May 31, 2008

300 Words About: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Though I saw it on opening night, the only thing I can add to the millions of reviews in the week since its release is: What did you expect? Maybe people felt betrayed by the trailer (which I dutifully avoided), but it seems the general consensus is that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an inoffensive but otherwise fluffy failure that doesn't belong in the same conversation as the original trilogy. To which I say, again, what did you expect?

Unfortunately, this is the state we're in. Right around 2000, Hollywood figured out that, along with comic book movies, all they needed to do was continue to churn out sequels upon sequels and people would show up at the theater. And they were correct, as six of last year's top ten highest-grossing films were follow-ups to earlier movies. I can't put my finger on exactly when my expectations of these sequels dropped to near zero, but it's greatly helped me get my past my disappointment when a highly anticipated installment, like this one, fails to fully recapture the magic of its predecessors. In other words, I've wised up since The Phantom Menace. It's a sad way to see a movie, but it's necessary to avoid heartbreak.

So, Crystal Skull. It wasn't great but I got what I hoped for: Harrison Ford throwing sick two-handed punches (my favorite part of every Indy movie), everybody saying silly lines, at least one booby-trapped cave expedition, and John Williams' score. Additional positives were Shia LaBeouf (4 spelling tries there) proving that he's still one my favorite young actors, and my sister excitedly watching a terrific chase scene filmed at her alma mater. The big negatives were, of course, a completely ridiculous (even eye roll-inducing) plot and a stilted performance by Cate Blanchett, who appeared to to take this Oscar-seriously. Sure, it would have been nice to have an interesting and/or believable reason for Indy to take off to Peru, but the lack of one didn't ruin it for me because there were enough familiar elements to appreciate. It wasn't as warm and cozy as home (Raiders), but it felt like hanging out at a good friend's house.

May 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Return to Oz (1985)

I should tread lightly with May's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) because I know it has a cult following. Or I guess I should say, I've just learned it has a cult following. Hopefully I don't get too much wrong here. It was simply a weird, dreamy movie from my childhood, but I've realized that I haven't heard about it in years. It's not as good as The Neverending Story, which came out the year prior and completely overshadowed it, but it occupies a similar place in my memory. Of course, your reaction to it will depend on your age at first viewing.

My memories of Return to Oz are haunting and fascinating - everything a movie should be when you're a kid. I actually went back and forth with which poster to use. The cute theatrical sheet features great art but I chose this teaser poster because it better captures the message of the film: Oz is no magical wonderland, it's the hellish place where your nightmares live.

Devoted fans of The Wizard of Oz will know that the 1939 film was based on the first installment in a series of books by L. Frank Baum, all of which had lost their licensing rights by 1980, when Academy Award-winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) began adapting two of the later books for his planned sequel. Murch, whose work on Return to Oz would be his first and last stint as a director, fought for years to get his picture greenlit. Disney finally took the bait, but his problems continued when production was temporarily shut down due to a ballooning budget and child labor regulations, since Fairuza Balk (Almost Famous, American History X), playing Dorothy in her film debut, was only nine years old.

Return to Oz was eventually released in 1985 with the ringing endorsements of Murch's friends, who just happened to be George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Philip Kaufman. It premiered at Radio Music City Hall and went on to gross...$11 million, thanks in large part to crabby critics (no doubt nostalgic for the 1939 Oz) who apparently could come up with no other word to describe it than "bleak." Siskel & Ebert famously gave it a "thumbs down". Time Magazine's Richard Shickel: " would defy the gifts of an Olivier to find interesting, amusing life in a context as charmless and joyless (and songless) as the one Murch and his design team have concocted." The Boston Globe's Jay Carr: "...when it isn't a grim downer, it's largely inert." The Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson: "...the framework surrounding Return to Oz is dark and, I suspect, terribly frightening for very young children." And the New York Times' Janet Maslin: " Children are sure to be startled by the new film's bleakness....Oz itself, formerly a never-neverland existing somewhere in Dorothy's and the audience's shared imagination, now resembles any old extraterrestrial setting. It couldn't be further away." (I also have to share this now-amusing bit of Maslin's: "Claymation, a new stop-motion animation technique that allows rocks to speak, wink and develop faces whenever they feel like it, is used to remarkable effect here." Wow.)

It also didn't help that Return to Oz was rated PG. That's right, PG instead of G. This was before PG-13, remember, and anything with that "P" in it was a signal to parents everywhere that a film was in fact inappropriate for kids. I'm more than disturbed at where we've ended up with MPAA ratings in 2008, but that's another thought for another time.

The fact is, Return to Oz actually was pretty scary, and some of its more disturbing scenes were cut when it aired on the Disney channel. Soon after her original adventure, Dorothy escapes from a mental hospital after being submitted to electro-shock therapy. Her cell mate apparently drowns during the escape, and Dorothy wakes up in Oz, where the yellow brick road has been destroyed. The Tin Man and Cowardly Lion have been turned to stone, and the Scarecrow has been kidnapped by the evil Nome King and transformed into an ornament. Oz is policed by Wheelers, some of the freakiest things my young eyes had ever seen (turn up the volume...). Dorothy gets locked up again by the evil Princess Mombi, who had a gallery of 31 interchangeable heads that scared me for years. As you can see, this has turned out to be a horror show. We have a brief respite of light fun when Dorothy meets Jack Pumpkinhead (a stick man...with a pumpkin for head), who helps her fashion some kind of flying couch, but then it's back to life-or-death in a final showdown with the Nome King. You have three guesses to figure out which ornament was formerly the Scarecrow, Dorothy, or you die and become an ornament yourself - for eternity.

So the story was a little dark. That aside, the special effects were good enough to earn an Academy Award nomination and, well, that was really it. Although Walter Murch still works as an editor and sound designer (Youth Without Youth, Jarhead, Cold Mountain), he never wrote or directed another film. Fairuza Balk's career evidently peaked in the late 90's, and even Piper Laurie (as Aunt Em), who would receive her third and last Oscar nomination the following year for Children of a Lesser God, hasn't received much attention since then.

Despite all of this, the film lives on for one simple reason: it's a mysterious, provocative reimagining of that special place called Oz, and its characters are, let's face it, a lot more interesting than lions and scarecrows. I haven't read any of Baum's books, but there are those who will argue that his original idea of Oz was closer to Walter Murch's than it was to Victor Fleming's. Obviously that will be hard to accept for fans of The Wizard of Oz, but I think it's kind of funny. We always think these children's stories are supposed to be pure and innocent, when in fact they're also kind of trippy and subversive. Have you ever sat back and thought about a Roald Dahl book?

I don't think I've seen Return to Oz since I pushed it on my friends at some point in college, but there are several parts of it that I'll never forget, and its technical influence on later fantasy films is too often overlooked.


