June 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: The Abyss (1989)

I'm going deep for June's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM). Almost a decade before sinking the Titanic, James Cameron brought us out of the depths in The Abyss, an epic production that remains as impressive now as it was in 1989. Although it's lived on primarily as a result of its Academy Award-winning visual effects, I find the the real brilliance of the movie is that so much is done with so little. The story couldn't be any simpler: a bunch of people trapped on the edge of a bottomless ocean canyon. Something mysterious is coming up from the depths of it, and they don't know what it is.

On the idea behind the story, Cameron said this:

"I wanted to do the definitive diving movie. But what do you do? Show the beauties of the coral reef or the perils of killer sharks? Those films have already been done. What I wanted was to go into the realm that had always excited me the most because of its extremes and its absoluteness—I wanted to go deep into the ocean.

In high school, I participated in a weekly science seminar where different speakers were brought in to talk about everything from childbirth to the latest advances in physics. One of those speakers happened to be a commercial diver who had participated in an experiment in which he had breathed with a liquid in both lungs for something like forty-five minutes. That really blew my mind. Here was a guy who had used his lungs as a gill mechanism. From that seminar came the idea for a story I wrote about some scientists in a research installation on a cliff overlooking the Cayman Trough. Using liquid breathing suits, they began making forays into the deepest depths of the ocean—but no one who goes down the cliff comes back again."

The Abyss opened in August of 1989 with little fanfare and little in the way of praise aside from awe in its visual effects. Its cast was familiar to moviegoing audiences, though not necessarily comprised of bankable movie stars. Ed Harris was several years removed from The Right Stuff, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had already passed her career peak, a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 1986's The Color of Money. Harris would muddle through tough guy roles for more than a decade after The Abyss until being nominated for Best Actor for Pollock in 2000. Mastrantonio's career, however, fell off sharply after 1992. She returned to the water in 2000 for The Perfect Storm (with a strict contract stipulation that she remain dry throughout filming - why even take the part?), but has otherwise settled with her family and held on to her title as the Oscar nominee (for an acting role) with the longest name in the history of the awards.

In addition to the absence of a major star, The Abyss was also plagued with production difficulties and a ballooning budget (much like Cameron's Titanic some years later). The cast had to undergo decompression on a regular basis from filming underwater, Mastrantonio reportedly had some kind of mental breakdown during filming, and tension filled the set while shooting progressed at an abandoned nuclear power plant.

And so, despite Cameron's legitimate success with The Terminator and Aliens, The Abyss would come and go as just another sci-fi popcorn movie for a hot summer afternoon.
It would have been pretty amazing to see it in the theater (hint hint, 20th Century Fox - how about a Director's Cut rerelease on the 20th anniversary next year?).

Cameron would have massive success just two years later with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and would of course go on to see Titanic receive 14 Oscar nominations in 1998. That achievement accomplished and with nothing left to prove, Cameron has not done much of popular significance in the last 10 years. Within his decade-spanning career, which includes some of the most notable sci-fi movies of the last 30 years, The Abyss remains little more than a cult favorite these days.

One of the things I find ironic about The Abyss is that despite my great fear of the deep sea, I don't actually find the movie that scary (which is fine, I think, as Cameron didn't set out to make a horror movie). That being said, there are moments of suspense and tension that quicken the pulse even after repeated viewings. Claustrophobics in particular may not be able to make it to the end of the movie. The rest of us may find just find ourselves involuntarily holding our breath as the movie progresses.

But the story is more than just an entertaining underwater adventure, which brings me back to the beginning. I'll admit there are some cheesy lines and cliched action sequences, but this is no Waterworld. Within the simple story of trapped divers, Cameron taps in Cold War-era paranoia, the complex relations between separated spouses, and, quite ambitiously, the origins and existence of mankind.

Said Cameron in an interview with the NYT's Lawrence Van Gelder in 1989: "This film uses underwater as an environment in a different way,'' he said, ''a bleak, almost lunar environment, where the barrenness of the environment makes it a crucible for human behavior - kind of man against the elements, how we bond together. Ultimately, it boils down to a story about love, personal challenge and adversity.''

To me, the possibility of alien life at the bottom of the ocean is much different than the possibility of life in outer space, for the simple fact that we've all actually been in the ocean; it's finite, and it's been part of our daily lives for millennia. But how well do we really know it and, well, what if...?

I don't think there are aliens at the bottom of the ocean. I just think it's a cool idea, and one that's beautifully demonstrated in The Abyss, one of the only movies to even approach that kind of story. Even if someone were to make another attempt, there's just no way they could achieve the level of realism seen in The Abyss, because if anybody knows what they're doing underwater, it's James Cameron. What are the chances actual water would even be used in a 2008 version of The Abyss?

Those days are over, but at least some cool movies were made before the end of the era.

June 29, 2008

Back Soon

Wedding #1 is over. I made it through a weekend in Napa Valley without having to pretend like I'm an oenophile. I was almost on "The Real Housewives of Orange County", but that's a different story.

Now I'm back down in the Bay Area, wandering around Berkeley and San Francisco before heading to Las Vegas and then back to the Twin Cities for Wedding #2. Such is summer.

Who knew there was more to Berkeley than protests and an organic lifestyle? Just kidding, this really is a cool place that, in my opinion, suffers from the weight of its reputation. For example, there are three movie theaters within sight here on Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, a fact that somehow escaped my attention last time I was here. WALL-E is pretty much the only thing I haven't seen, though it is nice to see Up the Yangtze and Encounters at the End of the World already in release here.

It's nice to be back in California for a while.

June 25, 2008

School Ties

I've mentioned at least once on here that I attended Boston University. It's an alright place that wouldn't otherwise be worth mentioning again, but the spring issue of the alumni magazine "Bostonia" brought to light some interesting details about my alma mater:

A Class I Wouldn't Have Skipped:

If you're anything like me, you rarely let movies get away with obvious violations of the physical laws of the universe - "There's no way he could have jumped from here to there!", "Wouldn't they have been killed on impact from that?", etc. Unbelievably, there's now a course devoted to those questions.

Indeed, a genius (in the that's-so-cool sense and also the literal sense) professor named Andy Cohen teaches Cinema Physica,"an introductory physics course for nonscience majors. Every week, Cohen’s students watch movies such as Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, and Armageddon, and use class discussions and labs to examine the basic physics driving the high-octane scenes."

"The subtitle of this course should be Bruce Willis Saves the World," Cohen tells students with a laugh. The purpose of analyzing all the explosions and heroics, he explains, is to give humanities majors a truer sense of what science is — a quest for discovery rather than for memorized formulas and precise answers...When one student suggests using an equation, Cohen pounces. “Don’t say equation,” he says. “I never want to hear the word equation in this class. I hate equations.

