Monday, August 31, 2009

NOTE: The following was originally published as part of the Hayao Miyazaki retrospective at In Review Online:

Long before I became a film critic, I spent several summers working as an assistant teacher in a daycare for school age children. They were an unruly bunch, prone to frequent misbehavior and general obnoxiousness, not a group of kids that were easily tamed. After lunch was always movie time, and while they had the option of either taking a nap or watching the movie, it was always a struggle to get them all to settle down for that long. That is, until one day, when I brought in Hayao Miyazaki’s "Spirited Away." For two hours, those children sat in total silence, enraptured by the magic of Miyazaki’s brilliant imagination. As soon as it was over, they demanded to see it again immediately, and they wanted to watch it again the next day, and before I knew it, kids were coming in telling me they had gotten their parents to start buying them the Miyazaki oeuvre on DVD. I guess that makes me somewhat of a Miyazaki evangelist, and I have never had an unhappy convert. Which is one of the great things about his films: after someone is introduced to his work they never regret it.

Even for a man whose work includes such great films as "Castle in the Sky" and "Princess Mononoke," "Spirited Away" should be considered his supreme masterpiece. Never before or since has he reached quite this level of sweeping grandeur, subtle beauty, emotional depth, and delightful whimsy. It's a film that presents a fully realized and fleshed out world, where a little girl named Chihiro suddenly finds herself trapped after her parents take an unexpected detour on their way to their new home. Forced to work for an evil witch named Yubaba in a bath house for the spirits, Chihiro puts her nose to the grindstone in order to save her parents who have been turned into pigs. Along the way, she makes friends with Yubaba’s young assistant Haku, and a servant named Rin, all the while endearing herself to all those around her, picking up friends and followers wherever she goes.

More so than any other director working today, Miyazaki has a keen eye for how children think, especially young girls. Here, Chihiro is on a journey to adulthood (the opposite premise of his next film, "Howl’s Moving Castle," which centers around a quiet and proper young girl who is transformed into an old woman, and who must figure out how to become young again). Chihiro begins the film as a timid and lonely little girl, on her way to a new home she does not want to go to. But, by the end, she's strong, confident and a wholly different person. Unlike the protagonists of many children’s films, Chihiro has a completely fleshed out character arc. Miyazaki always demonstrates a remarkable eye for detail, from the way a character puts on their shoes to the bustling backgrounds of a spirit bathhouse. Along the way he even includes allegorical environmentalist messages, in the form of the river spirit Chihiro rescues from being clogged with garbage and debris, and eventually later in the revelation of a character’s true identity.

Living in an age where computer animation seems to be all there is, it’s refreshing to see a film like this that is only augmented by these techniques and first and foremost hand drawn. "Spirited Away," like all Miyazaki’s films, is a gorgeous work, and Joe Hisashi’s sweeping and beautiful score is perhaps the composer's finest achievement. There is an emotional resonance and depth of character here that simply isn’t found in most children’s entertainment, which is what makes Miyazaki such a rare and special talent – if he can tame the wild children I was once in charge of, he can do anything. The grand, fantastical power of "Spirited Away" doesn’t just lie in its scope and spectacular magic, but in the subtlety of its characterizations and the complete originality of its story. Miyazaki brings each character to life with such breathtaking detail and gentle empathy that it sucks the viewer right in, holding them in his spell until the very end. Not only is this a benchmark in Japanese animation, but it’s a benchmark of modern filmmaking, period. A venerable modern classic for both the young and the young at heart.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Via /film:
Nu Image/Millennium Films have officially announced a greenlight for Rambo’s fifth mission, with Sylvester Stallone signed on to return to star and also direct. No word on if Stallone will also write this latest adventure, but I would say it’s a strong possibility considering that he wrote the screenplays for the previous films. So what is the new movie going to be about? According to Variety, Rambo will fight his way “through human traffickers and drug lords to rescue a young girl abducted near the U.S.-Mexico border.” Doesn’t sound like the big departure that Sly had previously promised (but then again, he also said that there would never be a fifth Rambo film).
Click here to read the full article.

If you'll allow me to fanboy out here for just a second:



Now that I've got that out of my system...THEY'RE MAKING ANOTHER RAMBO MOVIE!!!

Every bit of respectable cineaste and thoughtful film critic in me is saying this is a horrible idea and that there is no point in this...but who am I kidding? I love Rambo, I loved the last film, and I am WAY more excited about this than I should be.

That is all.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

This discussion, by Movie City News' Dave Poland, Larry Gross, and Kim Morgan, is probably the sanest, most levelheaded discussion of Lars Von Trier's Antichrist (IFC, 10.28) that I have seen yet.

They are right, of course, to criticize the otherwise intelligent people who went apeshit over this film in Cannes, and bring up a good point about the quality of the work being in how it has so gotten under the skins of those who have seen it.