May 28, 2008

300 Words About: At The Death House Door

I was very excited to learn that Steve James and Peter Gilbert, the filmmakers behind a little documentary called Hoop Dreams, were collaborating on another project, this time exploring the always controversial issue of the death penalty. At the Death House Door (premiering tomorrow night on IFC) is an intimate look at the life and career of the Reverend Carroll Pickett, chaplain for 15 years at the death house (not death row) of the notorious Huntsville (TX) Prison.

While James and Gilbert focus primarily on Pickett's transformation from a supporter of the death penalty to an outspoken advocate for its abolition, they also examine the case of Carlos De Luna, who was wrongly executed under Pickett's supervision in 1989. The two stories are introduced immediately but they don't gel until we meet De Luna's sister toward the end of the film. In other words, we have two good threads instead of one great thread, and the documentary's potential is unrealized. Just to get the negatives out of the way - the film also runs a little long and the sound is at times almost inaudible. It was if James and Gilbert only used a boom mike, which I wouldn't recommend for a scene in which we're supposed to be listening to 20 year-old cassette tape recordings of a man mumbling in a Southern drawl.

This is not to say At the Death House Door doesn't have a story worth telling. Although Pickett was reluctant to take the job, he still supported capital punishment. Huntsville is the execution capital of the U.S., remember, and a place disconcertingly proud of the attention it receives because of it ("Killer Burgers" and "Murder Meals" are local favorites). Over the course of the 95 lethal injections he witnessed - several of which were botched, including one that lasted 11 minutes - Pickett became severely depressed. But as God's servant, he felt his "duty" was to comfort these men in their last minutes, even if he thought they may be innocent, and even after he was against the practice altogether.

Had James and Gilbert thrown their energy entirely behind Pickett's story, I think At the Death House Door would have been a devastatingly poignant (albeit overwhelmingly depressing) film, but as it is, I can only call it important and ambitious.

May 27, 2008

On the Horizon: An adaptation of an adaptation

Twice in 2008 we've seen films about the childlike, playful, imaginative side of filmmaking. Be Kind Rewind and Son of Rambow moderately succeeded in reminding us of the dreamworlds you can bring to life with a simple camcorder, but when it comes to truly capturing the joy of film, neither comes close to Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, made 20 years ago on a $5,000 "budget."

In 1981, Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb were preteen best friends living near Gulfport, Mississippi, so fascinated with Steven Spielberg's new film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, that they decided to make their own version. Every character, every shot, start to finish. The sets would be in their basements and backyards. Cute, right?

Over the next seven years, the boys amazingly finished the film and proudly showed it to the community at the PepsiCo Auditorium in Gulfport (hmm, reminiscent of those 2008 films I mentioned...). That was supposed to be the end of the story - until Hostel director Eli Roth resurrected their film almost 15 years later for a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, TX, which started the ball rolling that eventually landed the now-adult trio an audience with the man himself - Steven Spielberg. Buzz out of Austin and a 2004 Vanity Fair article ("Raiders of the Lost Backyard") began a flood of press that soon reached producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men), who acquired the life rights of Chris, Eric, and Jayson for the purpose of creating the currently untitled feature length film about their story, to be written by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World). Until that happens, Chris and Eric continue to attend screenings of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation while also working on their next project, What The River Takes.

I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation that was introduced by Eric Zala, who was the "official" director but also played Belloq. The story of the making of the film sounds fantastic; the DVD commentary for this might eventually end up being the best commentary ever, provided the trio can remember everything that happened over two decades ago. In any case, what really sets their story apart from other amateurs is the simple fact that their film is actually really good.

Seriously, just take a look at this shot-by-shot comparison. Still not impressed? Think about the fact that DVD and even VHS were unavailable for the first few years of their production. So yes, they had to recreate it from memory - memory and the 602 storyboards hand drawn by Eric Zala (check out the rest of the incredible production information here).
Sure the video and audio aren't great, and yes, the continuity of haircuts and pubescent voices isn't perfect, but come on - it took them seven years, and the end result is still an amusing but astonishingly accurate recreation of the original Raiders, complete with all the same stunts, silly lines, and stirring musical score by John Williams. The only part missing from their 100 minute film is the well known Nazi vs. plane propeller scene from Raiders, but it's not because it was too difficult or dangerous (you can laugh away that thought after seeing the first 10 minutes of the film). Rather, as Eric Zala told the audience afterwards, it was because they couldn't get their hands on an expendable airplane, and using a model would have looked too "fake." Seriously, these guys didn't mess around - even when they were messing around.

I can't really do justice to the original Vanity Fair article, so I'll stop here and point you back up to that. If you're a fan of the Indiana Jones trilogy or even just a former backyard filmmaker yourself, do yourself a favor and find your way to the next screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Eric Zala appeared confident that the Hollywood version of their story will happen soon, so keep an eye out. With the now confirmed box office success of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the timing might just be perfect for the adaptation of The Adaptation.

May 25, 2008

Whatever Happened To: Sean Connery?

All of the anticipation for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull got me to wondering: what happened to Indy's dad, Professor Henry Jones?

To get one fact immediately out of the way: it's not a mystery. Sean Connery effectively announced his retirement in a 2005 interview with The Scotsman, explaining he was "fed up with the idiots...the ever-widening gap between people who know how to make movies and the people who green-light the movies." Of course, this was on the heels of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, his last film role and an all-around critical and box office failure, but we'll forget about that for a moment.

The real question is, when did the dashing actor's career start going downhill? I would argue that he peaked in the late 80's - early 90's before nosediving right after The Rock in 1996. After that film (which was more of a career saver for Nicolas Cage than anything else), Sir Connery was in only five more films: The Avengers, Playing By Heart, Entrapment, Finding Forrester, and, of course, the aforementioned LXG. Not the smooth exit we might have expected from the original James Bond.

But aside from six Bond films and a Supporting Actor Oscar win in The Untouchables, could you make a case that Connery really had an impressive film career in the first place? His classic looks and oft-imitated Scottish brogue made him an iconic figure in Hollywood, but he's not regarded as the best actor of his generation or anything, right? In fact, take away his memorable roles in Highlander, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Medicine Man, and Connery doesn't have many post-Bond credits worth mentioning. If it wasn't for 007, he might have just been known as another bodybuilder turned actor. (I'm almost tempted to question the 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award he received from the American Film Institute, placing him in the company of some of the most influential Hollywood figures in history).
But he was Bond, and that might have made all the difference. That and the fact that women find him disarmingly attractive, "for an older guy."

Since his retirement Connery, now 78, has remained mostly quiet, persevering through several health problems and campaigning for Scottish independence from the UK, despite his acceptance of the British knighthood in 2000. I can't really put my finger on why, but I'm a little puzzled by the purpose of his official website (not to be confused with If he's trying to remain relevant he might want to try to cash in on more SNL skits, but I have to say, the website's "Spot the Young Connery" game is kind of fun - for one play.

Doesn't anybody in Hollywood have one last good role for Sean Connery?

