, always tied to the secret she so desperately wants to conceal. The film never excuses her actions, and that is the central conflict at the core of “The Reader.” How does one reconcile great atrocities with personal feelings? When Michael finally meets with a Holocaust survivor under Hanna’s watch (memorably played by Lena Olin), the film digs deep into moral gray areas that are quite unusual in films that deal with the Holocaust. We are asked to consider where the line is drawn between hero and monster when all the lines are blurred and nothing is certain.
Click here to read my full review.