Tell me something better than that. Too bad I was science major and had to take a full year of physics - the kind with lots of equations that I didn't understand.

Harrison Ford IS Indiana Jones:

BU somehow gets linked up with Indy 4.

"Meanwhile, the real Indiana Jones — actor Harrison Ford, that is — was elected to the board of directors of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), which is based at Boston University. AIA president Brian Rose says Ford “has played a significant role in stimulating the public’s interest in archaeological exploration.” It’s a role Ford evidently takes seriously. “Knowledge is power,” he said in a press release announcing the news, “and understanding the past can only help us in dealing with the present and the future."

These Are 6 Who "Made It?":

BU has a pretty solid acting program from my memory, though I think it's stronger in theater than it is in film or television. In "From BU to Hollywood," we meet six alumni who "have made it in one of the toughest businesses there is." They are:
  • Alfre Woodard, Actress, Class of 1974 ("Desperate Housewives," Oscar nomination for Cross Creek)
  • Michael Chiklis, Actor, Class of 1986 ("The Shield," "The Commish")
  • Ronna Kress, Casting Director, Class of 1984 (National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets)
  • Gary Fleder, Director, Class of 1985 (Kiss the Girls, the upcoming The Express)
  • Emily Deschanel, Actress, Class of 1998 (Glory Road, "Bones")
  • Krista Vernoff, Screenwriter, Class of 1993 ("Grey's Anatomy") - doesn't she look exactly like Katherine Heigl?
They're fine and all, but then I found this list:
  • Jason Alexander - Big one. I still beam with pride when I watch "Seinfeld".
  • Geena Davis - Quick, name her last movie!...umm...
  • David Dinerstein - Executive at Lakeshore Entertainment, which this year alone has given us Untraceable and Pathology. Thanks, David.
  • Olympia Dukakis - Not so much to brag about lately.
  • Faye Dunaway - Even less to brag about lately.
  • Dan Fogler - An up-and-comer, he won a Tony Award in 2005. Since then his film credits include (wow): School for Scoundrels, Good Luck Chuck, and Balls of Fury.
  • Tony Gilroy - Ugh.
  • Richard Gladstein - Produced Best Picture nominees Pulp Fiction, The Cider House Rules, and Finding Neverland. Most recently - Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Nice.
  • Russell Hornsby - Hmm, a recognizable face despite the fact that I've missed most of his work, including the recent Stuck. Probably should have been a candidate for the MLK, Jr. biopic.
  • David E. Kelley - Writer for every TV show I've ignored for the last 10 years - and...Lake Placid.
  • Julianne Moore - What?!?! Noooooooooooooo! Click me.
  • Rosie O'Donnell - I got nothing.
  • Estelle Parsons - Wow, 81 year-old Oscar winner for Bonnie & Clyde, also on TV's "Roseanne."
  • Kim Raver - A bunch of other TV shows I've never seen - "Third Watch", "24", "The Nines", "Lipstick Jungle." Movies? How about Night at the Museum...
  • Scott Rosenberg - Interesting resumé. Although he wrote High Fidelity, his responsibility in writing Con Air, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and Kangaroo Jack cannot be overlooked. Or over-ridiculed. Also, according to the IMDB trivia, in April 2001 he "was arrested for a bar brawl while out with Vince Vaughn and Steve Buscemi, the latter of which was stabbed three times during the scuffle." Way to make us proud, Scott.
  • Joe Roth - This is where I die. Director of (I just can't believe this): Freedomland.
  • Marisa Tomei - Aside from her recent appearance in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, she's been AWOL since winning a still-controversial Oscar for My Cousin Vinny.
So there are some hits and misses, but I'm overall a little underwhelmed.

Fortunately, there is one last chance for BU to regain some measure of credibility: my good friend Mitch Yapko, Class of 2003. IMDB lists his production work on the "Grey's Anatomy" spin-off "Private Practice," as well as on a few upcoming films such as Good Dick, which played at Sundance 2008.

His unofficial acting resum
é, however, includes (from my memory) Spider-Man 2, Herbie Fully Loaded, "Boston Public," the game show "Lingo," the reality show "Girls Behaving Badly," the legitimate show "Deadwood," and I know I've missed some others.

Thousands of alumni are counting on you, Mitch...

June 24, 2008

SNUBBED: Julianne Moore in "Freedomland"

I've been known to complain about a lot of Oscar snubs over the years, but there is one that still stings, still keeps me up at night, and still tempts me to boycott those stupid awards. That Julianne Moore didn't even receive a nomination for her performance in 2005's criminally underrated Freedomland is, to be quite frank, a travesty.

Although we all know she was stunningly stellar in such movies as The Ladies Man, Evolution, Laws of Attraction, The Forgotten, and Next, it's her turn in Freedomland that sends chills up your spine and tears down your face. I've provided evidence of one of the film's stronger moments above.

Observe her brilliance in acting like she's disoriented and panicked. Watch her navigate a sea of emotions as she fully inhabits the character of a psychotic mother. Take notes on her incredible ability to cry without actually crying.

Every great performance involves two actors, however, and Samuel L. Jackson gives an acting clinic here perhaps worthy of its own Oscar nomination. He's almost unrecognizable from his other roles here, shouting and repeatedly questioning someone while standing above them. Also, I know people with asthma, and I had to ask them if they could determine whether he was acting or not. I could not. His wheezing, huffing, groaning and puffing adds significantly to the gripping intensity of the scene.

Take this to the bank, folks: Freedomland is arguably one of the best films of the decade, and no Oscar snub discussion is complete without its mention.

Because the oversight is just so tragic, I think even more evidence may be needed to cement that claim: the first 1:17 of this long clip. I know it will be hard to tear your eyes away from the screen, but I've limited it to that so you don't become too emotionally overwhelmed.

Put my heart at rest. Put my heart at rest, AMPAS: honor Julianne Moore and Freedomland with a retroactive Academy Award...

[This post is one of many featured in Lazy Eye Theatre's Bizarro Blog-a-Thon, June 23-25. Don't bother checking out any of the other featured posts... ]

June 23, 2008

2008 P.O.V. Doc Series Kicks Off

Like I said two weeks ago, I don't have HBO, so I'll unfortunately miss the channel's summer documentary series.