May 22, 2008

Global Lens 2008: Hava Aney Dey (Let the Wind Blow)

You ever see those people who seem to have a perpetual scowl and furrowed brows? I usually think, "What's the problem, Dick Cheney?" Lighten up. Well, sometimes there's a reason, such as poverty, hormones, the threat of nuclear war, or, in the case of Arjun (Aniket Vishwasrao, pictured above), all three. Partho Sen-Gupta's Hava Aney Dey (Let the Wind Blow) shows us Arjun's life in May of 1998, when Bombay and the rest of India was gripped by paranoia about Pakistan's nuclear tests next door, and Indian society was undergoing a sea change. Lower-and middle class workers were heading to Dubai, while the educated elite stayed behind in preparation for the internet boom.

As a graduating high school student and the only child of a loving but penniless single mother, Arjun is urgently trying to determine his future. He keeps a nervous eye on the TV news reports about Pakistan and a flirtatious eye on his privileged classmate, Salma (
Rajashree Thakur, pictured below), all while half listening to his blabbering older friend, Chabia (Nishikant Kamat). To differing extents, these three characters believe they control their own destinies, but Arjun is the only one who seems to be paying attention to the external forces that are, in fact, controlling their destinies for them. (Let the Wind Blow was one of ten films selected as part of the 2008 Global Lens series, currently making its way around the country. Find it. Support it.)

To call Let the Wind Blow a significant film about Indian culture would be a major understatement. While it's not perfect, it's still an incredibly important snapshot of a time in India's history when anything was possible (just think about how much that country has changed in the last 10 years). But it's not just that so many possibilities existed, it's that they existed in a place where the driving cultural influences are destiny and karma, not the Western ideals of hard work and self-efficacy. Partho Sen-Gupta explores that period where Western culture was creeping in and creating confusion among Indian youth, and I find the idea fascinating.

Of course, the idea has to be fully realized in order to make a good film, and it's here that Sen-Gupta stumbles just a bit, primarily because he casts too wide of a net. Arjun is a great protagonist and Vishwasrao, in his only acting role to date, cuts a striking figure that takes over every scene. I would have liked to get to know him a bit better instead of just watching him brood about between different social groups. All kinds of things are clearly eating at him, but we rarely get more than a grunt or a quick emotional outburst (of course, such is teenage life).

Let the Wind Blow is not an immediately impressive film, but in the days since seeing it I've found that its characters have stayed with me, and I feel one step closer to understanding India's dynamic recent history - and that's what the Global Film Initiative is all about.

May 21, 2008

REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (B)

Background: It's not discussed much any more, but I'm still curious as to what sparked the countless fantasy novel film adaptations at the turn of the millennium - The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, Eragon, Twilight, The Hobbit and so on. What was the catalyst, since a number of these were written so long ago? Maybe technology...anyway, the most recent installment is The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, which follows up The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and precedes The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, due out in 2010. Andrew Adamson (Shrek and Shrek 2) is directing the trilogy, the four Pevensie children are played by the same young actors (William Moseley as Peter, Anna Popplewell as Susan, Skandar Keynes as Edmund, and Georgie Henley as Lucy), and Aslan is again voiced by Liam Neeson. Joining the cast are Ben Barnes (Stardust) and Peter Dinklage (Death at a Funeral). Prince Caspian was filmed in Prague, Slovenia, New Zealand and Poland.

Synopsis: We're back in Narnia, thirteen hundred years after the Pevensie children laid down their royal crowns and returned home. Narnia has been ruled with an iron fist by King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) since the Telmarine people arrived and took over with brute force, banishing the few surviving Narnians to live in exile in the woods. Like all Telmarines, Prince Caspian (Barnes), current heir to the throne as Miraz's nephew, is told that the yarns about Narnia's Golden Age are fantasy, and not history. Caspian is an unassuming young man, however, and is perhaps a little too curious and a little too innocent to continue the Telmarine's dark rule. When King Miraz bears a son of his own, then, he naturally sends his guards to kill Caspian, who makes a daring escape to the woods, where we meet Trumpkin (Dinklage), Nikabrik (Warwick Davis), Reepicheep the Mouse (Eddie Izzard), and Trufflehunter the Badger (Ken Stott). Desperate, Prince Caspian blows the magic horn (formerly Susan's) that dispatches the Pevensie children back to Narnia (it's only been a year in their lives since they left, don't try the math). After finding Caspian and reuniting the remaining Narnians in the woods, the film can naturally only go in one direction: all out battle between the Narnians and the Telmarines. While there are several symbolic incidents and speeches, Aslan sightings, flirting scenes, White Witch sightings, and silly arguments, better than half the film is made of up violent combat. Duels, ambushes, stabbings, and even a suggested decapitation. As you might expect if you've read this far, good (and God) trumps evil...for now.

I Loved:
+ The terrific special effects, which are so easy to take for granted when we see them in every movie. Some of these sequences would have blown away audiences just 10 years ago.
+ The musical score by Harry Gregson-Williams, who also just happened to make his acting debut (in his 66th film) as the voice of Pattertwig the Squirrel.

I Liked:
+ The centaurs. You don't mess with centaurs.
+ Ben Barnes' Mediterranean/Spanish accent. Got me with it.

I Disliked:
- The unnecessary long 147-min. running time, cluttered up with repetitive action and stale "after school special" scenes.

I Hated:
- The unbearable, juvenile flirting between Susan and Prince Caspian. Yeah, I realize 14 year-olds might be the target demographic for this, but I didn't think I'd be watching the CW or whatever channel plays that stuff.

Writing - 7
Acting - 8
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 42/50 = 84% = B

Last Word: I have to admit some bias toward The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, as it brought to life my favorite (and best remembered) of the Narnia books. I thought the film was a totally appropriate adaptation (if not as pure as the BBC version), with the right mix of charm, action, and humor. Unfortunately, Prince Caspian only delivers the action, and in such great volume as to outweigh anything else in the film anyway. Worse still, it's not even original action - frequently I was reminded of similar scenes in Braveheart, Gladiator, and any of the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings films. Am I saying the fighting was out of place? No. This is meant to be a much darker film, and to that end it's quite successful. The themes revolve around betrayal, revenge, greed and power, and the body count is through the roof. All this combines to make Prince Caspian a war epic disguised as a PG-rated adventure movie for kids. I didn't slip into my 10 year-old self very easily, but I still found myself cheering on the Pevensies and soaking in the beautiful scenery of Narnia, and I suppose that's a good enough reason to spend several hours in front of the big screen.

May 20, 2008

300 Words About: Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)

Understandably, you've never heard of Thavisouk "Thavi" Phrasavath (pictured above). He's not famous and he's not trying to be. He's just a normal guy living his life in America. Heck, I walked by the guy a couple weeks ago and thought nothing of it. The southeast Asian population (Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese) here in the Twin Cities is quite prominent, and Phrasavath is not the type of person who would draw attention to himself.

Which is outrageous, because attention needs to be paid. Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), is Thavi's story, and it's unlike almost any documentary you've seen before - not because of what you see, but because of how you see it. Thavi's life, while undoubtedly remarkable, is still just one of countless similar stories from immigrants and refugees from around the world. But how often do you see a refugee's life over the course of 23 years?