This is the kind of thing I hope to see more of about this film, rather than the cries of outrage and ridiculous accusations of misogyny and comparisons to the torture porn genre (a criticism that is answered, very astutely, by Poland).

Thanks to Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere for the heads up.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lars von Trier's Antichrist (IFC, 10.23) doesn't open for another two months, but I feel the need to write down some thoughts to sort all this out in my head. Honestly, Antichrist is either a complete masterpiece, or a complete train wreck. The problem is, I don't know which it is.

Von Trier is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living directors. His films Dancer in the Dark and Dogville are on my shortlist for film of the decade. But Antichrist is a whole different level. This dark, paranoid horror film about a couple mourning the death of their young son in a cabin in the woods amidst strange and troubling occurrences, was made as a therapeutic exercise for Von Trier as he was coming out of a deep depression.

It must have been a VERY deep depression, because Antichrist is as dark and depraved a film as they come, sparking outrage and talks of outright banning by otherwise levelheaded critics and journalists.

But that, of course, is exactly what Von Trier wants. He knows what he's doing. Antichrist isn't just a thumb of the nose to the disciples of "good taste," it is a full on flip of the middle finger and a giant FUCK YOU to anyone who dares to criticize him. From the first frame to the last, Von Trier dares you to hate it, just as much as he dares you to praise it, pushing the limits of tolerance for even the most jaded viewer. It's a grueling, punishing experience, described by Von Trier himself as "childish." It's provocative, to be sure, sadistic even. But it's a fascinating film to ponder and to study. I think, that after those who are disgusted by its extreme, sexualized violence have been weeded out, there is a great, intelligent discussion to be had about this film.

We just have to wait for the cries of outrage to die down first.

Friday, August 28, 2009

It's no big secret that the science fiction genre is not in the most respectable state. Even the Sci-Fi channel has changed its name to SyFy in an effort to make itself sound more hip. Generally, science fiction is a genre associated with pimply nerds and overweight computer geeks. Finding a science fiction film, especially one released in the last 20 years or so, that isn't intellectually vapid or a bland retread of other films is quite a challenge. There have been some noble attempts of legitimizing the genre, with films such as Steven Soderbergh's remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris to more recent efforts like Duncan Jones' Moon. Even J.J. Abrams' update of Star Trek veers more into fantasy/adventure territory. The days of intelligent, probing science fiction like the works of Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, or Arthur C. Clarke seem to be gone.

Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry once said, "For me science fiction is a way of thinking, a way of logic that bypasses a lot of nonsense. It allows people to look directly at important subjects." No one understood science fiction as allegory better than Roddenberry, who routinely used his groundbreaking show to deal with subjects such as racism and the war in Vietnam in a powerfully symbolic way in order to get past the network censors. Watching an episode like "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" today shows a strong social awareness of the time in which it was made.

Flash forward 40 years to 2009, and along comes Neill Blomkamp's astounding directorial debut,
District 9, as refined an intelligent a summer blockbuster as we have seen in years, and the smartest piece of science fiction in a decade. It is a stunning throwback to the sharply written, socially significant sci-fi works of old. Set in South Africa 20 years after first contact with an alien race, District 9 imagines how humans would handle their first interactions with extraterrestrials. In a virtuoso opening act, Blomkamp takes the audience through arrival of the mothership using harrowing, documentary-like footage. The insect-like aliens, nicknamed "prawns," are found in the ship starving and living in squalor. So the South African government removes them from the ship and places them in deplorable slums in an area called District 9, right under the ship.

For the next 20 years, there is great civil unrest caused by the unruliness of the prawns and the fear of the humans. By keeping the aliens separate and marginalized in this filthy ghetto, the humans assert their superiority while patting themselves on the back for being so generous as to rescue these aliens and allow them to live on our planet. But the tensions are rising too high, and soon the government makes plans to relocate them to a what amounts to a concentration camp, and calls in the private arms company, Multi-National United, or MNU, to forcibly evacuate the prawns. They are led by a desk jockey named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a simple pawn chosen for his easy pliability. But when the operation begins to go south, Winkus finds himself the victim of an alien substance that begins to transform him into one of them. Suddenly forced to go on the run from the government, which wants to experiment on him to find a way to use alien, DNA controlled weaponry, Winkus meets Christopher Johnson, a prawn leader who is trying to return to the mothership and get his people safely back home and away from their oppression on Earth. Winkus, now a man without a home, half human and half prawn, must now see the world through the eyes of those he once helped oppress, and rely on them to return back to the way he once was.