So what? For the 20th year in a row, PBS is presenting its award-winning P.O.V. documentary series, starting tomorrow and continuing through the middle of October. Obviously I wont see all of them, but I've got my eye on the following films (click on the links to watch the trailers):

Week 1 (Tuesday, 6/24): Traces of the Trade

"Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North is a unique and disturbing journey of discovery into the history and "living consequences" of one of the United States' most shameful episodes — slavery. In this bicentennial year of the U.S. abolition of the slave trade, one might think the tragedy of African slavery in the Americas has been exhaustively told. Katrina Browne thought the same, until she discovered that her slave-trading ancestors from Rhode Island were not an aberration. Rather, they were just the most prominent actors in the North's vast complicity in slavery, buried in myths of Northern innocence."

Week 2: Election Day

"Forget the pie charts, color-coded maps and hyperventilating pundits. What's the street-level experience of voters in today's America? In a triumph of documentary storytelling, "Election Day" combines 11 stories — shot simultaneously on November 2, 2004, from dawn until long past midnight — into one. Factory workers, ex-felons, harried moms, Native American activists and diligent poll watchers, from South Dakota to Florida, take the process of democracy into their own hands. The result is an entertaining, inspiring and sometimes unsettling story of citizens determined to vote on one fateful day."

Week 3: The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández

"In 1997, U.S. Marines patrolling the Texas-Mexico border as part of the War on Drugs shot and killed Esequiel Hernández Jr. Mistaken for a drug runner, the 18-year-old was, in fact, a U.S. citizen tending his family's goats with a .22 rifle. He became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on native soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings. "The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández," narrated by Tommy Lee Jones, explores Hernández's tragic death and its torturous aftermath. His parents and friends, the Marines on patrol and investigators discuss the dangers of militarizing the border and the death of one young man."

Week 13: Calavera Highway

"When brothers Armando and Carlos Peña set off to carry their mother’s ashes to south Texas, their road trip turns into a quest for answers about a strangely veiled past. As they reunite with five other brothers, the two men try to piece together their family’s shattered history. Why was their mother cast out by her family? What happened to their father, who disappeared during the notorious 1954 U.S. deportation program Operation Wetback? "Calavera Highway" is a sweeping story of seven Mexican-American men grappling with the meaning of masculinity, fatherhood and a legacy of rootless beginnings."

Week 14: Critical Condition (recommended if you found Sicko dishonest)

"What happens if you fall sick and are one of 47 million people in America without health insurance? "Critical Condition" by Roger Weisberg ("Waging a Living," P.O.V. 2006) puts a human face on the nation's growing health care crisis by capturing the harrowing struggles of four critically ill Americans who discover that being uninsured can cost them their jobs, health, home, savings, and even their lives. Filmed in verité style, "Critical Condition" offers a moving and invaluable exposé at a time when the nation is debating how to extend health insurance to all Americans."

Week 15: Up The Yangtze (also opening in theaters nationwide this summer)

"Nearing completion, China's massive Three Gorges Dam is altering the landscape and the lives of people living along the fabled Yangtze River. Countless ancient villages and historic locales will be submerged, and 2 million people will lose their homes and livelihoods. The Yu family desperately seeks a reprieve by sending their 16-year-old daughter to work in the cruise ship industry that has sprung up to give tourists a last glimpse of the legendary river valley. With cinematic sweep, "Up the Yangtze" explores lives transformed by the biggest hydroelectric dam in history, a hotly contested symbol of the Chinese economic miracle." (Read my full review here).

Week 16: Soldiers of Conscience

"When is it right to kill? In the midst of war, is it right to refuse? Eight U.S. soldiers, some who have killed and some who said no, reveal their inner moral dilemmas in "Soldiers of Conscience." Made with official permission of the U.S. Army, the film transcends politics to explore the tension between spiritual values and military orders. Soldiers follows the stories of both conscientious objectors and those who criticize them. Through this clash of views, the film discovers a surprising common ground: All soldiers are "soldiers of conscience," torn between the demands of duty and the call of conscience."

Winter Special: Inheritance

"Imagine watching Schindler's List and knowing the sadistic Nazi camp commandant played by Ralph Fiennes was your father. "Inheritance" is the story of Monika Hertwig, the daughter of mass murderer Amon Goeth. Hertwig has spent her life in the shadow of her father's sins, trying to come to terms with her "inheritance." She seeks out Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, who was enslaved by Goeth and who is one of the few living eyewitnesses to his unspeakable brutality. The women's raw, emotional meeting unearths terrible truths and lingering questions about how the actions of our parents can continue to ripple through generations."

So they're not all about cupcakes, balloons and roses, but they're real and raw and, hopefully, revealing. I'll try to post reviews of the ones I see. PBS is one of the best reasons to have a TV. I have to shamefully admit I rarely watch it, but I still know it's enriching a lot more lives than most channels. Support public broadcasting!

June 21, 2008

Summer. Movies.

Despite yesterday being the official first day of the glorious season that is summer, Hollywood says we're well into it, thanks to Iron Man kicking us off on May 2. Its sequel will open on April 30, 2010. After that, who knows, the first "summer" movies will probably sneak back all the way to March. I'm against this. Very much so.

Anyway, summer is fortunately not controlled by Hollywood, and
City Pages, the local alt-weekly here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, compiled a list of the summer's best local movie outings last week. The "Endless Summer of Cinema" can be found here in its entirety. It's a nice little list, despite missing this weekend's Solstice Film Festival, the Bicycle Film Festival, and the Richard Widmark Series at The Parkway (Barry Kryshka of Take-Up Productions added it in the comments section). And, of course, drive-ins, of which there are still plenty in Minnesota. Bring bug spray.

I've got a feeling I'm going to miss the majority of the "Endless Summer" movies, but I'm still kind of glad they're around so people can avoid seeing The Love Guru and Space Chimps. If you're a local, definitely mark your calendars so whoever organizes these summer series will continue to do so for years to come. Also check out the release calendar on the left sidebar for some great new releases that are on the way - blockbusters (The Dark Knight), documentaries (American Teen), and indies (Towelhead).

I've got 3 weddings and at least 3-4 trips in the next 60 days alone, so you'll have to forgive me for posting less frequently. Tragic I know, but I'm sure you'll manage. If I happen to be absent for a few days, check out the great blogs over on the left.

Happy summer.