Thavi's father was a high-ranking military official in Laos who helped support covert American operations during the Vietnam War. When the U.S. withdrew, they provided no security for their local operatives, who were immediately branded as traitors by the new government. Thavi's father split, while Thavi himself swam across a river and lived in a Thai refugee camp until his mother and five siblings found him two years later. With no home to return to, the family hoped the U.S. would provide a safe haven in appreciation for the family's allegiance to them during the war. Indeed, America opened the the dirtiest and most dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was 1985, and an amateur filmmaker named Ellen Kuras (now an award-winning cinematographer) was learning Lao as part of her preparation for a film about the Lao people. She met
Thavi, decided to turn the camera on his family, and started filming.

More than two decades later, we have The Betrayal, a stunning directorial debut and an unflinching look at not just immigrant life in America, but the incredible character of one young man whose life is marked by betrayal at every turn: two countries turned their back on him and his father abandoned the family.
Nobody can give Thavi Phrasavath any years of his life back, but, at the very least, he's deserving of an audience for his story. The Betrayal is currently on the festival circuit after premiering to glowing reviews at Sundance 2008 in January. Kuras and Phrasavath were also winners of the "Emerging Director - Documentary" award at the 2008 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. If The Betrayal never makes it to you, watch for it in the 2009 P.O.V. season on PBS, for which it's already been confirmed.

May 19, 2008

Back in the Day: Ushers Collecting for Charity

Last week, Alexander Coleman (great new blog) posted his musings on "event" movie experiences. As I started to think back on some of mine, another question came to me (no idea how): didn't theater ushers used to collect money for charity?

I've looked around online and have found little to no information on this. Am I remembering correctly, or am I confused? I'm picturing a 16 or 17 year-old movie theater usher, typically male and always awkward, standing at the front of the theater right before the previews and, in a possibly cracking, monotone voice, reciting an appeal for us to dig into our pockets and donate to the charity of the day. As if walking to the gallows, the usher would then march up the center aisle and collect pennies, quarters, M & M's, possibly garbage, and anything else
that impish teens would pass down the aisle. This was in the late 80's and early 90's - I think.

Did this happen, and if so, when and why did it stop?

May 18, 2008

300 Words About: Redbelt

On paper, Redbelt looks like a mad lib: "Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster) stars with Tim Allen (Wild Hogs) and Emily Mortimer (Lars and the Real Girl) in a movie about martial arts, written and directed by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross)."


My curiosity got the best of me (as it usually does when Mamet is involved with something), but in this case, curiosity unfortunately almost killed the moviegoer. Redbelt is a dull, tedious, inane film, saved from the lowest depths of mediocrity by one Chiwetel Ejiofor, who we'll assume took this particular role simply to diversify his credits and/or add Mamet to his Rolodex. Had Ejiofor been given the chance to do more within his role, Redbelt just might have achieved Mamet's vision of a story of a man in the midst of a moral storm, forced to choose between money, honor, love and life.

This particular man is Mike Terry (Ejiofor), a Jiu-Jitsu instructor in L.A. who's apparently the only pure master left in the sport, his peers having sold out to the showy (and profitable) mixed martial arts pay-per-view culture. Mike refuses to compete despite the financial troubles that are straining his marriage to an aspiring fashion designer, Sondra (Alice Braga, I Am Legend; City of God). An accident at Mike's training academy between a traumatized lawyer (Mortimer) and a troubled cop is the first in a series of unfortunate incidents for Mike, tangling him up with loan sharks, fight promoters, the cop's wife, and Chet Frank (Allen), a washed up, worn down actor who wants to use Mike's secret training techniques in his next film. As you would guess, all of this eventually leads to an alternate ending from The Karate Kid.

Mamet's inclusion of unnecessary characters and silly plot contrivances dilutes a potentially great character study. His distinctive writing is on full display here, but it's nothing to appreciate in a dead-end story. I think most people have already given up on Mamet (I was the only person in theater), and at this point it will probably take more than curiosity for me to pay for his next film.

May 16, 2008

REVIEW: Chop Shop (A-)

Background: Just over a year ago, Iranian-American writer/director Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for "Best First Feature." Though his film didn't take home the prize, Bahrani was back just a year later, this time winning the 2008 "Someone to Watch" award for Chop Shop, his second feature (he also made a highly regarded student film, Strangers, which I haven't seen). Not yet in his mid-30's, Bahrani has already established himself as an emerging master of cinema vérité. His films are shot on location with non-actors, in this case Alejandro Polanco, 12, and Isamar Gonzales, 16, both Puerto Ricans who attend the same school in New York, NY. Also making an appearance in Chop Shop is Ahmad Razvi, whose only other acting credit is in - you guessed it - Man Push Cart.

Synopsis : Alejandro ("Ale", played by Polanco) is a pre-teen wandering the muddy auto yards behind Shea Stadium in Willet's Point, Queens. We know nothing about him, but it's clear he doesn't attend school. His dirty clothes tell us he might be homeless, and his restless, tenacious independence tells us that he's probably parentless as well. Soon enough, we learn he indeed lives alone in the garage where he works, and his diet consists of cola and microwave popcorn. Who knows the last time he had a hug, a shower, or a square meal; Ale's eyes show a fire burning within a kid who's been given nothing in life. His older sister, Isamar (Gonzales), unceremoniously arrives to work in a lunch truck at the auto yards, and they share a bed in the perch of a room that's not bigger than a prison cell. Their plan is to work and save up enough money to buy their own lunch truck. Ale sells bootleg DVD's and candy bars, but mostly solicits the arriving cars to get serviced at his shop instead of the countless others (this isn't your local Midas; this is the place you go when your friend says he "knows a guy" that can fix your muffler). Occasionally, Ale also helps Ahmed (Razvi) take apart cars in his chop shop. In addition to her lunch duties, Isamar is doing some servicing of her own - dirty men, late at night. These two siblings love each other, but hate what they each have to do to get ahead. Whether they eventually earn up to buy the truck is almost beside the point, even though it's the film's primary driver. The story isn't necessarily meant to end anywhere; like the characters and the settings, it just exists as a moment in time.

I Loved:
+ Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales, whose presence was so natural that they made Chop Shop appear to be a documentary.
+ The last scene, especially the final shot - it's in the running as one of my favorites of the year.
+ The authentic feel to the film's elements. Aside from the actors and the location, also the lighting, noise, behavior, etc.

I Liked:
+ Seeing Ahmad Razvi again, even though he was almost playing the exact same character, Ahmad, from Man Push Cart.

I Disliked:
- Ale's annoying friend, Carlos.

I Hated:
The accents, occasionally. It's an acquired taste that I was still working on at the end of the movie.