It's all a very thinly veiled allegory for Apartheid, South Africa's systematic oppression of its black majority population. Even the alien's name, Christopher Johnson, suggests a mandated "human" name placed on him by humans looking to simplify them into something they can understand. And unlike most summer blockbusters,
District 9 uses its special effects to enhance the story, not overwhelm it. The aliens look fantastic, and are always kept grounded in reality that it never feels false. They are probably the most believable extraterrestrials ever seen on film just for the pure fact that they are tangible manifestations, not CGI cartoons. Through his mixed-media use of hand-held, news camera footage, Blomkamp keeps the film focused on the smaller picture. It's an audacious mix of forms, but it works. The camera is always right there in the action, either being held by one of the characters, or showing us what the characters are really seeing. Government propaganda footage, after all, lies.

To top it all off, Blomkamp has the gall to end the film without any real resolution, even after taking his central character, an essentially unlikable weasel of a man, on a fully realized character arc that never once feels false or contrived. There are so many questions left unanswered that there is plenty of room for a sequel, but that sense of the unknown is just too powerful. It's an invigorating, thrilling narrative of surprising emotional depth, and Blomkamp steers it with the eye of a born storyteller, refusing to give into the urge to turn it into just another alien invasion movie. These aliens feel
real, and they have real personalities to match. He actually makes us feel for these initially off-putting insectoids, they are more human than the humans are. And while some of the peripheral characters may be painted in broad, cartoonish strokes, Winkus and Christopher Johnson always remain grounded, with Winkus going from despicable minion to unlikely hero to self serving jerk and back again. It's quite daring to have the film's protagonist be such an inherently disgusting character, but it makes his personal journey all the more compelling.

One of science fiction's greatest writers, Arthur C. Clark, sums it up best
There's no real objection to escapism, in the right places... We all want to escape occasionally. But science fiction is often very far from escapism, in fact you might say that science fiction is escape into reality... It's a fiction which does concern itself with real issues: the origin of man; our future. In fact I can't think of any form of literature which is more concerned with real issues, reality.
District 9
, in fact, is a near perfect blend of both. It is both a thrilling summer action film and a deeper exploration of timely and important themes. Blomkamp has managed to mix escapism with intelligent allegory, making a film that is both grand entertainment and an outright repudiation of the mindless frat boy culture that so often dominates the multiplexes in the summer. I don't remember the last time we saw such an exciting and intellectually adept summer blockbuster from a first time director. District 9 isn't just great science fiction, it's great filmmaking period. This is the kind of film that not only restores faith in mainstream filmmaking, but in the art form as a whole.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DISTRICT 9; Directed by Neill Blomkamp; Stars Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood; Rated R for
bloody violence and pervasive language.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

From The Dispatch:

There are lots of great ideas at work in "Basterds," but it is a talky and uneven viewing experience, leaving its main characters underdeveloped and giving its secondary characters too much screen time. Already clocking in at 153 minutes, the film feels long, but one can't help but wonder if Tarantino had made this the gigantic omnibus film that it really needs to be, if it would have felt more developed and more cohesive. As it stands, the episodic structure, so common to Tarantino's films, feels like a needless hindrance.

Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad is one strange animal.

It must have been an absolute pain for the publicity team to market. And judging by the goofy lettering on the poster and the focus on straight comedy in the trailer, they missed the tone completely. Anyone going into this film expecting another goofy Robin Williams romp is either going to be severely disappointed or outraged. World's Greatest Dad is indeed a comedy, but one so pitch black that it is most definitely not suited to all tastes. And most of the film is so saturated with tragedy and emotion that it's often not a comedy at all, and those, oddly enough, are the film's strongest elements.

Robin Williams has proven himself to be a gifted dramatic actor in films such as Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and One Hour Photo (still his finest performance, in my opinion), and here he does some of the most finely tuned an subtle work of his career as Lance Clayton, a lonely high school teacher and failed writer whose hateful bully of a son, Kyle(Daryl Sabara, a long way away from Spy Kids territory), is the bane of the entire school's existence.

Alexie Gilmore, Robin Williams, and Zach Sanchez in WORLD’S GREATEST DAD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Kyle is a loathsome worm of a human being, foul mouthed and perverted, obsessed with aberrant sexuality, hardcore pornography, and being a complete and total jerk to everyone he meets. This is a kid who takes pictures up the skirts of his dad's dates under the table with his cell phone camera and distributes them around. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, redeemable about him.

And then he dies.

Accidentally hanging himself while masturbating via autoerotic asphyxiation, Kyle dies in exactly the same way he lived his life - in the most vile and disgusting way possible. When Lance discovers him, he decides to preserve his son's dignity by disguising it as a suicide, and pens an eloquently anguished suicide note to complete the illusion. But soon the note goes public, and touches a deep chord in the hearts of the school's students. Suddenly, Kyle becomes a mythic figure, a beacon for the lost and disaffected. Students who hated him in life suddenly see him as a misunderstood lost soul with whom they can identify.