June 19, 2008

REVIEW: Roman de Gare (B+)

Background: I find it interesting that just a few months after octogenarian Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was released, we have a new film, Roman de Gare, from septuagenarian Claude Lelouch, perhaps best known for winning the 1966 Best Screenplay for A Man and a Woman. Both Lumet's and Lelouch's newest films are suspenseful and depend on interweaving plots and time fractures, but I haven't seen a critical mass of either's films to know if that is a departure from their style. Lelouch, for his part, admits that he made Roman de Gare "to send a message to those who dismiss my work," even going so far as to direct the film under a pseudonym. Fans of French cinema may recognize Fanny Ardant (Paris je t'aime, 8 Women), and fans of Audrey Tautou will recognize Dominique Pinon from both Amélie and A Very Long Engagement. Rounding out the cast is Audrey Dana, whose performance here earned her a nomination for Most Promising Actress at the 2008 César Awards (the French Oscars).

Synopsis : (Because saying too much here could give away half the movie, I'm not going to go very far.) Best-selling novelist Judith Ralitzer (Ardent) is being questioned by the police following the mysterious death of a man rumored to be her ghostwriter. Meanwhile, news reports tell us a convicted child rapist/pedophile/serial killer known as "The Magician" has escaped from a Paris prison and is currently at large. Huguette (Dana) and her fiance, Paul, are arguing in the car on the way to her family's farm. They stop for gas at a rest stop and, in a fit of rage, Paul takes off and leaves Huguette stranded. Inside the rest stop, a mysterious man (Pinon) is loitering and performing magic tricks for kids traveling with their parents. He eyes Huguette and asks her if he can give her a ride. Desperate to show her parents that she can stay in a relationship, she not only accepts, but asks the man if he will pretend to be her fiance and accompany her on her trip home. This is about 20 minutes in, but it's best to let the rest happen on the screen.

I Loved:
+ The gripping suspense and uncomfortable feelings of anxiety.
+ Dominique Pinon, whose understated acting here was perfect for his mysterious role.

I Liked:
+ Audrey Dana, who never played her character over the top. Very natural - I think she's one to watch.
+ All of the scenes in the car with Pinon and Dana chatting.

I Disliked:
- The ending. Not so much how it happened, but what happened. I think I wanted a different twist.

I Hated:
- Rien.

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

Total: 44/50 = 88% = B+

Last Word: It's a shame that when Alfred Hitchcock's name is thrown around these days, it's usually in relation to somebody like M. Night Shyamalan. Plenty of other filmmakers, including Claude Lelouch, are consistently proving to be masters of suspense. In the case of Roman de Gare, Lelouch has created somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The title refers to the type of "airport" or "train station" novel that you happen to pick up at the boarding gate and devour by the time you reach your destination, fully entertained but not quite satisfied. Such was my experience with this film. It didn't lose my attention for a minute, but for all that work I was hoping for a bigger payoff. This is not to say the movie doesn't end well; that's more a matter of taste. Roman de Gare is a great little mystery movie where all the players know their parts, and I recommend it for the patient viewer who's looking for some smart entertainment. In fact, in as much as it's an "airport novel," it might make for a good in-flight movie...

June 18, 2008

Short Cuts: "You're Just a Kid"

Good Will Hunting (1997). Directed by Gus Van Sant; written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgård, Casey Affleck, and Cole Hauser.

June 17, 2008

300 Words About: The Happening

It's OK, Jess, it's OK. At least we're not in the theater watching this.

"We've sensed it. We've seen the signs. Now...It's Happening." That's not just the official tagline for The Happening, it's also a perfect summation of my expectations of M. Night Shyamalan's latest offering. I "sensed" it would be the uncontested worst film of the year, I saw the "signs" (simply his last movie, Lady in the Water), and now, indeed, it "happened". On Friday the 13th, Shyamalan pulled the veil off his latest disaster, and once again people are flocking to see it. I vowed I wouldn't pay for it. In a fit of confusion, I ended up paying for it. At least I illegally paid the student price, saving $1.50 in one of my wisest financial decisions in years.

To paraphrase the classic bit from Denny Green, it's clear that Shyamalan "is who we thought he was": the most self-righteous and contemptuous filmmaker currently working in Hollywood. It would defy logic to argue that he's unaware of how bad his movies are, but instead of seeking to make any improvements, he stubbornly continues to try to convince us that we're idiots, and that his conspicuous messages are the new gospel for mankind.

That's the real problem. It's not that the writing and acting are horrid, or that sense and logic are missing from the first frame onward, or that the thrills and chills are about five movies tired now after The Sixth Sense. It's not the terrible supporting characters or the unconvincing special effects or even the worst fake newscasts I've ever seen.

It's that in the middle of all of this, just when the movie should start making fun of itself, Shyamalan again throws a serious message or clichéd
fright (e.g., doll on the bed) at us. In short, the difference between garbage like Jumper or Meet the Spartans (my favorite whipping post if you didn't notice) and garbage like The Happening is that garbage like The Happening tries to be serious.

Although Shyamalan preaches, "This is the best B movie that you will ever see," his sincere attempts at romance, suspense, and drama, combined with the heavy-handed message about Mother Nature's wrath, prove (at least to me) that he's just making excuses for the terrible reception. He had plenty of opportunity to make this over-the-top ridiculous - if that was his intention. Instead, he predictably implies that we're morons for not getting it.

I saw The Happening to find out if he could make a movie more offensively awful than Lady in the Water. Is it? I still don't know since i
t seems comparing two epically bad movies is as difficult as comparing two epically good ones, but I nevertheless truly recommend seeing either one (don't pay for it) in order to sharpen your movie senses.

June 16, 2008

In Bruges...Forever?

"Joke's on you guys!," says director Martin McDonagh.

You might or might not pay attention to the little release schedule I have on the left sidebar. My hope is that it's referenced by Twin Cities moviegoers wondering what they should see, but if nothing else it reminds me what I have to look forward to over the next few months.

Although I've only had the calendar up there since April, there is one movie whose title may permanently be branded into the pixels on your screen: In Bruges.

After premiering at Sundance in mid-January, In Bruges opened at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis on Friday, February 8. Getafilm guest columnist Matt (MNRaul) and I saw it that blustery night with a surprisingly small audience. We had differing thoughts on the movie - he liked it a little more than me; I ended up giving it a "B", and we thought that was the end of it. A little indie that most people wouldn't see in the theater.

The Uptown is a Landmark-owned single screen theater and it's rare that a film will play there more than two weeks in a row. Most are sent over to the Landmark-owned multi-screen Lagoon Theater across the street after their first week. I think I stopped counting when In Bruges marked its seventh week in a row at the Uptown.

Now, I know that it had to have been playing to empty houses most of the time, but I wasn't too bothered because new releases were still opening elsewhere, including the Lagoon, which is where In Bruges eventually landed. And there it remains, at this moment, in its 19th week in release.