Writing - 7
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - N/A
Significance - 5

Total: 41/45= 91% = A-

Last Word: There's no way to really qualify this statement, but I want to call Ramin Bahrani one of the most daring filmmakers currently working. He pulls out stories and characters that we have no way of identifying with and inexplicably puts them into situations we've never come close to experiencing. He doesn't use musical scores. His films don't really have a beginning or an end. He doesn't even use actors. Yet somehow, and perhaps as a consequence of his method, his films come together as honest, beautiful, neoreal glimpses into the lives of Americans that most of us haven't - and probably won't - ever get to know. Bahrani explores the third dimension in film, that which exists between documentary and fictional narrative. It's a fascinating, refreshing experience to see a film made my someone who doesn't follow any of the conventional rules, including that which says there needs to be a tidy ending. For these reasons, Chop Shop will wear down the impatient viewer, and a low tolerance for thick Queens accents may cause a major distraction. You won't find the answers for the countless questions going through your head (i.e., What happened to their parents?) - which is the point. The film exists as these lives exist, but hopefully Americans will pay a lot more attention to Chop Shop than we have to its all-too-real characters.

May 15, 2008

Global Lens 2008: El Custodio (The Custodian)

We don't often see bodyguards often in the U.S., do we? I probably associate them with the paparazzi more so than anything else, which is why observing the daily life of a depressed bodyguard for a mid-level Argentinian government official in El Custodio (The Custodian) was really quite interesting. Writer/Director Rodrigo Moreno's first feature film was the winner of numerous awards in 2006, including the Alfred Bauer award at the Berlin International Film Festival, given to a "movie which opens new perspectives in film art." That sounds about right to me, as do the the numerous awards doled out to Julio Chávez for his lead role as Rubén. (The Custodian was one of ten films selected as part of the 2008 Global Lens series, currently making its way around the country. Find it. Support it.)

Moreno is not interested in your attention span. From its first frame to its last, The Custodian is a third-person point of view study of one character whose job is, well, to basically just sit around and wait for something to happen. For the first 20 minutes or so, we know that Rubén (Chávez) smokes. That's about it. If you're still paying attention you might be able to figure what the government minister does, but for the most part we don't know who he is or why he would be in danger. But there's
Rubén, following behind like a trained dog in the hallway, hands folded just so behind his back. He lives as another man's shadow.

Gradually, beautifully, Moreno peels back the layers of
Rubén's character. Literally, as we see him trying on bullet-proof vests, but more so figuratively, as we learn, for example, that he's a talented sketch artist. He lives alone. His sister appears to have mental issues (illustrated by the fact that she thinks Rubén's "connections" can help her daughter become a pop star). He likes banana smoothies. He's never been in the ocean.

He's lonely. He's frustrated with the Chinese immigrant population around him in Buenos Aires. He's disgusted with the sexual exploits of the minister's daughter, but he's not above visiting a prostitute himself. He's bored by his job and frustrated with his life. In fact, he despises the very person he's hired to protect.

The Custodian is the type of film that can lose you at any minute. Symbolically, Rodrigo Moreno directs the film as if he were Rubén - slowly, methodically, unemotionally. There is little music to help you along and not much in the way of scenery. Moreno makes heavy use of fixed-frame shots (reminiscent of Michael Haneke's Caché) and long takes that seem to take you nowhere, but the patient viewer will find themselves fully engrossed by the film's tense finale. My initial impression is that additional viewings would bring to light important details from both the camera work and the dialogue (there aren't too many lines spoken here, so you know each one is significant and deliberate), but one could just as well find that the film actually doesn't have anything more behind it, and is simply a lesson in existentialism.

If you’re in the mood for a standard thriller, look elsewhere. The Custodian is more appropriate as an artistic study of film, but it's also evidence of another promising young filmmaker to keep an eye on.

May 14, 2008

On the Horizon: The Wackness

Sony Pictures Classics presents The Wackness, a new comedy by writer/director Jonathan Levine.

The Wackness brings us all the way back to...1994, to a New York City undergoing an identity change with the arrival of street-sweeping mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Writer/Director Jonathan Levine, who graduated from high school that summer, frames his story around 18 year-old Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a dope-dealing dreamer whose closest confidant is a shrink, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), who's not only Luke's most loyal customer, but also the father of Luke's crush, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). The film is a dark coming-of-age comedy with one of the hottest soundtracks we've heard in recent years, featuring A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G., Method Man, Raekwon, KRS-One, and more.

Writes Levine on the official website for The Wackness: "Rap music, like New York itself, was at a very different place in '94. For me, that's what is so interesting about setting the movie 13 short years ago assessing those similarities and differences. When we take stock of this recent past, we have a more fully-realized understanding of the present."

Uh...yeah, whatever. Maybe I missed the philosophical underpinnings of the film, but I nonetheless understand why The Wackness won the Audience Award at Sundance 2008 earlier this year.

Pictured here with Peck, Thirlby (Snow Angels, Juno) and Kingsley are Mary-Kate Olsen, Method Man, and Aaron Yoo (recently in 21). Yes, this is the film in which Olsen and Kingsley infamously make out, and yes, this is the same Josh Peck who used to play characters called "Fat Boy" earlier in his career.

Check back here for my full review of The Wackness when it opens July 3rd.

May 13, 2008

REVIEW: Young @ Heart (A+)

Background: It seems like well over a year ago that I first saw a trailer for Young @ Heart, the new documentary by British director Stephen Walker. It didn't immediately grab me (in fact I was little put off by laughing at the elderly), but some early buzz caught my ear before Young @ Heart thrilled moviegoers at the recent 2008 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, receiving the highest viewer rating out of over 150 films. If this is all you know about it or you've only seen the annoying trailer, maybe hold off here until you actually see the film. I don't have major spoilers in here this time, but (as always, but especially here) I think it's in your best interest to go into this one as blind as possible.

Synopsis : In Northhampton, MA, we meet the Young @ Heart chorus: 24 men and women (with an average age of 80 years old) who perform stirring renditions of pop/rock/punk classics around the world. The film follows the group as they prepare for a new show in just seven weeks, which will be held at their "home" venue, the Academy Theater, as a kick-off to their next tour. As the group members learn the music, we learn about them - their families, their marriages, their health problems, their hobbies, and, in at least one case, their sex lives. Interspersed between interviews and rehearsal footage are staged music videos of the group singing some of their classics. The chorus is directed by Bob Cilman, a 50-odd year-old guy who astonishingly founded Young @ Heart when he was in his 20's. Bob is a bit of a nervous wreck as the gig date nears and the group continues to struggle with the music, but despite his occasionally harsh attitude with several soloists, it's clear he truly cares about them and loves what he's been doing for so long. By the time the curtain goes up for the big show, you can't help but marvel at how far this group has come in such a short period.

I Loved:
+ "Stayin' Alive"
+ The group's rousing performance at the Academy Theater.
+ The unbelievable resilience demonstrated by so many members of Young @ Heart.

I Liked:
+ The performance at the prison.
+ The other music videos, especially "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Road to Nowhere."