So naturally, Lance has to give them more. He fabricates a diary for Kyle, which begins to have a profound impact on the lives of the students. It moves them, inspires them, and for the first time, Lance's writing has touched hearts in ways he never thought possible. But no one knows it is him, and soon the lie begins to weigh on him. Is it right to continue the lie if it is having such a positive impact? Or would the truth devastate the school? And what is the cost for Lance?

Daryl Sabara in WORLD’S GREATEST DAD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

They're all interesting questions, hence why the film's more dramatic, post-death section contain the film's most compelling moments. The dark comedy half, especially those scenes with Kyle, is much more awkward, despite a few funny moments. There's some pretty shocking stuff here, and Goldthwait walks a very fine line between comedy, tragedy, and just outright outlandishness. Often though, the film doesn't seem to know what it wants to be, and suffers from an extreme case of schizophrenia.

It has a real moral conundrum on its hands, with the potential to be a complex meditation on the nature of truth and its place when it could needlessly tear people apart. But the last act totally blows it. World's Greatest Dad flies off the rails in jaw-droppingly spectacular fashion, going from a mild curiosity to a train wreck out of nowhere, crashing and burning faster than the Hindenberg in a match factory. The ending is a true travesty, a wild, weird cop out finale to an otherwise interesting film; uneven and occasionally absurd, yes, but nothing to indicate the breathtaking level of weird that the ending represents. It seems like little more than a betrayal of the ideas at work here. Goldthwait abandons the moral and emotional questions raised by his film for outrageous gimmicks. It's a real shame too, because the set-up and the premise aren't altogether meritless, but the ultimate execution doesn't do it, or Williams, any justice.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

WORLD'S GREATEST DAD; Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait; Stars Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore, Evan Martin, Henry Simmons; Rated R for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images.
Calling Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman a difficult film is like calling Citizen Kane a pretty decent picture. It is a dense, methodical, intentionally disorienting journey into the mind of a woman who may be hallucinating, going crazy, or a murderer. The problem is that she doesn't know herself, and neither do we.

As Veronica, a middle aged woman who becomes distracted on a lonely road one night, and may or may not have run over something, Maria Onetto gives a stellar portrayal of total disorientation and gnawing inner fear. When she returns to that stretch of road the next day and finds nothing, she is at first relieved, until a young boy is discovered in a ditch. Suddenly the fear and the guilt take hold. Is the boy the thing she hit in the road that rainy night? Or was the boy's death a mere coincidence? Veronica descends into a state of shock, living in a walking state of sleep, as life continues around her she retreats into her guilt-ridden mind, gnawing herself into an almost catatonic state, paralyzed by the fear of the unknown and her own cruel imagination.

Martel structures the film in such a way as to never let the audience know anymore than Victoria does, and we are left to ponder the very questions that she does. In that regard, The Headless Woman is almost like an Edgar Allen Poe short story, delving very much into a haunting and compelling man vs. self drama. It would be a mistake, however, to think that this is in anyway some kind of thriller. Martel builds the paranoia in a very simple and mundane way, letting Veronica's blank stare and lost wandering turn into a slowly churning pit of inner turmoil. There isn't so much a story arc or plot, and Veronica as a character doesn't really change. But it's a deliberate plot to throw the audience off, we are every bit as lost and disoriented as she is, and it can often be unpleasant and downright hard to watch.

But what a feat! By the time the film is over (with its open-ended conclusion, refusing to let us off the hook with any kind of solid resolution), Martel has left the audience both breathless and frustrated. It's hard to tell whether The Headless Woman is a work of mysterious paranoia akin to Michael Antonioni's L'avventura, or just a work of maddening pretension. The answer, I think, lies somewhere in between. It is not a masterpiece on the level of L'avventura (although it may be even more maddeningly impenetrable, but it lacks that film's powerful atmosphere), nor is it a high-brow Punk'd stunt. It's an impressive study in form and a psychological character study, literally translating its protagonist's mental state into a cinematic language all its own.

In the press notes, Martel says of her inspiration for the film - "Last night I dreamt again. I was coming out of my Grandma’s house after a visit and, when looking for my car keys in my purse, I found a black hand. Dark skin. I realized I killed a black woman. The keys in my purse are not my car keys but the keys to an apartment where I am going and where I know the body is. I woke up crying a screaming. Who did the hand belong to? I guess the maid’s. Poor thing. And you never cry for the people you killed? Well, I hardly know them. This movie was created in the vapor of this conversation." I can think of no more apt description of this film than in that last sentence. The Headless Woman is a film made in a vapor, lost in the disorienting fog of one woman's soul-ravaging fear.