Of course the irony in all of this is that the film's characters are, in fact, indefinitely stuck in Bruges. While I'm sure the Landmark decision-makers are a clever bunch, I doubt they're doing this as a practical joke. However, there just can't be more people seeing this than there were when I saw it on opening night five months ago, so who knows. How do you otherwise justify charging full price for a movie in a first-run theater for so long - especially one that's being released on DVD next week?

It was a pretty funny movie and I liked most of it, but I'll end with this: "Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, [In Bruges] might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't."

What do you think? What movies have played past their expiration date in your city/neighborhood (not just recently, but going back), and for what reasons? Is this a problem, and are we missing out on other movies that could be playing instead? I'd love to hear your perspectives/experiences...

June 13, 2008

REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda (A)

Background: As many well-made and truly meaningful animated films continue to come down the pike, it always seems like the next one won't be as special. Or is that just me? I'm trying to say that I wasn't going to see Kung Fu Panda because I didn't think it would be very good. I mean, come on, it's not even Pixar, it's Dreamworks Animation, which aside from Bee Movie hasn't produced any gems since Shrek 2. Well, a funny thing happened: people I trust (Craig Kennedy, Nick Plowman, Matthew Lucas) reported Kung Fu Panda was actually, well, really good. So I gave it shot, figuring good old Jack Black (Be Kind Rewind) wouldn't let me down this time. I was also intrigued by the other voices: Dustin Hoffman (Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium), Angelina Jolie (Beowulf), Seth Rogen (Horton Hears a Who!), Lucy Liu ("Cashmere Mafia"), Jackie Chan (The Forbidden Kingdom), Ian McShane (The Golden Compass) and David Cross (I'm Not There). And, last but not least, NEWMAN = Wayne Knight.

Synopsis : Po (Black) is a plump, clumsy, innocent adolescent panda who lives in a Chinese valley and dreams of his Kung Fu heroes, The Furious Five: Tigress (Jolie), Crane (Cross), Mantis (Rogen), Monkey (Chan), and Viper (Liu). Although Po's future is committed to inheriting his loving father's noodle shop, Po aspires to be a Kung Fu warrior trained by Master Shifu (Hoffman), a little red panda, or Master Oogway, a Yoda-like turtle. Although the area is called the Valley of Peace, it has a history of violence. Tai Lung (McShane), a snow leopard, has a bone to pick with Shifu and Oogway, and he is about to break out of prison (he destroyed the valley) to seek his vengeance. Sensing this trouble, Oogway decides to select the legendary Dragon Warrior who will receive a special scroll holding the secret to limitless powers. Here's a spoiler if you didn't catch the title of the movie yet: Po is chosen as the Dragon Warrior. Under Shifu's tutelage and The Furious Five's resentful eyes, Po struggles through his training and finds his inner strength just in time for knock-down, drag-out fight with Tai Lung. Kids go home happy.

I Loved:
+ How much of the real Jack Black leaked into his character. What a perfect role, and I especially liked the Tenacious D-inspired intro.
+ The beautiful animation during the fight sequences and Tai Lung's escape.
+ The sacred peach tree mountaintop - what a dreamy place.

I Liked:
+ The actually funny jokes - not too kiddy and not too grown-up, either. Just funny. Nice work by writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.
+ Seth Rogen's throwaway lines. They still work, movie after movie.

I Disliked:
- That the only African-American in the cast, Michael Clarke Duncan, was relegated to voicing the big, scary, swaggering black rhino. An overused stereotype that could have easily been avoided in this situation. Just sayin', kids pick up on these things.
- That the characters seemed completely invincible. Even for cartoon violence, there has to be some realistic aspects to fighting...right?
- How much of the "real" Angelina Jolie leaked into her character. Tigress was oh-so-cool and oh-so-above-it-all, and she always knew the right thing to do at the right time to save humanity. Gimme a break...

I Hated:
- The lady in the theater who kept staring at me. Yes, I'm an adult here to watch a kid's movie, and no, I'm not going to eat your children because my appetite was ruined by the slobbering mess your family made with those concessions.

Writing - 9
Acting - N/A
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 4
Significance - 5

Total: 37/40= 93% = A

Last Word: Jack Black's perfect presence in Kung Fu Panda cannot be overstated. It's not that the supporting characters aren't likable, but every scene without Po is noticeably lacking in both humor and emotional depth. Nonetheless, it's hard not to be entranced by every frame of the movie. The animation is extraordinary (again, for a non-Pixar production) and the cutting and editing keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, while fortunately preserving the important message. Never mind that it's a familiar one - this is a new story told with new energy and a creative spirit. The gauntlet has been thrown down, WALL-E...

REVIEW: You Don't Mess With the Zohan (C)

Background: Maybe it's just me, but for a second there I thought Adam Sandler was done with comedy. He weirded up for Punch-Drunk Love, tried a romantic novela with Spanglish, and swung for the Oscar fences with Reign Over Me. Of course, the truth was that he frequently squeezed comedies in between, but I just avoided almost all of them after Big Daddy. With You Don't Mess With the Zohan, Sandler reteams with his usual director, Dennis Dugan (don't let Happy Gilmore overshadow his directing debut with Problem Child), as well as some 90's SNL cast members, the up-and-coming Nick Swardson (Blades of Glory, "Reno 911!"), and the odd man out, John Turturro (Margot at the Wedding). Zohan was written by Sandler, SNL scribe Robert Smigel, and - you're not going to believe this - Judd Apatow, who also wrote this review. Yep, his name is printed here, so he wrote it.

Synopsis : Zohan (Sandler) is an Israeli counter-terrorism agent on vacation. Which means, of course, that he is usually naked and always gyrating his hips. A nude barbecue is interrupted when he's whisked away on assignment because his rival, The Phantom (Turturro), is causing trouble in Lebanon. Zohan reluctantly sets off in his usual outfit (a Mariah Carey t-shirt and Daisy Dukes) and dispatches of some Arabs on the way to the showdown with The Phantom, where he fakes his own death. Free of his military duties, he's off to New York City with a new identity ("Scrappy Coco") to fulfill his dream of being a hairstylist for Paul Mitchell. Somehow (it's shown, but not explained) he ends up living with a random Jewish guy (Swardson) and his mother, but he's unsuccessful in his job search until he settles for a salon "on the Palestinian side of the street," which happens to be owned by the beautiful Dalia. Zohan soon charms the pants (um, literally) off the salon's regular elderly women, who begin lining up at the door for his "services". Meanwhile, Dalia is fighting off hotel developers while Salim (Schneider), a former Palestinian foe of Zohan, learns his identity and prepares to strike. OK, let's just get this over with. The Phantom comes to New York for a hacky-sack tournament. Rednecks from the South are called up to incite Israeli-Palestinian violence. Mariah Carey shows up. So do a bunch of other people you'd recognize. Uh, let me think, some other stuff happens, yeah, it ends with a big fight and some kind of truce...whatever. Sex and hummus: that's the movie.