I Disliked:
- The occasional feeling that Bob Cilman was being a total jerk during rehearsals. Tough love, though - how can you criticize that guy?

I Hated:
- The headache I had upon leaving the theater, likely the result of dehydration from crying so much.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 30/30 = 100% = A+

Last Word (expanded): "It's got a lot of life. That's what we have. A lot of life," says Young @ Heart member Steve Martin as the group learns Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can." With those simple words, Martin perfectly captures the soul of Young @ Heart, an instant Oscar favorite and the first film that I've bestowed with an "A+" in this space. The fact is, this intensely moving documentary is simultaneously the most devastatingly tragic and the most life-affirming, uplifting film of the year. I'm hesitant to say it's for everyone, but if you can't squeeze a tear out during this film, donate your body to science. Granted, I'm already a moderate crier at the movies, and the right music during a scene will put me over the edge. As such, when two group members crooned Coldplay's "Fix You," it was a surreal experience as the tears literally were "streaming down my face"; I was a sniveling, sobbing mess, not just then but for at least half of the film's running time.

Does this make Young @ Heart a great film? Of course not. What makes it a great film - arguably a perfect documentary - is that it's as honest as its own material. Stephen Walker doesn't manipulate us, and, more importantly, he doesn't manipulate his subjects (I won't accuse Bob Cilman of that, either).
They don't shy away from exposing their broken bodies, and Walker doesn't shy away from showing us the difficulties of life in its ninth decade. But the film's subjects are beyond all of this, hence the name of the group. They shrug off the possibilities of their own deaths and laugh at minor inconveniences - like kidney stones and blood transfusions. Indeed, the octogenarian members of Young @ Heart are, impossibly, wise beyond their years.

At some point in here I need to admit that I've been a singer throughout my life, in some form or another. Not a big deal, but for me personally, that fact fully illuminated so much of the power of Young @ Heart. For starters,
singing in a group is very different than doing so many other things in a group. A perfect harmony forms some kind of unique, primitive bond that can't be achieved through any other human interaction. Choral music is universal to almost every culture on Earth, and even beyond that, you only have to look at various animal species that communicate in song; mates are found and territories are marked. The close personal connections of the members of Young @ Heart are, in my opinion, primarily a result of the time they've spent making music together.

Aside from the healthy relationships on display, another important aspect of the Young @ Heart chorus is the raw power of the music. It was easy to tap into the joy the group members experienced while singing on a stage in front of a packed theater, which really is a lot of fun after you get past the first few lines. Making music, even just vocally, can be such an incredible rush. If you've ever played the video game Rock Band you can probably relate, or even if you've messed around with GarageBand on a Macintosh or, like Walter Vale in The Visitor, just banged on a drum to release yourself, to cope, to heal. The members of Young @ Heart live to sing, but perhaps more literally, they sing to live.

That all of this is captured on film so well is an incredible achievement on the part of director Stephen Walker.
I didn't grow up with grandparents, so my exposure to this world is somewhat limited, but I don't know that I've ever seen life at 80-something portrayed with such humor, grace, respect, and insight. By the final performance, I felt like I was cheering on my close friends. Maybe it was because it was an empty theater on a late weeknight, but I was plugged in - completely in - like I haven't been in a long time. I wanted to cry, clap, sing, stomp my feet, and, after it was all over, splash my face with cold water.Young @ Heart isn't going to change your life, but it should at least make you appreciate it. No wonder the group members are wearing sunglasses in the poster - they've made the future look a lot brighter for all of us.

May 12, 2008

(Movie) News You Need to Know: Tyson Punch to the Babymaker

Mike Tyson Film Takes a Swing at His Old Image

Boxing legend Mike Tyson is the subject of a new documentary, Tyson, highlighted in yesterday's New York Times before the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival later this month. I'm more of a "big fight" fan of boxing than am I of the sport itself, but Tyson probably drew my interest more than any other boxer in the last 20 years. As a fan of documentaries, all seems well.
Reading the article, however, I had a sinking feeling that the timing isn't right. Sure, I'm curious as to what life outside of the ring is like for this guy, but I hope it's not mainly focused on his post-boxing problems. The real story should be about a troubled kid's rise to success, not about a troubled boxer's fall from glory. Maybe it will be both, but I expect the latter. The guy's only 41 years old. I say hold off 10-15 years for some perspective, especially if he cleans himself up enough to be around that long.

Is Anchorman 2 Coming?

Sounds like there's some "late-breaking news" about our favorite news anchor Ron Burgundy. Doing a little research, I found that IGN first buzzed about an Anchorman sequel almost two years ago. Then
Film School Rejects and Slashfilm picked it up two months ago. Now, offers recorded evidence that yes, Adam Mckay & Co. would like to make an Anchorman 2. Well, if I read it on the internet in four places then it must be true, right? Maybe not, but there's no reason to think this wouldn't happen, especially with the DVD success the original has had over the last few years. I think the real question isn't whether it will happen, but whether it should happen. Yes, I think Anchorman is one of the funniest movies of the decade so far - which is precisely why I'm nervous for a subpar sequel. Ferrell still has it in him, but producer Judd Apatow's track record is in a fair decline over the course of the last 10 months. It would probably be best if he didn't lord over the production.

300 Words About: Speed Racer

Take a long look at that screenshot I happened across. It's somehow blurry and clear at the same time, and the detail is so rich as to be an academic study for art students. The same can be said about Speed Racer, the long overdue adaptation of the popular anime-inspired cartoon, and the newest visionary film by the Wachowski Brothers, the enigmatic filmmaking duo that gave us the Matrix trilogy. Bringing your favorite characters to life are Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), John Goodman (Evan Almighty), Christina Ricci (Penelope), Susan Sarandon (Enchanted), and Roger Allam (V for Vendetta, also written by the Wachowskis). Don't get caught up in the story, as it's somewhat unnecessary and far less important than the real heart of this movie: the spectacular races. I think I read that no actual cars were used in the filming of the races, which is not surprising in this age of green screen/CGI effects, but still mind-boggling when you consider the incredible energy pumping through these scenes. It's everything George Lucas failed to do with the pod races in The Phantom Menace, and it's evidence that the Wachowskis are, again, way ahead of the curve when it comes to innovative special effects.

Though it's tempting to only focus on the adrenaline-filled racing sequences, Speed Racer offers some additional eye candy in the use of frame wiping and, in almost every scene, enough colors to spend a lifetime naming (I wouldn't be surprised to learn if some assistant director was tasked with making sure 30 different colors are visible in each frame).
There are some decent moments of physical comedy as well, and at least one line from John Goodman that had me laughing out loud. It would be easy to come down hard on Speed Racer for its misguided and distracting attempt at wrapping a touching family drama into an indictment of corporate greed, but those moments didn't annoy me so much as they bored me. This race would have been a lot more fun without these pit stops, but when the pedals were on the floor it was a pretty wild ride.

(Because I love passionate reviews, I have to direct you to Evan Derrick's at MovieZeal, even though I don't fully share his enthusiasm for this particular film. Get ready to ride...)