This chilling meditation on guilt and class warfare (a wealthy woman who may have run-over a poor young boy while her husband tries to cover any potential tracks is, if nothing else, a pointed political critique) is a remarkable example of film form as psychological indicator. And while its deliberately disorienting nature can be off-putting, the effects are hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE HEADLESS WOMAN; Directed by Lucrecia Martel; Stars María Onetto, Claudia Cantero, Inés Efron, Daniel Genoud, César Bordón; Not Rated; In Spanish w/English subtitles. Now playing at the Film Forum in NYC.
I missed the all-media screening of Marc Fienberg's Play the Game (Story, 8.25) last week, so I took advantage of a second opportunity at the public promo screening last night to catch up. And when it was over I got to thinking about the vast difference between press screenings and promo screenings.

Movies are a shared experience, or at least the good ones are. You walk into a theater with a group of complete strangers, and you share something larger than life. You step into another world for 2 hours and share an emotional journey. Play the Game is, in many ways, a perfect audience movie. Getting to see the film with an audience and see their reaction is almost essential for a true evaluation.

Sure a film should stand on its own with or without an audience. But seeing Play the Game and laughing it up with a theater full of people is, well, just more fun than doing it alone. The audience was in stitches, each uproarious bout of laughter louder and longer than the last, often covering up the next few lines of dialogue. It was a fun experience, and it definitely gave me a much more positive view of the film just because the whole atmosphere was so elated. That doesn't mean the film isn't just fine on its own, had it not been funny to me all the laugh out loud reactions probably would have annoyed me. But I was loving it too so it worked.

It's such a contrast to my press screening of Inglourious Basterds a couple of weeks ago, where me and 5 other critics sat in a theater and screened the film and then left it silence. It was, well, kind of boring. Not that that hampered the film any, I got to observe and study it with no real distractions, but I can't help but wonder how the film plays with an audience. Would I have liked it more if I had been with an appreciative audience? Or was I able to more accurately judge its faults as a result of the venue in which I saw it? It's something I'll never know unless I trek down to the multiplex and pay to see it, which probably won't happen. In the world of current films, you have to keep moving forward and not look back. In other words, I'm just too busy. I just found it interesting how much an audience can affect how you see a film.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any similar experiences?
I've always loved Andy Griffith, and in his latest comedy, a little independent gem called Play the Game (Story, 8.28), Griffith really steps up to the plate and hits comedic gold.

Play the Game is a fantastic film with the potential to be the word of mouth comedy hit of the summer. Watch the trailer, tell your friends, and don't forget to send them a Dancing Grandpa!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

This one is big news. And while personally I think it looks cool, it doesn't look as groundbreaking or revolutionary as it is being made out to be. The CG still looks like CG.

I guess we'll find out on December 18th. In the meantime, check out the trailer for yourself.
There is plenty of potential in Duncan Jones' Moon to be a stellar psychological science fiction drama, not unlike Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky's Solaris. It's the story of a man named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who is working a three year contract for an energy company that has invented a way of mining cleaner, safer, more efficient energy from the surface of the moon. Nearing the end of his contract, and having been on the moon alone for nearly three years with only the base's talkative computer, Gerty (a brilliantly cast Kevin Spacey), for company Sam is looking forward to returning to Earth to be with his wife and young daughter.

But strange things begin happening on the supposedly deserted moon base. Sam begins seeing things - visions of a mysterious woman and other such occurrences. It all comes to a head, however, when after an accident in a lunar vehicle, Sam awakes in the infirmary with no memory of the crash. But when he goes out to the site of the accident to investigate the harvester's failure (each one named after a different Biblical gospel), he makes a startling discovery inside the reckage of the crashed rover - himself.

Is he slowly going insane? If Sam is alive and well in the base, then who is the man in the rover? And why does he look just like him? They're all fascinating questions, but no sooner than they are raised, Jones reveals the answers, and spends the rest of the film with a new dilemma for his characters to solve. The problem is, the ensuing drama is nowhere near as interesting or compelling as the original mystery. But the film chooses not to follow that path, instead following the quest of Sam and his doppelganger to discover where they came from and how to get off the moon safely before a repair team from the company arrives and discovers that their secret has been blown.

It's an appealingly lo-fi production, with less emphasis on special effects than characterization. But I always felt there was more drama, and more suspense, to be mined from the material had it not played all its cards so early in the film. By the time it reveals all its secrets, one can't help but think, "that's it?" It skips and skims where it should take its time and build the inherent psychological drama of the story. The story of a man working alone on the moon for three years slowly slipping into madness (a point, by the way, which is quickly forgotten about in the film), is a premise rich in tension and dread, but, disappointingly, is left largely un-mined.