I Loved:
+ Kevin Nealon - what a great comeback!
+ Nick Swardson, who's starting to get a lot of attention here in his native Minnesota. And could he have looked any more like the child of Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and/or Noah Emmerich?
+ The disco break at the hacky-sack game.

I Liked:
+ Dave Matthews - who knew he could nail the part of a redneck?
+ Rob Schneider - he wasn't really that funny, but he at least tried to "act" more than anyone else.

I Disliked:
- Zohan's voice - like a combination of Borat, Billy Madison, and Jar-Jar Binks.
- The Israeli accents that sounded French more than anything else.

I Hated:
- The hummus. What was that about?

Writing - 6
Acting - 6
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 37/50= 74% = C

Last Word: I should really underline the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict frames the entire length of You Don't Mess With the Zohan. For attempting some dialogue on the issue - as ridiculous as it might be - I commend Sandler. For everything else, I shame him, because the movie is, believe it or not, even more immature than Billy Madison. Repetitive sex jokes aren't really gut-busting, and the obsession with hummus (dipping eyeglasses in it to lick it off?) becomes more obnoxious than it could have ever seemed on paper. Worse, half of the humor depends on at least a basic understanding of Arab/Israeli relations, which I for some reason doubt is possessed by the movie's target audience. I won't deny that there are funny moments every now and then, but it could have been a lot funnier and a lot sharper overall, especially with the solid cast. Why waste writing and comedic acting talent on stupid subplots and toilet humor - and then take it a step further and dress it up as some kind of funny cultural satire? Here's some free advice: don't you mess with the Zohan when it arrives on DVD...

June 12, 2008

REVIEW: Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (A)

Background: For those of us who are avid sports fans, the news on steroids is a few years and a few thousand SportsCenters old by now. There just can't be too many fans still willing to suspend any suspicion that their favorite player in their favorite sport hasn't at one time juiced up. Picking up the conversation where the U.S. Congressional hearings left off is Chris Bell, a USC film school grad who decided to make his first documentary feature about America's obsession with being Bigger, Stronger, Faster*. Bell, a former weightlifter, knows the subject all too well - his brothers have taken anabolic steroids for half their lives in their unsuccessful attempts at careers in wrestling, football, and weightlifting.

Synopsis : Chris Bell and his two brothers grew up in the 80's in Poughkeepsie, NY, idolizing Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, naively assuming one could look like them from simply pumping iron. His older brother, Mike, wised up and started using anabolic steroids as a college football player and, later, as an aspiring professional wrestler. His younger brother, Mark, started juicing to help him keep pace in competitive weightlifting. Stuck in the middle, Chris tried to stay clean during the more than 10 years he was involved in weightlifting. He dabbled once or twice in steroids but now sticks to supplements and otherwise legal performance enhancers. Unsure of whether steroids were actually doing as much damage to his brothers as popular opinion would suggest, Bell sets out to investigate for himself the history and impact of the uniquely American habit (so he suggests) of puffing up our bodies beyond recognition. He leaves no stone unturned and almost no question unasked, but as he learns more about the wide reach and impact of steroids, his own ideas about them become even more conflicted.

I Loved:
+ Bell's intensely personal focus on his own family. The scene where his mother discusses human creation is one of the most honest and heartwrenching moments this year.
+ Bell's wise decision to interview so many different people involved with the steroids issue - pro athletes, amateur weightlifters, doctors, professors, coaches, nutritional experts, an AIDS patient, parents, a homeless gym rat living in the Venice Beach Gold's Gym parking lot, former Olympians, classical musicians, lawyers, porn stars, drug makers, models, fighter pilots, toy makers, magazine photographers, legislators, and more.
+ "It's like (blank) on steroids."
+ That Bell didn't try too hard to drive a particular agenda. Everytime you thought he was trying to close the deal on something, he countered it with different evidence. In other words, he upheld his responsibility as a documentarian. Calling Michael Moore...

I Liked:
+ Bell's asking of the tough questions - he was honest, fair, and unintimidated. It's not often that a filmmaker actually asks the same questions that you're mulling over in your head.
+ Ben Affleck's "roid rage" moment. That's the toughest acting he's had to do since...ever.

I Disliked:
- The somewhat weak development of steroid use existing as "a consequence of being American." Nice idea, but it just wasn't fully flushed out. And bringing the Russians into it doesn't help that thesis, either.
- Seeing how ridiculously easy it is to produce and legally distribute unregulated drugs.

I Hated:
- That Mike Bell's life has been so utterly and completely defined by his anabolic steroid use, a fact which he readily admits but is unable to overcome due to his addiction to them.
- The moment when Bell's local Congressman, the U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (yes, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee), let slip the fact that he didn't know the legal drinking age in the United States. The look on Bell's face was priceless, and I actually would have loved this scene - if not for the fact that Waxman (D-CA) is one of the most prominent and influential members in the U.S. House.

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

Total: 28/30= 93% = A

Last Word: See Bigger, Stronger, Faster* and marvel at two things: 1.) The honesty with which Chris Bell has made this documentary, and 2.) the true complexity surrounding the implications of, and the reasons for, the use of steroids and performance enhancers in so many corners of American culture. Bell is more Morgan Spurlock than he is Michael Moore, but there's a sincerity and almost kindness to his approach that both of those men lack. As such, I'm more open than I was before regarding the steroids issue, even if I didn't fully get the "America" connection he was attempting to make. I don't accept them as "right" or fair necessarily, but I do realize that the issue is quite a bit larger than just some baseball players hitting home runs. Is it cheating? My first instinct used to be "Absolutely." Now, I'm forced to consider - What is "cheating"?
And if everyone is using them, where does the advantage begin and end? What about non-sporting uses? How are we as a society enabling and encouraging body manipulation? To explore these questions with an open mind and a lot of humor is an impressive achievement for Chris Bell's first feature-length documentary, and the incredibly positive reviews of Bigger, Stronger, Faster* are well deserved in my opinion. It's honest filmmaking - on steroids.

June 11, 2008

300 Words About: The Foot Fist Way

You might know the story by now: Sometime ago, Judd Apatow saw a little indie film called The Foot Fist Way, which played at Sundance 2006 but wasn't picked up for U.S. distribution. Apatow showed it to Adam McKay, who showed it to Will Ferrell (the two being, of course, the writers of the greatest American comedy of the decade, Anchorman) , who along with McKay decided that it would be the first film produced (here, "presented") by their newly formed production company.