May 10, 2008

REVIEW: Son of Rambow (B+)

Background: Though it was an audience favorite at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival well over a year ago, Son of Rambow didn't appear on my radar until Craig Kennedy at Living in Cinema started buzzing about it a few months ago. Apparently the film's use of actual scenes from the first Rambo film, First Blood, caused some legal issues that delayed its release. Son of Rambow is the writing debut of director Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and stars first-time actors Bill Milner and Will Poulter. Find Craig's report from a roundtable interview with the filmmakers ("Hammer & Tongs" = Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith) here.

Synopsis : It's the early 80's in rural England, and First Blood is the violent new movie all the cool kids are seeing. Young Will Proudfoot (Milner) is not one of the cool kids - in fact he's standing outside the movie theater, reading aloud from the Bible with his religious brethren. Will is the type of kid who calls other kids by their full names, and, under the same roof as his mother, grandmother, and little sister, he lives a sheltered life devoid of television, music and other potentially immoral influences. We know from Will's imaginative drawings, however, that his life is anything but boring. When he suddenly finds himself in the company of Lee Carter (Poulter), the local "Dennis the Menace" who introduces Will to First Blood, Will's fantasies become playfully violent and, in fact, playfully real. Lee is an amateur filmmaker and he's indentured Will as his stuntman, a task Will takes with the utmost sincerity, even to the point of optioning his drawings as the storyboards for the film, now known as "Son of Rambow." The unlikely friends grow close while making the film, but Will struggles with the disapproval of his behavior from his mother and the religious community. The circumstances become even more complicated when the rest of the kids at Will and Lee's school want to become involved with the film, including an uber-hip French foreign exchange student. Tensions rise as the production gets away from Will and especially Lee's original vision, and the two friends have it out with each other more than once. Meanwhile, Will's mother is facing condemnation and potential expulsion from the religious community, much to Will's quiet delight. These numerous plot threads culminate in a terrible accident that temporarily shuts down the production of the film. Just when you think all hope is gone, you remember this is a movie, and movies don't end like that. Our first and only viewing of the boys' "Son of Rambow" is a touching finale.

I Loved:
+ The great pair of Bill Milner and Will Poulter, both of whom seem familiar from other movies. I'm sure we'll get to know them well if they continue acting.
+ When the flying dog resurfaced in the teacher's lounge.

I Liked:
+ That there was no love interest forced into the story. Boys really are boys at that age, and it's natural to assume they would be more interested in guns than girls.
+ Seeing the final cut of the film.

I Disliked:
- Being unable to hear all of the dialogue due to the actors' mumbling and muttering. Their accents didn't help the situation.

I Hated:
- That the songs from the trailer ("Over and Done With" by The Proclaimers and "Rebel, Rebel" by David Bowie) weren't actually in the film. I had a feeling that would be the case and I was disappointed to be proven right.

Writing - 7
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+

Last Word: While it unfortunately doesn't elicit the number of laughs that you might expect from the trailer, Son of Rambow is charming and whimsical enough to make it worth your while. Bill Milner and Will Poulter are phenomenal in their acting debuts, though Garth Jennings' script unfortunately doesn't match up to his direction of the production. The first hour or so showed great potential, but the development of multiple stories (the friendship, the brethren, the film contest, the brother, the other students) proves too much, and in fact makes this film a lot more serious than it should have been. A coming-of-age film about staying true to yourself and staying loyal to your friends doesn't necessarily need such dramatic effect, and the funniest parts of Son of Rambow are unfortunately shrouded in my mind by accidents and arguments. Nevertheless, the film's underlying celebration of childhood and the joy of filmmaking (and film watching) is something we probably don't see enough of these days. Seriously - give me less Rambo, more Son of Rambow.

May 9, 2008

300 Words About: Hors de prix (Priceless)

Audrey Tautou is all grown up. Gone is the flighty, naive, occasionally desperate young girl from Amélie, Dirty Pretty Things, and A Very Long Engagement. Now, seven years after she charmed American audiences as Ms. Poulain, we see a woman very much acting her age (31) in Hors de Prix (Priceless), a wickedly funny French send-up of Breakfast at Tiffany's. From its terrific opening title sequence to its fun-loving final scene, Priceless is an entertaining, if not totally fulfilling, story of two people scandalizing with the wrong people for all the wrong reasons (well, maybe that last bit is a matter of preference - I don't consider money a "right" reason). Written and directed by Pierre Salvadori (Après vous), Priceless also stars Moroccan Gad Elmaleh (The Valet), an accidental charmer who at different times reminded me of both Peter Sellers and Rowan Atkinson. As Jean, an overworked hotel employee on the French riviera, Elmaleh is pitch-perfect (should I regret skipping The Valet?). When Jean sees an opening to romance the manipulative gold-digger Irène (Tautou), he takes full advantage of his position - mixing drinks at the bar and bringing Irène up to the hotel's presidential suite. When she embarrassingly discovers that he's in fact the one who makes the beds and not the one who sleeps in them, she's off to the next potential sugar daddy. But Jean is already in too deep - he'll do whatever it takes to win her back, even tracking her down in Monte Carlo and, in a matter of hours, tragically spend his life savings, investments, and pension plan in order to show Irène that he can support her sickening habits. Alas, he can't, and she ditches him after he's spent his last Euro. What follows is the real meat of the film - Jean trying to beat Irène at her own game. There are some hilarious comedic moments (my favorite was Jean at breakfast for the first time with his new "friend"), but not enough to make Priceless as good as it could have been. Without knowing anything about these characters, it was difficult to buy into the film's second half, notably the deep lessons Irène is supposed to learn about life and love. Nonetheless, Priceless doesn't take itself too seriously, and actually maintains a decent sense of unpredictability throughout. If any part of what I've said appeals to you, it might be worth your while. Don't expect to feel good about humanity, but do expect to have a few laughs.

May 8, 2008

REVIEW: My Blueberry Nights (A-)

Background: Chinese Writer/Director Kar Wai Wong (heretofore known as Wong Kar-wai) has developed a devoted international fan base for his stylish films over the last 20 years, including the recent 2046, which I remember seeing listed by numerous critics as one of the top ten films of 2005. His first feature length English-language film, My Blueberry Nights, was selected to open the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and is also notable as the acting debut for singer/songwriter Norah Jones - for whom the role was specifically written. Showing her the ropes are co-stars Jude Law (Breaking and Entering), Natalie Portman (The Other Boleyn Girl), David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum), and Rachel Weisz (ouch - Fred Claus and P.S. I Love You).