Rockwell is fantastic, however, in what is essentially a dual performance, pulling off different sides and dimensions of the same character. The idea of man vs. himself is probably one of the richest conflicts available to filmmakers, and Moon is a goldmine. But instead of going for the gold, mostly it just pulls up rocks. I wanted more out of it, more conflict, more suspense - I wanted it to convey the sheer loneliness of a man who has spent 3 years on an uninhabited world, I wanted to feel his terror as he slowly loses his grip on reality. Alas, it was not to be.

As it stands, Moon is an interesting little curiosity with a lot of wasted potential. There is a great film lost amid the vast expanses gray moondust and inside the human mind. But the result is, well, simply disappointing.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

MOON; Directed by Duncan Jones; Stars Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligot; Rated R for language.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From The Dispatch:
It is an unexpectedly sophisticated and astute drama as much as a rousing musical celebration. The music is stellar, featuring one of the best soundtracks of the year, the highlight of which is the gorgeous "Someone to Fall Back On," which is the best original song I've heard in any film this year. The best word to describe "Bandslam" is "fun." It's better than probably 90 percent of most of the junk that is routinely foisted on the teen audience, and it actually has the gall to be smart and funny at the same time. It is, for me, the surprise of the summer, and one of the year's overlooked gems.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, August 14, 2009

For anyone who says that traditional animation is dead, I point them no further than the films of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master who is responsible for such works as Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away.

Miyazaki is one of the few remaining holdouts who stubbornly refuses to use any computer animation in his films, and we are all the better for it. Nothing against computer animation - Pixar has been making quality computer animated films for years. But there's just something appealing and more organic about hand drawn animation. Knowing that artists have spent months or even years drawing each and every frame of the film is somehow more impressive than knowing it was all composed of pixels and wire frames on a computer.

His latest film, Ponyo (or Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea as it is known internationally, a title I much prefer to the simplified English moniker), opens with what is, quite simply one of the most visually stunning sequences in any film this year and some of Miyazaki's most breathtaking work to date.

Unlike his last few films, Ponyo is aimed more at much younger children, with protagonists who are little more than toddlers, harkening back to some of his earlier films like My Neighbor Totoro. Inspired by the original story of the Little Mermaid, Ponyo centers around Sosuke, a little boy who finds a goldfish princess in the sea near his home on a cliff. Quickly becoming attached to her, he takes her home and names her Ponyo, and he soon discovers that she has the ability to talk, and that she longs to become human.

The daughter of a powerful wizard and a beautiful goddess, Ponyo uses their powers to begin to transform into a human girl, forming a firm and fasct friendship with Sosuke, who vows to help her, even though her absence from the sea begins to create great chaos as her parents use their powers to find her no matter the cost, sending out great waves and storms to bring her back.

The similarities to the Little Mermaid are mostly superficial. Like most of Miyazaki's films, it is a wholly original and wondrous work of art. One could point out problems with the "love" story between the two protagonists and the binding love these two five year olds are so willing to dive into, but that would be to miss the inherent sweetness of the story. Miyazaki has always had a sharp eye for detail, and nevermore is that more on display than here. Watch the subtle ways in which Ponyo changes as the spell keeping her human - she slowly dissolves into an almost half-girl half-chicken creature, the lines in her face becoming less and less defined, less a human and more a blob with legs. It's a gradual transformation, almost unnoticeable at first, but that is a testament to the great subtlety of Miyazaki's craft. He, like so few animators working today, transports his audience into another world - one of fully realized characters and relationships, with real stories and believable flaws.

It's part of what makes Ponyo so charming. It is such a rare thing to see a children's film, let alone one geared for children this young, that actually takes the time to really try to see the world from their point of view. It treats children like actual human beings, worthy of being entertained in an intelligent and fully involving way. It may not be as emotionally rich as films like Castle in the Sky or Spirited Away, that's not what Ponyo is going for - it's just a good story, beautifully told, with great empathy and craftsmanship. It's hard not to hear the sweeping strains of Joe Hisaishi's joyous score, along with the gorgeous imagery, and not be caught up in Miyazaki's grand fantasy. It may go down as being a minor work in Miyazaki's esteemed canon, but if everyone else lived up to Miyzaki's minor works, then the world of animation would be a great place indeed.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PONYO; Directed by Hayao Miyazaki; Voices of Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Liam Neeson, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Lily Tomlin; Rated G; Opens today everywhere.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

From The Dispatch:

Meryl Streep owns it, of course, as she always does, but with the movie split into two halves that never really meet, neither has a chance to make as deep an impression as they would have alone, Child's half especially. I would much rather have spent two hours with a story about her life than with Powell and her cookbook. The Powell/blog odyssey veers more into typical romantic comedy territory, whereas the Child side is much more compelling, thanks mostly to Streep and her rapport with co-star Stanley Tucci.

Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Friday, August 07, 2009

I've always appreciated films that take a "slice-of-life" look at life - dealing in naturalism and down to earth reality rather than forced, contrived plot points. Andrew Bujalski, director of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, is credited by many as the father of the mumblecore movement, an overblown pseud-genre that features mostly non-professional twentysomething actors improving their way through a basic planned scenario. Except Bujalski's films really don't subscribe to the basic tenets of mumblecore, and it is easy to see that his latest film, Beeswax, is a cut above anything put forth by the mumblecore genre.

Story-wise, there's not much to this peculiar little character drama, that follows a pair of twin sisters - one, Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) is a rather anal paraplegic who runs a small bohemian clothing store, and the other, Lauren (Maggie Hatcher) a more free spirited teacher considering a move to teach English overseas.

Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher), left, and Lauren (Maggie Hatcher), right, as seen in Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax.” Photo by Ethan Vogt. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Jeannie is dealing with mounting tensions with the co-owner of the store, her estranged friend Amanda (Anne Dodge) , who is threatening legal action over some never-named mis-communications that took place while they were both managing the store, and is becoming more and more agitated. As she continues to sink into worry, she brings in her ex-boyfriend, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student, to help prepare for a possible lawsuit.

All the while, Lauren is juggling family responsibilities with advancing her career. But as each one becomes involved in their own petty squabble and problems, they all begin to see the importance of each other outweighs their own perceived problems, and that family is the glue - the beeswax - that binds them all together.

Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) as seen in Andrew Bujalski’s “Beeswax.” Photo by Ethan Vogt. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

That is not to say that Beeswax is one of those films where everyone makes a discovery about themselves and end the movie in a great big hug because they all learn a lesson, which if you judged it solely by the its sunny advertising art, it exactly what it appears to be. But precious little is learned here, the characters end up very much as they begin, lost in a sea of stunted growth confusion, little people caught up in little problems of their own devising. That makes Beeswax a very hard film to like, because its characters are, quite frankly, annoying. But the film's construction is almost breathtakingly real. It almost feels as if Bujalski just came into these people's lives, set up a camera, and simply observed.

All this makes Beeswax a strange animal indeed. As a viewing experience it is both frustrating and, in some ways, uninteresting. But for a film to feel this real is both impressive and surprising. The performances all feel natural and lived in, and it is clear that they have existed long before the movie began, and will continue on much as they did before we came along. Bujalski brings us into their lives for a brief period, and pulls us out when our time is up very much as we entered it - no plot resolution, no real character arcs, nothing. It's unsatisfying as a whole, but you have to respect what it does. Beeswax may not be a particularly enjoyable film, but it's an easy film to respect.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

BEESWAX; Directed by Andrew Bujalski; Stars Tilly Hatcher, Maggie Hatcher, Alex Karpovsky, Katy O'Connor, David Zellner, Kyle Henry, Anne Dodge; Not Rated; Opens today, 8.7, at the Film Forum in Manhattan.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

From The Dispatch:
For his third excursion behind the camera, Apatow has finally tackled grown-up issues head on. The previous two dealt with them, but not quite on this level. I'm sure many in his target audience will find this maturity off-putting; a lot of the film deals with introspection and growing up. "Funny People" is a film aimed at a more adult audience rather than the teen/college market, even though there is still plenty of raunchy humor to go around. But Apatow's screenplay doesn't shy away from the darkness of its subject, and to that end "Funny People" is his richest and most real effort yet.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, August 03, 2009

As cool as it has become for the internet hipsters to pile on Sam Mendes in recent years, I've always stuck by him. His stunning film debut, American Beauty, has become an Oscar whipping boy for revisionist bloggers who forget just how acclaimed it was in its year - yet it endures as a personal favorite of mine. While I'm no fan of Jarhead (a stylistic departure that did not fit his particular sensibilities), I quite enjoyed Road to Perdition and very nearly included his last film, Revolutionary Road, in my 2008 top ten list.

And now we come to Away We Go, yet another stylistic stretch for the typically glossy prestige director, that is a strange and wholly different animal.

Whereas Mendes' typical M.O. is the kind of high-end Oscar bait that studios kill for around the end of the year, Away We Go is a an excursion into the kind of American indie quirk that has become so popular (and overdone) over the last decade or so. It has it all - eccentric characters, melancholic accoustic indie music, tightly framed shots of the characters in awkwardly still positions - at first glance Away We Go is indie to the core.

Except it's not. Not even close. It's faux-indie, a studio approximation of indie sensibility. With its big-name Hollywood director and pedigree, Away We Go isn't really fooling anyone. That isn't to say that the ingredients aren't there, but nothing about it feels spontaneous or natural, which is the real hallmark of American independent filmmaking. Starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as a couple of thirtysomethings still struggling to find their place in the world as everyone they know moved on and grew up without them, until an unexpected pregnancy forces them to grow up, Away We Go traces their journey across the country as they look for a new place to call home.