As seems to be happening a lot lately, I first heard about Foot Fist a few months ago at Craig Kennedy's Living in Cinema. He ended up attending a press conference and recounted his experience here. The most important thing to take from it was that yes, it was made for $70,000 by three unassuming friends from North Carolina, and no, nobody had any idea how well it would play to people who aren't friends of Ferrell, McKay, or Apatow. People like me.

Danny McBride plays Fred Simmons, an outrageously arrogant Tae Kwan Do instructor who drives a circa-1985 Ferrari and always thinks his blonde bombshell of a wife, Suzie (Mary Jane Bostic), is cheating on him (she is). Simmons naively idolizes Chuck "The Truck" Wallace (Ben Best), a washed up, boozed up action movie star. For the most part, The Foot Fist Way is just footage of Simmons insulting his students and his wife while trying to get past the fact that Wallace isn't everything he'd hoped for in a role model (there's a little more plot than that, but let's just say you won't get lost).

Some of it is funny, most of it isn't. But statements like that really mean nothing since everyone has a different sense of humor. Even though you might laugh more than I did, though, you'll have trouble convincing me that the comedy was consistently there. There's too much training footage and not enough screen time for McBride, who has some classic moments when he's able to just sit down and let loose.

The Foot Fist Way will most likely live on as a cult favorite, and it's a fine start to what may end up being a decently long career for Danny McBride (he's in both Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder). It was made by three friends, it was shared among three friends, and I recommend watching it with three friends. Much of it you'll forget, but, depending on your humor, a few lines could be added to your "quotable-for-all-situations" list.

Whatever Happened To: Mike Myers?

I loved Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. In fact, let's stick with present tense. I still love it. It was stupid, bold, at times clever and almost always original. Sure, it wasn't (and still isn't) a classic comedy for the ages, but it was innocent, inane fun for Americans in the happy-go-lucky late 90's.

Mike Myers hadn't been heard from in four years leading up to it, which was bizarre since we'd all grown so close to him on SNL. After Wayne's World and Wayne's World 2 (speaking of which - whatever happened to Dana Carvey?), Myers went from the indie favorite So I Married an Ax Murderer in 1993 to the international favorite Austin Powers in 1997. The next year, he played his most impressive role to date as Steve Rubell in the now all-but-forgotten 54, and it appeared, at least for a short period, that Mike Myers was on the way to a long and diverse career.

Then, all of a sudden, we had way too much of a good thing, and Myers became, well, I don't want to say lazy, but...I struggled through Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and absolutely suffered through Austin Powers in Goldmember. Shrek was a fun animated film and, dare I say, it even deserved to win the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature over its Pixar-produced competition, Monsters, Inc. Fine. But Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, now Shrek Goes Fourth (and who knows how many more)? Turns out that in the last 11 years, Mike Myers has had only two leading live-action film roles: Austin Powers and The Cat in the Hat. How is that possible?

I remember reading this New York Times article ("Mike Myers: Intentional Man of Mystery") a year and a half ago, which proved that I wasn't the only one wondering where Myers was. The article suggested that he was uber-picky about choosing roles but mentioned that a "comedy about a relationship guru" was one of the projects Myers had been working on. This, we now know, was The Love Guru, opening next Friday. Myers' agent in the article: “He’s a love guru. He’s somebody who’s become an expert on relationships. That’s what leads me to think that if it works, it can be a franchise. The guru can be thrust into all kinds of situations in that regard.” Sigh. Another franchise, huh?

Mike, some advice: ditch your agent. The guru is near and dear to your heart and you have an incredible marketing push behind it. I get that. But seriously, something's not clicking with The Love Guru.

I can chuckle at those pictures at first glance, and I've tried to find some laughs on the YouTube channel and the Pitka's Book Club and the guru e-cards, but it's not really working (I don't even get it - what are you doing with Peyton Manning?) Ben Kingsley's appearance in The Love Guru trailer briefly piqued my interest, but if I want to see him in a movie this summer, I'll watch him in The Wackness.

Next year, Myers will be bringing us The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (a remake of the 1947 version starring Danny Kaye), which interests me for really no other reason than the fact that Mike Myers is not going to be wearing a ridiculous costume for the first time in a long time.

But seriously, Mike - you realize you have a lot more potential than all of this...right? We just haven't seen it fulfilled in over a decade.

June 10, 2008

On the Horizon: Quid Pro Quo

HDNet Films and Magnolia Pictures present Quid Pro Quo, a new drama by writer/director Carlos Brooks.

Of the few people to whom I've briefly described Quid Pro Quo, more than a few have looked at me like I have three heads. The premise is as bizarre as it sounds, but it's not really bizarre at all when you consider there are 6.5 billion people on this planet with about as many different personality quirks, and some are shared by only a few people. Like Fiona (Vera Farmiga) and a few other New Yorkers, who wish they were wheelchair-bound paraplegics or amputees. In fact, they don't just wish - they actually see it through, bribing doctors to cut off good legs or paying...uh...less educated practitioners to paralyze them in any squirm-inducing variety of ways. This disorder exists. Isaac Knott (Nick Stahl), an actual paraplegic since age 8, is a public radio reporter who's tasked with producing a story about this subculture.

At the screening I attended, producer Sarah Pillsbury (yes, of Dough Boy fame, they're a local royal family) spoke on behalf of first-time writer and director Carlos Brooks. She said Brooks' original idea for the film evolved after he became familiar with "body integrity identity disorder" and researched it on his own to see if it actually existed (it has since then been the subject of Whole, a documentary by Minnesotan Melody Gilbert that will be included on the Quid Pro Quo DVD). Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Breaking and Entering) blew away the audition field and Nick Stahl (Terminator 3, Bully) was brought on board when Jeremy Sisto became unavailable for the film.

Don't spend too long deciding whether to see Quid Pro Quo. Either ignore it completely or make the decision to go and just go. I recommend that you do, and I recommend that you enter full blackout mode beforehand. No trailer, no reviews, no synopsis. If you've already seen the trailer, well that's fine, it's actually completely misleading. Just don't go rooting around for more info. All you need to know (and more, actually) I've already told you.
Yes, it's provocative and yes, some people could take offense, but it is not graphic or gruesome. Go watch Saw if you're into that kind of thing (clearly I'm not, so I don't even know if that happens in Saw, but anyway...).