Synopsis : In New York, Elizabeth (Jones) is seeking solace after having been just dumped by her boyfriend. She wanders into a nearby cafe and dramatically drops off the keys to her apartment, checking in every few days to see if her ex has reclaimed them on his way back to her. Instead, she strikes up a friendship with Jeremy (Law), the dreamy owner of the cafe who comforts her with blueberry pie and ice cream each night - all she can eat until she falls asleep on the counter. Before their relationship can go any further, Elizabeth takes off for parts unknown, working multiple jobs in order to buy a car and always sending postcards back to Jeremy in New York. In Memphis she works at a diner by day and a bar by night, in both places serving a local cop, Arnie (Strathairn), who's attempting to drink his way past the broken heart left by his cheating wife, Sue Lynne (Weisz). After her stint in Memphis, Elizabeth all of a sudden shows up in Nevada, where Leslie (Portman), a compulsive gambler with daddy issues, teaches her some life lessons by way of Texas Hold 'Em. Matured and gassed up with a car, Elizabeth heads back to New York, nearly a year after she first left. Has Jeremy been receiving her postcards? Is he still there? Don't look at the poster above...

I Loved:
+ Norah Jones. I've been a moderate fan of her music for some time, but didn't expect much here - especially not to be hypnotized by her beauty. I think she looks like my girlfriend. ;-)
+ Hearing Ryan Shaw's "We Got Love"! I called for this as part of last year's missing soundtrack. Different kind of scene than the one I mentioned, but I still a fantastic surprise.
+ David Strathairn's heart wrenching performance - as good as anything he's done, according to me.

I Liked:
+ Natalie Portman's role, but not until about an hour after seeing the movie. Her presence was a jolt in the film's momentum and I was initially put off, but then I realize that she played it perfectly.
+ The mix of filming styles - grainy, smooth, slow-mo, etc.

I Disliked:
- Rachel Weisz, which I didn't think was possible. Something didn't quite click for me.

I Hated:
- The jarring subway cars occasionally blowing by and totally disrupting the mood.

Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 45/50 = 90% = A-

Last Word: Not having seen any other Wong Kar-wai film, I really had no idea what to expect from My Blueberry Nights. Obviously I hadn't seen the trailer, nor did I have any idea what it was about (this is my goal with most movies). About all I did know was that it was Norah Jones' acting debut and it starred a handful of people that I usually like to watch. I say all of this because I feel my ignorance about all aspects of the film heavily influenced my impression of it - and wow, was I impressed. My Blueberry Nights is a completely refreshing, wholly artistic dream of a film; "romantic" describes every aspect of its production. Every scene is bathed in neon light and saturated with vivid color, perfectly complementing the subtle, sensual soundtrack that provides the heartbeat of the film - a film that's very much alive.
The time and place of the story feel less linear than they actually are, which along with the quick editing and mixed film styles only adds to the dreamscape. Norah Jones is a captivating on-screen presence, and Wong Kar-wai is clearly some kind of prescient genius to have written the role of Elizabeth specifically for her. Unfortunately, the writing of the actual plot didn't do as much for me as the characters did. The key fishbowl was a little corny, and the sudden transition in and out of Nevada was too disjointed for me. Eventually, however, My Blueberry Nights regains its footing, and I found myself actually enjoying the saccharin-sweetened ending. My unfortunate ignorance prevents me from confronting the critics and die-hard fans who consider this Wong Kar-wai's worst film, but to anyone else I say this is evidence of a truly visionary filmmaker. If you're not tasting blueberry pie yourself by the end of this, I'm afraid you've missed something.

May 7, 2008

Globes and Games

The Walker Art Center kicks off their Global Lens film series today, which will run through May 18th. The series is an annual touring festival supported by the Global Film Initiative. From the Walker's website:

"Recognizing that few Americans have the means or the will to travel outside the U.S.—especially beyond Europe—Susan Weeks Coulter has created a funding program that provides ways for Americans to experience other cultures—through cinema. Now in its fifth year, the Global Film Initiative supports filmmakers from developing nations..." (my emphasis)

Yeah, so this program is essentially tailor-made to my passions in life. I'm a little stretched just coming out of the MSPIFF last weekend, but I'll definitely do my best to check some of these out, and continue to champion the Global Fil
m Initiative at every opportunity.

Matt (MNRaul) has set up a fantasy movie league. Yes, we've gone from football to baseball to box office. I've never done this before and I'm not really sure what the best strategy is, but come along and try it with us! You choose 8 movies that will be released from May2 - July 28. If your movies do well at the box office, you do well in the game. You have to choose them carefully, though, as you have a limited budget. What are the sleepers? What are the certain blockbusters?

Since this is the first season, we'll take it easy. Maybe I'll come up with a prize by the end of it. Registration closes on May 20, just in time for Indy IV.

Sign up now, anybody! It takes two seconds, and it's free. Click here to register. Then find out private league. We're playing "Box Office Moguls" and the league name is Getafilm. The password is "hoon". Then you give your studio a name and pick your movies. Let me know if you have trouble. Let's see who's ready to be a producer!


Jeff Sauer pointed me to a really interesting post from a blog called Strange Maps. Yesterday they analyzed a Volkswagen ad that shows three world maps, cartograms in fact, distorted "in relation to the average budget per feature film, the number of films produced per capita and the total number of films produced per country." Check it out here.

New Zealand boasts the highest average budget per feature film, Iceland produces more films per capita than any other country, and maybe not so surprisingly, the U.S. produces more films overall than anybody else. Those are cool facts, but what I find most interesting is the analysis they provide of what we don't see. Great idea, VW, but I'm not sure if it works as an ad. I'm still a Toyota loyalist.

May 6, 2008

On the Horizon: Encounters at the End of the World

THINKFilm and Discovery Films present Encounters at the End of the World, a new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn, Grizzly Man).

Ever been to Antarctica? Me neither, believe it or not. I'd say we both have about the same chance of going to the moon as we do getting down to South Pole. Fortunately, people like Werner Herzog bring it to us with films like Encounters at the End of the World, a bizarre look at a bizarre place and the bizarre people and animals who inhabit it. No, not Eskimos - you're in the wrong hemisphere (and they're not bizarre). I'm talking about about a place where the sun's in the sky for five months. Straight. Where people on the fringes of society conduct science experiments that we'll never understand. Where the creatures from your nightmares live.

Werner Herzog shows us this world with equal parts humor and affection, both of which are accidental to his always funny monotone narration. The people he interviews are primarily scientists: scuba diving cell biologists, death-defying volcanologists, and a guy studying neutrinos with a massive helium balloon, just to name a few.

If listening to brainiacs talk about how much they love the end of the world doesn't do it for you, consider checking it out for the scenery. The deep sea is one of my greatest fears, and though this was fully reinforced by the film, there is one majestic tracking sequence underwater that I found incredibly beautiful. It was literally otherworldly, and it left me slack-jawed.

There's currently no trailer for Encounters at the End of the World, but I'll amend the post if and when one materializes. In the meantime you can check out the misleading stills on the official website. None of them show the many people we meet, nor do we really get sense that the film is actually about anything. But it is. It's about the end of the world, and there's no place like it.

Make the journey if you're so moved, and find my full review when Encounters at the End of the World opens on June 11th.

UPDATE (6/4/08): Trailer is up, check it out at The Documentary Blog.
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