Of course, along the way, they meet all sorts of colorful characters - from Krasinski's obliviously self centered parents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels, both clearly having a blast), to Rudolph's oldest friend (a delightfully nutty Allison Janney), to Krasinski's bizarre, new age guru "cousin" (Maggie Gyllenhaal), each one stranger and more wacky than the one before. And each one showing, in their own way, just what kind of parents they do not want to be.

While each segment more or less succeeds on its own terms, none of them are really long enough to make much of an impact, and seem to exist in their own separate universe. I'm not sure whether to blame Mendes or the screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vandela Vida, whose dialogue is both sharp and witty. The problem is that these segments don't really seem to fit together, creating a disjointed and episodic structure that doesn't add up to a satisfying whole. While I enjoyed the character interactions and performances, as well as the fantastic soundtrack by Alexi Murdoch, the entire production just seems underwhelming.

The blame doesn't rest on any one aspect, each one has just as many pros as cons. While Mendes is clearly out of his element here, he still delivers some beautiful moments. And the screenplay offers up quite a few intelligent zingers and moments of surreal humor, but Away We Go is never as much as the sum of its parts. It feels strangely hollow, never as profound as it obviously thinks it is, but still strangely likable in spite of itself. Each segment feels like its own short film (some admittedly more successful than others), but when you put them together they feel somehow diminished. A shame considering the enormous potential, but if you've seen the trailer, you've pretty much seen the highlight reel.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

AWAY WE GO; Directed by Sam Mendes; Stars John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Carmen Ejogo, Jim Gaffigan, Paul Schneider; Rated R for language and some sexual content.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

After seeing the Dardenne brothers' Palme D'Or winning L'enfant several years ago, I was hoping my disappointment was just an isolated occurrence. It was one of those films that just didn't jive for me, despite its almost universal acclaim.

So going into Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's latest film, Lorna's Silence, I went in determined to find out whether or not my reaction to L'enfant was limited to that particular film, or if, for some reason, I'm just not in tune with the Dardennes' particular sensibilities.

The answer, surprisingly enough, turned out to be a strange mix of both. Lorna's Silence is a stronger film than L'enfant both in terms of story and structure. I never bought L'enfant's central premise or its denouement, and while the story behind Lorna's Silence is admittedly more complicated, it actually makes sense.

The Dardennes specialize in sparse, socially conscious dramas, not unlike the British "kitchen sink" films, that center around some dire, socially relevant conflict as seen through the eyes of the lower class or societal outcasts.

Arta Dobroshi as Lorna. Photo taken by Christine Plenus, 2007, © Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

In Lorna's Silence, we are introduced to Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian immigrant living in Belgium, trying to obtain her citizenship through a mob deal by marrying Claudy (Jeremie Renier), a drug addict who agrees to the arranged marriage. But, true to form, the mob has other plans for both of them, planning to use Lorna after she obtains citizenship to marry other immigrants for the same purpose. Not wanting their operation to catch the attention of the police, they conspire to kill Claudy by overdosing him, ignoring Lorna's request for a divorce.

But as the plan comes ever closer to fruition, Lorna begins to feel real affection for Claudy, who she has helped overcome a debilitating drug addiction. Torn between her friendship with Claudy and freedom to live with her lover, Sokol (Ulban Ukaj), Lorna is faced with an impossible choice, does she remain silent, or speak up against the mob and save Claudy, at the risk of revealing herself?

Left to Right: Jeremie Renier as Claudy, Arta Dobroshi as Lorna. Photo taken by Christine Plenus, 2007, © Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

This moral quandary provides the backbone of Lorna's Silence, and the conflict is hauntingly embodied by Dobroshi's powerful performance. By the time the situation becomes compounded in the film's final stretch, the film reaches an intense fever pitch, taking on a riveting immediacy, and more compelling than the sometimes languorous set-up. The upside is that the Dardennes reward the audience's patience with the gut-wrenching finale.

Stylistically, the film shares a lot of similarities in its bare-bones structure with the current Romanian cinema, and while, as a whole, I prefer the Romanian films, I couldn't help but see some superficial similarities to Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in the film's final third. The Dardennes tend to build their films on potentially outlandish scenarios, but unlike their previous effort, Lorna's Silence makes it all work. I believed it, and that's the important thing. The pregnant pauses and Dreyer-like silences not only create atmosphere, they enrich the narrative, lending even more weight to the already impossible situation. It is a dark and engrossing drama brought to life by a strong and assured central performance that only improves with distance. This is a film to be reflected upon and mulled over, and that, I think, is the hallmark of great filmmaking.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

LORNA'S SILENCE; Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; Stars Arta Dobroshi, Jeremie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione, Ulban Ukaj; Rated R for brief sexuality/nudity, and language; In French and Albanian w/English subtitles.