Quid Pro Quo will be seeing a limited release on June 13th, but according to Pillsbury it's already On Demand in several hotel chains (weird, but it
's distributed by HDNet Films, so it's Mark Cuban, so if you know anything about him, well there you go), so check it out if you're the travelin' type. Otherwise come back (after you've seen it) for my full review when Quid Pro Quo opens to a wider release, possibly at the end of the month.

June 9, 2008

HBO '08 Doc Series Kicks Off

Tonight marks the beginning of HBO's summer-long documentary series: "Life. Changing." A new film will premiere every Monday through August 25th. Inconveniently, I don't subscribe to HBO, but I'm still interested by the insane trailer (opens in a pop-up window) that's been playing before movies at Landmark Theatres over the last couple of months. Here's to hoping that a few of these filter out for public screenings at some point in the future, especially since a number of them have already played at 2008 film festivals like Tribeca and Sundance.

Although I'd probably watch all twelve, my primary interest is in these:

June 9 (tonight):
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
" On March 11, 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with the following counts: furnishing a controlled substance to a minor, committing a lewd or lascivious act on a child, unlawful sexual intercourse, rape by use of drugs, perversion and sodomy. Less than a year later, on February 1, 1978, Polanski drove to LAX, bought a one-way ticket to Europe, and never came back. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired explores the implausible events that took place between these dates, along with details, before and after, that forever altered the life and career of Polanski, one of the world's most acclaimed directors."

June 23:
Hard Times at Douglass High
"Alan and Susan Raymond spent one year filming in Frederick Douglass High School, which has a rich history of successful alumni, including Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Shot in classic cinema verité style, the film captures the complex realities of life at Douglass, and provides a context for the national debate over the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, focusing on the brutal inequalities of American minority education, considered an American tragedy by many."

June 30:
Ganja Queen
"Ganja Queen is the harrowing story of Schapelle Corby, a young Australian woman who is accused of international drug trafficking after ten pounds of marijuana are found in one of her bags while on holiday in Bali. Proclaiming her innocence, she finds herself locked in a life-and-death courtroom battle. The film is a chilling reminder of the risks all travelers take when visiting countries with vastly different criminal justice systems and cultural mores."

July 14:
China's Stolen Children " Through the personal stories of several men, women and children whose lives are impacted by the stolen-child black market in China, China's Stolen Children brings viewers face-to-face with a crisis brought on by the controversial one-child policy, implemented in 1979 to slow the country's explosive population growth. As narrator Ben Kingsley explains, "The Chinese government doesn't want the outside world to know about the crisis facing China's children, so this film had to be made entirely undercover. The film crew posed as tourists, moved hotels every three days, and changed SIM cards after every phone call." Remarkably, the subjects all agreed to appear on-camera, although several interviews are held in darkened cars or out-of-the-way locations to avoid detection. The result is a harrowing look at an illegal but largely uncontrollable practice that has reached epidemic proportions."

August 4: Baghdad High
"Baghdad High views the current war in Iraq through the eyes of four Iraqi teens as they enter their senior year of high school. Filmed by the boys themselves, the documentary follows their friendships during the entire academic year and offers unique insight into ordinary adolescent Iraqi lives."

August 11: We Are Together
"We Are Together: The Children of the Agape Choir is the poignant story of 12-year-old Slindile Moya, her siblings and other residents of the Agape Orphanage in South Africa for children who've lost their parents to AIDS. Filmed over three years, the film celebrates the power of song and chronicles the children's remarkable life-changing odyssey as they overcome hardship and loss. Winner of multiple awards, including the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award."

August 25:
The Black List, Vol. 1
"The Black List, Vol. 1 presents dramatic portraits of some of today's most fascinating and influential African-Americans, who share their stories and insights into the struggles, triumphs and joys of black life in the U.S. The film is a collaboration between celebrated portrait photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who directs, and award-winning journalist Elvis Mitchell, who interviews such notables as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sean Combs, Thelma Golden, Lou Gossett, Jr., Bill T. Jones, Vernon Jordan, Toni Morrison, Suzanne-Lori Parks, Richard Parsons, Chris Rock, Al Sharpton, Slash, Faye Wattleton, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Zane."

For those of us who don't have HBO, well, at least there's always the Emmy-Award winning P.O.V. series on PBS, which kicks off on June 24. See the full schedule and check out the trailer on a website that's friendlier and not as flash-heavy and pop-uppy site as HBO's. I'll preview those docs in due time.

June 6, 2008

Best year ever, or inflated reviews? Part II

Last October, I had to briefly defend my string of positive reviews of 2007 movies. Well, it turns out that last year almost did end up being the best year ever, so I was vindicated.

Recently, a different friend called me out again for giving too many positive reviews. Now I wouldn't call either of these friends "movie buffs" or even movie-goers in any traditional sense, but hey, they're friends, and it's a valid point that other readers may also be holding me to.

Taking this claim seriously, I did a simple breakdown of my grades for 2008 movies to date:
  • 16 A's
  • 12 B's
  • 11 C's
  • 0 D's
  • 2 F's
Turns out that yes, my reviews have been more positive than negative. I didn't need the numbers to know this, of course, since it's been clear to me that I have seen some truly excellent movies so far this year, including several at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. But yet the question remains: am I afraid to be critical? I still don't think so.

The easiest explanation is that, like I said then, I generally try to avoid bad movies. I didn't see 10,000 B.C. or The Hottie and the Nottie or Strange Wilderness or Meet the Spartans. That's the nice part about not doing this professionally. And still, there are some that I've seen this year, like Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, that I haven't bothered to review.

I might also point out that documentaries generally don't receive a grade lower than a "B," and I see a lot of documentaries. See more about reviewing them at The Documentary Blog. Take away my '08 documentary reviews, and you take away a combined nine grades of A's or B's from the above totals.

Next, I would submit that 2008's early offerings have actually been pretty decent. One could argue there have already been as many solid movies this year as there were at the same point last year, even though the same trend may not hold true through Oscar season. In fact, I'd be surprised if it did.

Lastly, I would offer this shocking defense: It's all relative! If there weren't mind-bogglingly different opinions on every movie, Getafilm and the other 4,355,678 movie blogs wouldn't exist. Actually that doesn't really explain my reviews, but my point is that some people only give negative reviews.

Anybody have thoughts on the movies/reviews of 2008?

(While I have the floor (and when don't I?), I'd like to brag on something else. Two of the songs I selected for last year's missing soundtrack have already been featured in movies this year. Ryan Shaw's "We Got Love" in My Blueberry Nights, and M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" in (at the least trailer for) Pineapple Express. Though the scenes haven't been what I had in mind, I still find it kind of awesome.)
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